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The tabula rasa theory of John Locke

The tabula rasa theory of John Locke

June 15, 2024

One of the main tasks of philosophy is to inquire about the nature of the human being, especially in relation to his mental life. In what way do we think and experience reality? In the seventeenth century the debate on this issue had two opposing sides: the rationalists and the empiricists.

One of the most important thinkers of the group of empiricists was John Locke, English philosopher who laid the foundations of the mechanistic conception of the human being . In this article we will see what were the general approaches of his philosophy and his theory of tabula rasa.

  • Related article: "How are Psychology and Philosophy alike?"

Who was John Locke?

John Locke was born in 1632 in an England that had already begun to develop a philosophical discipline separate from religion and the bible. During his youth he received a good education, and in fact he was able to complete his university education in Oxford.


On the other hand, also since young Locke was interested in politics and philosophy. It is in the first field of knowledge in which he stood out most, and he wrote a lot about the concept of social contract, like other English philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. However, beyond politics he also made important contributions to philosophy.

The tabula rasa theory of John Locke

What follows are the foundations of John Locke's philosophy in regard to his conception of the human being and the human mind. In particular, we will see what role did the concept of the tabula rasa have in its thought .

1. Innate ideas do not exist

Unlike the rationalists, Locke denied the possibility that we were born with mental schemes that give us information about the world. Instead, as a good empiricist, Locke defended the idea that knowledge is created through experience, with the succession of events that we live, which leaves a residue in our memories.


So, in practice Locke conceived the human being as an entity that comes into existence with nothing in mind, a tabula rasa in which there is nothing written .

2. The variety of knowledge is expressed in different cultures

If there were innate ideas, in that case all human beings would share a part of their knowledge. However, in the time of Locke it was already possible to know through various books the different cultures scattered around the world, and the similarities between people paled before the strange discrepancies that could be found even in the most basic: myths about the creation of the world, categories to describe animals, religious concepts, habits and customs, etc.

3. Babies do not show anything

This was another of the great criticisms against the rationalism that Locke wielded. When they come to the world, Babies do not show anything , and they have to learn even the most basic. This is evidenced by the fact that they can not even understand the most basic words, nor do they recognize dangers as basic as fire or precipices.


4. How are knowledge created?

Because Locke believed that knowledge is constructed, he was obliged to explain the process by which this process occurs. That is, the way in which the tabula rasa gives way to a system of knowledge about the world.

According to Locke, experiences make a copy of what our senses capture in our minds. With the passage of time, we learn to detect patterns in those copies that remain in our mind, which makes the concepts appear. In turn, these concepts are also combined with each other, and from this process generate more complex concepts and difficult to understand at first. Adult life is governed by this last group of concepts , which define a higher intellect form.

Criticisms of Locke's empiricism

John Locke's ideas are part of another era, and therefore there are many criticisms we can make against his theories. Among them is the way in which he raises his way of inquiring about the creation of knowledge. Although babies seem ignorant in almost everything, it has been shown that they come into the world with certain predispositions to associate certain types of information from a determined way .

For example, the fact of seeing an object allows them to recognize it using only touch, which indicates that in their head they are already capable of transforming that original literal copy (the vision of the object) into something else.

On the other hand, knowledge is not composed of more or less imperfect "copies" of what happened in the past, since memories change constantly, or even mix.This is something that the psychologist Elisabeth Loftus demonstrated: the strange thing is that a memory remains unchanged, and not the opposite.


John Locke's Blank Slate Theory (June 2024).


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