Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa

"Tabula rasa" (Latin: "blank slate") refers to the epistemological thesis that individual human beings are born with no built-in mental content, in a word, "blank", and that their entire resource of knowledge is built up gradually from their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world.

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

The History

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 the 11th century, the theory of tabula rasa was developed more clearly by the Persian 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." [Sajjad H. Rizvi (2006), [ Avicenna/Ibn Sina (CA. 980-1037)] , "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy"]

In the 12th century, the Andalusian-Arabian 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".G. A. Russell (1994), "The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England", pp. 224-262, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004094598.]

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 psychosanalysis, 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). 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.Or|date=October 2007

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. [Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin. 2002.]

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 evil and 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 affected the area to flood wiping everything away. "blank Slate"Its antithesis is the nunatak hypothesis [ [ Ægisdóttir, Hafdís Hanna & Þórhallsdóttir, Þóra Ellen (2004) Theories on migration and history of the North-Atlantic flora: a review. JÖKULL No. 54: 1-15] ] .

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.cite news
title=Specification of cerebral cortical areas.
date=Jul 8, 1988
] This preprogrammed part of the brain then learns and refines its ability to perform its many tasks.cite news
publisher=Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
title=The neocortical microcircuit as a tabula rasa.
date=Jan 18, 2005
] cite news
publisher=Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
title=Spontaneous and evoked synaptic rewiring in the neonatal neocortex.
date=Aug 29, 2006
] 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. [Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin. 2002.]


Generally speaking, one can never decide whether a theory is true or not simply by examining what political or philosophical implications it might have. 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 States 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 Paris 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.


In 1993, the band Einstürzende Neubauten put out the album "Tabula Rasa", which was their most philosophical and introspective work to date. As they were showing a new side of themselves, it's supposed that with this album, they were attempting to start again, with a "blank slate".

In 1977, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt wrote a piece entitled "Tabula Rasa ".


The American alternative rockband Sinch has a song called "Tabula Rasa" on their major self-titled debutalbum, released in 2002 through Roadrunner Records.


* Aristotle, "On the Soul" ("De Anima"), W. S. Hett (trans.), pp. 1–203 in "Aristotle, Volume 8", Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London, UK, 1936.
* Avicenna, "De Anima" ("Fi’l-Nafs"), F. Rahman (trans.), London, UK, 1954.
* Tufail, Ibn, "" ("Hayy ibn Yaqzan"), Simon Ockley (trans.), pp. 1–195, Edm. Powell, London, UK, 1708.
* Aquinas, Thomas, "Summa Theologica", Fathers of the English Dominican Province (trans.), Daniel J. Sullivan (ed.), vols. 19–20 in Robert Maynard Hutchins (ed.), "Great Books of the Western World", Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, IL, 1952.
* Locke, John, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", Kenneth P. Winkler (ed.), pp. 33–36, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN, 1996.
*cite book | last = Baird | first = Forrest E. | authorlink = | coauthors = Walter Kaufmann | title = From Plato to Derrida | publisher = Pearson Prentice Hall | date = 2008 | location = Upper Saddle River, New Jersey | pages = | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 0-13-158591-6

ee also

Related topics

* Empiricism
* Human nature
* Innatism
* Nature versus nurture
* Psychological nativism
* Rationalism

Related works

* Steven Pinker, "The Blank Slate"

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Tabula Rasa — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom …   Wikipédia en Français

  • tabula rasa — rasa / tabula raza/ locuz. f., lat. (propr. tavola raschiata ), usata in ital. come s.f., solo al sing. [solo nell espressione fare tabula rasa ] ● Espressioni: fig., fare tabula rasa (di qualcosa) 1. [distruggere interamente: il sisma ha fatto… …   Enciclopedia Italiana

  • TABULA RASA —         (лат.) чистая доска. У Локка сознание до всякого опыта. Выражение употребляли Аристо тель, Альберт Великий и др. Философский энциклопедический словарь. М.: Советская энциклопедия. Гл. редакция: Л. Ф. Ильичёв, П. Н. Федосеев, С. М. Ковалёв …   Философская энциклопедия

  • tabula rasa — (n.) 1530s, the mind in its primary state, from L. tabula rasa, lit. scraped tablet, from which writing has been erased, thus ready to be written on again, from tabula (see TABLE (Cf. table)) + rasa, fem. pp. of radere to scrape away, erase (see… …   Etymology dictionary

  • tábula rasa — tábula rasa. (Loc. lat.). f. tabla rasa (ǁ entendimiento sin cultivo ni estudios). || hacer alguien tábula rasa de algo. fr. hacer tabla rasa. * * * ► femenino En la ant. Roma, tableta de cera, blanca y alisada …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • tábula rasa — (Loc. lat.). f. tabla rasa (ǁ entendimiento sin cultivo ni estudios). hacer alguien tábula rasa de algo. fr. hacer tabla rasa …   Diccionario de la lengua española

  • tabula rasa — [tab΄yə lə rā′sə] n. [ML < L tabula (see TABLE) + rasa, fem. pp. of radere, to scrape, ERASE] a blank tablet; clean slate: used esp. of the mind when regarded as blank until impressions are recorded upon it by experience …   English World dictionary

  • tabula rasa — {{hw}}{{tabula rasa}}{{/hw}}locuz. sost. f. inv. In vari sistemi filosofici, supposta condizione della mente umana anteriore all acquisizione dei dati del mondo esterno, affine, per analogia, a un foglio bianco sul quale l esperienza traccerà i… …   Enciclopedia di italiano

  • Tabula rasa — Tabula Tab u*la, n.; pl. {Tabul[ae]}. [L.] 1. A table; a tablet. [1913 Webster] 2. (Zo[ o]l.) One of the transverse plants found in the calicles of certain corals and hydroids. [1913 Webster] {Tabula rasa}[L.], a smoothed tablet; hence,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Tabula Rasa — (лат. «очищенная табличка» или «чистая грифельная доска») используется для обозначения эпистемологического тезиса о том, что отдельный человеческий индивид рождается без врожденного или встроенного умственного содержания, одним словом, чистым, и… …   Википедия

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