Tabula_Rasa_and_Human_Nature.doc - Tabula Rasa and Human Nature Abstract It is widely believed that the philosophical concept of \u2018tabula rasa\u2019

Tabula_Rasa_and_Human_Nature.doc - Tabula Rasa and Human...

This preview shows page 1 - 3 out of 21 pages.

Tabula Rasa and Human Nature Abstract 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. Introduction The metaphors mobilised by philosophy and psychology do not simply describe, but have shaped the direction of scholarship by legitimating or de-legitimating particular kinds of research, and by framing how this research is carried out and understood (Leary 1990). Here I will explore the concept of the tabula rasa ; my goal will not be a comprehensive survey of every citation of the term, but rather a genealogical investigation (Foucault [1971] 1998) that disturbs commonly-held assumptions and that can help shed light on changes in our contemporary assumptions about human life. I shall argue how the tabula rasa has served since the seventeenth century less as a substantive position than as a rhetorical extreme, an image of utter human malleability against which the speaker can differentiate and render more plausible their particular account of the human mind. Tabula rasa can thus be conceptualised as a significant, previously little-noted thread within the wider history of Western discourses positioning writing as a false analogy for the human mind, and which in so doing facilitate an account of the human being’s essential cognitive or moral nature (Derrida [1967] 1978).
Image of page 1
In his influential Basic Principles of Psychoanalysis, among the most significant texts to have introduced the ideas of Sigmund Freud to American readers, A.A. Brill (1921: 16) stated that for Freud ‘the child’s mind, when born, is, in the words of Locke, a tabula rasa , a blank slate’. Brill’s text has been superseded as a characterisation of psychoanalysis; indeed, it has been argued by Forrester (1990: 81) precisely that ‘in Freud’s account, the child is not a passive tabula rasa ’ but rather begins with a range of intersecting and countervailing properties and propensities. Nonetheless, Brill’s influence lingers in the popular translation of tabula rasa as ‘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 a tablet after the inscriptions in the surface of wax had been removed. The
Image of page 2
Image of page 3

You've reached the end of your free preview.

Want to read all 21 pages?

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture

  • Left Quote Icon

    Student Picture