Tabula rasa

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Tabula rasa is the epistemological theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception. Generally proponents of the tabula rasa thesis favour the "nurture" side of the nature versus nurture debate, when it comes to aspects of one's personality, social and emotional behaviour, and intelligence. The term in Latin equates to the English "blank slate" (which refers to writing on a slate sheet in chalk) but comes from the Roman tabula or wax tablet, used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it to give a tabula rasa.



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 "Περί Ψυχῆς" (De Anima or On the Soul, Book III, chapter 4). However, besides some arguments by the Stoics and Peripatetics, the notion of the mind as a blank slate went largely unnoticed for more than 1,000 years.

Then in the 11th century, the theory of tabula rasa was developed more clearly by the Islamic 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."[1]

In the 12th century, the Andalusian-Islamic 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.[2]

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