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On the Existence or Non-existence of Innate Ideas

Epistemological inquiry is inquiry geared towards the discovery of the concept of knowledge, evidence, reasons for believing, and justification of knowledge claims. The concerns of epistemology may thereby be specified into the following: (1) nature of knowledge, (2) source of knowledge, and (3) the validity of knowledge and knowledge claims. Rationalism and empiricism are two opposing epistemological schools of thought. Rationalism upholds the fundamental role of reason in knowledge acquisition whereas empiricism upholds the fundamental role of experience in knowledge acquisition.

Rationalists thereby uphold the claim that the sole, legitimate source of knowledge is the faculty of reason whereas empiricists uphold the claim that knowledge is grounded upon sense-experience, that is, that there is nothing in the mind which is not at first, an object of sensation. In line with this, what follows is the analysis of one of the main disagreements between rationalism and empiricism: the existence of innate ideas. Rationalists maintain that there are innate ideas in the mind.

It is important to note that such a contention springs from the idea that not all of what we consider as knowledge is derived from mere sense-perception. Rene Descartes states, My perception of the infinite, that is God, is in some way prior to my perception of the finite, that is, myself. For how could I understand that I doubted or desired–that is lacked something–and that I was not wholly perfect, unless there were in me some idea of a more perfect being which enabled me to recognize my own defects by comparison.

(94) In Descartes’ view, the concept of God is an example of innate ideas in the mind; ideas that the mind have which are not capable of being traced back to an underlying sense-perception. This is because such ideas are prior to sense-perception itself. More importantly, the rationalist is willing to say that such ideas serve as pre-conditions for the possibility of experience itself. Rationalists are also skeptical about the reliability of sense-experience in providing us with knowledge of necessary truths.

From a theoretical point of view, one may say that universal necessity cannot in any way be established by appealing to sense-experience, which for the most part, can only provide us with instances or particulars. In the New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, Leibniz states, The senses, although they are necessary for all our actual knowledge, are not sufficient to give us the whole of it, since the senses never give anything but instances, that is to say particular or individual truths.

Now all the instances which confirm a general truth, however numerous they may be, are not sufficient to establish the universal necessity of this same truth, for it does not follow that what happened before will happen in the same way again. … From which it appears that necessary truths, such as we find in pure mathematics, and particularly in arithmetic and geometry, must have principles whose proof does not depend on instances, nor consequently on the testimony of the senses, although without the senses it would never have occurred to us to think of them.

(150-151) Descartes and Leibniz’s works provide us with the much needed information as to why they are willing to say that the mind has innate ideas. Based from their arguments, one may say that a purely rationalistic stance towards knowledge stems from the idea that universality and strict necessity are legitimate characterizations of what counts as knowledge. Sense-experience, not being able to meet such criteria is therefore, insufficient in terms of providing us with an accurate account of what knowledge really is.

The empiricist John Locke considers the initial state of the mind as a tabula rasa; an empty slate. In Locke’s view, it is sense-experience which furnishes the mind with contents as human beings mature. Such being the case, there can be no innate ideas. David Hume also presents a rebuttal of the rationalists’ account of the existence of innate ideas. This is evident in his discussion of causation. In Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he states,

This idea of a necessary connection among events arises from a number of similar instances which occur, of the constant conjunction of these events; nor can that idea ever be suggested by any one of these instances surveyed in all possible lights and positions. But there is nothing in a number of instances, different from every single instance, which is supposed to be exactly similar, except only that after a repetition of similar instances the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant and to believe that it will exist.

This connection, therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connection. (86) In Hume’s view, knowledge is derived from sense experience. What an individual perceives as the causation of events is not necessarily the result of the existence of universal truths in the mind but rather an individual’s compulsion to associate events which continuously occur side by side.

Within this context, Descartes’ argument regarding the innate characteristic of our idea of causation becomes privy to a fallacy-specifically that of the circularity of an argument. The debate between the existence or lack of existence of innate ideas have continued throughout philosophy’s plight to specify the indubitable conditions for stating that a belief is a knowledge claim. Agnati et. al. (2007) argue, in support of the rationalists’ claim, that it is possible to prove the existence of innate ideas in the mind (68).

They state that it is possible to prove the existence of innate ideas in the human brain since “there exists strong experimental support for the view that not only complex behaviors but also aesthetic and ethical judgments can be, at least in part, genetically determined” (Agnati et al. 68). However, it is important to note that although the aforementioned claim supports the existence of innate ideas, the concept of ‘innate ideas’ as specified here is inconsistent with the concept of innate ideas employed by the rationalists.

The reason for this is evident if one considers that Agnati’s aforementioned claim necessitates a conception of innate ideas and rationality for that matter as being dependent upon the brain and not the mind. It is important to note that the aforementioned versions of rationalism discussed in the initial part of the paper adhere to a monist perspective of reality which refers to the view that the universe is composed of one fundamental property. In the case of rationalist’s, this fundamental property is the mind-a non-material substance.

By stating that innate ideas are possible as a result of the genetic determination of individuals, one is adhering to an assumption that the universe is composed of a material fundamental property that affects and in fact determines an individual’s epistemological, moral, and aesthetic beliefs. Within this context, one might state that the existence of innate ideas coincides with the empiricists’ claims. This is consistent with empiricists claim since it adheres to their view that knowledge is determined by sense-experience.

Given that one’s senses are affected by one’s genetic characteristics, it follows that one’s knowledge is determined by one’s sense experiences. If such is the case, it is possible to posit based on the claim presented by Agnati above that the epistemological assumptions of empiricism may be able to provide us with the basis for making sound and valid knowledge claims. Works Cited Agnati, Luigi et. al. “Does the Human Brain Have Unique Genetically Determined Networks Coding Logical and Ethical Principles and Aesthetics? From Plato to Novel Mirror Networks.

” Brain Research Reviews 55. 1 (Aug. 2007): 68-77. Descartes, Rene. “Excerpt from the Meditations. ” Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Transl. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill, 1955. Leibniz, Gottfried. “Excerpt from New Essays on Human Understanding. ” Leibniz: Philosophical Writings. Ed. G. H. R. Parkinson. Transl. Mary Morris and G. H. R. Parkinson. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1973.

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