John Locke and the Blank Slate

I’ve always been dubious of attempts to trace the origins of ideas back through generations of philosophers. They were, after all, individuals, and to understand them, one must take that into account. In creating such philosophical genealogies, one should consider the fact that, while thinkers separated in time by centuries may have had superficially similar ideas, it is far from certain that they understood the ideas in quite the same way, or endorsed them for the same reasons.

Take, for example, the case of John Locke. He is often cited as the father of the modern incarnation of the Blank Slate. In our own day, the “Blank Slate” refers to the notion that, for all practical purposes, there is no such thing as innate human nature, and our behavior is almost entirely determined by what we learn and experience. The idea was in vogue among behavioral scientists who should have known better through much of the 20th century before finally falling into the well-deserved disrepute it enjoys today. Locke seems a perfect candidate for the “father” of the idea. It’s all there in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The very title of Book I of the essay is, “Neither Principles nor Ideas are Innate.” The problem is that what Locke meant by “principles and ideas” was not quite the same thing as what later day anthropologists and psychologists understood under the rubric of “human nature,” nor is it likely that more than a handful of them would have agreed with his reasoning if they had actually taken the trouble to read his book. The idea that they were somehow “inspired” by him is the type of stuff that makes good filler in philosophy textbooks, but is highly questionable in fact.

For starters, Locke didn’t have the luxury of sitting on the shoulders of Darwin. An Englishman of the religion-drenched 17th century, nothing was more certain to him than the existence of God. He related his belief in God to his rejection of innate ideas in a way that one would look in vain to see repeated in 20th century journals of the behavioral sciences;

If the idea of God be not innate, not other can be supposed innate.

and he assumed that, if we had innate ideas, they must have been written on our minds by the hand of God. For example,

Hence naturally flows the great variety of opinions concerning moral rules which are to be found among men, according to the different sorts of happiness they have a prospect of, or propose to themselves; which could not be if practical principles were innate, and imprinted in our minds immediately by the hand of God.

and, referring to five supposed “innate ideas” set forth in a contemporary book by Lord Herbert,

First, that these five propositions are either not all, or more than all, those common notions written on our minds by the finger of God.

Locke also believed in a spiritual as surely as he believed in a physical world. Hence, if innate ideas existed, they would not have been written in the physical makeup of an organ like the brain, but on our souls. In his words,

It might very well be expected that these (innate) principles should be perfectly known to naturals; which being stamped immediately on the soul, (as these men suppose,) can have no dependence on the constitution or organs of the body, the only confessed difference between them and others.

When he spoke of “ideas and principles,” Locke had something very different in mind than the innate predispositions that we share with many animals, against the existence of which the Blank Slate orthodoxy of the 20th century thundered down its anathemas for so long in vain. Rather, Locke referred to principles that could be clearly set down in words and reasoned about in a way that excluded all other animals but ourselves. He referred to them as “speculative maxims,” and, since they were inscribed by the hand of God himself, they must necessarily be universal:

…this argument of universal consent, which is made use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that there are none such: because there are none to which all mankind give an universal assent.

and, referring to moral principles,

But, since it is certain that most men’s practices, and some men’s open professions, have either questioned or denied these principles, it is impossible to establish an universal consent, (though we should look for it only amongst grown men,) without which it is impossible to conclude them innate.

Innate morality was inconceivable to Locke because he could not conceptualize morality as other than a set of clear rules that could be spelled out in words, and the resulting moral “maxims” then reasoned about and proved:

Another reason that makes me doubt of any innate practical principles is, that I think there cannot any one moral rule be proposed whereof a man may not justly demand and reason: which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd if they were innate.

Furthermore, innate moral rules were impossible, because, if they existed, they must have been inscribed in our minds by God himself, and we could not be unaware that he had put them there, and would certainly punish their breach:

From what has been said, I think we may safely conclude, that whatever practical rule is in any place generally and with allowance broken, cannot be supposed innate; it being impossible that men should, without shame or fear, confidently and serenely, break a rule which they could not but evidently know that God had set up, and would certainly punish the breach of, (which they must, if it were innate,) to a degree to make it a very ill bargain to be the transgressor.

and,

If, therefore, anything be imprinted on the minds of all men as a law, all men must have a certain and unavoidable knowledge that certain and unavoidable punishment will attend the breach of it.

It would seem, then, that when we attempt to lump Locke’s Blank Slate with that of a 20th century anthropologist, we are comparing apples and oranges. It’s hard to imagine that knowledge of a source of innate morality as different from the hand of God as evolution by natural selection would have had no impact on his thought. He was far from rejecting any notion of “human nature” carte blanche. For example,

Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.

and,

Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

In a word, then, it’s not really fair to tar Locke, or, for that matter, Rousseau and his “noble savage” with the same brush as the experts of a later day because they didn’t take the trouble to be born before the publication of The Origin of Species. The same excuse cannot be made for the obscurantist “behavioral scientists” of the 20th century.

One thought on “John Locke and the Blank Slate”

  1. Excellent resource. I read alot of classical philosophy, but I have been branching out farther into contemporary philosophy. Thank you for the posts.

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