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What Is a "Blank Slate"?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Blank slate is a philosophical term for a theoretical state of mind existing in infant humans. It is related to the Latin term tabula rasa, referring to an unmarked writing surface. According to the theory, humans are born entirely free of thoughts or ideas, only gaining them after exposure to family and society. The idea of tabula rasa has been around for at least 1,000 years, but is most strongly identified with the 17th-century philosopher John Locke. Recent scientific discoveries have challenged the idea, suggesting that genetic factors shape some characteristics of the human mind.

The Latin term tabula rasa is generally translated as blank slate, although a more accurate translation would be erased slate. Before paper was widely available, people in many societies would make writing tablets from a mineral called slate. Markings on these tablets, also called slates, could be erased so the tablet could be reused. In ancient Rome, these tablets were sometimes covered with wax, which would be heated to remove markings for reuse. These objects give modern English the expressions clean slate and blank slate.

The concept of the blank slate in human intelligence was first championed by the 10th-century Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina, better known as Avicenna. Avicenna proposed that the human mind at birth was pure potential, without form or content. This idea conflicted with the prevailing belief of European philosophy of the time, that a human baby was inhabited at birth by a preexisting soul. Aside from a few philosophers, the idea was largely ignored for the next 600 years.

The phrase tabula rasa was first recorded in English in 1607. Near the end of the same century, British philosopher John Locke published his influential treatise, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Locke proposed that the human mind at birth is empty of ideas, thoughts, or personality, all of which are added by subsequent experience, education, and observation. Locke’s ideas were highly influential throughout the following centuries. When Sigmund Freud developed his ideas of psychology in the 1890s, he proposed that human personality is entirely formed by early childhood experiences on a mind that is otherwise a blank slate.

Scientific discoveries of the 20th century have challenged many tenets of the blank slate theory. Studies in brain science and psychology have demonstrated that many traits, such as sexuality, emotion, and even language skills, may be influenced by genetic factors. Other studies suggest that a framework for the personality may exist at birth, even if the actual personality is not formed until later. Psychologist Stephen Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate collects many of these theories, presenting a challenge to the tabula rasa idea. The concept of the blank slate remains a subject of lively discussion and debate among scientists and philosophers.

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