Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Tabula Rasa

Nature or nurture?  The vexed question thus posed in shorthand was thorny enough even before it became supercharged by certain topics of bitter debate in the current Academy.  I have been thinking about two of these Third Rail issues—the theory of the radical “social construction of gender” and the investigation of large data sets concerning the distribution of varying intelligence quotients among human populations—but in terms of a blog “publication” I have sufficient good sense to stick to my cobbler’s last, which I take to be philology. 

The question is whether we human beings come into this world furnished or unfurnished with cognitive content, so to speak.  Are there such things as innate ideas?  Are certain skills—a capacity for language, for instance—“hard-wired” at birth?  Or was everything “within” us once “outside” us?  The old idealist tradition, carried on and Christianized by so many of the medieval writers I most admire, generally believed in innate ideas, but believed also in a kind of curse of ethical amnesia that so dimmed and blurred them as to leave us struggling in a moral fog as we become ever more mired in the world and its experiences.  That is a main theme of Wordsworth’s great “Immortality Ode.”  The child enters the world “trailing clouds of glory”—with a soul “not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness” but, alas, pretty close to it.  Perhaps the best-known philosophical denier of innate ideas was John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a work of enormous influence on modern political thought, especially radical thought.  The less “essential” human nature there is, the more formless and malleable it is taken to be, the better it is for political radicals like the Marxists.  If “human nature” is entirely created by socio-economic forces external to the individual, social engineering is not merely acceptable but laudable

What interests me now are the metaphors that have been used to describe the human mind in its supposedly original empty state, for they are scriptorial and bibliographical images: the tabula rasa, the clean slate, the blank page.  Other metaphors for filling a void might seem more apt: filling up an empty vessel with liquid from a pitcher, for example.  But we find in the figurative language a kind of mini-history of writing methods.  The tabula, or wax-covered board, was an accouterment of ancient and medieval schools.  A student could incise the wax with a hardwood or metal stylus, creating legible signs.  We still can use the word tablet of certain notebooks.  If you then heated the wax you could easily scrape it flat again, creating a new usable surface or tabula rasa, rasa being the feminine participle of rado, “to scrape or shave”.  At a later date the more common writing surface in the schoolroom was slate, a small slab of fine-grained, foliated metamorphic rock on which chalk marks could be easily made and easily erased.  A big piece of slate used for this purpose is usually called a blackboard.

It turns out that certain common ideas and terms are surprisingly hard to nail down securely.  I am just at the moment not able to get to the library so frequently as I would wish, and my Internet search for the actual first known use of the phrase tabula rasa to denote the infant consciousness in an “originary” state has been inconclusive.  Younger readers may be startled to learn that there are things, including some important ones, that aren’t on the Internet.  (Alternatively, I might be entirely unsurprised to realize that they are there, but that I am incapable of finding them!)  I suspect that tabula rasa must show up in one of the medieval Latin translations of Aristotle; but that is just a guess.   Locke himself, though the purported inventor of the tabula rasa theory, was too modern to bother with waxed boards or thinly-sliced rocks.  As somebody who did a lot of writing, he knew what it was that people actually preferred to write upon.  Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.”

Alas, my own mind is far too often very like “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas”.  Except that the experienced void appears closer to cotton wool or the styrofoam packaging peanuts that follow me through life.  Impelled by random forces of static electricity they fall to the carpet or cling in chains to the Amazon box.  These things certainly do look “socially constructed” to me.