«Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper [tabula rasa], void of all characters without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished?… Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? to this answer, in one word, From experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.»
– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689
Is Man the Blank Slate?
In this essay I take on the matter of human understanding in light of Locke’s proposition that Man should be a furnished ‘blank slate’—having a solid foot in modernity and its sciences and thus look into what corollaries and precepts such a proposition holds, in addition to se the matter in light of what other relevant philosophers have thought.
On this matter to be discussed the most resounding answer was penned by Leibniz, in his New Essays on Human Understanding, alas not read by Locke himself – with whom Leibniz epistolized – as a consequence of his premature death before Leibniz finished his work, wherein one finds a dialogue where the one character is a representation of Locke’s work on ‘human understanding’ and another for the better part refutes or expounds on the propositions, of the former. And the inappropriateness of publishing a rebuttal of a recently deceased friend’s lifework was probably not the only reason for why Leibniz refrained from publishing his New Essays. The understanding of Man as a ‘blank slate’ was as it were, ‘in the wind’ at the time. It was the heydays of les philosophes, working strenuously on their encyclopedic tomes to provide the ‘sans-culottes’ (the masses) with a new scientific bible.
Why do I bring in this context? I do so because a corollary of the quotation of Locke above was at the time that the Bible, merely with its moral and theological teachings was profoundly backwards in its unpracticality. Compared to those who later played the role as ‘engineers of the soul’ (Stalin) the Christian teachings were an amalgam of anarchic absurdities ceasing to pertain to reality at the moment the layman left the church. But this is anachronistic. It is true that Locke’s proposition above was raised to a truism by the revolutionaries of 1789, but we may still find Locke’s proposition problematic already at the time he was alive.
Descartes would, according to my reading of him, be a patron of Locke’s essays, insofar as Locke’s proposition scaffolds a dualism of the Descartesian kind. It raises an iron curtain in the midst of Man between his corporeal being and the mind. For, acceding to Descarte’s ‘cogito’ and Locke’s ‘blank slate’ means in both cases to refute whatever inherent first qualities of the body we have been bestowed at birth, as irrelevant in all regards.
However, I am not doing justice to the respective two philosophers when aligning them in thought. As for Descartes it is true that existence is caused by the act of thinking, while for Locke one may not so surely think the same. He is writing of «Whence has it [the mind] all the materials of reason and knowledge?» It strikes me as odd that he writes of «materials». This point is also an important one in Lebniz’ response, whereas he dilates and halts to criticize this deterministic view of what ideas are. Conceptualization; perception—they are not words invented by the Enlightenment. It is therefore strange that Locke shirked the task of nuancing namely what thoughts themselves are. Leibniz spends some hundred pages writing on the different sortals of ideas. For example on how sugar tastes. We know exactly how sugar tastes, but that is not to say that you have the slightest clue of what sugar is. There are even other things than sugar that arise the same sensation as the taste of sugar, but is not sugar. On the other hand, we have colors that are quite vague in our mind but extremely specific in reality. The difference lies in that sensation itself of sugar is something vague, while colors are something we – presumably – perceive with greater clearness. So the vagueness of the idea relates both to the accuracy of our somatic capacity and the vagueness of the object itself. Therefore it seems difficult to accept the precept to Locke’s proposition that the mind is «furnished» as if it was a one-way street, and that ideas are to be analogous with «materials».
A corollary of Locke’s proposition seems to be also that as ‘blank slates’ men yield all the same color of light no matter which one you color: If the rearing of John gives personality p, then the same formation of Adam must also result in p. This is of course an untestable experiment. However, there have been for the past years an increasing acceptance for using children and babies in experiments. This has led to several discoveries of what «the furnishing of the mind» means. For example, one has found that children, and especially babies are certainly not blank slates in any literal meaning of the expression insofar as professors at Princeton University shown by 60 Minutes on CNN two years ago showed results of enculturing; meaning that younger babies were more likely to want retribution and revenge for wrongdoings, and were less likely to share the last chocolate. Even racism, or ‘altruism by blood’ was suggested to be an inherent instinct that children rapidly learns to discard in their behavior. But I would see it as carpeting to interpret John Locke in the direction of ever having thought that Man is a ‘blank slate’ to the extent of not having inherent instincts. However, this is nonetheless a problem for a human understanding that sees Man as a ‘blank slate’, as one considers whether inherent traits in children yields prenatal thoughts. If so, each child has their very own prenatal state of consciousness before ever having been exposed to a single moment of «furnishing». Locke’s proposition necessitates a point in Man’s lifespan of mental inertia. We have some reasons to think this to be impossible, as the observation of neurological signals in the brains of embryos, while not so much speaks for the motion. Self-consciousness of course is another matter that we cannot discuss equally on scientific terms. However that might be, we might still see that it is difficult how one would pair Hegel’s «Master and Slave»-dialectic of self-consciousness with the understanding of Man as a ‘blank slate’. If perception is a one-way street of furnishing, why do we then speak of ‘self-consciousness’, while Man only as a recipient of materials of ideas would not be capable of anything else than being conscious of whatever he is furnished with. Then maybe Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would step up for Locke and answer that ‘Where the rabble drinks the fountain is poisoned.’ The profound void, or ‘abyss’ as Nietzsche would prefer, in unfurnished men must be based upon some way of thinking of Man as a ‘blank slate’. When we read Paul’s word in Romans 1: 15 that «God’s law is inscribed in the hearts of men.» I believe we see the stark opposition of Christian inspired philosophy and that of Man as a ‘blank slate’—uncreated.
Whether Locke’s proposition is in opposition to Christian beliefs or not does however not answer the question on whether Man is a ‘blank slate’. But the ontological and etiological differences might be worth considering
Göring once so famously said that «When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.» This is maybe not so much the case today, but it could perhaps be transliterated to contemporary terms by «When I hear the word philosophy, I reach for my culture.» Today we do not so much see the pertinence of Locke’s proposition. When T. S. Elliot entered higher education some 3% of Americans were of the same privileged group. Today that number is closer 40%. The philosophers of the salons are not the leading revolutionaries of our Western societies, and «ideologies» and «isms» seems increasingly to be a part of history lessons. Therefore we do not see so much this ‘blank slate’ theory proposed so much, as that would easily lead to an elitist top-down thinking on education (that there is one outset that should yield one result, if correctly furnished) against which 68ers have fought so long. Today ‘culture’ according to our zeitgeist should be the sole explanation for once existence. Culture is etiology and ontology. I write of this because I am an as strident opponent of this way of thinking as I am against Göring’s visions to form Man as a ‘blank slate’ in his rationalism. This is to say that I am equally against monoculturalism and hard multiculturalism as ideologies. I believe in each man for himself. The world cannot be looked upon as either one mass of diluted ‘blank slates’ and one decorously embroidered one; neither as a set of unchangeable packs that neither transmute nor exchange.
I believe that a want for good inheres in Man, as also his concupisence towards evil does.
I therefore believe the proposition to be wrong.
Ad maiorem Dei gloraim
This is the unrevised edition of my submission for the Norwegian competition and qualification rounds for the Baltic seas competition in philosophy, comprising sixteen countries.
Among the participants in the first round of the competition in all of the sixteen countries this essay was awarded Honorary mentions, making it among the 15 best.