19 September 2007

Tabula Rasa, pro and con

About an intersection of ancient and modern, and a contribution from a frequent interlocutor of this blog and colleague:

The second essay, "Locke's Polemic against Nativism," is written by Samuel Rickless. As Rickless notes, "a proper understanding of Locke's polemic serves to deepen one's understanding of the whole book" (66) since, for example, the anti-nativist arguments of Book I lead to the detailed discussion of the origin of every idea in Book II. Rickless begins by identifying the type of nativism (dispositional nativism) that Locke's polemic is directed against and its supporters. This part of the essay is useful inasmuch as it allows Rickless to dismiss the widespread view that Locke was addressing a straw man in his polemic (59). But the most impressive part of the essay consists in identifying and analyzing in detail the various arguments Locke provides against nativism. This is no easy task and Rickless does an exceptionally good job. He argues that although Locke is successful in criticizing the nativist "Argument from Universal Consent", Locke's own arguments against nativism are much less successful. I particularly agree with Rickless that Locke's appeal to memory in the argument that Rickless calls "The Argument from Lack of Universal Consent" "gives solace to the dispositional nativist" (61). Locke's account of memory (E.II.x.2) allows for the possibility that an idea can be in the mind without being brought to consciousness. But "if we say this, then why can't we say, in defense of dispositional nativism, that ideas that are never brought to consciousness but we have the ability to 'paint' on the canvas of our minds without any accompanying perceptions of having had them before [that is, innate ideas] are also in the mind?" (61) In cases like this, in my view, Locke blatantly begs the question against dispositional nativists like Descartes (at least in the case of some ideas). I also concur with Rickless that Locke's "argument from lack of innate ideas" (roughly the argument that there are no innate principles because their constitutive ideas are not innate) rests on the questionable premise that the ideas, for example, of identity and substance are unclear and hence not innate. But unlike Rickless I do not see the force of Locke's argument that it would be pointless for God to give us innate latent principles. "If Men can be ignorant or doubtful of what is innate, innate Principles are insisted on, and urged to no purpose" (E.iii.13), argues Locke. But why should these principles' not being known to us imply that they serve no purpose for us? In fact, in a famous passage where Descartes discusses the innateness of the idea of a triangle in an exchange with Gassendi, he argues that the latent presence of the idea of the triangle allows us to recognize triangular shapes in the physical world although we may never be aware of the true idea of the triangle.