Tabula Rasa: Blank Slate or Innatism?

Tabula Rasa: Blank Slate or Innatism?

Gbewa Segbenu 

First off, it is expected of every human to possess innate ability and knowledge. However, some consider a child’s mind to be empty, that is, it is without innate knowledge at birth. So, the mind is said to be without any knowledge or ideas; a child derives his/her mental lexicon from experience. It is important to note that a child’s mind has ideas, knowledge, and perception because he/she does not only build his/her mental knowledge through experiences. Further, on the one hand, tabula rasa, a Latin word that compares the mind of a child to a blank slate, is a theory that claims individuals are born without built-in mental content, and therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception. On the other hand, innatism is a philosophical doctrine that the mind is born with ideas, knowledge, and beliefs. This essay will discuss the doctrine of innatism, the theory of tabula rasa, and the importance of tabula rasa to learning.

Moving, the doctrine of innatism has it that human has in-built content. This doctrine opposes the “blank slate” theory. The philosophers, Plato and René Descartes posited that innate knowledge is born in every human, and this knowledge makes up their mental content. Also, they agreed that humans possess some knowledge through experiences they acquire from their personal and social life. But, all humans have the inborn ability to do things because of their innate knowledge. A child gradually attempts to talk by blabbing first. The attempt by the child is simply triggered by his/her innate ability. Such a child also attempts to walk by crawling first. The ability to walk and crawl at an early stage is not learned by the child through experiences. Therefore, this doctrine supports and subscribes to the concept of nature rather than nurture.

In contrast, tabula rasa — the theory of blank slate — accentuates that the human mind is without innate knowledge. The human mind is built and developed through experiences. It is the antithesis of innatism. John Locke in his essay Human Understanding stated that “tabula rasa” meant the mind of an individual was born ‘blank’. It emphasized the fact that individuals have the freedom to author their lives because the rules on how to live are processed by their sensory experiences. That is, humans could define the content of their lives by themselves. They could also establish ways to live their lives as individuals. A human could have a self-authored mind but his/her identity as a human cannot be altered. This subscribes to the concept of nurture. That is to say, a human needs to acquire ideas through experiences.

Finally, having discussed the doctrine and the theory, it is important to note the significance. A child whose mind is empty has got a lot to learn from his/her society such as norms, behaviour, character, and so on. A child’s conduct in society is a reflection of his/her knowledge and ideas acquired through experiences imprinted on the mind. Academically, a child is a learner. Since the child’s mind is empty, it helps educators (parents or teachers) to impart knowledge, ideas, virtues, etc, to him or her. For example, the habit of communication such as greetings. The moral practices that are standard and acceptable in society can be taught at this level. At this level, the child’s mind is open to receiving all kinds of education (both good and bad). Also, vices that can affect the behaviour of children in school can be curbed through proper education.

In sum, tabula rasa and innatism distinguish between the concepts of nature and nurture. Tabula rasa is important to shaping a child. Educators could adopt this theory to aid the learning process of children.


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