John Locke: Is the Human Mind a Blank Slate?

January 16, 2011 at 9:51 pm 2 comments

blank slate tabula rasa One of the books I’m reading right now is An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (no, “Essay” does not mean that it’s a short book; quite the contrary) by English thinker John Locke, published in 1690.

One of the questions I had while reading was whether the metaphor of the tabula rasa (the “blank slate”) is being taken more literally than Locke himself intended. No metaphor walks on four feet; if you try to make it so, it will stumble. That is to say, no metaphor and no analogy perfectly picture reality in all its details.

The basic thought of Locke’s metaphor of the blank slate (which he did not invent) is clear enough, namely that the human “Soul” does not think “before the Senses have furnished it with Ideas to think on” (Book II, Ch. 1, §20). Humans are not born with full-fledged ideas in their heads but slowly form them through the sensory input of the material world. Lock does seem to believe in the existence of immaterial souls, but certainly not of the Platonic kind that existed before birth in the world of pure ideas, in which case education would primarily consist of “rediscovering” what was already inside of us. (That, by the way, is what “education” means: to “bring forth” what is already “within” us; one of Plato’s many bequeathments to the modern world.)

So, it is clear what the metaphor of the blank slate is meant to combat. What is not so clear to me is whether Locke would deny that we are “wired” a certain way, or, since Locke was a Christian, created a certain way that strongly influences the way we take in and process the sensory data. Understandably, since he tries to combat the concept of full-fledged innate ideas, that is not where Locke puts his emphasis. But does he deny it?

Locke says that rather than implanting innate ideas in humans, God gave us the necessary tools to build those ideas, just like God has not build bridges or houses for people, but has given us hands and the necessary resources to build them (Book I, Ch. 12, §12). That, however, implies that we are preconditioned to take in reality and “build” it according to the mental tools we are furnished with. That’s where the blank-slate metaphor breaks down.

Locke wants to refute innate ideas. But does he also want to refute our human limitations—our inner structure through which we filter the world? From my incomplete reading, it seems to me rather that he prepares the way for those thoughts that we later have in Kant and others.

Or am I trying to make Locke less extreme than he was?

Entry filed under: Education/Homeschooling, Philosophy. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. DawneeJo  |  February 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Sounds like you are all LOCKED up. I could not resist the play on words. You might find more clarity on Locke by studying Rousseau who was greatly influence in my opinion by Locke. Excellent question/point.

  • 2.  |  September 27, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Nice response in return of this question with genuine arguments and explaining the whole
    thing on the topic of that.

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