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Innate idea

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In philosophy and psychology, an innate idea is a concept or item of knowledge which is said to be universal to all humanity — that is, something people are born with rather than something people have learned through experience.

The issue is controversial, and can be said to be an aspect of a long-running nature versus nurture debate, albeit one localised to the question of understanding human cognition.

Philosophical debate

Although there is obvious variation among individual human beings due to cultural, linguistic and era-specific influences, innate ideas are said to belong to a more fundamental level of human cognition. For example, the philosopher Rene Descartes theorized that knowledge of God is innate in everybody as a product of the faculty of faith. Other philosophers, most notably the empiricists, were critical of the theory and denied the existence of any innate ideas, saying all human knowledge was founded on experience, rather than a priori reasoning.

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

Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz suggested that we are born with certain innate ideas, the most identifiable of these being mathematical truisms. The idea that 1 + 1 = 2 is evident to us without the necessity for empirical evidence. Leibniz argues that empiricism can only show us that concepts are true in the present; if we see one stick and then another we know that in that instance, and in that instance only, one and another equals two. If, however, we wish to suggest that one and another will always equal two, we require an innate idea, as we are talking about things we 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 they do not possess it. Leibniz argues that empirical evidence can serve to bring to the surface certain principles that are already innately embedded in our minds. This is rather like needing to hear only the first few notes in order to recall the rest of the melody.

The main antagonist to the concept of innate ideas is John Locke, a contemporary of Leibniz. Locke argued that the mind is in fact devoid of all knowledge or ideas at birth; it is a blank sheet or tabula rasa. He argued that all our ideas are constructed in the mind via a process of constant composition and decomposition of the input that we receive through our senses.

Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 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. Moreoever, 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 idea that an innate idea can be imprinted on the mind without the owner realising it. To return to the musical analogy, we may not be able to recall the entire melody until we hear the first few notes, but we were aware of the fact that we knew the melody and that upon hearing the first few notes we would be able to recall the rest. Locke would not accept the idea that we can know something yet not know that we knew it.

Locke ends his attack upon innate ideas by suggesting that the mind is a tabula rasa, or 'blank slate,' and that all ideas come from experience; all our knowledge is founded in sensory experience

Scientific ideas

In his Meno, Plato raises an important epistemological quandary. How is it that we have certain ideas which are not conclusively derivable from our environments? Noam Chomsky has taken this problem as a philosophical framework for the scientific enquiry into innatism. His linguistic theory, which derives from 18th century classical-liberal thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Renée Descartes, attempts to explain in cognitive terms how we can develop knowledge of systems which are too rich and complex to be derived from our environment. One such example is our linguistic faculty. Our 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 extraodinary 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.

One implication of Noam Chomsky's innatism is that at least a part of human knowledge consists in 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 our 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 the these theories. In psychology, notions of archetypes such as those developed by Carl Jung, suggest determinate identity perceptions.


  • Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, translated by John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690.
  • Leibniz, Gottfried. Discourse on Metaphysics and Related Writings, edited and translated by R.N.D. Martin and Stuart Brown (Manchester and New York:Manchester University Press, 1988).
  • Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (Cambridge, Mass, 1965)

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