Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tabula Rasa

I first read about John Locke, the 17th Century English philosopher more than a decade ago while taking some philosophy classes as a student at Buffalo State College. Back in the late 17th and early 18th Century Locke had an enormous influence on the development of epistemology, political philosophy and social contract theory. I've forgotten most of his stuff already but his theory of mind still stays with me.

According to Locke, the mind is a "blank slate" or "tabula rasa". People are born without innate ideas. He suggested that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences." He argued that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later because they are the foundation of the self. They are what first mark the tabula rasa.

Locke warns against, for example, letting “a foolish maid” convince a child that “goblins and sprites” are associated with the night because the child will forever associate night with frightful things. "Associationism," as this theory would come to be called, exerted a very powerful influence over eighteenth-century thought, particularly educational theory. Educational writers even till today warn parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations because it will cause unnecessary obstacles later in life.

As a parent I can only hope I don't give my child any negative associations while he is in his formative years. There is nothing like giving your son a fearless approach to life so that he feels that there is nothing he can't do if he really wants to. That would be one less obstacle he has to deal with.

My parents were great but if I can avoid their tendency, like a lot of parents from the last generation, to only point out what is wrong rather than to inspire in a positive way, then I will be happy. There are enough obstacles in life without having a child deal with negative associations that will linger on long after you have forgotten about it.

I believe genes play a part. Some people have horrible tempers and others are calm no matter what they are faced with. I attribute some of that to genes. My temper can be horrible at times but I have siblings who are calmer than I am even though we grew up in the same household and with the same parents. I may have inherited my mum's temper while my brother probably got my father's easygoing nature. However I do agree with Locke that the negative or positive associations we have from our childhood play a large part in how we turn out as adults. Most of the obstacles we have in life are in our head. If we can get around that, then half the battle is already won.

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