A Comparison of Descartes’ Nativism and Locke’s Empiricism

The nativists and the empiricists have been at odds since their inception. Nativist thought, that which focuses on the idea that there are some innate ideas existing prior to concrete experience, allows for the existence of archetypal knowledge and a communal unconscious. One of the most prominent nativists was Descartes, who believed that there are, indeed, some forms of knowledge which are built in, as it were, to the human psyche. An empiricist however, like Locke, perceives the mind as being a completely blank slate (“tabula rasa”), and is a thing to be built up from a state of no knowledge. At times, it is important to examine the opposites in a given point of view so as to better understand both and, perhaps, to find some commonality to help differentiate (like Heidegger on page ), the good philosophical roads from the bad. It is the purpose of this paper to present both Locke’s empiricism and Descartes’ nativism with the intent to compare and contrast the two philosopher’s favored approaches to the great questions of their day, and why.

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Nativism, at its core, is the belief that the human soul brings with it innate knowledge that is necessary for its very definition. “A soul or mind without a body would have consciousness, but only of the innate ideas; it would lack the sensory impressions and ideas of material things that occupy normal human consciousness most of the time. Thus the body presumably adds richness to the contents of the soul consciousness, while the soul adds rationality and volition to the cause of behavior (Fancher, 1996)”. Empiricism is a philosophical doctrine that states that all knowledge is derived from experience. For the great number of empiricists, experience includes inner experience-reflection upon the mind and its operations-as well as the inclusion of sense perception. This position is opposed to nativism in that it denies the existence of innate ideas. According to the empiricist, all ideas are derived from experience. Therefore, knowledge of the physical world can be nothing more than an application of experience from particular instances. While these two philosophies are certainly at odds with each other, depending upon the argument, I think both are correct, and both are wrong.
In fact, the center of the argument between the nativists and the empiricists (i.e. Locke) is one that seems to hinge, in great part, upon the argument of God – of science and religion. The central question in that relationship between religion and science is as follows: “are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental”. In other words, do they exist separately from human contrivance awaiting discovery, in the way the laws of physics exist and await discovery? Or, contrary to this transcendental metaphysics, which is the core of traditional theology, are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and ethical precepts instead contrivances of the human mind and culture arising from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution? This is the empiricist world view of the human condition (Wilson, 1999).
Nativism, as espoused by Descartes, requires that the soul be embodied with knowledge and experience prior to association with the body. If the soul is imbedded by God as the manner by which we may commune with Him, then it stands to reason that the mechanisms for such communication would be imprinted into the soul prior to insertion. “The nativist’s task, then, is to describe for us a device embodying brute-causal processes which can be covered, variously, by any of the primary and secondary laws just mentioned. That is, while it’s perfectly acceptable, when dealing with reference per se, to abstract from the mechanisms which sustain the networks of nomological relations that are envisaged, such abstraction is emphatically not acceptable when concept-acquisition is at issue. For it is precisely on account of those mechanisms that an acquisition theory must provide (Cowie, 1998).
Clearly, at the center of the debate between the nativism of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke, is that while it cannot be argued that humans develop thought and ideas over the course of their lives, I think it can be argued that the mind either comes with pre-installed ideas, or without. For many, like instinctual or innate behavior, the idea that actual thought forms would be imbedded is not too unreasonable. One has only to look at the Jungian take on archetypal knowledge to see that there is the possibility of this truth. However, there is also the very legitimate argument that knowledge and ideas can only come from actual experience, like Locke, and therefore our minds start out completely empty. This debate, like many, centers on the argument of God.