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Tabula Rasa and Human NatureAbstractIt is widely believed that the philosophical concept of ‘tabula rasa’ originates with Locke’sEssay Concerning Human Understandingand refers to a state in which a child is as formlessas a blank slate. Given that both these beliefs are entirely false, this article will examine whythey have endured from the eighteenth century to the present. Attending to the history ofphilosophy, psychology, psychiatry and feminist scholarship it will be shown how the imageof the tabula rasa has been used to signify an originary state of formlessness, against whichdiscourses on the true nature of the human being can differentiate their position. The tabularasahas operated less as a substantive position than as a whipping post. However, it will benoted that innovations in psychological theory over the past decade have begun to underminesuch narratives by rendering unintelligible the idea of an ‘originary’ state of human nature. IntroductionThe metaphors mobilised by philosophy and psychology do not simply describe, but haveshaped the direction of scholarship by legitimating or de-legitimating particular kinds ofresearch, and by framing how this research is carried out and understood (Leary 1990). Here Iwill explore the concept of the tabula rasa; my goal will not be a comprehensive survey ofevery citation of the term, but rather a genealogical investigation (Foucault  1998) thatdisturbs commonly-held assumptions and that can help shed light on changes in ourcontemporary assumptions about human life. I shall argue how the tabula rasahas servedsince the seventeenth century less as a substantive position than as a rhetorical extreme, animage of utter human malleability against which the speaker can differentiate and rendermore plausible their particular account of the human mind. Tabula rasacan thus beconceptualised as a significant, previously little-noted thread within the wider history ofWestern discourses positioning writing as a false analogy for the human mind, and which inso doing facilitate an account of the human being’s essential cognitive or moral nature(Derrida  1978).
In his influential Basic Principles of Psychoanalysis, among the most significant texts to haveintroduced the ideas of Sigmund Freud to American readers, A.A. Brill (1921: 16) stated thatfor Freud ‘the child’s mind, when born, is, in the words of Locke, a tabula rasa, a blankslate’. Brill’s text has been superseded as a characterisation of psychoanalysis; indeed, it hasbeen argued by Forrester (1990: 81) precisely that ‘in Freud’s account, the child is not apassive tabula rasa’ but rather begins with a range of intersecting and countervailingproperties and propensities. Nonetheless, Brill’s influence lingers in the popular translation oftabula rasaas ‘blank slate’, which has now become an everyday figure of speech. However,Brill’s is anything but a precise translation. Tabula rasa, in Latin,referred to the state of atablet after the inscriptions in the surface of wax had been removed. The