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Tabula rasa ( ) refers to the epistemological thesis that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.

Generally proponents of the tabula rasa thesis favour the "nurture" side of the nature versus nurture debate, when it comes to aspects of one's personality, social and emotional behaviour and intelligence.


In Western philosophy, traces of the idea that came to be called the tabula rasa appear as early as the writings of Aristotle. Aristotle writes of the unscribed tablet in what is probably the first textbook of psychology in the Western canon, his treatise Περι Ψυχης (De Anima or On the Soul). However, besides some arguments by the Stoics and Peripatetics, the notion of the mind as a blank slate went much unnoticed for more than 1,000 years.

Then in the 11th century, the theory of tabula rasa was developed more clearly by the early Islamic philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in the Western world). 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." He further argued that the intellect itself "possesses levels of development from the material intellect (al-‘aql al-hayulani), that potentiality that can acquire knowledge to the active intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘il), the state of the human intellect at conjunction with the perfect source of knowledge."

In the 12th century, the Andalusianmarker-Islamic philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail (known as "Abubacer" or "Ebn Tophail" in the West) demonstrated the theory of tabula rasa as a thought experiment through his Arabic philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, 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, published by Edward Pococke the Younger in 1671, had an influence on John Locke's formulation of tabula rasa in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

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 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). 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.

Tabula Rasa is also featured in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. Freud depicted personality traits as being formed by family dynamics (see Oedipus complex, etc.). Freud's theories show that one can downplay genetic and congenital influences on human personality without advocating free will. In psychoanalysis, one is largely determined by one's upbringing.

The tabula rasa concept became popular in social sciences in the 20th century. Eugenics (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 (see John Money), a concept still current (see Anne Fausto-Sterling), although strongly contested.This swing of the pendulum accompanied suspicion of innate differences in general (see racism) and a propensity to "manage" society, where the real power must be if people are born blank.

In the last few decades, twin studies, studies of adopted children, and the David Reimer case have demonstrated genetic influence on (if not strict determination of) personal characteristics, such as IQ, alcoholism, gender identity, and other traits.

The theory of tabula rasa is contradicted in William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies. Golding wrote the book in hope of proving that all humans are born with an innate evil, and it is the job of humans to contain that evil.

Locke's idea of tabula rasa is frequently compared with Thomas Hobbes's viewpoint of human nature. Like Golding, Hobbes contradicts tabula rasa- he believes that all humans are inherently selfish.



In biogeography, particularly phytogeography, the tabula rasa hypothesis about the origin of a biota in formerly glaciated areas refers to the idea that all species have immigrated into completely denuded land after the retreat of glaciers. It may also refer to the area around the Arctic caps in which glacial melting has exposed the area to flood wiping everything away.

Computer science

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".

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.

Psychology and neurobiology

Scientists recognize that the entire cerebral cortex is indeed preprogrammed and organized in order to process sensory input, motor control, emotions, and natural responses. This preprogrammed part of the brain then learns and refines its ability to perform its many tasks.For example, 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.


Generally speaking, one can never decide whether a theory is true or not simply by examining what political or philosophical implications it might have (see: Moralistic fallacy). 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 drastic innate mental differences between normal human beings do not and cannot exist; therefore, making racism and sexism illogical. On the other hand, the theory means there are no inherent limits to how society can shape human psychology. The opposing view is that human nature is primarily influenced by genetics.


In discussions of architecture since the 1950s, the term tabula rasa has been used in arguments against what were criticized as insensitive design strategies employed by a monolithic Modern Movement, brought to the United Statesmarker from Europe by émigrés like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Entirely separated from its Aristotelean or Lockean meaning, the tabula rasa in architecture signifies the utopian blank slate on which a new building is conceived, free of compromise or complication after the demolition of what previously stood on the site. Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin, which proposed the demolition of a large area of central Parismarker and the construction of a new city with vast open spaces and tall towers, provides a good example of what was associated with the term tabula rasa in the architectural discourse.

See also

Related topics


  1. Sajjad H. Rizvi (2006), Avicenna/Ibn Sina (CA. 980-1037), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  2. G. A. Russell (1994), The Impact of the Philosophus autodidactus: Pocockes, John Locke and the Society of Friends, in: G. A. Russell (ed.), The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, pp. 224-262, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004094598.
  3. Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin. 2002.
  4. The Jargon Files: "Sussman attains enlightenment", also see the article section Hacker koan: Uncarved block
  5. Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin. 2002.


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