In philosophy, an often-debated topic is the idea of how environment affects the growth and change of one's personality, intellectual gifts, and the whole “being” of a person. This is part of the "nature vs. nurture" argument that has plagued philosophers and many in the sciences for years. We now know that certain things including aspects of our personality, intelligence level, and ability to succeed in the world may be in part genetically influenced. Yet for thousands of years, some philosophers have argued that the newborn babe is born with a tabula rasa or "blank slate," arguing that only environment influences what that child will learn and who he or she will grow up to be.
This concept is one that appears in Eastern philosophy, though clearly not in all Eastern religions. Reincarnation flies in the face of the concept of tabula rasa, since people who believe in reincarnation believe they come into the world with a certain amount of Karmic debt. First mention of the idea of tabula rasa in Western society is implied rather than specifically written. Aristotle writes of the mind as a slate upon which nothing has been written, which greatly differs from Plato’s concept of the soul existing prior to arriving on the earth.
Thomas Aquinas picks up Aristotle’s tabula rasa theories in the 13th century, but it is not until the 17th century that the words tabula rasa are used by John Locke to express the idea that the mind when it enters the world is nothing and contains nothing. It is merely the blank slate upon which experience begins to “write” the person. As the person matures, he is able to begin to “write” himself, expressing the freedom of the individual to construct the soul. This freedom may be impaired by the way in which early experiences have shaped the person.
It’s interesting that in the early 19th century, many of the Romantic writers discarded the concept of tabula rasa in favor of the Platonic idea of the soul coming from heaven. To William Wordsworth, the child comes into the world “trailing clouds of glory,” but as he grows, his freedom becomes limited by his experience. Romantic writers and philosophers saw children as imbued with special powers and a sense of the heaven from which they had come.
This is also a time in art in the Western World where artistic representations of children actually begin to look like children, instead of small poorly constructed adults. Its somewhat ironic that by refuting the concept of tabula rasa, Wordsworth and others like him, begin the argument that children are important and interesting, which encouraged an interest in raising them, often resulting in adults with a greater sense of Locke’s idea of freedom of the soul.
Freud in the later part of the 19th century readopts the idea of tabula rasa, suggesting that all human behavior stems from nurturance, and usually a set pattern of nurture behavior that results in things like the unresolved Oedipal complex. One of Freud’s main differences from the other important psychologist of his time, Carl Jung, is his idea of tabula rasa. To Carl Jung, people come into the world with a universal unconscious, a set of shared symbols and beliefs that exist both within and outside the person, no matter what culture he or she belongs to.
Today, even though many geneticists have set the concept of tabula rasa aside, it is still puzzling to many why some people have genetic predictors for mental or physical conditions that never emerge. Most scientists and philosophers are apt to conclude that children are not blank slates but a set of possibilities that can be affected by the way they are nurtured. Further, genetic possibilities do not account for the concept of the soul, and questions remain as to whether the soul is the tablet upon which something is already written, or the tabula rasa that is written upon by the experiences of the child. The debate still matters to many, and clearly affects the way in which parents choose to raise their children.