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Tabula Rasa: John Locke’s Memory Metaphor

Locke’s memory metaphor tabula rasa reflects the idea that a person acquires knowledge in the process of gaining experience from the surrounding world. Therefore, when a human is born, his/her mind is empty. All individuals are equal in terms of position, status, and potential to expand their knowledge. Nowadays, the concept of tabula rasa is widely used in behavioral genetics, particularly in adoption and twin studies. The discipline reflects the analysis of the impact of personal characteristics on the development of such aspects as gender identity, alcoholism, or intelligence. According to Locke (1836), “We have by daily experience, clear evidence of motion produced both by impulse and by thought…we are equally at a loss in both” (p. 208).

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Therefore, the emotional background is revealed only through cognizing the surrounding world. However, the concept of tabula rasa opposes the view established in genetics, which implies preprogramming behavior. Finally, Locke (1836) insists on the idea that humans’ ability to gain knowledge is most efficient through experience. In particular, the philosopher argues, that humans contemplate ideas that contribute to the formation of associations and creating relations. Such a perspective also implies that constant knowledge acquisition introduces changes to behavioral patterns because human responses to the environment are not immutable. Finally, Locke’s (1836) ideas are widely applied in computer science to denote the introduction of independent agents that are integrated into the knowledge set.

Locke’s suggestion about the initial blank state of a person is connected with the individual’s ability to perceive ideas through sensual and visual experiences associated with repeated sensations. Therefore, Lieberman (2011) supports Locke’s ideas and notes “…ideas…are nothing more than sensations have become associated together” (p. 50). Such a suggestion has provided the grounds for considering human behavior as a set of repeated associations. There are several principles of associations that allow a human to expand its experiences, such as frequency, intensity, and contiguity. Second, the concept developed by Locke is widely used in psychological and educational fields and, as a result, human behavior is connected with its cognitive ability. In this respect, the tabula rasa paradigm is closely associated with many cultural and behavioral modifiers and environmentalists.

In particular, Nelson (1995) argues, “…human behavior is taught from birth through conditioning or imitation justify their convictions when such views gain support from scientific findings” (p. 210). Therefore, imitation and cognition also refer to human survival mechanisms. In case a human has a programmed behavior, he/she will not be able to develop an adjustment mechanism. Deviation from Locke’s theory can also imply the human disability to shape identity and acquire new skills in learning and psychology. Therefore, Locke’s memory metaphor relates to the cognition theories and serves as a strong theoretical ground. Finally, Baker (2012) also introduces the tabula rasa approach that justifies humans’ pure potential to receive knowledge through experience and learning. Hence, the human intellect has different development levels, including the material intellect to gain knowledge and active intellect that is necessary to understand the perfect source of knowledge. As a result, the existence of various types of human perception divided into five senses allows a person to integrate knowledge about the external environment.

Adhering to the concept of tabula rasa contradicts the idea that the behavioral development of human intelligence exclusively using the influence of external factors. However, Spuhler (2009) refers to a broader sense of the concept and considers it educability which allows a man “to adjust his behavior to the circumstance in the light of experience”. However, genetic science rejects the theory of tabula rasa because of the evidence of human evolution at a genetic level, which is the inherent condition of natural selection, which also contributes to the cultural development of civilizations. Therefore, genetic differences have a potent impact on the behavioral responses developed by humans. Therefore, it is impossible to assert, “what is inherited is not this or that “trait” or “character” but the way the development of the organism” (p. 8). Because the development process goes through a fixed number of steps, a person cannot rely not only on personal experience but also on internal mechanisms of responses. The actual existence of different stereotypes and characters withdraws Locke’s assumptions and focuses more on genetic inheritance. Pinker (2012) is another theorist arguing against the concept of tabula rasa in social sciences.

In particular, the scholar stresses that this dogma contradicts human nature because the blank state can have a serious threat to the social and political development of society. If the human brain is influenced by empirical discoveries only, it will be inconsistent with existing social evils, including degradation, determinism, and servitude. Besides, Pinker (2012) notes that if a person had equal opportunities, it would mean that everyone should confront equal challenges. Such a vision correlates with the evolutional psychology that suggests that humans have different behavioral patterns influencing their goals. The actual existence of different social positions, as well as views on political and economic development, withdraws the theory of tabula rasa, as well as the possibility of developing individual preferences. Finally, the tabula rasa dogma creates grounds for the opposition between nature and nurture (Shaffer, 2009). In this respect, the developmental theorists argue that differences among humans are predetermined by their genetic heredity, but not by environmental influences. Therefore, humans would not be endowed with such things as temperament, constitution, talent, and different levels of intelligence in case their knowledge acquisition system is confined to empiricism.

In conclusion, it should be stated that Locke’s position has several controversies concerning its perception of human psychology and behavior. On the one hand, the human cognition system is developed through acquiring knowledge and experience and, as a result, a person develops his/her response mechanisms to the external environment. On the other hand, denial of genetic inheritance as the precursor of human behavior cannot be justified. In particular, in case humans are born equal, their perception systems equally reacted to the environmental factors. To resolve the controversy, a balance should be struck to explain how a person gains knowledge about his/her innate abilities. Hence, humans have a different genetic inclination by which they expand their knowledge background and form new reaction patterns. Therefore, Locke’s memory metaphor cannot be fully justified because human genetic memory plays a significant role in shaping its physical and mental perception. More importantly, if the memory metaphor is correct, humans can be under the threat of unnecessary freedom in accepting reality. Therefore, genetic information creates boundaries that provide humans with survival mechanisms. Combining empirical and inborn knowledge contributes to the development of efficient learning techniques.

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Baker (2012). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Psychology: Global Perspectives. UK: Oxford University Press.

Lieberman, D. A. (2011). Human Learning and Memory. US: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, J. (1836). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. US: T. Tegg and Son.

Nelson, C. A. (1995). Basic and Applied Perspectives on Learning, Cognition, and Development. London: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2012). The Blank Slate. New York. Penguin.

Shaffer, D. R. (2009). Social and Personality Development. US: Cengage Learning.

Spuhler, J. N. (2009). Genetic Diversity and Human Behavior. US: Transaction Publishers.

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