ARTICLE 66: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Rationalism
Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
What is more important for research – knowledge or experience?
What is more important for truth – reason or observation?
Do all events consist of a cause and an effect?
Can knowledge be gained without making use of our senses?
Are sense experiences always infallible and accurate?
I discuss how rationalism would answer these and other related questions in this video.
Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, because of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. Seeking to substantiate the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics and the natural sciences, rationalism attempts to explain how knowledge obtained through human cognitive activity could be objective, universal and necessary truth. Rationalism maintains that scientific knowledge can be attained through reason, which serves as the source of knowledge and a precondition for truth.
Rationalists assume that the world is deterministic in the sense that cause and effect hold for all events. There are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They also assume that these can be understood through deep thinking. Rationalism, therefore, believes that truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought without experience.
Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge surpasses the information that sense experience can provide. Rationalists believe that evidence gained through the senses, i.e. seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling, is fallible, confusing and misleading. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides additional information about the world.
Rationalism adopts at least one of five claims: the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the innate concept thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis.
The intuition/deduction thesis. The intuition/deduction thesis claims that some propositions in a particular subject area are knowable to us by intuition only, while others are knowable by being deducted from intuited propositions. Intuition is regarded as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “know” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, defensible belief in it. Deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premise through valid arguments, one in which the conclusion must be true if the premise is true. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.
The innate knowledge thesis. Innate knowledge means having knowledge of some truth in a particular subject area. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis also asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, i.e. independently of experience. The difference between the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate knowledge thesis rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning as the source of knowledge. Deductive logic begins with regularities that have previously been identified and that need to be explained; a theory that might offer an explanation is either borrowed or constructed, one or more hypotheses are deducted, and these are then tested by matching them against some data.
Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature. Some may even call it, together with the innate concept thesis, human instinct. Experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but the experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along.
The innate concept thesis. According to the innate concept thesis some of the concepts are not gained from experience – they are part of our rational nature. While sense experiences may trigger a process by which they are brought to consciousness, experience does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. The content and strength of the innate concept thesis varies with the concepts claimed to be innate. The more a concept seems to be removed from experience and the mental options we can perform on experience, the more plausibly it may be claimed to be innate.
The indispensability of reason thesis. The indispensability of reason thesis claims that the knowledge that we gain by intuition and deduction, and the knowledge that is innate to us, could not have been gained through sense experience. We need to think deeply in a way that is divorced from sensual experience to gain knowledge. Deep thinking is a way in which we can use the mind to create knowledge. It requires thinking beyond sensual experience.
The superiority of reason thesis. The superiority of reason thesis claims that the knowledge we gain by intuition and deduction, or have innately, is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience.
The intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis or the innate concept thesis are necessary for a paradigm to be rationalist. The indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis may also be adopted by rationalists, although they are not essential. Rational knowledge claims hold across time and space. This means that rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true. Rational argument implies a superior intellect and we all use it although the truth of our assertions is often open to question.
Rationalism falls back on critical theory although critical theory also uses experience to develop knowledge, which rationalism does not. It supports scientism in the sense that it is scientific knowledge that can be gained though reason. Modernism is also related to rationalism because it also collects deep rather than superficial information to develop knowledge.
Rationalism is challenged by positivism, which seeks empirical evidence rather than relying on the perceived unreliability of individual thinking and is opposed by empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge.
Not all academics regard rationalism as a paradigm. Some claim that it is closer to an ideology in the sense that it represents a belief system rather than a philosophy of how knowledge is created and developed. Some argue that the ideological stance of rationalism is unrealistic in the sense that the belief that knowledge originates exclusively from reason is obviously incomplete and false. Not taking other sources of knowledge, such as experience, into consideration means that rationalism is a closed system with little chance of survival or growth.
Rationalism is based on objective, universal and necessary cognitive thinking.
Truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought.
Therefore, knowledge is gained independently of sense experience.
Sense experience is regarded as confusing and uncertain.
Rationalism substantiates the absolute reliability of the principles of science and the tenets of mathematics.
Cause and effect hold for all events.
The world is regarded as deterministic.
Reason surpasses all other forms of knowing.
Rational knowledge is timeless, objective and true.
Knowledge can be more valuable than experience for research.
Research is based on five possible theses, namely the superiority of knowledge thesis, the indispensability of reason thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate concept thesis.
Rationalism is associated with critical theory, scientism and modernism, and opposed to positivism, relativism and empiricism.
Criticism against rationalism includes that it is a closed system, unrealistic and not a paradigm.