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© Michael Lacewing Innate ideas Michael Lacewing.

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1 © Michael Lacewing Innate ideas Michael Lacewing

2 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

3 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

4 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.

5 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?

6 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

7 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

8 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

9 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.

10 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


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