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What is rationalism?
"Rationalism claims that we can have synthetic a priori knowledge of how the world works is outside
the mind." Rationalism is the idea that we are born with innate ideas, theories and beliefs of the
world outside the mind and that our mind is formatted in a specific way to pick up specific information
and ideas, whilst disregarding others. Innate ideas are the belief that we are born with some
knowledge of the world outside the mind. For example if you observed a block of wax, you would
see it to be shaped as a cylinder, makes a sound when hit, smells distinctive and feels smooth yet
grippy. However, when we heat the wax up, all of these properties change; Shape completely
disintegrates into a puddle, no sound is heard when hit, smells different and feels different.
However we still know it to be a piece of wax, even though all of our senses about the original piece
of wax are altered. Surely it can't be wax? Unless we have innate ideas in our mind we wouldn't
know this to be the same piece. Rationalism is also the view that the ultimate source of knowledge is
reason, with rationalists often looking to the universe of mathematics as a solid foundation for their
theories. One of the reasons being that mathematical knowledge can be gained just on reason alone,
without the direct use of the senses. Furthermore mathematics doesn't exist in our universe and
outside of time; everything in the physical world is born and then dies, but 2+3 will always be 5. This
is also because mathematics seems to have a type of certainty that exceeds other forms old
knowledge, for example 2+3=5 is a fact that appears undeniable, how could be wrong about it?
Putting this evidence into practise, several rationalists believe that the model of mathematical
knowledge, due to its clarity and certainty, should be applied to all human knowledge, if it isn't
applied it isn't valid or reliable. They state that maths is certain, logical and eternal.
One rationalist, that we are going to be focusing on, is names Descartes. Instead of relying on his
senses, he uses the rationalism view of reason to find and build on certainties to rebuild what he
classifies as knowledge. He did this by searching for "clear and distinct ideas", these ideas, as we are
informed, are absolutely solid, 100% truthful and cannot be argued with. These ideas can be intuited
by the mind by what he states as "the light of reason". For example, it is unneeded to ask how many
sides a triangle has, because triangles always have three sides. However this knowledge is given as
long as one understands the terms involved. Therefore no further evidence is required to justify such
knowledge. If I didn't understand the terms, and didn't understand a triangle but I did a square, I
would say a "triangle" had 4 sides. This provides us with a good, solid foundation on discovering the
true base of knowledge. Descartes also created the quote "I think, therefore I am". This quote states
how because one thinks, one is proving his existence. This is because he is stating that the ability to
think comes from the ability of being real, non fictional, and definite. If you think that this is wrong,
then you are just proving that the point is right as you are actually thinking.
Examples of these ideas: cogito, a squared + b squared = c squared, 2+3=, nothing can come from
nothing, and all bachelors are unmarried. These terms are all true, as long as one understands the
terms involved, or else the idea will be wrong.
The proposal of seeking truth through reason and in turn gaining absolute certainty is a proposal that
has attracted several philosophers. It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that a great number of these
great rationalists were also great mathematicians.
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Advantages of rational knowledge Disadvantages of rational knowledge
Rational truths are: But reason:
Eternally and forevermore true. Gives no knowledge at all of contingent
Necessary. Gives no empirical knowledge.
Can be proved just by thinking. Gives no knowledge of rational sciences.
Descartes wanted to start anew to the present norm of philosophers.…read more