Tabula rasa (Latin: "scraped tablet," though often translated "blank slate") is the notion, popularized by John Locke, that the human mind receives knowledge and forms itself based on experience alone, without any pre-existing innate ideas that would serve as a starting point. Tabula rasa thus implies that individual human beings are born "blank" (with no built-in mental content), and that their identity is defined entirely by their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world. In general terms, the contention that we start life literally “from scratch” can be said to imply a one-sided emphasis on empiricism over idealism.
History of the notion
In the fourth century B.C.E., Aristotle originated the idea in De Anima. However, besides some arguments by the Stoics and Peripatetics, the Aristotelian notion of the mind as a blank state went much unnoticed for nearly 1,800 years, though it reappears in a slightly different wording in the writings of various thinkers. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas brought the Aristotelian notion back to the forefront of modern thought. This notion sharply contrasted with the previously held Platonic notions of the human mind as an entity that pre-existed somewhere in the heavens, before being sent down to join a body here on Earth (see Plato's Phaedo and Apology, as well as others). (As a side note, St. Bonaventure was one of Aquinas' fiercest intellectual opponents, offering some of the strongest arguments towards the Platonic idea of the mind.)
Our modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke's empirical epistemology of the late seventeenth century, though Locke himself used the expression of “white paper” instead in his Essay on Human Understanding (“tabula rasa” only appears in the original French translation of the work). In John Locke's philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that the (human) mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences. The notion is central to Lockean empiricism. As understood by Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born "blank," and it also emphasized the individual's freedom to author his or her own soul. Each individual was free to define the content of his or her character, but his or her basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be so altered. It is from this presumption of a free, self-authored mind combined with an immutable human nature that the Lockean doctrine of "natural" rights derives.
Nevertheless, Locke himself admitted that the human mind must have some type of pre-existing, functional ability to process experience. His view merely precludes the notion that there are fixed ideas in our mind at birth. Unlike Hobbes, Condillac and Hume, Locke thus believed that the combination of simple ideas derived from experience into complex ideas required the intervention of our mental activity.
Tabula rasa vs. innate ideas
There is a general, common sense understanding among philosophers that experience represents a key factor in cognition. Minds part on the question of the primacy of experience or that of inborn mental structures. In classic philosophy, this amounts to the confrontation between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s more empirical approach. Plato believed in the pre-existence of the soul in the world of eternal ideas. The role of experience in our earthly life was thus simply to rediscover these ideas. For Aristotle, these ideas merely pre-existed potentially and needed to be actualized through experience.
Continental rationalism, mainly represented by René Descartes, insisted on the primacy of so-called innate ideas placed in the human mind at birth by God. These include mathematical principles, simple ideas, and the idea of God. Locke objected that there was no evidence of such pre-existing ideas in our mind. A further objection by Locke was that accepting the notion of innate ideas opened the door to dogmatic assertions that could easily be justified in the name of such ideas. That could lead to abuse in the search for truth but also in human affairs.
Following both Descartes and Locke, continental rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz recognized the need for a middle road. He introduced the theory that rational ideas were virtually in our mind at birth and needed to be activated by experience. This position builds upon what Aristotle already believed and, as we have seen, it also exists in germ in Locke’s own philosophy. The notion of tabula rasa does not necessarily imply that there is no pre-existing design.
Later, in his effort to reconcile and integrate the views of rationalism and empiricism, Immanuel Kant would say that our mind operates through a priori categories present independently from experience, but that these categories would remain empty, hence meaningless unless “filled” with sensory content gained through experience.
In more recent times, the notion of tabula rasa has found very different applications in psychology and psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud), computer science and life sciences, politics, and other disciplines.
In computer science, tabula rasa refers to the development of autonomous agents that are provided with a mechanism to reason and plan toward their goal, but no "built-in" knowledge base of their environment. They are thus truly a "blank slate."
In reality, autonomous agents are provided with an initial data set or knowledge base, but this should not be immutable or it will hamper autonomy and heuristic ability. Even if the data set is empty, it can usually be argued that there is an in-built bias in the reasoning and planning mechanisms. Either intentionally or unintentionally placed there by the human designer, it thus negates the true spirit of tabula rasa.
Generally people now recognize the fact that most of the brain is indeed preprogrammed and organized in order to process sensory input, motor control, emotions and natural responses. These preprogrammed parts of the brain then learn and refine their ability to perform their tasks. The only true clean slate in the brain is the neo-cortex. This part of the brain is involved in thought and decision-making and is strongly linked with the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in responses such as fight or flight and emotions and like other parts of the brain is largely "pre-programmed," but has space to learn within its "programming". The amygdala is important in that it has a strong influence over the neo-cortex. There is much debate as to whether the amygdala prevents the neo-cortex from being defined as a clean slate.
Controversially the amygdala is different from person to person. However, it only affects emotions and not intelligence. Another controversial element is in the differing size of the neo-cortex.
Generally speaking, one can never decide whether a theory is true or not simply by examining what political or philosophical implications it might have. Nevertheless, some have been attracted to, or repulsed by, the notion of the "blank slate" for such reasons.
On the one hand, the theory of a "blank slate" is attractive to some since it supposes that innate mental differences between normal human beings do not and cannot exist; therefore, racism and sexism are profoundly illogical. However, this does not mean that such prejudice would make sense if there were innate differences.
Some are also attracted to the idea of a "blank slate" due to a fear of being determined, or even influenced, by their genes (though why being determined or influenced by society is better is a difficult question).
On the other hand, the theory means there are no inherent limits to how society can shape human psychology; nor is there a political structure that best fits human nature. As such, the theory is taken up by many utopian schemes that rely on changing human behavior to achieve their goals, and many such schemes end up moving towards totalitarianism, or a dystopian reality. However, the opposing view, that humans have a genetically influenced nature, could also lead to controversial social engineering such as eugenics.
All links retrieved January 15, 2020.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Project Gutenberg
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