An innate idea is a notion people are said to be born with, as opposed to knowledge, which is learned through experience.

In philosophy and psychology, the question of innate ideas (people are born with certain inborn ideas) vs. tabula rasa (at birth, the mind is like a blank slate) has been the object of an abundant debate throughout the centuries. This issue is an aspect, limited to the question of cognition, of the long-running nature versus nurture controversy. The conviction that human beings are born with certain basic, universal concepts implies that there is a common human nature, but also that there is a pre-established structure to the mind and its functioning, which has implications for the question of the ultimate origin of existence.

Philosophical debate: innate ideas vs. tabula rasa

The question of innate ideas vs. tabula rasa is one of the oldest and most important questions in epistemology. Based on common sense, most would agree that people have some predisposition to know things in a certain way (a basic mental structure), as well as a need for sensory experience to provide information. It is also generally acknowledged that, without being exposed to life experiences, it is impossible for the human mind to develop its cognitive capacity appropriately. Science supports these findings. Hence, it is nature and nurture when it comes to human cognition. The real question is the relationship between the two and the possible primacy of one over the other. It is also a question of which elements, if any, are inborn.

Plato vs. Aristotle

In his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, Plato offers the first classic theory of innate ideas. Using the example of mathematical truths, Plato indicates that such rules of the mind are not something one learns. They are buried in the depth of the soul and coming to understand them (e.g., learning how to add numbers) is a process of “remembering,” rather than a real learning process. Plato calls this process “anamnesis,” which means remembering. The remembrance, for Plato, is that of timeless ideas that are engraved in an equally timeless soul. When the soul is incarnated into a body, it forgets these truths, hence the need for education as a process of anamnesis. In the platonic dialogues, Socrates presents himself as a midwife, helping his discussion partners bring into consciousness knowledge they already have.

Aristotle's approach was more empirical. While Plato believed in the pre-existence of the soul in the world of ideas, for Aristotle, these ideas merely pre-existed potentially and needed to be actualized through experience. Aristotle thus emphasized the mind-body interaction over the primacy of the soul and the inborn nature of knowledge. This Aristotelian position was revived by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

Descartes vs. Locke

In modern times, the debate over innate ideas became central to the conflict between rationalist and empiricist epistemologies. While rationalists believe that certain ideas exist independently of experience, empiricism claims that all knowledge is derived from experience.

Seventeenth century French philosopher-mathematician René Descartes was the prime champion of the doctrine of innate ideas. Descartes and other representatives of continental rationalism stressed the primacy of innate ideas placed in the human mind by God at birth. Besides mathematical principles and simple ideas, the main innate idea for Descartes was the idea of God, an idea that could not be derived from experience. Descartes theorized that knowledge of God is innate in everybody as a product of the faculty of faith. Although there is obvious variation among individual human beings due to cultural, linguistic, and era-specific influences, innate ideas are thus said to belong to a more fundamental level of human cognition.

Other philosophers, most notably the British Empiricists, were critical of the theory and denied the existence of any innate ideas, arguing that all human knowledge was founded on experience, rather than a priori reasoning. Locke, who proposed the notion of tabula rasa saw no evidence of pre-existing ideas in the mind. Locke further objected that accepting the notion of innate ideas would open the door to dogmatic assertions, as it implied that the mind was born somewhat predetermined to think based on these ideas. Accepting the existence of innate ideas could thus lead to abuse in the search for truth as well as in human affairs. Still, Locke believed that the human mind has a pre-existing ability to process information received from the senses.

Leibniz: attempted reconciliation

German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz acknowledged the need for a middle road between the two extremes, while maintaining his thought clearly on the side of innate ideas. For him, rational ideas were virtually in the mind at birth and needed to be activated by experience, a position that builds upon Aristotle's ideas. From this perspective, the pre-existence of a mental design is compatible with the essential need for experience. Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding (1695-1705, published in 1765) was a response to Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).

Leibniz suggested that people are born with certain innate ideas, the most identifiable of these being mathematical truisms. The idea that 1 + 1 = 2 is evident to people without the necessity for empirical evidence. Leibniz argues that empiricism can only show that concepts are true in the present; if one sees one stick and then another, he knows that in that instance, and in that instance only, one and another equals two. If, however, people wish to suggest that one and another will always equal two, they require an innate idea, as they are talking about things others have not yet witnessed.

Leibniz called such concepts as mathematical truisms, "necessary truths." Another example of such may be the phrase, "what is, is," or "it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be." Leibniz argues that such truisms are universally assented to (acknowledged by all to be true) and, this being the case, it must be due to their status as innate ideas. Often there are ideas that are acknowledged as necessarily true, but are not universally assented to. Leibniz would suggest that this is simply because the person in question has not become aware of the innate idea, not because he or she does not possess it. Leibniz argues that empirical evidence can serve to bring to the surface certain principles that are already innately embedded in the mind. This is rather like needing to hear only the first few notes of a song in order to recall the rest of the melody.

Locke, on the other hand, suggests that the concept of universal assent in fact proves nothing, except perhaps that everyone is in agreement; in short, universal assent proves that there is universal assent and nothing else. Moreover, Locke goes on to suggest that in fact there is no universal assent. Even a phrase such as, "What is, is," is not universally assented to; infants and severely handicapped adults do not generally acknowledge this truism. Locke also attacks the notion that an innate idea can be imprinted on the mind without the owner realizing it. To return to the musical analogy, one may not be able to recall the entire melody until he or she hears the first few notes, but one was aware of the fact that he knew the melody and that upon hearing the first few notes he would be able to recall the rest. Locke would not accept the idea that someone can be aware of what he or she does not know.

Kant's revolution and innate ideas

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant created a revolutionary synthesis between rationalism and empiricism that shed an entirely new light on the question of innate ideas. Kant concluded that the mind operates through a priori categories present independently from experience. However, for him, these categories are not really innate ideas. First, in his understanding, they would remain entirely empty unless filled with experience gathered from the senses. The a priori categories of the mind are not innate ideas, they are merely the way the human mind necessarily processes information (for example, the concepts of substance, causality, etc.). They give no information whatsoever to what reality really is (the things-in-themselves), but merely indicate how one understands it with a limited, human understanding.

Innate ideas and contemporary linguistics

In his Meno, Plato raises an important epistemological quandary. How is it that humans have certain ideas which are not conclusively derivable from their environments? Noam Chomsky has taken this problem as a philosophical framework for the scientific inquiry into innatism. His linguistic theory, which derives from eighteenth century classical-liberal thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and René Descartes, attempts to explain in cognitive terms how one can develop knowledge of systems which are too rich and complex to be derived from the environment. One such example is human linguistic faculty. Human linguistic systems contain a systemic complexity which could not be empirically derived. The environment is too variable and indeterminate, according to Chomsky, to explain the extraordinary ability to learn complex concepts possessed by very young children. It follows that humans must be born with a universal innate grammar, which is determinate and has a highly organized directive component, and enables the language learner to ascertain and categorize language heard into a system. Noam Chomsky cites as evidence for this theory the apparent invariability of human languages at a fundamental level. In this way, linguistics has provided a window into the human mind, and has established scientifically theories of innateness which were previously merely speculative. Chomsky's views are sometimes referred to as "nativism," a modern form of innatism, the belief in innate ideas.

Moral implications

One implication of Noam Chomsky's innatism is that at least a part of human knowledge consists of cognitive predispositions, which are triggered and developed by the environment, but not determined by it. Parallels can then be drawn, on a purely speculative level, between the moral faculties and language, as has been done by sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson and evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker The relative consistency of fundamental notions of morality across cultures seems to produce convincing evidence for these theories. In psychology, notions of archetypes such as those developed by Carl Gustav Jung, suggest determinate identity perceptions.


  • Carruthers, Peter. Human Knowledge and Human Nature: A New Introduction to an Ancient Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 9780198751014
  • Carruthers, Peter, Stephen Laurence, and Stephen P. Stich. The Innate Mind: Structure and Contents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780195179675
  • Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1969. ISBN 978-0262530071
  • Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 9780521329668
  • Leibniz, Gottfried. Discourse on Metaphysics and Related Writings, edited and translated by R.N.D. Martin and Stuart Brown. New York: Manchester University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780719023385
  • Leibniz, Gottfried. New Essays on Human Understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 9780521572118
  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). London: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 9780140434828

External links

All links retrieved March 3, 2018.

General Philosophy Sources

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Paideia Project Online.
  • Project Gutenberg.