Category: rationality


We learned (didn’t we?) that there is a strand of rationalist philosophy, that still just about persists, that wants to claim for philosophy, the kind of certainty that science and maths claims. It wants to be able to find the kind of ‘objective’ ‘a priori’, necessary truth that mathematical theories have, it wants to be able to do what science does and abstract universal‘ laws and principles from its observations. It wants to be able to say ‘this is how things really are!’ It wants to strip away appearance and uncover the ‘reality’ behind it.

Most of you seem to think that you think it can’t do this. Most of you seem to think that you think there is no objective truth, but I don’t believe you really think it. After all aren’t claims like ‘the Earth goes round the Sun’ closer to being true than the claim that ‘the Sun goes round the Earth.’? So doesn’t that mean that science is getting closer to the Truth?

Do you really think that the only measure of truth is agreement? I don’t think you really think that if we all agreed that eating custard creams prevented heart disease then it would be true that eating custard creams prevented heart disease.

I think you all really think that there is a ‘way things really are’. 

But I don’t.  So there.

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We realised that we were a bit shaky on our understanding of what is meant by ‘reason‘ or ‘rationalism‘ in philosophy, so we drew a big diagram called ‘The Evolution of Reason’.

The point was to show how the word has meant different things at different times and to different people (and still does).  

At its most simple level reason involves the ability to think, understand and draw conclusions in an abstract way; to be able to play with ideas in your mind. 

For Rationalists the important thing is that reason allows us to develop concepts that outstrip the information that sense experience can provide and thereby provides us with information about the world that experience does not. That we can know more about the world than sense experience provides. 

In this way, ‘reason‘ can sometimes be seen as a kind of special power or faculty that makes human beings different from other animals that apparently are not rational. From this you can see how people like Descartes could conceive of reason as a ‘god-given’ faculty that would allow us at least of glimpse of God’s rationally created universe. Sort of thing! 



We also worked through some stuff from Gareth Southwell’s http://www.philosophyonline.co.uk/ ‘Theory of knowledge’, unit 2, ‘Rationalism’, and tried to work out what ‘a priori’ ideas were. As ever things were less straightforward than they seemed and we veered from thinking some things were to nothing was to back again. (Will was best at this back and forth business, but that’s a sign of a thinking man!).


Eventually we worked out that we need to distinguish two ways of understanding of ‘apriori’:
1. ideas that are innate but may have to be ‘found’ through the use of our ‘Reason’ or brought out through ‘experience’ or ‘teaching’ (like Plato’s Socrates and the slave boy).
2. ideas that are true ‘before’ (in the sense of independent of or outside of experience) like maths, geometry etc.