Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Wikipedia.
Related to rationalism: empiricism


[Lat.,=belonging to reason], in philosophy, a theory that holds that reason alone, unaided by experience, can arrive at basic truth regarding the world. Associated with rationalism is the doctrine of innate ideas and the method of logically deducing truths about the world from "self-evident" premises. Rationalism is opposed to empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge. René Descartes, G. W. von Leibniz, and Baruch Spinoza all represent the rationalist position, and John Locke the empirical. Immanuel Kant in his critical philosophy attempted a synthesis of these two positions. More loosely, rationalism may signify confidence in the intelligible, orderly character of the world and in the mind's ability to discern such order. It is opposed by irrationalism, a view that either denies meaning and coherence in reality or discredits the ability of reason to discern such coherence. Irrational philosophies accordingly stress the will at the expense of reason, as exemplified in the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or Karl Jaspers. In religion, rationalism is the view that recognizes as true only that content of faith that can be made to appeal to reason. In the Middle Ages the relationship of faith to reason was a fundamental concern of scholasticismscholasticism
, philosophy and theology of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. Virtually all medieval philosophers of any significance were theologians, and their philosophy is generally embodied in their theological writings.
..... Click the link for more information.
. In the 18th cent. rationalism produced a religion of its own called deism (see deistsdeists
, term commonly applied to those thinkers in the 17th and 18th cent. who held that the course of nature sufficiently demonstrates the existence of God. For them formal religion was superfluous, and they scorned as spurious claims of supernatural revelation.
..... Click the link for more information.


See E. Heimann, Reason and Faith in Modern Society (1961); T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality (1971); R. L. Arrington, Rationalism, Realism, and Relativism (1989).


  1. a general confidence in the power of knowledge, both general principles and inductive or empirical knowledge, to describe and explain the world and to solve problems. Such a view was characteristic, for example, of the so-called ‘age of reason’ (see AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT).
  2. (PHILOSOPHY) any epistemological position which emphasizes the A PRIORI basis of knowledge and deductive theories (compare EMPIRICISM).
  3. the doctrines associated with 17th- and 18th-century philosophers, including DESCARTES, Spinoza (1632-77), and Leibniz (1646-1716), that, using deductive methods, a unified knowledge can be attained by ‘Reason’ alone.
  4. the epistemological position of KANT, which succeeded 3 , that, while assured knowledge of the real world, the world of ‘things-in-themselves’ or noumena, could not be achieved, it was possible to gain secure knowledge of the phenomenal world -the world as known to us. This was possible, according to Kant, given that the phenomenal world was conceptualized and perceived within a fixed frame provided by the human mind, e.g. the fixed forms of perception, i.e. 'space’ and ‘time’.
  5. the Hegelian view (see HEGEL), that ‘the cunning of reason’ not only operates in individual thought, but is a general and a progressive process in history; a rational historical design which is fully revealed only as history unfolds but which is ultimately guaranteed. In what was intended to be a ‘demystified form’, this conception of’reason’ or ‘rationalism’ also influenced MARX.
In the 19th century, rationalism in any of these senses often gave way to irrationalism, e.g. in NIETZSCHE, a declining confidence in PROGRESS, endangered by world events as well as by sceptical movements in philosophy. However, rationalism in the sense of a belief in progress survives in a modified form in many areas of sociology and philosophy (e.g. see HABERMAS, EVOLUTIONARY THEORY). A further view is that it is a mistake to polarize rationalism and empiricism, since both of these play a role in human knowledge, which always involves both conception (‘rationalism’) and perception (‘empiricism’), e.g. See FEYERABEND. See also RATIONALITY, RATIONALIZATION.



a collective designation for the architectural schools of the first half of the 20th century that made use of the achievements of modern science and technology. In the broad sense, rationalism in architecture is sometimes equated with the concept of modern architecture, as represented by the work of L. H. Sullivan in the United States, H. P. Berlage in the Netherlands, A. Loos in Austria, the masters of the Deutscher Werkbund in Germany, and A. Perret in France.

The establishment of rationalism in the early 1920’s was largely promoted by the theories propagated by the circle of architects associated with the journal L’Esprit nouveau. The movement’s leaders were Le Corbusier in France and W. Gro-pius of the Bauhaus school of architecture in Germany.

Rationalism flourished essentially from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. In 1928 its supporters organized the International Congress for Modern Architecture, which met until 1959. Rationalist ideas concerning urban planning were set forth in 1933 in the Athens Charter. In the 1950’s the general architectural principles of rationalism led to the creation of the international style, represented by the work of L. Mies van der Rohe and many others. The dogmatic architectural ideas and the social-reformist utopianism of the proponents of rationalism led to a crisis in the movement by the late 1950’s.

The Russian architects of Asnova (Association of New Architects), including N. A. Ladovskii and K. S. Mel’nikov, proclaimed themselves to be rationalists. They emphasized psychological and physiological factors in the appreciation of architectural form and sought rational principles in the visual aspect of architecture.


Khazanova, V. E. Sovelskaia arkhitektura pervykh let Oktiabria: 1917–1925 gg. Moscow. 1970.
Banham, R. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. London [1960].
Collins, P. Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture: 1750–1950. London [1965].



a philosophical school that considers reason to be the foundation of human understanding and behavior. Rationalism is the opposite of fideism, irrationalism, and sensationalism (empiricism). The term “rationalism” has been used to designate and characterize philosophical concepts since the 19th century, but historically the rationalist tradition originated in ancient Greek philosophy. For example, Parmenides, who distinguished between the knowledge of truth (obtained through reason) and the knowledge of opinion (obtained through sensory perception), considered reason to be the criterion of truth.

Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, as a result of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. In contrast to medieval Scholasticism and religious dogmatism, the classical rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries (Descartes, Spinoza, Male-branche, and Leibniz) was based on the idea of natural order—an infinite chain of causality pervading the world. Thus, the principles of rationalism were accepted by both materialists (Spinoza) and idealists (Leibniz), although the character of rationalism differed in the two philosophical trends, depending on how the question of the origin of knowledge was resolved.

The rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries, which asserted the decisive role of reason in both human cognition and human activity, was one of the philosophical sources of the ideology of the Enlightenment. The cult of reason was also characteristic of the 18th-century French materialists, who adopted a philosophical position of materialistic sensationalism and criticized the speculative constructs of rationalism.

Seeking to substantiate the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics and the natural sciences, rationalism attempted to explain how knowledge obtained through human cognitive activity could be objective, universal, and necessary. Unlike sensationalism, rationalism maintained that scientific knowledge, which possesses these logical properties, could be attained through reason, which served as the source of knowledge and as the criterion of truth. For example, the rationalist Leibniz modified the basic thesis of sensationalism, as stated by Locke (“there is nothing in reason that was not previously present in sensations”) by appending to it the phrase “other than reason itself.” In other words, reason is capable of grasping not only the particular and the accidental, to which sensory perception is limited, but also the universal and the essential.

The concept of reason as the single source of scientific knowledge led rationalists to an idealist conclusion regarding the existence of innate ideas (Descartes) or of predispositions and inclinations in thought that are independent of sensory impressions (Leibniz). The underestimation by rationalists of the role of sensory perception, man’s link with the external world, led to the separation of thought from the object of cognition.

Kant, who attempted to reconcile the ideas of rationalism and sensationalism, proposed that “all our knowledge begins with the senses, passes to the faculty of understanding, and ends with reason” (I. Kant, Sock, vol. 3, Moscow, 1964, p. 340). According to Kant, reason cannot serve as the universal criterion of truth. In order to explain the properties of knowledge, Kant introduced the concept of the apriority (a priori knowledge) of both conceptual forms (as in classical rationalism) and forms of contemplation—space and time. However, Kantian rationalism retains its force only at the price of adopting an agnostic position—that is, it deals only with the world of phenomena and excludes consideration of things-in-themselves, or objective reality.

In Hegel’s philosophy the absolute idea, or absolute reason, is the original principle and essence of the world, and the process of cognition is viewed as the self-cognition of reason, which comprehends its own content in the world. In Hegel, therefore, the development of the objective world is represented as a purely logical, rational process, and rationalism assumes the character of panlogism.

Bourgeois philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries (positivism and neopositivism, for example) lost faith in the unlimited power of reason. The prevailing trend in 19th- and 20th- century bourgeois philosophy is a critique of classical rationalism, with its ideals of the power of reason and man’s unlimited rational activity. This critique is based either on irrationalism or on a moderate, limited rationalism. For example, Freudianism, which asserts the dominant role of irrational, subconscious elements, criticizes rationalism from the standpoint of irrationalism, as do intuitionism and existentialism. The concepts of M. Weber and K. Mannheim are representative of the critique of rationalism from the standpoint of moderate, limited rationalism, which is associated less with the logical problems of cognition and more with a search for the sociocultural bases and limits of rationalism.

The narrrow, one-sided character of rationalism was overcome in Marxism. It was possible to resolve the contradiction between empiricism and rationalism on the basis of fundamentally new principles developed in the theory of cognition of dialectical materialism. The basic condition for resolving the contradiction between empiricism and rationalism was an analysis of the process of cognition, in integral association with practical activity for transforming reality. V. I. Lenin wrote: “From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice— such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth and the cognition of objective reality” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, pp. 152–53).


Marx, K. “Tezisy o Feierbakhe.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Engels, F. Dialektika prirody. Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. vol. 29.
Descartes, R. Rassuzhdenie o metode: Izbr. filosofskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1950.
Leibniz, G. Novye opyty o chelovecheskom razume. Moscow, 1936.
Istoriia filosofii, vol. 1. Moscow, 1957. Chapter 5.
Girgensohn, K. Der Rationalismus des Abendlandes. Greifswald, 1921.
Cassirer, E. Die Philosophie der Aufklärung. Tübingen, 1932.
Santillana, G. de, and E. Zilsel. The Development of Rationalism and Empiricism. Chicago, 1941.



a. the doctrine that knowledge about reality can be obtained by reason alone without recourse to experience
b. the doctrine that human knowledge can all be encompassed within a single, usually deductive, system
c. the school of philosophy initiated by Ren? Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician (1596--1650), which held both the above doctrines
References in periodicals archive ?
In his 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper, who had fled to New Zealand to escape the Nazis, argued that a defense of rationalism, a refusal to kowtow to totalitarian ideologies and belief systems, was a moral imperative.
The critics of economic rationalism who McGuinness attacks are more concerned with the seemingly inexorable march of commodification than with whether economics is sustainable in terms of reason.
A misinterpretation of al-Ghazzali turned a battle against rationalism into a battle against rationality.
Moral Rationalism is the view that if an act is morally required then it is what there is most reason to do.
The dominance of economic rationalism over domestic policy formation has a counterpart in the formulation of foreign policy.
I]n her rejection of such 'false alternatives' as materialism and idealism, intrincisism and subjectivism, rationalism and empiricism.
Political values, such as the state's prevention agenda, are products of scientific rationalism of governmental elites and cost-benefit analysis.
In alluding to a pleasure principle, he is borrowing from the Enlightenment rationalism of Jeremy Bentham, but in the words knows and feels and lives and moves he is close to repeating exactly the Pauline words (Acts 17:28) that "we live, and move, and have our being" (in God).
Descartes revived rationalism by introducing a new scientific method, but this "gambit" ultimately failed when Hume showed that it rested on epistemic principles that are neither clear nor distinct.
Without succumbing entirely to the lure of scientific rationalism, Lipsky + Rollet manage to make complex things look elegantly simple and obvious.
Its ethos was one of Dadaist anarchy and absolute rejection of functionalism and architectural and social rationalism.
Enchanted by modernity's false rationalism, they all seek to evade the problems of alienation and exploitation while embracing-the very modern narrative of inevitable material progress that created the problems in the first place.