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Tabula Rasa and Human Nature

  • Robert Duschinsky (a1)

It is widely believed that the philosophical concept of ‘tabula rasa’ originates with Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and refers to a state in which a child is as formless as a blank slate. Given that both these beliefs are entirely false, this article will examine why they have endured from the eighteenth century to the present. Attending to the history of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and feminist scholarship it will be shown how the image of the tabula rasa has been used to signify an originary state of formlessness, against which discourses on the true nature of the human being can differentiate their position. The tabula rasa has operated less as a substantive position than as a whipping post. However, it will be noted that innovations in psychological theory over the past decade have begun to undermine such narratives by rendering unintelligible the idea of an ‘originary’ state of human nature.

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J. Forrester , The Seductions of Psychoanalysis, (London: Routledge, 1990), 81

H. Plotkin , Evolutionary Thought in Psychology, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 18

I. Kant , Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., trans. Norman Kemp Smith , (NY: Palgrave, [1787] 2007), 8

R.T. Abed , ‘Psychiatry and Darwinism: Time to reconsider?The British Journal of Psychiatry 177 (2000): 13, at 2

J.L. Sherry , ‘Media Effects Theory and the Nature/Nurture Debate: A Historical Overview and Directions for Future ResearchMedia Psychology 6 (2004): 83109, at 88, parentheses suppressed

J.R. Harris , ‘Socialization, personality development, and the child's environmentsDevelopmental Psychology, 36 (2000), 699710, at 701

D.L. Vandell Parents, peer groups, and other socializing influencesDevelopmental Psychology, 36 (2000): 699710

J. Butler , ‘Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily InscriptionsThe Journal of Philosophy, 86(11) (1989): 601607, at 603

J.A. Wasserman & J.M. Clair , ‘The Medicalization of Homelessness and the Sociology of the SelfStudies in Symbolic Interaction, 37 (2011): 2962, at 33

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
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