Reason as the Leading Motive

Problem with Tabula Rasa

Posted by Jerry on January 12, 2006

I recently finished reading Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, and it has got me thinking.

Ryan argues that if the mind is tabula rasa, then it means that an infant is born with nothing in its consciousness. But, Ryan argues, that goes contrary to Rand’s postulate that a consciousness being conscious of nothing is a contradiction of concepts. So, either the mind is tabula rasa, in which case the mind qua consciousness exists but is blank – or that consciousness does not exist at all because a blank consciousness is no consciousness at all.

Over time, I have been able to come to a robust understanding of Objectivism, and derivatively, the “problem” with tabula rasa.

In understanding and applying the principle of tabula rasa, very often we make the mistake of assuming that the human mind (including character, personality traits, etc.) are entirely blank or non-existent.

This clearly cannot be true given the identity and nature of our consciousness. A new-born infant cannot have an utterly “blank” mind with absolutely no content of awareness because that would contradict the principle of consciousness, i.e., that consciousness is always consciousness of something.

Thus, we reach a contradiction: is the mind of the new-born child tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate or does it have some content? If it is a blank mind, it should have no consciousness. But, we do notice that children exhibit some rudimentary form of awareness.

Now, another Objectivist principle states that contradictions do not exist. All knowledge should be consistently integrated with each other and correspond to facts of reality.

Therefore, in order to eliminate the contradiction we face, we must realize that the definition of tabula rasa has to change because the concept and identity of consciousness is irrefutable (it is axiomatic—one of 3 Objectivist axioms).

Thus, we come to understand Rand’s original and accurate formulation of “blank slate” as properly referring to the conceptual faculty, i.e., the ability of our minds to form concepts and relate them to the world. In other words, the new-born infant has absolutely no conceptual faculty, which is only developed gradually through the learning of language with the use of its auditory and visual senses. One of the striking differences between humans and other creatures is our conceptual faculty–our ability to think in concepts, grasp them, and correspond them to reality. However, this faculty is developed over the years (to various extents depending on the person’s will to think and learn). An infant, therefore, is born without any “pre-programmed” concepts as such. For example, an infant is not born with an inherent understanding or grasp of the concept “mother” and its referent in reality. This is learned, gradually, over time.

Thus, a new-born infant has consciousness that is only consciousness of sensory perceptions—a rudimentary form of consciousness similar to that of animals. The infant’s consciousness comprises awareness on a sensory and perceptual level. A child has no concept of evil, rationality, individualism, value, parasite, etc. because they all require a conceptual grasp through a conceptual faculty.

Thus, we must be careful not to adulterate the Objectivist notion of the blank mind with the Lockean notion of the tabula rasa.

10 Responses to “Problem with Tabula Rasa”

  1. Semperviva said

    This one was the “chart-topping” cd called CHANT. As gregorian chant goes it okay, but not the best in my opinion. There is a “listen to all” link on the bottom of this page so you can decide for yourself.


    I’m gonna go find u some better ones…

  2. Ergo Sum said

    Oh. Thanks! 🙂 I wonder if buying online would be cheaper? Hmmm. I had gone into the Pauline Books stores… I’m sure you’ve heard of them.

  3. Semperviva said

    This CD is awesome. I have it- i hope the listen to link works for you.


    Pauline books, lol, of course I know them! They publish a book entitled “He and I” which is listed as one of my favorite books.

    I think it might depend on what cd you eventually decide to buy, cuz online includes shipping and all.

  4. Paul said

    When Objectivists say that the mind at birth is “tabula rasa”, it means that there are no innate *ideas* or concepts. The infant mind of course is receiving sensory data (i.e., percepts), so the consciousness of the infant does have *perceptual* content, but no innate *conceptual* content. As the child develops, he or she generates concepts from those percepts.

    The ARI website also briefly touches on this topic at:


    Hope this helps!

  5. Ergo Sum said

    So, if that’s the Objectivist position – that the infact received *perceptual* data from the senses, but has not yet developed *conceptual* data – then is this position really different from any of those who claim that the mind does not really start out as tabula rasa.
    I mean, why even postulate an impression of “blankness” when the mind is really never “blank” as such?

    btw, thanks for coming over Paul. I love visiting Diana and your sites.

  6. Diana said

    In the history of philosophy, “tabula rasa” has only meant that the mind has no innate conceptual content. Certainly, that’s all that Objectivism means by it. Various sloppy critics have created a strawman by claiming that “tabula rasa” means something more than that. (I think I explained this point to you in e-mail recently, actually.)

  7. Ergo Sum said

    Oh, did you? Hmmm… I don’t think so. Infact, I was waiting to hear from you in response to my second email to you.

  8. Diana said

    Ergo, I know that I still owe you an e-mail on another matter. (I hope to be able to reply to it soon.) The tabula rasa issue must have been brought up by another person, so my apologies on that score. (It’s not a common topic, plus I’m easily confused by pseudonyms!)

    That other person was particularly concerned about Pinker’s criticisms in _The Blank Slate_, particularly whether “tabula rasa” meant that the mind has no identity. That’s a somewhat different worry than yours, but here was my quick response:

    Ayn Rand meant “tabula rasa” in a very specific sense: no innate ideas. On her view, all conceptual knowledge is learned. That is the longstanding meaning of “blank slate,” but its opponents have often erected a strawman by which it means that man has no nature whatsoever, as if the slate isn’t just blank, but wholly non-existent. (I’m not accusing Pinker of that, as I haven’t read his books, but I’ve seen that argument elsewhere.) Obviously, Ayn Rand did, as you say hold that “Man [is] a rational being with a volitional consciousness.” She also had far more interest in and respect for the identity of man’s consciousness than almost anyone else. But she did reject the possibility of innate knowledge — and rightly so, I think.

  9. Ergo Sum said

    I see. So, the whole concept of “tabula rasa” had been adulterated by philosopher and other thinkers… hence, the confusion? Hmm..

    What you explain as Rand’s position makes so much sense. Ofcourse, the “slate” will be blank at birth… but it has to exist… if we understand humans as integrated beings, in that they are mind and body, one being, then ofcourse, the “slate” must exist as the specific identity… though it may be blank.

    Gotcha! Thanks, Diana.

  10. Tony said

    blank mind yes conscious yes there is a differenc between the two when you understand spirit and soul (soul = mind )
    spirit = energy. the two are vastly different so a mind is blank and needs to be programmed through experience yet the conscious energy is the life through energy passed on through the mother called breath ,not rocket science ,a simple explanation is a computer ,blank until programmed yet has battery
    life from switch on hello ‘

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