Where does knowledge come from? Do we learn everything we know from other people? Are we born with all knowledge already in us and go through life realising it? Do we learn from experience, or does knowledge come from higher beings? These are big questions that thinkers have been considering for millennia.

Rationalism Rationalism

Create learning materials about Rationalism with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    In this article, we will attempt to share some answers to these questions from the point of view of rationalism. We will look at what rationalism means, its history, applications in politics, and Michael Oakeshott's critiques of it.

    Meaning of Rationalism

    Rationalism is the school of thought that concludes all knowledge can be reached through reason, logic, and abstract thought. Rationalists understand human beings as capable of thinking for themselves, moderating their behaviour through reasons, and reaching rational, logical solutions to their problems.

    For example, by diving into this article to learn about the theory of rationalism, you are engaging key rationalist concepts such as deduction and reason.

    In contrast, empiricism, as a perspective, is directly in opposition to rationalism, as it holds that knowledge can only be gained through what we experience with our five senses. Such an approach relies on the lived experiences of an individual, and how they engage with what is physically around them.

    Rationalism and empiricism are the two main branches of epistemology, as they both pursue the understanding of "knowledge", what it is and where it comes from.

    Epistemology: from the Greek episteme, meaning knowledge. It is therefore the study of knowledge. Together with ethics, metaphysics, and logic, they make up the four branches of philosophy.

    Rationalism and empiricism, however, are not mutually exclusive: most philosophical thought can be found somewhere on the continuum between being an "extreme" rationalist, and an "extreme" empiricist. Being an extreme rationalist means thinking that reason is wholly superior to experience which, in turn, can be disposed of. Whereas, being an extreme empiricist means thinking that humans are a "tabula rasa" with no prior, inner knowledge whatsoever, rather supporting the view that all knowledge comes from external sources via experiences and our five senses.

    Tabula rasa: it is the philosophical and psychological concept that implies that something or someone starts off as blank, empty, ready for external stimuli and experiences to "fill" it.

    Being on the continuum between the two, therefore, means recognising that it is possible to acquire knowledge through thought and logic AND through the scientific method of experimenting and experience.

    The Concept of Rationalism

    Rationalist thinking can be recognised as it holds to at least one of the following three principles:

    1. Intuition and deduction: intuition is the ability to recognise the truth in something just by thinking about it, and deduction is the process by which we reach the truth by processing other information which we already know to be true.
    2. Innate knowledge: the concept of innate knowledge is based on the idea that we are born with knowledge, and therefore we do not need experiences to acquire it, however, experiences can be useful in triggering the knowledge already in us, parallel to Plato's idea that through experience in the physical world, we "remember" the essences.
    3. Innate concepts: although some state that the concepts of innate knowledge and innate concepts are incredibly similar, some distinguish them on the basis of their level of abstraction. Innate concepts are understood as abstract ideas we have independently of experience, and upon which our innate knowledge depends. For example, innate knowledge would be the understanding that 2+2=4; innate concepts would be understanding what 2, 4, +, and = means.

    Rationalism in action

    Mathematics: from the ancient Greek mathema: most sources agree on its meaning as "that which is learnt". Mathematics involves exploring, with our intellect alone, the properties of abstract objects, for example, numbers and shapes. By asserting that "everything is number", and using music as an example, Pythagoras implied that all knowledge can be reached through reflecting upon it and applying our intellect to learn more.

    Key rationalist thinkers

    In the 17th and 18th centuries the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment, respectively, brought continental rationalism to the fore. Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant were the four main thinkers who considered rational thought as the main source of human knowledge.

    Albeit accepting that knowledge of physics requires experience of the natural world, Descartes (1596-1650) held that what cannot be understood by the intellect cannot be defined as knowledge.

    Spinoza (1632-1677) pursued philosophy with the aim of reaching an overarching theory of morality. His view was that all is "God or Nature" and everything else is a variation of this, rather than anything in itself. He concluded this using his reason only and rejected what can be perceived through the senses.

    Leibniz (1646-1716) also concluded that all knowledge is innate and drew his own theory of monads. Everything apart from God, is a monad which are simple, independent innate concepts that cannot be influenced by experience or the laws of physics.

    Towards the end of the 18th century, Kant (1724-1804) played the role of synthesising the thinking of the rationalists and the empiricist by theorising. Kant concluded that while experience is essential in bringing knowledge to humanity, the use of reason is similarly important, as it allows us to process that knowledge into coherent thoughts.

    Plato and Rationalism

    Rationalism, as a perspective, dates back to antiquity. And although Pythagoras' thinking can be associated with it by his presumed assertion that "everything is number", Plato is more commonly thought of as the ancient father of rationalism.

    Plato was born in Athens in the fifth century BCE and is one of the Greek philosophers in the Classical period of Ancient Greece. He is seen as a pivotal western thinker together with his teacher, Socrates, and his main student, Aristotle.

    Plato by Raphael, Rationalism, StudySmarterFig. 1 Plato by Raphael, Details of the School of Athens

    This representation of Plato is a detail of the grand painting by Raphael of the School of Athens, which can be found in the Vatican. Here, Plato can be seen pointing upwards as one of his main ideas, also referred to as the theory of Forms, states that above the surface of the earth is where the "real" world is.

    This is the world of "essences" which are universal, unchanging, atemporal, abstract representations of objects and qualities that can only be grasped by pure thought and, crucially, are the only real source of knowledge.

    According to Plato, the physical world, where we reside and that can be perceived through our five senses, is instead populated by mere reproductions of the essences.

    Plato thought that, before we were born, we were acquainted with the essences. Therefore, following our birth, the acquisition of knowledge in the physical world consists in remembering the essences they represent.

    This "remembering", as a way of acquiring knowledge we already have within us with thought alone, is why Plato is considered one of the first rationalists.

    Rationalism in Politics

    The word "politics" has evolved from the ancient Greek "polis"=city state. Therefore, our broadest understanding of politics is anything to do with the affairs of the city, which can be equated to society.

    Here we are going to discuss the repercussions of rationalist conclusions on social interactions, and we are going to take it a step forward and also briefly look at their impact on international relations.

    As we have mentioned above, rationalism understands individuals as rational beings, able to think for themselves and pursue their own self-interests and ultimately, their own individual path to happiness. An extension of these principles in societies is the promotion of individual rights and freedoms.

    For example, these individual rights and freedoms have been applied politically as universal suffrage, the rights of minorities, and freedom of movement.

    Rationalism has laid the foundations of the political theory, Liberalism. The promotion of individual freedoms and rights is considered a critical feature of liberalism and liberal countries, which are in direct opposition to fundamentalism and fundamentalist countries, that instead expect their citizens to strictly follow the prescriptions of religious texts.

    In liberal thinking, the limit to individuals' freedom is the impingement on the freedom of others.

    When it comes to interpersonal and international relations and conflicts, a rationalist perspective would assume all (rational) actors to be making logical cost-benefit analyses and to be taking the most efficient route forward. An example of this may be the efficient use of economic or military resources to maximise the rewards for a state.

    What do you think might be some limitations to this perspective? Let's have a look at Michael Oakeshott and his thinking to explore these.

    Michael Oakeshott and Rationalism in Politics

    Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was a moderate conservative English philosopher. In his essay "Rationalism in Politics"1 Oakeshott draws a critique of rationalism as he saw it as devoid of cultural and historical context. Oakeshott argues rationalist conclusions, with their focus on efficiency, economic calculations, and utilitarianism, cannot easily be applied to different cultures without any consideration for the traditions, practices, and spirituality that give meaning to the communities they would impact.

    Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism, StudySmarterFig. 2 Michael O

    Although Oakeshott doesn't prescribe strict solutions, he does raise the dangers of world politics based solely on rationalism as not inclusive and thereby in contradictions to the principles of liberalism and pluralism it embodies

    Utilitarianism: is the theory that qualifies a decision according to its outcomes: a good decision is one that

    would lead to the best for the most people.

    Rationalism - Key takeaways

    • Rationalism is the school of thought that holds that knowledge is reached by rational thought as opposed to by experience.

    • Plato, and his Theory of Forms, is the ancient father of rationalism.

    • Rationalist thinking was further developed in the 17th and 18th centuries by Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant.

    • Rationalistic thinking leads to Liberalism as a political theory.

    • Michael Oakeshott put forward a critique of rationalism on the basis that, when put in practice, it excludes considerations of history, culture, and traditions.


    1. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, 1962.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Rationalism

    What does rationalism mean in government?

    For government, rationalism is the perspective from which liberalism originates, promoting individual rights and freedoms.

    What is the origin and history of rationalism?

    Rationalism originates in Classical Greek and was further developed by the philosophers in the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment.

    Is rationalism and liberalism the same thing?

    No. Rationalism is a school of thought and Liberalism is the political theory that originates from it.

    What are examples of rationalism?

    Rationalism is based on at least one of the following basis: intuition and deduction; innate knowledge, and innate concepts.

    What is rationalism in political theory?

    In political theory, rationalism is the school of thought from which liberalism originates.

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Rationalism Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App