Locke’s attack John Locke: there are no innate ideas –At birth, the mind is a ‘tabula rasa’ –all ideas are gained through sense experience No idea can be part of the mind without the mind being conscious of it. ‘Idea’: Locke means both propositions and concepts
Locke’s attack If there were any innate ideas, everyone would be conscious of them from birth. There is no truth everyone assents to from birth. Alternative: innate ideas are not assented to until the person has gained the use of reason –Reply: what is missing is not reason, but the concepts involved, e.g. a child can’t assent to = 7 until it has learned the concepts 3, 4, + and =; once it has the concepts, it assents –If we must first acquire the concepts, the proposition cannot be innate
Nativism: a different definition No major philosopher has defended innate ideas using Locke’s definition. Innate ideas are ideas whose content cannot be gained through experience. We do not have the idea/concept from birth - experience must trigger our awareness of the idea, but the idea is not derived from experience.
Defending nativism Bird song is triggered; birds sing the song of their species after hearing just a small part of it. Carruthers: cognitive capacities have genetic base, but develop in response to experience (e.g. language); why not concepts and knowledge?
Empiricism: Acquiring concepts Simple ideas: we have simple impressions, e.g. single colours, shapes, smells, etc. Simple ideas are derived from these. Complex ideas: We can unite and abstract from simple ideas to make complex ideas, e.g. DOG does not refer to any particular impression (or set of impressions) of a dog
Objection Do all concepts derive from experience? E.g. PHYSICAL OBJECT –This refers to something existing independently of experience, in objective space and time Hume: I can’t have an experience of something existing independently of experience –Two experiences of the ‘same’ thing, e.g. a desk, are very similar; but I can’t infer that they are two experiences of the same thing, which existed between the two experiences
Nativism as common sense? Hume: If I can’t derive PHYSICAL OBJECT from experience, then it is illegitimate, based on a confusion between similarity and identity This means that our common sense understanding of the world is false! A similar argument can be made for other ideas, e.g. SELF, CAUSATION
Innate ideas again If experience must ‘trigger’ the idea, then are innate ideas just the capacity to acquire the idea? No: not just the capacity to acquire ideas, but which particular ideas we acquire, is innate; and their content can’t be derived (inferred) from experience.
Origins of innate ideas Carruthers: innate ideas are genetically encoded, so that under certain, normal conditions, we will develop the idea –Object, cause, person, number… Descartes: innate ideas are part of our rational nature, dispositions to form certain thoughts through reasoning Plato: innate ideas are ‘remembered’ from a previous existence