Difference between Rationalism and Enlightenment

The philosophy of rationalism began during the 17th century when this movement was popular. This period is popularly referred to as the Age of Reason. The most famous proponents of the realist philosophy included people like Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, who were the pioneers of the idea of integrating mathematical formulas into the discipline of philosophy. Subscribers to the theory of realism believe that the origin of knowledge and justification arises from the process of intelligent and inferential reasoning. They further argue that a person can establish the truth about something by engaging their intuition as opposed to sensual encounters or any knowledge that is founded on faith-based beliefs.The Enlightenment era, on the other hand, began a century later after the commencement of realism. Therefore, the 18th century refers to the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. The famous figures supporting this philosophy were mainly of French origin including Kant and other scholars who merely made minimal contributions such as Voltaire. According to them, Knowledge is closely associated with an action. Hence, the purpose of this discussion is to compare and contrast rationalism and enlightenment.

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As outlined above, this school of thought commenced in the in the early 17th Century. The general idea of this school of thought is that the truth cannot be merely felt by the senses, but can only be deduced using intellect. Rationalists believed that the truth can only be understood logically. They vehemently oppose empiricists who claim that knowledge cannot be gained independently of experience. Despite being a wide field, there are some key concepts that underlie most of the theories propounded by rationalists. These concepts include intuition, innate knowledge, and indispensability of reason.

The concept of intuition implies that some things about a particular subject matter can simply be recognized by intuition. For example, there are certain sections where one sees something and recognizes it immediately. This tenet of rationalism is related to the use of deduction in reasoning whereby a conclusion is reached from a particular premise by following the logic.

The concept of innate knowledge implies that some things are known to us by our rational nature. Rationalists who propound this theory differentiate it from intuition whereby innate knowledge simply claims that knowledge is part of our natural understanding. Rationalists who make a claim of the indispensability of reason argue that reason is superior to experience and experience cannot deliver what human beings receive from reasoning.


This philosophical movement is popularly referred to as the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ started at around the late 18th and early 19th century. The primary ideas that formed the basis of this school of thought include individualism, skepticism and reason. They challenged the traditional view of things including religion, superstition, supernatural occurrences and intolerance. This school of thought is closely associated with the scientific revolution as its proponents embraced the scientific methodology to comprehend the going-ons around them. The movement started in Europe and was inspired by the writings of Spinoza, Descartes and Isaac Newton. It eventually gained traction and spread out to the rest of the world including the US where it attracted the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

A core theme of enlightenment was the reason. The movement proponents emphatically denounced occurrences that were supernatural as mere superstition. They believed that things in the natural world happened because of a particular reason. In fact, most of the Enlightenment thinkers were atheists. Those who were not atheists mixed Christianity and scientific rationalism to come up with the deism movement. Members of this movement believed that God exists, but he let things happen in the world according to natural law.

Another theme that was central to enlightenment was skepticism.Skepticism implied being cynical about everything that lacked proper explanation in agreement with reason, for instance, religious dogma, institutionalized church, and even things that were assumed to be the nature of reality. For instance, the divine right of kings to rule for eternity was for the first time questioned. These thinkers rejected blind faith and wanted proof for claims that made sense. For one to convince enlightened thinkers to accept a claim, they were forced to furnish proof for those claims. Skepticism was applied to all spheres of life, especially in science and nature.

The other key tenet of this school of thought was individualism. Individualism simply implies that man is endowed with certain vital liberties and rights. They believed that these two rights were granted by nature, or God, for those who believed in him. Most of their teachings emphasized the equality of human beings and their right to dignity.The concept of human rights seems to have its origins from this school of thought.

Contrast between Rationalism and Enlightenment

As earlier mentioned, Immanuel Kant was one of the most prominent contributors to the rationalist philosophical movement ideologies. He has different views on the issue of human knowledge from those proposed by the realists. On one hand, the realists proposed that nature has a structure that is rational. Consequently, understanding the concepts of its components involved engaging the principles and rules of mathematics and logic and not using the sensory encounters only. On the other hand, Kant states that there are no limits placed on the knowledge of human beings. This means that the human intellect can find answers to all complex questions of life without involving mathematical, religious or logical principles. 

Unlike the rationalists, the supporters of enlightenment, especially Kant, emphasized on the important of achieving freedom to use one’s intelligence. Kant argues that besides having the right to think freely and independent of any influence from a particular authority, every person should be free to utilize their reason in public. Above all, the people’s right to reveal the outcomes of their processes of thinking through writing and speech must be unrestricted. 

Comparison between Rationalism and Enlightenment

Both philosophical schools of thought also exhibit certain similarities. Just like other rationalists, Kant, who is a major proponent of enlightenment, argued that religious teachings are not a true source of knowledge. Kant suggests that any religion that relies on revelation must emphasize that opinion and reason cannot be sufficient to provide an individual with the answers they require concerning the various questions of life. Kant states that knowledge acquired through religion is sometimes erroneous and in certain circumstances, it is only possible to find true knowledge about particular things by supplementing faith-based knowledge. 


The discussion above has explained in detail, the key concepts of rationalism and enlightenment. The rationalist school of thought came into being first and has its distinct features. It proposes the use of reason to gain knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena. Some of its key concepts include intuition, innate knowledge, and indispensability of reason. The enlightenment school of thought came later and borrowed heavily from the rationalists, but it was more radical. Among the basic features of the school include the use of reason, skepticism as well as individualism to interpret phenomena. The paper has also discussed some differences between the two schools of thought including realists holding the belief of using logic to gain knowledge while proponents of enlightenment that knowledge can be a factor of numerous action. Theorists of enlightenment also believed on the individual using his freedom to achieve intelligence while rationalist still believed in the strict order of things. The major similarity that is exhibited by the two groups is the emphasis on the use of reason.

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