One of the main tasks of philosophy is to study the nature of human beings, especially with regard to their mental life. How do we think and experience reality? In the 17th century, the debate on this question 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 for 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 the tabula rasa.
Who was John Locke?
John Locke was born in 1632 in an England which had already begun to develop a philosophical discipline distinct from religion and the Bible. During his youth he received a good education and was in fact able to complete his university studies at Oxford.
On the other hand, from an early age Locke was interested in politics and philosophy. It is in the first domain of knowledge that he excels most and writes extensively on the concept of social contract, like other English philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. However, beyond politics, he also made important contributions to philosophy.
John Locke’s theory on the tabula rasa
The following are the foundations of John Locke’s philosophy regarding his conception of the human being and the human spirit. Above all, we will see what role did the concept of tabula rasa play in his mind.
1. Innate ideas do not exist
Unlike rationalists, Locke denied the possibility that we were born with mental patterns that provide us with information about the world. Instead, as a good empiricist, Locke defended the idea that knowledge is created by experience, with the succession of events that we go through, which leaves a mark in our memories.
Thus, in practice, Locke conceives of the human being as an entity who is born with nothing in mind, a tabula rasa in which nothing is written.
2. Diversity of knowledge is reflected in different cultures
If innate ideas existed, then all human beings would share some of their knowledge. However, in Locke’s time it was already possible to know even through various books the different cultures of the world, and the similarities between the peoples paled in the face of 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 show no knowledge
This was another of the great critiques of rationalism used by Locke. When they come into the world, babies don’t prove anything, And they have to learn the basics. This is demonstrated by the fact that they cannot understand even the most basic words, nor do they recognize dangers as basic as fire or cliffs.
4. How is knowledge created?
As Locke believed that knowledge is built, he was seen as obligated to explain the process through which this process goes. In other words, the way in which the tabula rasa gives way to a system of knowledge of the world.
According to Locke, the experiences leave a copy in our minds of what our senses capture. Over time, we learn to detect patterns in those copies that remain in our mind, which brings up the concepts. In turn, these concepts are also combined with each other, and from this process they generate more complex concepts which are difficult to understand at first. Adult life is governed by this latter group of concepts, Which define a higher form of intellect.
Criticisms of Locke’s empiricism
John Locke’s ideas are from another era, and therefore there are many criticisms we can make of his theories. Among them is how he elevates his way of investigating knowledge creation. While babies seem ignorant in just about everything, they have been shown to come into the world with some predispositions to associate certain types of information from a determined way.
For example, seeing an object allows them to recognize it using only touch, indicating that in their heads, they are already able to transform that original literal copy (the sight of the object) into something else.
On the other hand, knowledge is not made up of more or less imperfect “copies” of what happened in the past, because memories are constantly changing, even mingling. This is something that psychologist Elisabeth Loftus has already shown: the rare thing is that a memory remains unchanged, and not the other way around.