Unit 01 - Reason and experience notes

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Notes outlining the key issues within the topic.

Created by chrislmurray2014 almost 6 years ago
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Page 1

Introduction to 'tabula rasa'   'Tabula rasa' means 'blank slate' in Latin, when taken literally. It is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content or knowledge about the world., and that all of their knowledge comes from experience and perception. The idea can be traced back as far as Aristotle, but the man who brought it to attention was the British philosopher John Locke (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Image of John Locke

History   As previously mentioned, traces of the concept of 'tabula rasa' can be found as early as the writings of Aristotle. In the 12th  century, a Persian philosopher by the name of Ibn Sina developed the theory, arguing that "human intellect at birth is like a tabula rasa, a pure potentiality that is actualised 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". The first demonstration of the concept came also in the 12th century, when Andalusian-Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufail demonstrated the theory as a though experiment in one of his writings 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, from experience alone. In the 17th century, John Locke wrote "An essay concerning human understanding". In Locke's philosophy, tabula rasa was the theory that the human mind is a 'blank slate' at birth, without rules fro processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one's sensory experiences. This notion and idea is central to Lockean empiricism. According to Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born blank, and it also emphasised the freedom of individuals to "author their own souls". This means that having a 'blank slate' for a mind at birth allows that individual the freedom to build their own character, and define the content of it, even if their basic identity as part of the human race is unalterable. This viewpoint of Locke's philosophy is often compared with a contrasting viewpoint from another philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (Figure 2). He disagrees with Locke, and believes humans are endowed with inherent mental content, particularly with the trait of selfishness.

Figure 2 - Image of Thomas Hobbes

Arguments for the concept of 'tabula rasa'   One argument used to defend the concept of 'tabula rasa' is that humans are not born with a preset personality or intellect. If people are born with given intellects than they should be able to understand reading and writing and other basic skills better than other newborns. Most of our knowledge and personality traits come from our parents, as that is who we spend the most time with early on in our lives. We observe the world, and we see them doing things and acting in a certain way and we want to be like them. Our parents teach us and raise us with their values. 

Mind as a tabula rasa