Thursday, January 08, 2015

Writer's Notebook - 8 January 2015

Notes on the Tabula Rasa

The tabula rasa is the philosophic concept that the human mind at birth is blank and without form; only experience is thought by adherents of this school of thought to create a human being.
The term tabula rasa comes from the Latin, which literally means "scraped tablet" and is a reference to a wax tablet used for writing in Roman times. The translation "blank slate" is more commonly heard in modern English.
  • Aristotle recorded the first usage in de Anima (he called it an "unscribed tablet", Book III, chapter 4).
  • ibn Sīnā, known as Avicenna in the West, first used the term tabula rasa in his translation of and commentary to de Anima.
  • John Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (he used the term "white paper" in Book II, Chap 1, Sect 2, and said that "there was in the understandings of men no innate idea of identity" in Book I, Chap 3, Sect 5, and "Whole and part, not innate ideas" in Book I, Chap 3, Sect 6), but see also his (contradictory?) idea that children may learn something in the womb (Book II, Chap 9 Sect 5).
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the idea of the tabula rasa to suggest that humans must learn warfare (18th century).
  • Sigmund Freud used the idea to suggest that personality was formed by family dynamics.
The short course is that the tabula rasa was incredibly important to the historical development of philosophy right into the twentieth century. Unfortunately for those twenty three hundred years of history, the idea was simply wrong in its extreme form.
The philosophical schools contending over the existence and degree of tabula rasa in the human mind are known as Rationalism vs. Empiricism.
The current debate seems to have coalesced around an understanding that human babies are in fact born with innate cognitive biases, and this would seem to negate any idea of the tabula rasa as the term was initially used. However, many philosophers argue (because this is what they do) that of course that is not what was really meant. I think it was exactly what was meant by Aristotle and ibn Sīnā. What Locke and later thinkers thought is much more up for discussion.
I am a rationalist, in that I believe that the Innate Concept Thesis is correct ("We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature" -- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): We are born with cognitive biases that implement those concepts, such as mirror neurons and Theory of Mind. I discussed these features in more detail in my book review of Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson.
Modern opponents of the tabula rasa include the linguist Noam Chomsky and the psychologist Steven Pinker. Chomsky is known for his theories of rationalist epistemology, including his theory that aspects of language are innate to a newly born child. Pinker claimed in his The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [Goodreads] that the tabula rasa was responsible for "most mistakes" in modern social science, urging his colleagues to view humanity through the lens of evolution first and forgo preconceived notions gleaned from philosophic thought alone.
The Computational Theory of Mind, the relatively recent idea that human cognition is a form of computation (although implemented in a way very different from an electronic computer), was formulated partly by the rejection of the tabula rasa. The theory was developed primarily by mathematician and philosopher Hilary Putnam, philosopher Jerry Fodor, and extended in recent times by Steven Pinker.
The intellectual heritage of the Computational Theory of Mind can be summarized as follows, where red arrows indicate theories that have been replaced with new understanding and black arrows stand:

Quote of the Day

"Pristine prose or voice or funny or a brilliant simile in the first page or a great title or a great character name or authority or what the fuck or whole new world or something intangible but moving or alarming or surprising or terrifying or consoling or titillating or suicidal." -- Betsy Lerner on what makes a "perfect" book manuscript, in an interview by LitStack.

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