One of the main tasks of philosophy is to inquire into the nature of human beings, especially with regard to their mental life. How do we think and experience reality? In the seventeenth century, the debate on this topic had two opposing sides: the rationalists and the empiricists.

One of the most important thinkers of the group of empiricists was John Locke, an English philosopher who laid the foundations of the mechanistic conception of the human being . In this article we will see what were the general approaches of his philosophy and his theory of the tabula rasa.

Who was John Locke?

John Locke was born in 1632 in an England that had already begun to develop a philosophical discipline separate from religion and the Bible. During his youth he received a good education, and in fact he was able to complete his university education at Oxford.

On the other hand, even as a young man Locke was interested in politics and philosophy. It is in the first area of knowledge that he stood out most, and he wrote a lot about the concept of the social contract, as did other English philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. However, beyond politics he also made important contributions to philosophy.

John Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa

What follows are the foundations of John Locke’s philosophy regarding his conception of the human being and the human mind. In particular, we will see what role the concept of the tabula rasa had in his thinking.

1. Innate ideas do not exist

Unlike the rationalists, Locke denied the possibility that we are born with mental schemes that provide us with information about the world. Instead, as a good empiricist, Locke defended the idea that knowledge is created through experience, with the succession of events that we live, which leaves a deposit in our memories.

Thus, in practice, Locke conceived of the human being as an entity that comes into existence with nothing in his mind, a tabula rasa in which there is nothing written .

2. The variety of knowledge is reflected in different cultures

If innate ideas existed, then all human beings would share some of their knowledge. However, in Locke’s time it was already possible to know, even if only through several books, the different cultures scattered around the world, and the similarities between peoples petered out before the strange discrepancies that could be found even in the most basic: myths about the creation of the world, categories to describe animals, religious concepts, habits and customs, etc.

3. Babies don’t show they know anything

This was another of Locke’s great criticisms of rationalism. When they come into the world, babies don’t show they know anything , and they have to learn even the basics. This is evidenced by the fact that they can’t even understand the most basic words, nor do they recognize such basic dangers as fire or cliffs.

4. How is knowledge created?

Since Locke believed that knowledge is built, he was obliged to explain the process by which that process occurs. That is, the way in which the tabula rasa gives way to a system of knowledge about the world.

According to Locke, experiences make a copy of what our senses capture in our minds. Over time, we learn to detect patterns in those copies that remain in our mind, which makes concepts appear. In turn, these concepts also combine with each other, and from this process they generate more complex concepts that are difficult to understand at first. Adult life is governed by this last group of concepts , which define a higher form of intellect.

Criticisms of Locke’s empiricism

John Locke’s ideas are part of another era, and therefore there are many criticisms that we can direct against his theories. Among them is the way he poses his way of looking at knowledge creation. Although babies seem to be ignorant about almost everything, it has been shown that they come into the world with certain predispositions to associate certain types of information in a certain way.

For example, seeing an object allows them to recognize it by touch alone, which indicates that in their head they are already able to transform that original literal copy (the vision of the object) into something else.

On the other hand, knowledge is not composed of more or less imperfect “copies” of what happened in the past, since memories are constantly changing, or even mixed up. This is something that the psychologist Elisabeth Loftus has already demonstrated: what is rare is that a memory remains unchanged, and not the opposite.