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All About Rationalism (FSF Philosophy Guide)

By Steinbach, Adianna

What is Rationalism The philosophy of rationalism is one arguing for the universality of innate understanding. Rationalists believe that the world is a rational structure; thus allowing intuition, logic, and reasoning to be the foundation of human knowledge; understanding is supported and explained by self-evident principles, allowing for the development of human knowledge through logical reasoning. Rationalism is often opposed by empiricism, the philosophy that all human knowledge is derived from experiences and observation. However, these two often intertwine and, in empirical study, cannot be separated. Rationalism maintains that experience can trigger already-present knowledge to surface, while empiricism contends that knowledge is accumulated solely from experiences of the senses. Yet, in reality, human knowledge originates from a combination of innate intuition and learned insight through experience. Early History Rationalism has its roots in the early philosophy of ancient Greece. Although rationalism wasn’t officially formulated at this point in history, the work of Pythagoreans, Eleatics, and Platonists particularly link to this philosophy. In the 6th century BCE, Pythagoras’ work consisted of the assumption that mathematical laws apply to the nature of reality. The problem with this view is the idea that the world is static. Parmenides and Zeno of Elea insisted on this concept; they held that change is an illusion. Though this idea of illusionary change is almost universally disputed today, the work of these early scholars prompted much of the later establishment of rationalism philosophy. The philosopher Socrates believed in the idea that some knowledge is innate and universal. He even experimented with this concept by challenging a slave boy to deduce basic laws of geometry, proving that an extent of knowledge is inherent and unlearned. Similarly, his student Plato placed emphasis on geometry in developing philosophy. His mathematical logic of forms was mirrored in his philosophical approach in that reason, rather than sense, led to understanding. Aristotle, a successor of Plato, contended that human knowledge is acquired through explanation by logic and self-evident principles. These three well-known Greek theorists heavily impacted and shaped the philosophy of rationalism. Modern History Historically, rationalist ideas resurfaced in the Age of Reason during the 17th century. During this time, rationalism was officially established and considered mathematical methods meeting philosophy. Descartes, a French philosopher, advocated for philosophy to have the clarity and self-evidence characteristic of mathematics. His pursuit for ultimate truth led him to be skeptical about the reality of things in hopes of unearthing an undeniable way to understand the world. Taking after Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz believed that understanding could come from a priori, or theoretical, thinking. Spinoza differed from Descartes in that he held that the existence of the universe, as he termed “substance”, was the most undeniable truth; Descartes believed existence of self was this kind of undeniable truth. The Age of Reason allowed for the foundation of rationalism to be formed through the work of many influential philosophers that majorly explored the concepts of self-evidence and undeniable truth. This continued into the 18th century with the Enlightenment. Voltaire approached rationalism in an ethical way; this presented itself in his argument that moral virtue can be found through reason. This concept rings true in that his beliefs were backed by self-evidence and innate knowledge. Opposing this was Rousseau, who held an empiricist view in terms of learning and placed an emphasis on learning through experience. This view was majorly influenced by his work in political philosophy, especially on the topic of human nature. In another part of the world, Kant, a German philosopher, developed a distinct type of rationalism. Starting as a traditional rationalist and then studying empiricist thinking, Kant created his own version of rationalism that contended experience and reason are both necessary for human understanding of anything outside of the mind. This concept is termed transcendental idealism. Kant’s work led the way for a more modern take on rationalism and empiricism as inseparable and interacting ways of thinking. During the 20th century, rationalism went through a minimal transformation in the sense that there was a focus on empirical science while maintaining a foundation of reason. However, this kind of rationalism does not adhere to the traditional philosophy of rationalism. Rationalism in the World The philosophy of rationalism has influenced many aspects of the world. rationalism is incorporated in psychology with the ideas of moral reasoning and moral judgements. The concept of an individual moral compass stems from the concept of inherent human knowledge. Some researchers contend that modern science is heavily shaped by the philosophical debate of rationalism vs. empiricism since it was established during the heat of this debate, and because modern science was built on the combination of experiment and application of reason. Rationalism is particularly present in theoretical politics. This is exemplified by rational choice theory, which assumes that human beings will act rationally to maximize their self-interest. However, realistically, motivated reasoning is often the cause; in this concept, reasoning falls in line with our desired conclusions, of which are influenced by outside factors and pressures, clouding the kind of true individual reasoning that the philosophy of rationalism is built on. Lastly, rationalism is also present in the topic of ethics. Under rationalist thinking, ethical insights are innately known rather than understood through outside factors; rationalism would view this aspect as allowing for the emergence of true knowledge. Rationalism can be applied to much of daily life, and its extensive historical background suggests its validity and value as a philosophy. With a combination of rationalist and empiricist thought, human knowledge can be seen as an intertwining of inherent thought and experiential learned knowledge, portraying a realistic idea of how knowledge and understanding is gained. Sources: Rationalism - By Movement / School - The Basics of Philosophy Epistemological rationalism in modern philosophies | Britannica Rationalism - The Decision Lab To Be Right or Liked? Evaluating Political Decision-Making Continental Rationalism Rationalism in Science

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