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Philosophy of knowledge: Rationalism

Updated on February 24, 2014

My essay


This is an essay that I wrote in my A level Philosophy class about rationalism explaining and evaluating its claims. It got a B grade, I hope you find this useful. Any comments and help is welcomed.

The Essay: Rationalism

Rationalism is the idea that everything can be known and understood by reason alone, this means that you are able to have an apriori synthetic statement (something that is meaningful about the world yet you don't need to experience to understand it).

Rationalism at first seems very ilogical, when you are at school you talk about learning things after being taught by a teacher, rationalism claims that you would be able to know it without being taught but just by working it out yourself, thus making teachers not needed.

Despite this apparent illogicalness modern science is based on rationalism. Galileo (sometimes referred to as the father of modern astronomy) was a fundamental rationalist. Our idea of the Big Bang comes not from experience but by looking at our current world and deducing the cause. Scientists however even after deducing at theory through reason still feel the need to do experiments to confirm their beliefs, if they were sure on rationalism then surely experiments wouldn't be needed. Belief in god is also rationalist, can you experience god?? many believers haven't yet still believe in a higher being. As you are now seeing, rationalism is more part of our everyday thoughts than you may have previously imagined.

There are arguments however against rationalism. There are things in life that we can't seem to comprehend if we have no experience of them. For example if someone is born blind then are they able to comprehend the idea of images, if someone is colour-blind how can they comprehend colour without experience?

A part of rationalism is called Nativeism. Nativeism holds a different perspective to the idea of rationalism. It argues that we may have prior innate knowledge, this knowledge is already there however needs unlocking by and experience. A popular example of this argument to explain this is Meno's slave by Plato. In brief, socrates asks and uneducated slave a number of increasingly difficult geometry questions, the slave manages to answer all of them by deducing the next step up from the questions before, Socrates hasn't taught him anything just asked him questions, yet he has "unlocked" this ability to answer complicated geometry questions. For a more detailed explanation look here.'s_slave

The Idea of innate knowledge is also present in nature. A bear cub knows how to howl instinctively that knowledge just has to be "unlocked".

Some bird species also know how to sing their whole bird song after only hearing part of it, the cue of hearing part of it "unlocks" the knowledge of the rest of it.

In conclusion, rationalism first seems improbable and illogical, however when delved into further it seems to have valid and convincing arguments. However humans natural urge to "See it too believe it" therefore invalidates some of the claims of rationalism as we don't accept knowledge as fact until experience proves it. In my personal view that knowledge is part both, experience and reason, we need experience to a certain level to understand our surroundings, however too look deeper our ideas need reason as well.

Hope you have enjoyed reading this hub, please read more of my hubs.




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