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The Destiny Of Rationalism

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason definitively limited the rationalists' pretensions to achieve knowledge of substantive truths by means of the intellect alone. Kant argues that knowledge is limited to the appearances presented to us by the senses; no extension of knowledge is possible to the "supersensible" or intelligible realm to which the rationalists, like Plato, purported to have access. Consequently, the rationalist belief in the capacity of the pure intellect to achieve knowledge of truths about the universe is revealed to be unfounded. Indeed, Kant's critique revealed that the rationalist commitment to pure intellect that can operate independently of the senses was untenable. Moreover, recent developments in science further reveal that the rationalist conception of the world as an intelligible order was overstated. Nevertheless, the rationalist commitment to the power of reason remained alive for Kant, particularly in his practical philosophy. Rationalism encouraged women to use their own reason in philosophy: Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Damaris Masham directly engaged Descartes and Leibniz, respectively, in correspondence; Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway worked out a rationalist paradigm. Finally, from a historical standpoint most significantly, rationalism inspired Enlightenment thinkers to trust in human abilities without reliance on divine illumination.



Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. 3 vols. Edited and translated by John Cottingham, Dugald Murdoch, Robert Stoothoff, and Anthony Kenny. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984–1991. Most complete English edition of Descartes's writings.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin's, 1965. Classic, beautiful translation.

Leibniz, G. W. Philosophical Essays. Edited and translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. Good selection of Leibniz's writings, spanning his entire philosophical career.

——. Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. Edited by Austin Farrer. Translated by E. M. Huggard. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. The most readily available English translation.

Malebranche, Nicolás. The Search after Truth. Edited and translated by Thomas Lennon and Robert Olscamp. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The most recent English translation.

——. Treatise on Nature and on Grace. Edited and translated by Patrick Riley. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Fine edition; omits two of the Elucidations added by Malebranche.

Spinoza, Benedict de. The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. I. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Magisterial edition of Spinoza's early writings. Volume II is in preparation.

——. Theological-Political Treatise. 2nd ed. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. Best available English edition.


Garrett, Don. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Essays cover most aspects of Spinoza's work.

Hatfield, Gary. "The Cognitive Faculties." In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, edited by Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Seminal article; treats both rationalists and empiricists from the standpoint of the cognitive faculties.

——. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Descartes and the Meditations. London: Routledge, 2002. Sustained interpretation of the Meditations as cognitive exercises; also considers alternative interpretations.

Nadler, Steven. The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Essays cover most aspects of Malebranche's philosophical writings.

Rutherford, Donald. Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. General interpretation of Leibniz's philosophy as motivated by the attempt to reveal the intelligible order of the universe.

Sean Greenberg

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningRationalism - Rationalism Defined, The Roots Of Rationalism, René Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, Nicolás Malebranche, Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz