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Rationalism ( Latin ratio reason ) describes philosophical currents and projects that consider rational thinking to be primary or sufficient in the acquisition and establishment of knowledge. Linked to this is a devaluation of other knowledge sources, such as sensory experience ( empiricism ) or religious revelation and tradition. Positions that trust human reason to stand on its own only for limited subject areas or no objective knowledge at all, such as the varieties of irrationalism and “skepticism of reason”, which also some representatives of postmodernism are therefore considered to be "anti-rationalist".

In the history of philosophy, “rationalism” in the narrower sense is mostly used as a label for thinkers such as Descartes , Spinoza or Leibniz in order to contrast them with representatives of (British) empiricism (including Thomas Hobbes , John Locke and David Hume , and occasionally even George Berkeley ); Although these labels are traditionally customary, they are now being questioned by numerous historians of philosophy.

In other contexts of philosophy, “rationalism” is also used systematically without necessarily historical references: in epistemology for positions for which knowledge from pure reason is possible (a representative of this position is Laurence BonJour ); or in metaethics for positions that require moral action that it can be reconstructed according to rational structures and that a moral judgment depends on the norms for moral justifications. The term rationalism also has a different meaning in the philosophy of religion (see the section on use in the philosophy of religion and theology ).

Use of the term

Rationalism as an early modern trend

Even in the earliest evidence of the term from 1539, the rationalist is someone “who attaches greater importance to pure thinking for knowledge than to experience”. Early modern rationalism takes the view that the mind can recognize the objective structure of reality , both in the physical, metaphysical and moral fields, and that knowledge is used prior to any sensory experience (knowledge a priori ). In his forms of argument he follows the proof procedures of classical geometry ( more geometrico ). Early modern rationalism continues various scholastic positions. Historically, rationalism is usually started with René Descartes and identifies Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his recipients as the main representatives ( Georg Friedrich Meier , Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten , Christian Wolff and others).

A contemporary counter-term was “ empiricism ”, by which the view is meant that all knowledge is primarily based on sensory perception and that there is no a priori knowledge ( tabula rasa ). The retrospective juxtaposition of rationalism and empiricism did not come from the end of the 18th century. Representatives of both positions had in common that they considered revelation as a source of world knowledge superfluous or rejected it. The contrast between rationalism and empiricism is classically described as follows: A rationalist bases his philosophical explanation of the world primarily on deductive conclusions, while an empiricist only accepts hypotheses that can be confirmed inductively by comprehensible observations. However, it is not generally the case that authors labeled as rationalists would generally reject sensual experience as a source of knowledge - and empiricists would reject reason. In fact, there are always empirical elements to be found in the texts of rationalist philosophers and vice versa.

Rationalism in Philosophy of Religion and Theology

In the context of the philosophy of religion and theology, “ rationalism ” denotes positions that trust human reason to know the divine and that consider a philosophical theology to be permissible and feasible without the prerequisite for revelation or grace. An alternative name for these positions is also " intellectualism ". Such a position is closely related to certain theological contents that can be considered as a consequence or a condition of the rational approach, e.g. B, that divine will and action follows logical and metaphysical rules and happens for reasons. In addition, there is usually the assumption of stable and recognizable ontological structures and moral principles and criteria to which the Divine Will conforms or which corresponds to it, which can lead to God being identified by some representatives with a kind of supreme reason. The opposing positions, on the other hand, represent that the divine will and action are completely arbitrary ( voluntarism ), or that the individual moments of time are always caused by God and only appear to represent a sequence of events ( occasionalism ). Both opposing positions want to achieve that the divine will is not tied to any logical or other principles and must therefore remain rationally incomprehensible. Such controversies are debated in Islamic theology as well as in Christian scholasticism and in the rational theology of the Enlightenment epoch.

In a somewhat different and rather seldom use, “rationalism” in theology or the history of theology can also mean that z. B. Aspects of the personality of the divine, which (actually or supposedly) cannot be reconciled with strong claims of rationalization, are considered to be dispensable. Conversely, z. B. spoken of "voluntarism" when the divine is described or conceived as a person with will, the exercise of actions, etc.

History of ideas

16.-17. century

Rationalism is in many ways linked to the terminology and method of Latin scholasticism , but claims for itself to be an independent new approach. This was preceded by displeasure , especially in France in the early 17th century, about alleged “sterile quibbles” of scholastic debates; this resentment can also be traced back to a general desire to end sectarian conflicts . The theological debates, which were contested with metaphysical arguments, would, according to a reproach often made at the time, merely pave the way for moral skepticism . On the other hand, rationalism tried to argue in a methodically strictly comprehensible manner and to forego the interpretation of authorities in the justification. There was a shift in thematic attention from the religious doctrine of salvation to the technical mastery of nature , as suggested by Francis Bacon .

The epistemological rationalism found in other areas of philosophy application, such as the ethics and philosophy of law . The opinion was expressed that the elementary principles of human morality and natural law result from pure reason (see Samuel von Pufendorf , Thomas Hobbes , Baruch de Spinoza , in a broader sense also Immanuel Kant , GWF Hegel and others). In the philosophy of religion, deism initially followed rationalistic approaches when it postulates fundamental religious principles that are recognizable. This makes historical revelation superfluous and led to theological rationalism .

René Descartes is considered the founder of classical rationalism (also known as “ intellectualism ”) , who received important suggestions from Marin Mersenne . Descartes begins a reformation of science and philosophy along the lines of geometry . He uses the axiomatic structure of Euclid's elements as a model. Accordingly, universal principles can be inferred from basic concepts with the help of the understanding. All other questions of philosophy and science , by deduction of theorems from these principles and their application to specific problems ( corollaries are answered). Descartes claimed that such principles could not be inferred with the help of sensory perception. Sensory perception was viewed as a source of perception different from the mind, but which only produces fuzzy and uncertain knowledge that did not stand before Descartes' methodological doubts . The origin of these basic concepts or the question of what belongs to their scope was an open question of the rationalist research program.

In this phase, rationalism was opposed by moral skeptics like Pierre Bayle or apologists like Blaise Pascal , who denied understanding and reason the ability to attain generally valid and indubitable statements about morality or the relationship between soul, world and God.

18th century

Nicolas Malebranche in France, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others further developed Cartesian rationalism and established its position as the main philosophical trend at the continental European universities of the 18th century . In doing so, they came into conflict not only with orthodox positions of all Christian denominations, but also with supporters of the materialist Pierre Gassendi , the empiricist John Locke or, for example, the students of Isaac Newton , albeit partly only due to coincidences in the history of science (e.g. the dispute over priority ) .

The empiricism introduced the basic concepts of rationalists in question, precisely because this should not come from sensory perception. According to the empiricist - roughly speaking - only that which has been derived from observations and is confirmed by them can be recognized as knowledge. The epistemological skepticism of David Hume takes the criticisms put forward both movements against each other, both on empirical induction can not lead to strict generally applicable rates; the rationalistic deduction rests on uncertain premises. In Christian Wolff, rationalism finally found a system of encyclopedic completeness.

Immanuel Kant , also a pioneer of the Enlightenment , understood his transcendental philosophy expressly as a mediation of rationalism and empiricism. The deductive-rationalistic structure is also accepted with various reservations when there is no basis for basic concepts from perceptions of the senses, but only when these concepts originate from an analysis of transcendental structures of reason and perception itself, i.e. from a criticism of the pure reason . The basic structures of the recognizable world can thus be expressed in principles which emerge as synthetic judgments a priori from the connection of the forms of sensuality and understanding. For Kant, sensuality and reason are not separate strands of knowledge, but rather together the “roots” of experience fitting into rational rules.

19th century - present

Rationalist positions are currently part of various epistemological theories , in the predominantly German discourse theories , in economic theories such as game theory and rational decision theory, and in predominantly Anglo-American theories of international relations . However, these are not always rationalist positions in the narrower sense (see above), but what they have in common is that they presuppose rationality in thinking and acting. The difference between rationalism and theories of rationality, however, is often seen only vaguely by opponents of these positions. This can be seen with a look at irrationalism , which was built up as a counter-term since the middle of the 19th century (in Romanticism ).

In the context of cultural criticism, a broad criticism of rationalism unfolded, among other things. with Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger , later with numerous philosophers of the French reception of Nietzsche and post-structuralism with quite different thrusts. Against these positions and in relation to further philosophical developments, rationalistic new approaches have turned in various systematic areas, so inter alia. with modern representatives of theological rationalism or critical rationalism in the field of philosophy of science .

This often leads to critical differentiations of the concept of rationality. “Communicative rationality”, as shaped by Jürgen Habermas and developed together with Karl-Otto Apel and many other philosophers, is particularly influential . Julian Nida-Rümelin prominently represents a “structural rationality” in the German-speaking area, on which his “rational ethics” is based. In Herbert Schnädelbach's work , three basic types of rationality are named; the debate he initiated now distinguishes around fifty different types of rationality.


For literature on the concept and theories of rationality see there.
  • Laurence BonJour: In Defense of Pure Reason , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK 1998.
  • Laurence BonJour: A Rationalist Manifesto , in: Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supp. 18: 53-88 (1992).
  • John Cottingham: Rationalism , Paladin, London 1984.
  • John Cottingham: The Rationalists , Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988.
  • Willis Doney: Rationalism , in: Southern Journal of Philosophy Supp. 21, pp. 1-14 (1983).
  • Anthony Kenny (Ed.): Rationalism, Empiricism and Idealism , Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986.
  • Louis E. Loeb: From Descartes to Hume , Continental Metaphysics and the Development of Modern Philosophy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1981.
  • Alan Nelson (Ed.): A Companion to Rationalism , Blackwell, Oxford 2005.
  • Christopher Peacocke: Three Principles of Rationalism , in: European Journal of Philosophy 10 (2002), pp. 375-397.
  • Rainer Specht (Ed.): Rationalism (History of Philosophy in Text and Presentation (Ed. Rüdiger Bubner ), Vol. 5), Reclam, Stuttgart 1 1979, new edition 2002. A selection of representative source texts with introductory explanations.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. cf. B. Louis E. Loeb: From Descartes to Hume , Continental Metaphysics and the Development of Modern Philosophy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1981; Anthony Kenny (Ed.): Rationalism, Empiricism and Idealism , Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986; Peter J. Markie: Art. Rationalism , in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy , § 1.
  2. G. Gawlick: "Rationalism I", in: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , HWPh Vol. 8 p. 30301 or HWPh Vol. 8, 1992, p. 44, with reference to A. Hatzfeld / A. Darmesteter: Dict. de la langue franç. , Paris 1890-93 sv
  3. See, for example, Anke von Kügelgen: Averroes and the Arab Modern Age. Approaches to a new foundation of rationalism in Islam. Brill, Leiden / New York / Cologne 1994 (= Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science. Texts and Studies . Volume 19), ISBN 90-04-09955-7 .
  4. Julian Nida-Rümelin: Structural Rationality. A philosophical essay on practical reason , Ditzingen 2001; Ders .: Rational Ethics . In: Pieper, Annemarie (ed.), History of modern ethics. Presence. Vol. 2, Francke: Tübingen et al. (1992), pp. 154-172.