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. 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. Prominent associated discourses include:
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.


  • Cartesianism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Rationalism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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