Rationalism and justification of knowledge in Rene Descartes

Topics: Epistemology, René Descartes, Philosophy Pages: 16 (4236 words) Published: August 8, 2014
1.0 Introduction
Over the years, the nature of reality, knowing, thinking and believing has constituted puzzling issues which epistemology attempts to grapple with. Issues cutting across what can we know, what is the nature and scope of human knowledge, what can be known with certainty, how do we acquire knowledge, how can we know what is when we come across it, what can be left to faith or opinion to decide, as well as the proper source of knowledge preoccupied the philosophical and at the same time, the epistemological thought of philosophers. In this connection, different schools of thought have come to limelight notably among them are scepticism, rationalism, and empiricism. For instance, scepticism poses a problem by arguing that knowledge is impossible, that we cannot know anything for sure. To resolve this issue, rationalism puts forward that the process of reasoning is the surest path to knowledge, whereas empiricism says that knowledge is acquired through sense experience. But, “is knowledge actually got through sense experience?” or “is it acquired through the process of reasoning?” or perhaps, is it impossible for us to know? These questions arise owing to the fact that our claims to knowledge are in need of justification for they are challenged by scepticism; doubts about our knowledge claims and doubts about the evidences that support our knowledge claims. It is in recognition of this that Rene Descartes entitled his magnus opus the Discourse on Method and Meditations. And it is also the reason why he insisted that reason is the ultimate court of appeal whereby our knowledge claims can come to rest and, in fact, be justified. In the light of the foregoing, this essay shall bring to center-stage rationalism and the justification of knowledge in Rene Descartes. To do this, this essay shall pay attention to the basic tenets of rationalism, Descartes’ viewpoint on rationalism and the justification of knowledge, and rationalism beyond Descartes. This will then be followed by the evaluation and concluding reflection. 2.0 The Basic Tenets of Rationalism

It is quite pertinent and absolutely imperative to note that “rationalism is a philosophical school of thought which holds that knowledge is reached through logico-mathematical reasoning.”1 As a doctrine of the source of knowledge, rationalism is the view that reason is the ultimate source of knowledge; it looks to the world of mathematics from which it draws its model.2 For the rationalists, the mathematical model being the basis of human knowledge will ward off the challenges of scepticism. They further argue that we will understand a significant body of knowledge about the world and the way it operates through the application of reason.3 Hence, reason alone, the rationalists conclude, is capable of leading us to certain knowledge. To substantiate this view, they posit that our human knowledge will be certain, logical and endure for all time like mathematical knowledge. Upon their view, “the evidence of the senses should agree with the truths of reason but they are not required to acquire these truths.”4 Along these lines, rationalism according to Uduma Oji Uduma “refers to any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.”5 He goes further to distinguish between three kinds of rationalism: ethical rationalism, religious rationalism and epistemological rationalism.

Ethical rationalism holds that ethical principles are not grounded on or derived from emotion, empathy, or some other non-rational foundation. In this case, “reason rather than feeling, custom or emotion is the ultimate court of appeal in judging actions either as good or bad, right or wrong.”6 Religious rationalism says that all of man’s knowledge comes through the use of his natural faculties, without the aid of supernatural revelation. Epistemological rationalism finally states that man’s knowledge is gained through a priori or rational insight as distinct from sense...

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