Clean Slate Theory or Tabula Rasa

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John Locke's idea about a child's mind being a tabula rasa, or a clean slate, has played an important role in development of pedagogical science as a separate field and helped delineate childhood as a separate stage of human development. It also highlighted the importance of extensive and careful education provided to children beginning from their birth date despite their origin and social standing (Pinker, 12). The idea was long held undisputed until the development of social and natural sciences has made its clash with reality inevitable. The ideas that are traditionally opposed to Locke's clean slab theory, Hobbes' concept of inborn traits of human nature, like selfishness, and Descartes' innate ideas pre-instilled in humans from the birth are not perfect either, yet their reliance on instincts and inclinations already present in humans is comparatively more valid. Combination of inbuilt capacities and environmental influence is the way the knowledge about the world is gained, as modern science proves. Hence the aim of this paper is to clarify the basic principles of both philosophical approaches and to demonstrate how the idea about children being born free of any ready-made ideas or imprints was and remains deficient from philosophical and biological points of view. Besides, additional attention in this paper will be given to careful reading of messages left by Locke himself in his writings regarding the tabula rasa theory, as critical evaluation may pinpoint some discrepancies in his own words that may support the opposing theoretical view.   

Tabula Rasa (Empiricism) vs. Inborn Predispositions (Nativism)

The ideas about external empirical origins of human knowledge (empiricism) were expressed long before John Locke's times, namely, by Aristotle and Aquinas in antiquity and by Benjamin Whichcote, Henry More, and Andrew Marvell in times concurrent to Locke's lifetime (Pinker, 12). So far only works of Locke published in large volumes popularized the theory about child's mind being void of any inbuilt 'settings' to the extraordinary extent. John Locke was applying his philosophical reasoning in many areas of human activities, and theorizing on the topic of child's development was in line with his political argument about the natural condition of human life and social contract based on that state. To Locke, natural condition of everyone was peace, kindness and tolerance, so evil sides of human nature were obviously acquired from without, learned and copied after some pattern (Pinker, 14). He first spoke about tabula rasa in his Essays on The Law of Nature. There he explained that his task was to find out if children were born inherently free from 'moral propositions' or came to the world charged with some moral load (Locke, (a), 96). He would further develop the metaphor about clean slate in his draft version of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding where he spoke about knowledge in form of clear concise ideas (Locke, (b), 109). He argued that these ideas are formed in human mind on the basis of perception of the outer world and of existing mental processes already present in children. So his idea is not about total shapelessness of child's mind and soul, but rather about necessary conditions for crystallization of finite and explicit knowledge required for successful existence in this world. He himself claimed that human minds cannot be reduced to mere collection of experiences and are 'substance wherein thinking, knowing, doubting, hoping, fearing etc. subsist' (110). This claim is already far from clean plate or white paper theory that is usually discussed. The naturally inbuilt capacities of human mind are already enumerated by Locke himself, yet he did not stop there in his reasoning. He developed his ideas about child's mind to higher elaboration in Some Thoughts Concerning Education where he repeated that a young child is similar to white paper or wax and an educator or parent can rear any kind of personality of this child (Locke 44). Locke suggested that education, i.e. shaping of moral principles underlying children's operations should be conducted prior to instruction, i.e. delivery of knowledge about the world. However, while describing possible methods of education and instruction, Locke himself mentioned that children already bore the character given to them by God, and education was an attempt to see what their characters and nature were and what might come out of them (Locke 161). This passage actually undermines the idea about children's cleanliness and opens way to theory about innate inclinations as presented by Hobbes and Descartes as Locke's philosophical opponents.

The main point in their reasoning that opposes Locke's views is that humans already carry certain amount of knowledge and moral patterns while arriving into this world. Descartes was speaking about innate ideas, although unclear, that allow people to operate in the world full of facts and objects and manipulate these objects even not knowing the accurate properties and names of these facts and objects (Pinker 51). Hobbes was more inclined to describe humans as wicked and selfish from the very birth, aiming to gain at cost of depriving others. So for the sake of preserving humanity the social contract was a necessity to protect weaker ones and limit the abuse of stronger people. Descartes and Hobbes speak about different sides of human personality from one standpoint: some capacities and motifs are inborn and cannot be acquired or altered through education (Nativism) (Duschinsky 515). Although this theory sounds less flattering than the idea about total malleability of human mind, it is closer to reality, as current extensive data in biology, genetics, psychology and sociology show (510).

Objections to Locke's Ideas

If it comes to reducing the debate to the level of children being morally born pure or with inborn bad inclinations, it is necessary to clarify the matter. Referring to one side of human personality (or nature) is a one-legged approach inacceptable in philosophy. It is irrational to assume that humans may be born only with bad inclinations already instilled in them. It is more objective to suggest that humans are then born with both bad and good inclinations hidden in their yet undeveloped minds. Such approach distances the argument from scholastic interpretation of the Original Sin being present in every human and moves it towards more scientific and grounded approach that genes - as well as other circumstances and chances - play a role in a child's moral and intellectual shaping. It is clear that the suggestion about acquiring bad behavior patterns from others stems from the Locke's views on natural condition of men, that is, initially good disposition and peace (Pinker 21). However, modern achievements in psychology have long proved that people carry an important luggage of heredity while coming to this world. This heredity refers both to the immediate family line of a new-born child, and to the overall evolutionary background of the species (34). This heredity is of physical and of psychological nature, an no child can be claimed to be free (or clean) from particular inbuilt mental and psychological capacities that shape good or bad inclinations. It was necessary to introduce the binary approach to inclinations because current psychological science explains the origin of hate - and love - through complex interplay of emotions, reactions and instincts. Both positive and negative moral qualities rely on psychological and neurological capacities of a human, and as a child is born with already pre-set selection of genes, he or she automatically carries buds of hate, love, generosity and greed rooted in their chromosomes (35).

Hobbes' observations about inborn selfishness of humans (51) and Descartes' theory of innate ideas (like the idea of some shape with three angles existing in human mind prior to actual geometrical studies of triangle) are significantly closer to what is visible in multiple observations on human social and individual behavior and gain ample support through observations of other species' life. Darwinism was still to come, yet today the exploration of evolution and behavior of species in various conditions aimed at survival indicates that selfishness is necessary for survival of living beings, and it can be curbed in a pack or flock for the sake of survival of the whole population, but not for the sake of kindness and compassion (Duschinsky 523). Humans as a product of evolution and development of species in the mostly unfavorable conditions follow the same pattern. Social contract as presented by Locke is more pleasing to accept, yet the Hobbes' version of social contract with the supreme authority to supervise the order is visible even now. Conflicts are solved by means of laws and not by benevolent agreement. It indicates that even today the human nature is diverse and even in the most perfect rule of law state there are people who want to benefit at cost of harming others. To leave the debate about social contract aside, it is enough to say that extensive investigations on twins biology and sociology indicate that genetic closeness is as important as conditions of life and education, and in some cases genetics prevail over cultural and social patterns imposed on separated twins. Besides, influence of parents is important during a very limited period of time, and then inborn preference and inclinations of children come into play (Duschinsky 525).

Close Contextual Reading of Locke's Works Regarding Tabula Rasa Theory

Locke's idea about clean slate looks far-fetched in its traditional reading, and is more reasonable when carefully read in the context of his work. It is unfair to contest Locke's ideas from the point of view of modern level of knowledge, as he was physically unable to incorporate any of materials on human development available now into his work. Yet it is worth carefully rereading his argument to know better what he was intending to say and how he said it. The point is that Locke's actually did not use the words tabula rasa in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He uses words white paper, and suggests that human mind needs nurture, i.e. instruction and experience, to begin forming ideas about the world (Locke, (a), 109). Locke first introduces the concept of tabula rasa in his work Essays on the Law of Nature. There he aims to enquire if a child comes to the world void of any moral propositions already existing within its mind or if the laws of nature are already present in the child's character (Locke 96). The close reading indicates that Locke did not intend to say that a child would learn everything from the environment by means of experience. In reality, a child would need proper education to form representations of necessary moral basics that are considered virtuous. From this point of view, this process can be paralleled to learning names of colors. A child does not know the name of color red but is able to distinguish it from blue or green because the actual difference is visible. A child will only find a name for something already existing within his or her brains. On the other side, if a child suffers from Dalton’s disease, he or she will be unable to tell red from green, not because it was not explained, but because the child physically cannot see the difference, and names of color are only of lateral interest to him/her. Further, the child may suffer from disability to match the learning requirements and to be like others, yet it will not help in correcting the inborn particularity of vision (Cowie 165).

In the same manner, a child may be educated to know what is hate or greed and taught to follow this living pattern in the future (if one speaks about parents educating a child by personal example), yet sooner or later in life a grown up adult will stop living according to an imposed scenario and will question the learned patterns.  Besides, it is possible to create one more case and assume that a child was educated to comply with proper moral principles, and by the force of mind a child is able to distinguish hatred and haughtiness from love and compassion. Yet following the required pattern is not equal to being born with inclination to do good or evil no matter what. A strong-willed child will be able as an adult to suppress urges to commit crimes and will live decently - no matter what his desires might prompt. A child with weaker will might not overcome the urge and surrender to desires or impulses lying beneath the formal education (Cowie 167).

Once again, the popularity of Locke's arguments was based partially on a few social conditions that existed or appeared in his time (Pinker 54). He advocated a new approach that freed children of the poor of low-class people from the stigma of being rotten and wicked from the very birth, and in the future he would be praised as one of those people whose works provided the foundation of modern democratic ideas (Pinker 55). Besides, the social norms and rituals existing in his time relied more on observation of external decency and maintaining good reputation no matter what might have happened in a person's life and mental space. In other words, it was uncommon to enquire into true feelings or urges existing in a person's mind as long as the outer side of his/her life was respectable. So now it is hard to say what contradictions and storms might have raged in souls of those who were taught to pretend to be moral for the sake of reputation rather than allowed to develop and demonstrate what was really ruling their life. Documentary and fiction literary sources of that time vividly show how seemingly well-educated people then demonstrated extreme forms of aggression, cruelty and wickedness, or how this background of their life was revealed after their death, accidentally or intentionally (Pinker 58). It is unreasonable to suppose that in their childhood they were subject to the equally cruel treatment or were carefully instructed to leave the double life and enjoy the most repelling activities. It is more reasonable to suppose that the inborn inclinations were long suppressed by provided education and finally found their way to the surface despite the efforts invested by educators. The same is equally true today, as open expression of one's feelings and concerns has become more common and it became possible to explore motivation and struggles of people who lived not according to their desires but to the imposed patterns.


From various points of view Locke's ideas give way to Hobbes' and Descartes belief in innate ideas and inclinations, and contemporary science supports their claims. However, Locke himself was writing about both inborn mental capacities and external experience necessary for gaining knowledge about the world. So in the dispute 'clean slate vs. innate traits' presence of innate traits seems more reasonable. To sum it up, the debate 'one vs. another' is deemed outdated today, as science has proved that both environment and genetics play an important role in shaping a human personality, and this correlation of importance of these factors is 50/50 on average. However, in the context of the present debate the side of nativists seems more grounded and evidence based.

Works Cited

Cowie, Fiona. What’s Within? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Duschinsky, Robert. 'Tabula Rasa and Human Nature.' Philosophy, 2012: 87 (04).

Locke, John. (a) ‘Draft B’ in Drafts for the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and other Philosophical Writings, ed. Peter H. Nidditch & G.A.J. Rogers, London: Clarendon Press, [1671] 1990.

Locke, John. (b) ‘Essays on the Law of Nature’ in Locke: Political Writings, ed. Mark Goldie, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1664] 1997.

Locke, John. (c) Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Ruth W. Grant & Nathan Narcov, (London: Clarendon Press, [1693] 1996) 44, 161.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate, London: Penguin, 2002

June 07, 2022
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