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Examine the Case for Innate Ideas Essay

A fundamental part of a rationalists belief is that we obtain knowledge in thought by just thinking rather than from experience, for these reasons the idea that we are born with innate ideas are crucial to any rationalist. In this essay I will explore the concept of innate ideas and the rationalist’s arguments to support the idea and also the empiricists ideas to argue against the idea. The idea of innate ideas is that from birth we already have ideas in our minds and that we are not a blank sheet, some people believe these ideas are put into our minds by god.

Rationalists also believe that we do not need experience to acquire these ideas and we are capable of unlocking these ideas through thinking alone, any empiricist would not be fond of this view. Rationalists have several ideas they believe we are born with and do not gain through experience for example: God, we as humans have never experienced god and yet we still have an idea of god therefore we must have an innate idea of god.

However the apparent fact that we all have the same innate idea of supreme being is unjustified as many depictions of god seem to be based on the culture of the society, for example many African religious groups have depicted Jesus as black African, whilst Leonardo da Vinci’s picture of the last supper pictures him as a white man (according to Christianity God, Jesus, and the holy spirit are all one being). Another good example is Maths we have never experienced, for example, the number 3 however we have the idea of 3 in our minds and we understand the concept.

A final example is simple logical truths for example we know that it can’t be raining and not raining in the same place at the same time. Another example of innate ideas is Meno’s slave boy. The story goes like this, Socrates asked Meno’s slave boy to double the area of a square the slave boy couldn’t but when Socrates drew a line through the square the slave managed to decipher it using logic alone. This shows that he remembered innately this mathematical knowledge. Plato describes this remembrance of innate ideas as anamnesis.

However the big issue with this is whether he is really remembering the concept or is learning it for the first time from Socrates. Another example of this is a musical ear. Most people (excluding tone deaf people) have the ability to tell harmony in music and that how certain notes in the key of the music will sound aesthetically pleasing to the ear this seems true even in infants who prefer listening to songs such as twinkle twinkle little star rather than a load of sounds all mixed together.

This seems to suggest that we have a form of innate musical knowledge. From reading these examples the idea of innateness seems pretty convincing however one of the British empiricists John Locke made a very good argument against the idea of innateness. His argument was that if these ideas were innate in all of us then everyone would be aware that they had them, however, this does not seem to be the case, for example children, psychopaths, idiots.

John Locke claimed that these ideas are created through experience of the world and that we are simply tabula rasa (a blank slate) from birth. This seems to work as in the example of a child as he grows up his ideas begin to grow such as maths where the child gets better through having lessons and experiencing maths in use. However there are possible replies to this argument one being that we may not know that we have these ideas but we show them and accept them through our behaviour.

Another possible reply to john Locke’s argument is that we are born with these ideas however we do not know we have these ideas and they are actually triggered by experience; a good analogy of this is a block of marble that has fault lines that will naturally form a statue, a amorphous block has to be carved and the experience carves this statue just as experience carves these innate ideas you already posses.

David Hume argues against innate ideas he states how a blind man from birth would have absolutely no colour concepts as he has no innate ideas of colour. However David Hume offers a counter example to his own argument with the missing shade of blue. David Hume concedes that he can have a concept of a shade of blue he has never seen before this suggests that the idea of this shade of blue or indeed any other colour concepts must come innately.

Another possible problem to empiricists is an argument from Chomsky on the acquisition of language it seems that children very quickly pick up languages and learn grammar very quickly for example even a very young ,and crucially inexperienced, child could recognize the correct way of forming a sentence for example a child would recognize and understand “Henry is a cat” however “Henry a is cat” children will know this is grammatically incorrect even if they have not experienced the sentence “Henry is a cat”.

Chomsky basically states that we have ability to make sense of language and from there to gain knowledge from language so he’s not claiming that we have innate ideas of certain words but rather an innate capacity to acquire language from our exposure to it.


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