Tabula Rasa

The Blank Slate

Tabula rasa [tab-yuh-luh rah-suh] (Latin: ‘blank slate’) is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.

The theory was discussed by Aristotle, but popularized by John Locke (the father of liberalism) in the 17th century: ‘Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? … To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.’ Locke thought all knowledge came from sense data (smells, sights, sounds, pain, etc.), and that the mind is empty at birth. Locke’s idea was immediately picked up by others.

William Godwin, the economist and social liberal, wrote: ‘Children are a sort of raw material put into our hands… [Their minds are] like a sheet of white paper. Our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated [cut out] from the world.’ Godwin argued for human perfectibility and enlightenment. Many have held similar views.

The founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson said: ‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.’

Throughout the 20th century the influence of evolution and genetics ran against these liberal ideas. Ethology (the study of animal behavior)  proved that much animal behavior was inherited, instinctual, (innate and permanent). Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz argued that the aggression so obvious in the history of mankind was a playing out of behavior which had evolutionary advantage in our past. The field of evolutionary psychology set out to examine the role played by evolution on our mental life. If humans share a common evolutionary history with the other animals, it is likely that we inherit mental traits from our evolution. The human ability to learn a language is inherited, and is of huge practical importance. Very important also (though less obvious) is the way that our unconscious mind helps us get through life. The apparatus which performs that mental activity is certainly inherited. These are some reasons why modern research has rejected Locke’s idea.

Generally proponents of the tabula rasa thesis favor the ‘nurture’ side of the nature versus nurture debate, when it comes to aspects of one’s personality, social and emotional behavior, and intelligence. The term in Latin equates most accurately to ‘scraped tablet’ (which refers to writing on a slate sheet in chalk) but comes from the Roman tabula or wax tablet, used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it to give a tabula rasa.

In computer science, tabula rasa refers to the development of autonomous agents which 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.’ However, autonomous agents are provided with an initial data-set or knowledge-base. 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.

As in Philosophy, there has been an enduring claim by a minority in the fields of psychology and neurobiology that the brain is tabula rasa, at least with respect to its behavioral repertoire. Thus several psychologists have argued against the existence of innate talent, while in neuroscience there have been debates that the brain functions with Mass action, rather than by a series of interacting mechanisms – for instance by Karl Lashley and others. They argued that memory and learning are distributed and can’t be isolated within any one area of the brain. Other psychologists and neurobiologists recognize that the entire cerebral cortex is indeed preprogrammed and organized in order to process sensory input, motor control, emotions, and natural responses. These programmed mechanisms in the brain then act to learn and refine the ability of the organism. For example, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that while the brain is ‘programmed’ to pick up spoken language easily, it is not programmed to learn to read and write, and a human generally will not spontaneously learn to do so.

Important evidence against the tabula rasa model of the mind comes from Behavioral genetics, especially twin and adoption studies. These indicate strong genetic influences on personal characteristics such as IQ, alcoholism, gender identity, and other traits. Critically, multivariate studies show that the distinct faculties of the mind such as memory and reason fractionate along genetic boundaries. Cultural universals such as emotion and the relative resilience of psychological adaptation to accidental biological changes (for instance, in cases of gender reassignment following an accident) also support basic biological mechanisms in the mind.

In Western philosophy, traces of the idea that came to be called the tabula rasa appear as early as the writings of Aristotle. However, besides some arguments by the Stoics and Peripatetics, the notion of the mind as a blank slate went largely unnoticed for more than 1,000 years. In the 11th century, the theory was developed more clearly by the Persian philosopher, Ibn Sina (called Avicenna by the West). He argued that the ‘human intellect at birth is rather like a tabula rasa, a pure potentiality that is actualized through education and comes to know’ and that knowledge is attained through ’empirical familiarity with objects in this world from which one abstracts universal concepts’ which is developed through a ‘syllogistic method of reasoning; observations lead to prepositional statements, which when compounded lead to further abstract concepts.’

In the following century, the Andalusian-Islamic philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail demonstrated the theory of tabula rasa as a thought experiment through his Arabic philosophical novel, ‘The Improvement of Human Reason,’ in which he depicted the development of the mind of a feral child ‘from a tabula rasa to that of an adult, in complete isolation from society’ on a desert island, through experience alone. The Latin translation of his philosophical novel, entitled ‘Philosophus Autodidactus’ (‘The Self-Taught Philosopher), published in 1671, had an influence on John Locke’s formulation of tabula rasa. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas brought the Aristotelian and Avicennian notions to the forefront of Christian thought. These notions sharply contrasted with the previously held Platonic notions of the human mind as an entity that preexisted somewhere in the heavens, before being sent down to join a body here on Earth. St. Bonaventure (also 13th century) was one of Aquinas’ fiercest intellectual opponents, offering some of the strongest arguments towards the Platonic idea of the mind.

The writings of Avicenna, Ibn Tufail and Aquinas on the tabula rasa theory stood unprogressed for several centuries. In fact, our modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke’s expression of the idea in ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ in the 17th century. In 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. Locke’s idea of tabula rasa is frequently compared with Thomas Hobbes’s viewpoint of human nature, in which humans are endowed with inherent mental content – particular with selfishness.

Tabula rasa is also featured in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Freud depicted personality traits as being formed by family dynamics (e.g. Oedipus complex, etc.). Freud’s theories imply that humans lack free will, but also that genetic influences on human personality are minimal. In psychoanalysis, one is largely determined by one’s upbringing. Tabula rasa is used by 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau in order to support his argument that warfare is an advent of society and agriculture, rather than something that occurs from the human state of nature. Since tabula rasa states that humans are born with a ‘blank-slate’ Rousseau uses this to suggest that humans must learn warfare. The tabula rasa concept became popular in social sciences in the 20th century. Eugenics (which tries to influence the way people choose to mate and raise children, with the aim of improving the human species), mainstream in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came to be seen not as a sound policy but as a crime. The idea that genes (or simply ‘blood’) determined character took on racist overtones. By the 1970s, some scientists had come to see gender identity as socially constructed rather than rooted in genetics, a concept still current, although strongly contested. This swing of the pendulum accompanied suspicion of innate differences in general (racism) and a propensity to ‘manage’ society, where the real power must be if people are born blank.

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