What Is Rationalism?

"Rationalism" is an unfortunately overloaded term. In mainstream analytical history of philosophy, it is often used as a contrast class to "empiricism." "Rationalists" believe that "pure reason" gives us the best guide to truth, while "empiricists" favor experience. In this usage, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are "rationalists," while Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume are characterized as "empiricists." While we do not object to this use of "rationalism," it has nothing to do with what we wish to address in this work.

Instead, the notion of "rationalism" we are dealing with is about the relationship of the abstract and the concrete. The common thread connecting our critics of rationalism is that each of them, in one way or another, criticized "abstract thought" not in and of itself, but insofar as it tried to replace "concrete thought," or tradition, or evolved moral rules, as a guide to how people actually should behave, or how they actually should evaluate certain proposals. (One thing that differentiates these thinkers is what exactly they contrast rationalism to.)

So, as a preliminary effort at clarifying what "rationalism" means, let us describe how we understand the "rationalism" that each of our thinkers criticizes, if not explicitly, then at least implicitly.