Tabula rasa

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The Latin expression tabula rasa ( tabula "board" and rasa "scraped", radere "scraped") originally describes a wax-covered writing board that has been smoothed by scraping off the writing and can be rewritten like a blank sheet of paper .

In a figurative sense, tabula rasa means something like "empty and ready to receive like a blank slate". In philosophy, this metaphor was used to designate the soul (as the place of human knowledge ) in its original state before it received impressions from the outside world . In psychology, too, the question is asked whether the psyche or the human brain initially resembles a blank slate that is written on in the course of life. The phrase tabula rasa (to make) refers to a radical new beginning in other contexts.



Aeschylus already speaks of the fact that the experiences "dig themselves into the tables of the senses".

Plato compares (only) memory with a wax tablet. In Plato's dialogue with Theaetetus , Socrates says:

"So now, so that we can have a word, put a waxy cast in our souls that can take impressions, larger with one, smaller with one, with one of purer wax, with the other of dirtier and harder wax with some and with others more humid, with some just as it should be. […] This, let us say, was a gift from the mother of the muses, Mnemosyne; and what we want to remember from what we have seen or heard or even thought, we express this in this casting by entertaining it with perceptions and thoughts, as when sealing with the stamp of a ring. We remember what is now imprinted and we know it as long as its image is present. But if this has been deleted or if it could not be printed at all, we forget the matter and do not know it. "

The context discusses what useful knowledge actually is. The theses thus obtained are all rejected by Socrates in the end. In the background is the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis .

Even with Aristotle , a student and critic of Plato in many respects, also with regard to his theory of knowledge, one can find a comparison between the soul and a wax tablet in his book On the Soul ("Περί Ψυχῆς"):

“Insofar as it (thinking) has something in common with its object, one part (thinking) seems to be active, the other receiving. This also follows when it itself (the thinking soul) can be thought. […] Reason [coincides] according to its nature with its objects […], but in reality with none before it thinks. You have to imagine it like a blackboard on which nothing is really written. "

The Stoics also compare the soul with a wax tablet.

middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the idea was taken up by several philosophers, such as Albertus Magnus , Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont and Thomas Aquinas.

With Thomas Aquinas it is said:

“Intellectus autem humanus […] est in potentia respectu intelligibilium, et in principio est sicut tabula rasa in qua nihil est scriptum, ut philosophus dicit in III de anima. Quod manifeste apparet ex hoc, quod in principio sumus intelligentes solum in potentia, postmodum autem efficimur intelligentes in actu. "

“But the human intellect is in power with respect to the intelligible and at the beginning it is like a blank slate, as the philosopher [Aristotle] says in the 3rd book of De anima . This is evident from the fact that at the beginning we are intelligent only in terms of possibility, but later in terms of reality. "

Modern times

In the modern era, Pierre Gassendi , the “progenitor of modern empiricism ” and contemporary opponent of Descartes , advocated a tabula rasa thesis.

John Locke (1632–1704) in particular took up the image of the soul / mind as a tabula rasa and integrated it into his empirical theory of knowledge. According to Locke, the soul is “a blank slate” at birth, and in the course of life it is shaped by experience. Locke's materialistic sensualism used this thesis against the doctrine of innate ideas (ideae innatae) , specifically referring to the idealistic philosophers of the Cambridge School (Cambridge Platonism: Henry More , Ralph Cudworth ), but also to Herbert von Cherbury and Descartes and his followers how generally thought of the philosophers influenced by Plato and the Stoa, who had emphatically advocated the existence of innate concepts and principles. In particular, the basic concepts of mathematics and logic were seen as innate ideas. Since Locke, the term tabula rasa has only been understood empirically.

With his views Locke deepened the materialistic empiricism of Francis Bacon . They exerted a significant influence on the philosophical development of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, since Locke's mainly materialistic views contained very contradicting moments, philosophers as diverse as George Berkeley and Denis Diderot were able to tie in with his sensualism.

Leibniz contradicted an absolute tabula rasa doctrine. According to him, the following applies (only): Nothing is in the mind that has not previously been in the senses - except the mind itself, i.e. H. the innate ideas and structures of knowledge. After Leibniz the mind of a newborn is like "not a blank wax tablet, but a piece of marble has veins." Basic concepts and principles of consistency and the principle of sufficient reason are as dispositions by Leibniz.

Immanuel Kant also contradicted empirical theory; he considered certain ideas (such as the idea of Euclidean space or the concept of God ) to be innate in man.


In the modern era, Sigmund Freud used the concept of the blank slate in his treatise “Note on the Wonder Pad” (1925) in relation to the system of perception-consciousness as distinct from the unconscious .

Some modern scientific disciplines have challenged the idea of ​​the tabula rasa. Cognitive scientists have identified various innate mechanisms that are prerequisites for learning (e.g. a sense of objects and numbers, a theory of mind ). According to evolutionary psychology, there are a number of cultural, social, linguistic, behavioral, and psychological traits that are found in all human populations. Second, many human characteristics (e.g. appetite , vengeance , attractiveness ) can only be understood as evolutionary adaptations in the context of the hunter-gatherer . The neuroscience has shown that prenatal brain undergoes complex interconnections that are genetically controlled. The tabula rasa is also incompatible with the knowledge of behavioral genetics that all personality traits are partly hereditary .

international law

On the tabula rasa principle in international law, see Clean slate rule .


Individual evidence

  1. Duden online: tabula rasa
  2. a b Arnim Regenbogen , Uwe Meyer: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms. Meiner, Hamburg 2005, keyword tabula rasa .
  3. Plato: Theaitetos 191c (translation by Friedrich Schleiermacher 1805)
  4. Aristotle: De anima ( About the soul ) III 4, 429b29-430a2.
  5. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 79 art. 2 corr
  6. ^ Otfried Höffe: Small history of philosophy. 2nd edition, CH Beck, Munich 2008, p. 175.
  7. John Locke: Experiment on Human Mind , 1690. Book 2 chap. 1 § 2: “ (All ideas come from sensual and self-perception.) So we want to assume that the soul is, as they say, a white, blank sheet of paper, without any ideas; how is it now being supplied with it? "(translation by Julius von Kirchmann 1872/73)
  8. Leibniz after P. Kunzmann; F.-P. Burkard; F. Wiedemann, dtv-Atlas Philosophie , Munich, dtv, 13th edition 2007, p. 113.
  9. ^ Otfried Höffe: Small history of philosophy. 2nd edition, Beck, Munich 2008, p. 190.
  10. Sigmund Freud: Note on the "wonder block"
  11. Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate (PDF), in: The General Psychologist , 2006, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 1-8.