In epistemology and in its modern 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 more extreme position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge" (Audi 771). Given a pre-modern understanding of reason, "rationalism" is identical to philosophy, the Socratic life of inquiry, or the zetetic (skeptical) clear interpretation of authority (open to the underlying or essential cause of things as they appear to our sense of certainty). In recent decades, Leo Strauss sought to revive Classical Political Rationalism as a discipline that understands the task of reasoning, not as foundational, but as maieutic. Rationalism should not be confused with rationality, nor with rationalization.
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 external senses or through such inner sensations as pain and gratification, 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). Rationalism is predicting and explaining behavior based on logic.
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.
Socrates (ca 470–399B.C.E.)
Socrates firmly believed that before humans can understand the world, they first need to understand themselves; the only way to accomplish that is with rational thought. To understand what this means, one must first appreciate the Greek understanding of the world. Humans are 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 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 awareness, 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 in order to become a complete person, manifesting the higher spiritual essence of the person while in the physical body. 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 – or 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 impair his ability to critically and rationally approach problems. His goal was to show that, ultimately, our intellectual approach to the world is flawed, and we must transcend this to obtain true knowledge of what things are.
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 that 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 broken down into elements that 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.
Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)
The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza is a systematic, logical, rational philosophy developed in seventeenth-century Europe. Spinoza's philosophy is a system of ideas constructed upon basic building blocks with an internal consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life's major questions and in which he proposed that "God exists only philosophically." He was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Descartes, Euclid and Thomas Hobbes, as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition such as Maimonides. But his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of Spinoza's ideas continue to vex thinkers today and many of his principles, particularly regarding the emotions, have implications for modern approaches to psychology. Even top thinkers have found Spinoza's "geometrical method" difficult to comprehend: Goethe admitted that he "could not really understand what Spinoza was on about most of the time." His magnum opus, Ethics, contains unresolved obscurities and has a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid's geometry. Spinoza's philosophy attracted believers such as Albert Einstein and much intellectual attention.
Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716)
Leibniz was the last of the great Rationalists who contributed heavily to other fields such as mathematics. He did not develop his system, however, 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 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.
Kant named his branch of epistemology Transcendental Idealism, and he first laid out these views in his famous work The Critique of Pure Reason. In it he argued that there were fundamental problems with both rationalist and empiricist dogma. To the rationalists he argued, broadly, that pure reason is flawed when it goes beyond its limits and claims to know those things that are necessarily beyond the realm of all possible experience: the existence of God, free will, and the immortality of the human soul. Kant referred to these objects as "The Thing in Itself" and goes on to argue that their status as objects beyond all possible experience by definition means we cannot know them. To the empiricist he argued that while it is correct that experience is fundamentally necessary for human knowledge, reason is necessary for processing that experience into coherent thought. He therefore concludes that both reason and experience are necessary for human knowledge.
Main article: Rationalism (politics)
In political contexts, the term rationalism is used to define the political belief that is mid-way between realism and internationalism. It is used to describe the political belief that the world political order is not as chaotic as suggested by realists, but maintains a certain degree of order where nation-states do not violate others' sovereignty unless absolutely necessary. Rationalism is often seen as the mid-point between realism and internationalism. Whereas internationalism advocates a purely global and orderly approach to international affairs, and realism a purely individual and chaotic approach, rationalism appears to combine these two philosophies.
- ^ Lisa Montanarelli (book reviewer) (January 8, 2006). "Spinoza stymies 'God's attorney' -- Stewart argues the secular world was at stake in Leibniz face off". San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/01/08/RVGO9GEOKH1.DTL. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ Kelley L. Ross (1999). "Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)". History of Philosophy As I See It. http://www.friesian.com/spinoza.htm. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "While for Spinoza all is God and all is Nature, the active/passive dualism enables us to restore, if we wish, something more like the traditional terms. Natura Naturans is the most God-like side of God, eternal, unchanging, and invisible, while Natura Naturata is the most Nature-like side of God, transient, changing, and visible."
- ^ a b c d Anthony Gottlieb (July 18, 1999). "God Exists, Philosophically". The New York Times: Books. http://www.times.com/books/99/07/18/reviews/990718.18gottlit.html. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "Spinoza, a Dutch Jewish thinker of the 17th century, not only preached a philosophy of tolerance and benevolence but actually succeeded in living it. He was reviled in his own day and long afterward for his supposed atheism, yet even his enemies were forced to admit that he lived a saintly life."
- ^ a b c ANTHONY GOTTLIEB (2009-09-07). "God Exists, Philosophically (review of "Spinoza: A Life" by Steven Nadler)". The New York Times -- Books. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/18/reviews/990718.18gottlit.html. Retrieved 2009-09-07.
- ^ a b c Michael LeBuffe (book reviewer) (2006-11-05). "Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction, by Steven Nadler". University of Notre Dame. http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=8004. Retrieved 2009-12-07. "Spinoza's Ethics is a recent addition to Cambridge's Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts, a series developed for the purpose of helping readers with no specific background knowledge to begin the study of important works of Western philosophy..."
- ^ "EINSTEIN BELIEVES IN "SPINOZA'S GOD"; Scientist Defines His Faith in Reply, to Cablegram From Rabbi Here. SEES A DIVINE ORDER But Says Its Ruler Is Not Concerned "Wit Fates and Actions of Human Beings."". The New York Times. April 25, 1929. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10B1EFC3E54167A93C7AB178FD85F4D8285F9. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ Hutchison, Percy (November 20, 1932). "Spinoza, "God-Intoxicated Man"; Three Books Which Mark the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Philosopher's Birth BLESSED SPINOZA. A Biography. By Lewis Browne. 319 pp. New York: The Macmillan Com- pany. $4. SPINOZA. Liberator of God and Man. By Benjamin De Casseres, 145pp. New York: E.Wickham Sweetland. $2. SPINOZA THE BIOSOPHER. By Frederick Kettner. Introduc- tion by Nicholas Roerich, New Era Library. 255 pp. New York: Roerich Museum Press. $2.50. Spinoza". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40A14F83A5513738DDDA90A94D9415B828FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ "Spinoza's First Biography Is Recovered; THE OLDEST BIOGRAPHY OF SPINOZA. Edited with Translations, Introduction, Annotations, &c., by A. Wolf. 196 pp. New York: Lincoln Macveagh. The Dial Press.". The New York Times. December 11, 1927. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60D1EFF395C147A93C3A81789D95F438285F9. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ IRWIN EDMAN (July 22, 1934). "The Unique and Powerful Vision of Baruch Spinoza; Professor Wolfson's Long-Awaited Book Is a Work of Illuminating Scholarship. (Book review) THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPINOZA. By Henry Austryn Wolfson". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0610FC395D13728DDDAB0A94DF405B848FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ Cummings, M E (September 8, 1929). "ROTH EVALUATES SPINOZA". Los Angeles Times. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/370934682.html?dids=370934682:370934682&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:AI&type=historic&date=Sep+08%2C+1929&author=&pub=Los+Angeles+Times&desc=ROTH+EVALUATES+SPINOZA&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ SOCIAL NEWS BOOKS (November 25, 1932). "TRIBUTE TO SPINOZA PAID BY EDUCATORS; Dr. Robinson Extols Character of Philosopher, 'True to the Eternal Light Within Him.' HAILED AS 'GREAT REBEL'; De Casseres Stresses Individualism of Man Whose Tercentenary Is Celebrated at Meeting.". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30D13F6355516738DDDAC0A94D9415B828FF1D3. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
- ^ "Rationalism Definition". http://www.yourdictionary.com/rationalism. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
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- Leibniz, Gottfried (1714), Monadology.
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