AskDefine | Define rationalism

Dictionary Definition



1 (philosophy) the doctrine that knowledge is acquired by reason without resort to experience
2 the theological doctrine that human reason rather than divine revelation establishes religious truth
3 the doctrine that reason is the right basis for regulating conduct [syn: freethinking]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The theory that the basis of knowledge is reason rather than experience, or divine revelation


Derived terms

Related terms


philosophical theory
  • Croatian: racionalizam
  • Czech: racionalismus
  • German: Rationalismus
  • Hebrew:

Extensive Definition

In epistemology and in its broadest sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" (Lacey 286). In more technical terms it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive" (Bourke 263). Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position "that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge" to the radical position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge" (Audi 771).


Within the Western philosophical tradition, " begins with the Eleatics, Pythagoreans, and Plato, whose theory of the self-sufficiency of reason became the leitmotif of Neoplatonism and idealism" (Runes 263). Since the Enlightenment, rationalism is usually associated with the introduction of mathematical methods into philosophy, as in Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza (Bourke 263). This is commonly called continental rationalism, because it was predominant in the continental schools of Europe, whereas in Britain empiricism dominated.
Rationalism is often contrasted with empiricism. Taken very broadly these views are not mutually exclusive, since a philosopher can be both rationalist and empiricist (Lacey 286–287). Taken to extremes the empiricist view holds that all ideas come to us through experience, either through the five external senses or through such inner sensations as pain and pleasure, and thus that knowledge is essentially based on or derived from experience. At issue is the fundamental source of human knowledge, and the proper techniques for verifying what we think we know (see Epistemology).
Proponents of some varieties of rationalism argue that, starting with foundational basic principles, like the AXIOMS of geometry, one could deductively derive the rest of all possible knowledge. The philosophers who held this view most clearly were Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, whose attempts to grapple with the epistemological and metaphysical problems raised by Descartes led to a development of the fundamental approach of rationalism. Both Spinoza and Leibniz asserted that, in principle, all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, could be gained through the use of reason alone, though they both observed that this was not possible in practice for human beings except in specific areas such as mathematics. On the other hand, Leibniz admitted that "we are all mere Empirics in three fourths of our actions" (Monadology § 28, cited in Audi 772).

Philosophical usage

The distinction between rationalists and empiricists was drawn at a later period, and would not have been recognized by the philosophers involved. Also, the distinction was not as clear-cut as is sometimes suggested; for example, the three main rationalists were all committed to the importance of empirical science, and in many respects the empiricists were closer to Descartes in their methods and metaphysical theories than were Spinoza and Leibniz.

History of rationalism

Classical Greek rationalists

Socrates firmly believed that, before anyone can understand the world, they first need to understand themselves. And the only way to accomplish that is with rational thought. In order to understand what this means, one needs first to appreciate the Greek understanding of the world. Man is composed of two parts, a body and a soul. The soul itself has two principal parts, an Irrational part, which is the emotions and desires, and a Rational part, which is our true self. In our everyday experience, the irrational soul is drawn down into the physical body by its desires and merged with it, so that our perception of the world is limited to that delivered by the physical senses. The rational soul is beyond our conscious knowledge, but sometimes communicates via images, dreams, and other means. The task of the philosopher is to refine and eventually extract the irrational soul from its bondage, hence the need for moral development, and then to connect with the rational soul, and so become a complete person, manifesting the higher spiritual essence of the person whilst in the physical. True rationalism is therefore not simply an intellectual process, but a shift in perception and a shift in the qualitative nature of the person. The rational soul perceives the world in a spiritual manner - it sees the Platonic Forms - the essence of what things are. To know the world in this way requires that one first know oneself as a soul, hence the requirement to 'know thyself', i.e. to know who you truly are.
Socrates did not publish or write any of his thoughts, but he was constantly in discussion with others. He would usually start by asking a rhetorical (seemingly answerable) question, to which the other would give an answer. Socrates would then continue to ask questions until all conflicts were resolved, or until the other could do nothing else but admit to not knowing the answer (which was what most of his discussions ended with). Socrates did not claim to know the answers, but that did not take away the ability to critically and rationally approach problems. His goal was to show that ultimately our intellectual approach to the world is flawed, and we need to transcend this in order to obtain a true knowledge of what things are.


Neoplatonism (also Neo-Platonism) is the modern term for a school of philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century AD, founded by the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus and based on the teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists. Neoplatonists considered themselves simply "Platonists", and the modern distinction is due to the perception that their philosophy contained enough unique interpretations of Plato to make it substantively different from what Plato wrote and believed.
Neoplatonism took definitive shape with the philosopher Plotinus, who claimed to have received his teachings from Ammonius Saccas, a dock worker and philosopher in Alexandria. Plotinus was also influenced by Alexander of Aphrodisias and Numenius. Plotinus's student Porphyry assembled his teachings into the six Enneads.
Subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers included Hypatia of Alexandria, Iamblichus, Proclus, Hierocles of Alexandria, Simplicius of Cilicia, and Damascius, who wrote On First Principles. Born in Damascus, he was the last teacher of Neoplatonism at Athens. Neoplatonism strongly influenced Christian thinkers (such as Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and Bonaventura). Neoplatonism was also present in medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkers such as al-Farabi and Maimonides, and experienced a revival in the Renaissance with the acquisition and translation of Greek and Arabic Neoplatonic texts.

René Descartes (1596–1650)

Descartes thought that only knowledge of eternal truths – including the truths of mathematics, and the epistemological and metaphysical foundations of the sciences – could be attained by reason alone; other knowledge, the knowledge of physics, required experience of the world, aided by the scientific method. He also argued that although dreams appear as real as sense experience, these dreams cannot provide persons with knowledge. Also, since conscious sense experience can be the cause of illusions, then sense experience itself can be doubtable. As a result, Descartes deduced that a rational pursuit of truth should doubt every belief about reality. He elaborated these beliefs in such works as Discourse on Method, Meditations on First Philosophy, and Principles of Philosophy. Descartes developed a method to attain truths according to which nothing which cannot be recognised by the intellect (or reason) can be classified as knowledge. These truths are gained "without any sensory experience", according to Descartes. Truths that are attained by reason are to be broken down into elements which intuition can grasp, which, through a purely deductive process, will result in clear truths about reality.
Descartes therefore argued, as a result of his method, that reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses. For instance, his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, is a conclusion reached a priori and not through an inference from experience. This was, for Descartes, an irrefutable principle upon which to ground all forms of other knowledge. Descartes posited a metaphysical dualism, distinguishing between the substances of the human body ("res extensa") and the mind or soul ("res cogitans") . This crucial distinction would be left unresolved and lead to what is known as the mind-body problem, since the two substances in the Cartesian system are independent of each other and irreducible.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716)

Leibniz was the last of the great Rationalists, who contributed heavily to other fields such as mathematics. His system however was not developed independently of these advances. Leibniz rejected Cartesian dualism, and denied the existence of a material world. In Leibniz's view there are infinitely many simple substances, which he called "monads" (possibly taking the term from the work of Anne Conway).
Leibniz developed his theory of monads in response to both Descartes and Spinoza. In rejecting this response he was forced to arrive at his own solution. Monads are the fundamental unit of reality, according to Leibniz, constituting both inanimate and animate things. These units of reality represent the universe, though they are not subject to the laws of causality or space (which he called "well-founded phenomena"). Leibniz therefore introduced his principle of pre-established harmony, in order to account for apparent causality in the world.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant started as a traditional rationalist, having studied the rationalists Leibniz and Wolff, but after studying David Hume's works, which "awoke [him] from [his] dogmatic slumbers", he developed a distinctive and very influential rationalism of his own which attempted to synthesise the traditional rationalist and empiricist traditions.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Audi, Robert (ed., 1999), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1995. 2nd edition, 1999.
  • Blackburn, Simon (1996), The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1994. Paperback edition with new Chronology, 1996.
  • Bourke, Vernon J. (1962), "Rationalism", p. 263 in Runes (1962).
  • Lacey, A.R. (1996), A Dictionary of Philosophy, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. 2nd edition, 1986. 3rd edition, Routledge, London, UK, 1996.
  • Runes, Dagobert D. (ed., 1962), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ.

External links

rationalism in Catalan: Racionalisme
rationalism in Czech: Racionalismus
rationalism in Danish: Rationalisme
rationalism in German: Rationalismus
rationalism in Modern Greek (1453-): Ορθολογισμός
rationalism in Spanish: Racionalismo
rationalism in Persian: خردگرایی
rationalism in French: Rationalisme
rationalism in Croatian: Racionalizam
rationalism in Indonesian: Rasionalisme
rationalism in Italian: Razionalismo
rationalism in Hebrew: רציונליזם
rationalism in Georgian: რაციონალიზმი
rationalism in Dutch: Rationalisme
rationalism in Norwegian: Rasjonalisme
rationalism in Norwegian Nynorsk: Rasjonalisme
rationalism in Japanese: 合理主義哲学
rationalism in Uzbek: Ratsionalizm
rationalism in Polish: Racjonalizm filozoficzny
rationalism in Portuguese: Racionalismo
rationalism in Russian: Рационализм (философия)
rationalism in Finnish: Rationalism
rationalism in Simple English: Rationalism
rationalism in Slovak: Rozumové poznanie
rationalism in Turkish: Akılcılık
rationalism in Ukrainian: Раціоналізм
rationalism in Urdu: عقلیت
rationalism in Chinese: 欧洲理性主义

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Buddhology, Mariolatry, Mariology, Mercersburg theology, apologetics, canonics, crisis theology, deduction, deductive reasoning, demonstration, dialogical theology, discourse, discourse of reason, discursive reason, divinity, doctrinalism, doctrinism, dogmatics, eschatology, existential theology, hagiography, hagiology, hierology, induction, inductive reasoning, logical thought, logos Christology, logos theology, natural theology, neoorthodox theology, neoorthodoxy, patristic theology, phenomenological theology, philosophy, physicotheology, proof, ratiocination, rationality, rationalization, rationalizing, reason, reasonableness, reasoning, religion, scholastic theology, secularism, sophistry, soteriology, specious reasoning, sweet reason, systematics, theology
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1