Umm, I really have no idea what style to answer these in. I don't expect you to read this, but does the style look right?
Assess rationalism (24 marks)
Rationalism is a central doctrine to philosophy which entails that reasoned thought is the primary source of all of our important knowledge, rather than sense-experience as empiricism propounds. A considerable amount of ‘rationally gained knowledge’ is a priori; they come prior to experience. An example of an a priori truth is, for example, an analytical proposition whose verity can be established by the meaning of the words alone; this red book is this red book to name one. Other rational truths include those of mathematics. These truths are necessary, that is to say; they cannot conceivably be anything else. When adding up 2 and 2 it is necessary that we produce 4, and never 5 or 6. There are also arguments within rationalism that contend we have innate knowledge of some ideas such as geometric truths. This is often disputed by empiricist philosophers such as John Locke, who argue we are born with a tabula rasa; a blank slate on which we build all of our knowledge through sense-experience.
René Descartes was one of the central protagonists in rationalist philosophy. His cogito argument illustrates some of the flaws within empiricism and ergo some of the strengths rationalism possesses. He begins noting that he has often believed things in the past that turned out to be false, using one example of a tower appearing circular from afar when it is in fact squared. Indeed; this demonstrates immediately that empirically gained truths are subject to fallibility due to sense deception whereas rational truths are more certain. Descartes as a foundationalist rationalist, these two schools often being juxtaposed with each other; aimed to withhold assent from his beliefs and search for something indubitable to act as the foundation to his superstructure of knowledge. Arguably, this ‘indubitable’ piece of knowledge could only be achieved through rationalism, as empirical beliefs are subject to sense deception.
Descartes goes through several waves of doubt to withhold assent including dreaming, but rejects them for various reasons. Eventually he arrives at the notion that an evil demon could be deceiving him that, for example, he was sitting by the fire in a dressing gown writing his meditation. Indeed; such a powerful demon could even deceive him as to the laws of logic, causing him to add up 2 and 2 incorrectly each time he attempts to. This idea of an evil demon allows him to withhold assent from all of his prior beliefs and thus can continue in his search for knowledge. It is while he is thinking that he realises just this; he is thinking and therefore must exist. This is his foundational, indubitable knowledge. Rationalism therefore was used effectively here by Descartes to find something certain, a clear advantage of this theory. Rationalism often entails following logic, inferring a conclusion from a set of premises. Indeed, it would seem this is what Descartes is doing here, “I am thinking” and “everything that is thinking exists” being his premises. However, Descartes denies the Cogito is an inference noting that it is simply something ‘self evident’. This is another trait of rationalism; the ability to provide us with self-evident truths that appeal to no other beliefs to justify themselves and thus are self supporting rendering this doctrine advantageous over empiricism which often descends into an infinite regress when attempting to prove an empirical belief.
Self-justifying beliefs often go hand in hand with innate ideas. That is to say, according to some rationalists; we are born with certain ideas already in us that simply need discovering. One such example is mathematical truths. In Plato’s dialogue meno between Socrates and a slave boy with no prior education, we discover that the slave boy can answer questions regarding mathematical logic correctly despite having never been taught how to do this. It would seem then that this knowledge is innate, redounding to the integrity of rationalism as a theory. Rational truths are also eternally true. For while empirical beliefs such as “the sun rises every morning” is subject to change, as one day it may not, 2 + 2 will always equal 4, even if no human was left on earth to add these numbers up. Again, this adds to the certainty of rational beliefs.
While rationalism does so far seem to provide us with eternal, necessary and indubitable truths, there are numerous arguments which undermine this doctrine. Alas, while 2 + 2 =4 may be certain, it tells us nothing of great interest about the external world. As AJ Ayer notes, it is tautological, such as the statement: “this red book is red”. We are gaining nothing new or useful. A more radical view is propounded by J S Mill who says that mathematical truths are not necessary. He says that, like science, we have observed many instances of 2 + 6 equalling 8, but indeed we may have made a mistake all of these times. It could be according to J S Mill, that 2 + 6 indeed equals 9, we’ve just been miscounting all this time. However, Ayer rejects Mill’s argument, saying that even if he thought he had 5 pairs of something (10 items) and counted to find 9, it would not be that 5 X 2 = 9, it would still remain that 5 X 2 = 10; for he simply miscounted.
Rationalism also supposes that the laws of logic are infallible. Indeed, there seems to be somewhat of a paradox within Descartes’ cogito argument, for he says that an evil demon could deceive him as to the laws of logic and then goes on to discover ‘indubitable’ knowledge through this flawed logic. If logic was fallible, it threatens to undermine the entire rationalist theory!
Another notion of rationalism open the criticism is the one which suggests we have innate ideas of some things. John Locke suggests that there are ‘fools’ or ‘idiots’ who do not know that 2 + 2 = 4 and cannot perform mathematical calculations which are supposedly innate in all of us. Descartes also propounds that we have an innate idea of God, yet, as Locke points out; there are entire nations who are ignorant of the concept of a perfect divine being. How would Descartes explain this?
Overall, it would seem that while rationalism is advantageous over empiricism in the notion that it is not subject to sense deception and can provide us with necessary, eternal truths which are indubitable and thus useful to foundationalist theories, there are flaws. These include the fact that, as Ayer suggests, mathematical truths are tautological and provide us with nothing useful regarding the external world and the problem of supposedly innate ideas not being known to certain people.