Alberto Vanzo writes…
In last week’s post, Juan noted that the Encyclopedia Britannica first recorded the philosophical meaning of the term “rationalism” in the early twentieth century. As Juan states, this lends support to the view that “rationalism” started to be “used to refer to early modern philosophy” in “the first decades of the twentieth century”. I am sympathetic to this view. In this post, I will defend it from two objections.
The first objection is that Bacon himself used used the term “rationalist” in a philosophical sense, for instance when he wrote:
- Empiricists are like ants; they collect and put to use; but rationalists are like spiders; they spin threads out of themselves (Cogitata et visa; see Novum Organum, I, 95)
This objection can be dispensed with rather quickly, as Peter did on this blog some time ago. Bacon did not use the term “rationalists”. He referred to those who “spin threads out of themselves” as “rationals” (rationales) and to their philosophy as philosophia rationalis (rational philosophy, e.g. in Novum Organum, I, 42, 64), not as rationalism. One cannot find a philosophical use of the English terms “rationalist” or “rationalism” in Bacon’s texts.
The second objection notes that, nevertheless, the translation of Bacon’s “rationales” as rationalists is an early modern one. Shaw’s 1733 English translation of the Novum Organum states: “Those who have treated the Sciences, were either Empirics, or Rationalists. […] the Rationalists [are] like Spiders […]”. Although this use of “Rationalist” is not recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is recorded in other reference texts, such as the 1740 edition of Dyche’s and Pardon’s New General English Dictionary, the 1755-1756 edition of Johnson’s English Dictionary, and this entry from the 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language:
- RATIONALIST, n. One who proceeds in his certain disquisitions and practice wholly upon reason. – Bacon.
(I owe these references to Li Ling.) Webster’s entry recalls a passage by Shaftesbury, to whom, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we owe the first recorded use of the term “empiricist” (1705). Shaftersbury characterizes rationalists as those “who walk by Reason in every thing”. This statement may sound rather similar to one that can be found in an early twentieth-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: according to rationalists, «reason is in and by itself a source of knowledge» which «has superior authority over knowledge acquired through sensation».
How can we respond to this objection? It is true that there are early modern uses of the term “rationalist” in relation to philosophers. However, the term was used for philosophers in the broad early modern sense of all those who pursue scientia, especially for natural philosophers, and has a methodological connotation: it designates their (reflected or unreflected) reliance on reason. By contrast, the twentieth-century philosophical use of “rationalism” designates the endorsement of a specific epistemological view. In the terms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “philosophical rationalism” is a “theory of knowledge”.
Additionally, the existence of early modern philosophical uses of the adjective “rationalist” does not entail that the noun “rationalism” was used in a philosophical sense too. The term was mostly used in a theological sense to designate those who stressed the importance of reason not over the sense, but over faith or revelation. Whereas Webster’s dictionary records a philosophical use of “rationalist” with a reference to Bacon, it does not record any philosophical use of “rationalism”. For Webster, rationalism is “[t]he practice or tenets of certain latitudinarian divines”. Shaftesbury contrasts the attitude of the rationalists, who “exalted Reason above Faith“, with the prominence that he accords to faith above reason: “We for our parts know nothing, and believe all”.
Finally, pre-Kantian writers nearly did not associate the term “rationalism” with the textbook rationalists of twentieth-century texts, namely Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Indeed, the only pre-Kantian text of which I am aware which groups together Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz is Account of Sir Newton’s Discoveries, but it does not use the term “rationalism”. One can find the association of “rationalism” with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in nineteenth-century translations of German texts, but the English term “rationalism” started to be routinely associated with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz only around the turn of the twentieth century. It is only in this period that, as is witnessed by the changes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica highlighted by Juan, the now-standard epistemological usage of “rationalism” to refer to early modern philosophers became established.