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Tabula rasa (Latin: scraped tablet or clean slate) refers to the epistemological thesis that individual human beings are born with no innate or 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.
What the mind thinks must be in it in the same sense as letters are on a tablet (grammateion) which bears no (methen) actual writing (grammenon); this is just what happens in the case of the mind. (Aristotle, On the Soul, 3.4.430a1).
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 Aristotelian notion of the mind as a blank state went much unnoticed for nearly 1800 years.
But the human intellect, which is the lowest in the order of intellects and the most removed from the perfection of the Divine intellect, is in potency with regard to things intelligible, and is at first "like a clean tablet on which nothing is written", as the Philosopher [Aristotle] says. (Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.79.2).
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas brought the Aristotelian notion back to the forefront of modern thought. This notion 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). (As a side note, 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.)
Aquinas's writings on the tabula rasa theory stood untested and unprogressed for several centuries. In fact, our modern idea of the theory is mostly attributed to John Locke's expression of the idea 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.
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.
Generally people now recognise the fact that the entire brain is indeed preprogrammed and organised in order to process sensory input, motor control, emotions, and natural responses. These preprogrammed parts of the brain then learn and refine their ability to perform their tasks.<ref name="tabula rasa1">"The neocortical microcircuit as a tabula rasa.", Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A., Jan 18, 2005.</ref><ref name="tabula rasa2">"Spontaneous and evoked synaptic rewiring in the neonatal neocortex.", Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A., Aug 29, 2006.</ref>
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 innate mental differences between normal human beings do not and cannot exist; therefore, racism and sexism are profoundly illogical. However, this does not mean that such prejudice would make sense if there were innate differences.
Some are also attracted to the idea of a "blank slate" due to a fear of being determined, or even influenced, by their genes (though why being determined or influenced by society is better is a difficult question).
On the other hand, the theory means there are no inherent limits to how society can shape human psychology; nor is there a political structure that best fits human nature. As such, the theory is taken up by many utopian schemes that rely on changing human behaviour to achieve their goals, and many such schemes end up moving towards totalitarianism, or a dystopian reality. However, the opposing view, that humans have a genetically influenced nature, could also lead to controversial social engineering such as eugenics.
In discussions of architecture since the 1950s, the term tabula rasa has been productively misused to combat the insensitive design strategies of what was perceived as a monolithic Modern Movement, brought to the United States from Europe by emigrés 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.
Paradoxically, and because of misunderstandings, the tabula rasa may be associated in architectural circles with ideas about Cartesian space and the Cartesian subject rather than with the term's use by Locke.
- 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.
- 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.
- Buffy the vampire slayer Tabula Rasa is the title of an episode in the sixth season
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