innate ideas

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innate ideas,

in philosophy, concepts present in the mind at birth as opposed to concepts arrived at through experience. The theory has been advanced at various times in the history of philosophy to secure a basis for certainty when the validity or adequacy of the observed functioning of the mind was in question. Plato, for example, asserted the inadequacy of knowledge arrived at through sense experience; the world apparent to sense was only a temporal, changing approximation of an eternal, unchanging reality. The next important occurrence of a doctrine of innate ideas, not directly based on Plato, is in the work of René Descartes. Among the ideas Descartes took to be innate were the existence of the self: cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am], the existence of God, and some logical propositions like, from nothing comes nothing. John Locke, objecting that the doctrine encouraged dogmatism and laziness in thinking, advanced the classic attack on innate ideas. He argued that if certain ideas were innate they would be universally held and used, which is not the case. In contemporary discussion the question of innate resources of the mind has been the subject of dispute between behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner and linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has pointed out that the learning of a language and linguistic performance cannot be adequately explained by the empirical behaviorist model.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Innate Ideas


a term used in rationalist philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries (by R. Descartes, N. Malebranche, G. Leibniz) to refer to the inherence in the mind or subject of certain general “ideas” or truths. Rationalism considered these ideas to be the basis of objective knowledge and of the universal “relationship of ideas,” in contrast to 17th- and 18th-century sensationalism, which held that every “relationship of ideas” is based on sensory images, derived from experience.

The concept of innate ideas was central to the polemic between rationalism and sensationalism—between Descartes and T. Hobbes in the 17th century and between Leibniz and J. Locke in the 18th century. This concept affirms, in effect, the identity and continuity of consciousness in space and time. On the one hand, universally significant and supraindividual truths are acts and conditions of the consciousness of separate individuals, and, on the other hand, precisely because of their universal characteristics, they cannot be depicted as the final link in the continuous chain whereby external things influence the consciousness or whereby there is an inner psychic coupling of purely individual experience. From this it is postulated that the knowledge of certain truths must be inherent in the apparatus of human cognition.

According to Descartes, I derive the conception of a particular thing, of truth, of thought, of god, and so forth, from within myself. These ideas (among them methodological rules) are not engendered or acquired by me but are inherent within me. By combining these initial innate ideas with the intuitive apprehension of concrete objects in the external world and with the process of deduction, it is possible to acquire all possible, objective, and universal knowledge. Furthermore, whether innate ideas are actually present or not is unimportant—their potential existence is sufficient. Leibniz emphasizes that innate ideas are present only in the form of sources, which are constantly being realized. The postulate of innate ideas relates to states of consciousness and to inner experience and not to laws and forms of thought, as is the case in Kant’s concept of a priori transcendental ideas, which organize consciousness into an integral whole.

The point of departure for postulating innate ideas was rationalism’s focusing on the fact that knowledge has structure, namely, that it has qualities unexplainable by the form in which the object of knowledge exists outside of consciousness. Proceeding from this fact and regarding the separate individual as the knowing subject and the object of sensory experience as the object, the rationalists of necessity had to come to an idealist conclusion about the existence of innate ideas.


Asmus, V. F. “Uchenie o neposredstvennom znanii v istorii filosofii novogo vremeni.” Voprosy filosofii, 1955, no. 5; 1957, no. 6; 1959, no. 11.
Rose, F. O. Die Lehre von den eingeborenen Ideen bei Descartes und Locke. Berne, 1901.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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On relief-etching itself, Phillips makes the familiar contrast: between Blake's copper-plate and Locke's tabula rasa, so that the corrosive fires applied to the plate acted as a 'metaphor for the existence of innate ideas, for the divine within man awakened and raised to life' (p.
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The twelve essays of the Enquiry reflect his three principal attacks: (1) against rationalism, the doctrine of innate ideas, faith in ontological reasoning and an ordered universe; (2) against empiricism, both the kind that led to Lockean dualism and Berkeleyan idealism, on the ground that neither the physical nor the spiritual can be proved; and (3) against deism, based on universal axioms and the law of causality.