John Locke’s blank slate theory, or tabula rasa, expands on an idea suggested by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. The theory proposes that beyond a very few basic instincts, our experiences shape us entirely. Political applications of the theory strengthen arguments against hereditary aristocracy and slavery, because if people are blank slates at birth, then no one is inherently superior to anyone else. The theory also fuels the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate in human development studies.

Step 1

Define the blank slate theory. Include information on the importance of sensory experience to cognitive development and Locke’s emphasis on self-authorship of both mind and soul. Explain how this combines with the idea of an immutable human nature to establish divine rights within the context of the blank slate concept.

Step 2

Elaborate on the idea that experience is central to brain development. Support Locke’s observations with research from child development studies or psychology. Consider the impact society has on both cognitive and social development. Provide examples from other cultures to support innate human flexibility.

Step 3

Contrast the blank slate theory with the opposing Platonic concept of a divinely inspired mind. Consider the types of information that might be pre-existing at birth. Include Descartes’ ideas about the understanding of simple concepts at birth. Question those ideas in terms of current child development research.

Step 4

Examine Leibniz’s attempt to reconcile the opposing viewpoints. Look for research in other fields that supports his idea that rational ideas exist at birth for experience to act on. Explore the idea that certain rational ideas are the same in every culture.

Step 5

Address the idea introduced by Steven Pinker at Harvard that the concept of a blank slate denies human nature. Compare Pinker’s neuroscience and sociological data with data on the impact society and parenting have on development. Consider his ideas of human nature and contrast them with Locke’s.

Step 6

Provide a statement summarizing the strength of the argument. Briefly restate how it can be reconciled with the counterarguments. End with an application of the blank slate theory to modern life.