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.

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.


References in periodicals archive ?
In this article, I will argue that John Locke's belief that Christianity is epistemologically vital to the spread and maintenance of right morals in society is demonstrated by the mutual reinforcement between Locke's argument against innate ideas that is most prominent in the Essay and his conclusion in ROC that a great shift in moral thinking started with Christ's advent.
The nature of man, or human nature, as Dewey referred to it in his writings, had become a complex development rather than being the creation of innate ideas as Jefferson had previously believed.
Locke, in INNATE IDEAS, supra note 226, at 78; see also G.
This interpretive key is then employed to unlock many of the other major Cartesian themes, including the method of doubt, clear and distinct perception, innate ideas, analytic and synthetic method, the infamous Circle, and the divine creation of the eternal truths.
According to that doctrine, we have knowledge of important truths because all of us have, inside us, innate ideas that are reliable copies of real things or facts.
The second chapter covers Book 1, outlining and criticising Locke's discussion of innate ideas.
Since he was influenced by the Platonic philosophy, particularly the theory of innate ideas, we shall begin with this theory.
La Mettrie and D'Holbach are the only other two notable French eighteenth-century philosophers who are as consistent in their rejection of innate ideas and all forms of religion and in their naturalistic materialism.
Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas and held that "there is nothing in the mind except what was first in the senses"; the mind at birth is a tobula rasa waiting to be written on, so everything in the mind is the result of experience.
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.
Locke exemplified the empiricist view in his attack on the rationalist doctrine of " innate ideas.
There are some kinds of ideas that have their intentionality directly bestowed by God and implanted into human minds--Descartes' innate ideas, Leibniz's monadic concepts, and Berkeley's divine archetypes.