Tethering all truth claims to sound, rational argument

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible interpretation
  • Knowing is … considered thought and action
  • Learner is … a thinker
  • Learning is … reasoning
  • Teaching is … challenging (to think)


Ancient (but the most influential formalized versions began to appear in the 1600s)


Rationalism positions reason as both the source and the measure of sound knowledge – that is, Rationalism is the belief that valid knowledge is based in reason without the aid of the sense. It begins with the assumption that reality has a logical structure. Hence, all versions of Rationalism privilege formal, deductive logic. Some versions also permit other Modes of Reasoning, provided the reasoner is explicitly aware of the mode being used and the purpose for its application. However, while the frame does accept that the senses are necessary for actual knowledge, information from the senses is to be doubted. That is, all sensory-based interpretations must be rationally defensible. Associated discourses include:
  • Natural Law Theory (Ancient Greek Stoicism, 3rd century BCE) – the conviction that there are principles of personal, social, and cultural action that are woven into the fabric of reality. It is assumed that rational thought is suffient to discern these principles.
  • Cartesianism (Rene Descartes; 1600s), which deploys deductive reasoning (assumed to be gifted from an infallible God) to build on assumed-to-be inarguable-truths (“innate ideas”) to generate imagined-to-be-unimpeachable assertions.
  • Lay Epistemic Theory (Arie W. Kruglanski, 1980s) ­– a perspective on the sources of and confidence in one’s personal knowledge, which is defined in terms of assemblages of formal propositions. Operating similarly on both conscious and unconscious levels, propositions are seen to go through rule-based stages of hypothesizing, testing, and inference-generating.
  • Anti-Realism (Michael Dummett; 1960s) – which, as the name suggests, begins by rejecting the “realist” assumption that truths are literal depictions of an external, independent reality. Within Antirealism, the truth of an assertion is determined through internal logic mechanisms. (Notably, some of those mechanisms vary considerably from the tenets and constraints of classical logic.)


Most commentaries on Rationalism are focused on the version articulated by René Descartes in the early 1600s. In his Cartesianism, he argued vigorously that eternal truths could be attained by reason alone, independent of the senses. Many aspects of Cartesianism endure in popular thought (e.g., his “Cogito, ergo sum” and his “Method of Doubt”), but perhaps the conclusion with the greatest staying power is his dualism of body and mind/soul, seen as independent and irreducible. Many recent criticisms focus on the fact that Rationalism is a closed system of reasoning, which necessarily renders it insufficient to account for this universe – which, according to most, is an open system. In quite a different vein, Rationalism has been criticized for its ready associations with discourses that share its emphasis on mental activity, even though many lack its commitment to logic – including:
  • Nominalism (ancient; revived by Thomas Hobbes, 1650s) – the notion that abstract principles and universal laws are not aspects of reality, but human constructs that exist only as names. These names collect useful ways to think about the physical universe, but they do not (and cannot) capture that universe.
  • Psychologism – an umbrella notion that can be applied to any discourse in which human thought is positioned as the basis of knowledge, meaning, and/or logical truths
  • Relativism – applies to the conviction or opinion that “facts” within a specific domain are dependent on the knower’s perspective and/or the knower’s context. Specific variations include:
    • Epistemic Relativism (Alethic Relativism; Cognitive Relativism; Factual Relativism) – an extreme version of Relativism that asserts that all facts and truths are dependent on the knower
    • Cultural Relativism – a version of Relativism that focuses on one’s culture as a means to make sense of one’s version of truth, arguing that cultures should not be judged against each other
  • Solipsism – the view that one can only be certain of the existence of one's own mind – that is, everything else (e.g., other minds, a physical world) might not exist
  • Subjectivism – refers to a variety of perspectives sharing the premise that one’s truths are entirely rooted in one’s unique set of experiences. Extreme versions, such as Cartesianism (see above), assert that one’s thoughts are the only unquestionable facts of one’s being.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

René Descartes; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; Baruch Spinoza; Immanuel Kant

Status as a Theory of Learning

Rationalism is a theory of knowledge and knowledge production, and it is typically discussed at the level of entire fields of study. It has also been applied to individual learning, and many contemporary learning theories assume that the identification of assumptions, formulation of principles, and development of logically defensible arguments is a fitting model for formal learning. For that reason, it is fair to say that Rationalism has been embraced by many educators as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Often, when Rationalism is invoked as a perspective on learning in education, it is in contexts focusing on influencing learning – in particular, through clear articulation of assumptions and carefully structured arguments. Concisely, then, within education, Rationalism is frequently engaged as a theory of influencing learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Owing to the very different ways Rationalism has been interpreted and applied within education, we have not afforded it full scientific status. Many treatments are simply inattentive to assumptions and figurative frames. In fact, somewhat ironically, some treatments are inattentive to empirical evidence demonstrating issues with their interpretations.


  • Anti-Realism
  • Cartesianism
  • Cultural Relativism
  • Epistemic Relativism (Alethic Relativism; Cognitive Relativism; Factual Relativism)
  • Lay Epistemic Theory
  • Natural Law Theory
  • Nominalism
  • Psychologism
  • Relativism
  • Solipsism
  • Subjectivism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Rationalism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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