Innate Ideas

Innate Ideas

1. Introduction

In another sense, the ideas in this case are not in the form of ideas but it is the cognitive faculty that necessarily carries certain information with it.

According to J.F Hayes from his book “The Inward Wits” published in 1970, in discussing intellectual history, claimed that there were three meanings to the term innate in the theory of innate ideas. First is the meaning to the origin, second is the meaning to the emergence, and the last one is the meaning to the content of the innate ideas. Based on the meaning to the origin, the innate ideas were sometimes understood as those which are held at the moment of birth.

Innate ideas refer to native or inborn ideas. This idea is opposed to the other forms of learning as a posteriori knowledge, which is learned knowledge or experience. Philosophers who believe in this theory are generally rationalists. The idea of innate has a very long history and it was widely accepted before the birth of empiricists’ theory. From time to time, the theory of innate is always been viewed as one of the solutions that is hard to prove and also hard to disprove. Those views were pointing to the same issues known as the origin and the content of the innate ideas, where the theory itself only has some very small changes in order to adapt with the modern world.

2. The Concept of Innate Ideas

The concept of innate ideas is a stereotype crafted to devalue rationalist beliefs. According to the stereotype, as it is articulated by contemporaries of the rationalists, an innate idea is one which is imprinted on the intellect in a single act and which thereafter is available for the benefit of the person possessing it without his being aware of it. On this definition, an innate idea is all or none, either actually operative in a man’s knowledge or else not existent for him at all, and it is entirely uncoupled to acts of will or to personal efforts. If one supposes that acquisition of knowledge is expression of an innate idea, it will be assumed to occur without any learning and possibly in spite of learning to the contrary. The assumption is that ideas can be innate in the same way that a propensity and capacities are inborn, as for example psychological theory alleges that fears can be resulted by a single fright that reverberates in the mind throughout the life of the subject. In one metaphor, an innate idea is more like a seed which ripens or a faculty that unfolds, than something which is put into the mind and is thereafter ready for use. It is a common fallacy to infer that because propensities and capacities have innate conditions the objects towards which the given propensity is an urge and capacities an ability, are therefore themselves present to the mind in some innate idea of them. This fallacy is always assumed in the 17th century critics of innate ideas, it almost never specifically asserted and defended by the rationalists themselves.

3. Historical Perspectives

The history of the religious interpretation of innate ideas is entwined with the history of the doctrine itself in Western thought. Christian theologians of the medieval and early modern periods found much to admire in the doctrine. St. Augustine’s theory of divine illumination, that God illuminates our minds with knowledge, is a theory of innate knowledge. For him and the many that followed him, innate knowledge was the only way to explain how humans were capable of grasping certain concepts, the most important of which is the concept of God. During the 17th and 18th centuries, innate ideas were to have the most influence in religious circles. It was during this period that the doctrine reached its zenith in philosophical importance. This was to be short-lived, as by the time of Kant, it was evident that the stars hadn’t reached.

The first point of reference for innate ideas in Western philosophy is obviously Plato. In the Meno (80d – 86a), Plato introduces the doctrine of innate knowledge, that our learning is merely recollection of knowledge we already possess. This knowledge, he says, is the result of a past life in which our souls existed without the corruption of the body and its senses. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, was to become the most famous critic of the doctrine. His claim in the De Anima that the mind is a tabula rasa, a substance to which nothing has yet been added, is a direct denial of the theory of innate knowledge. This doctrine, however, was to become a permanent fixture in rationalist philosophy. The most recent and extreme endorsement of it is to be found in the work of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has argued that the mind possesses a ‘language acquisition device’, an innate tool which helps us to learn languages. The existence of this device, for Chomsky, explains why children are able to learn to speak so quickly and with such limited exposure to language.

Central to the understanding of an idea is the knowledge of its genealogy – the history of an idea is often as important as the idea itself, for it is the only way in which one can understand its cultural significance. The history of innate ideas is fascinating; it is a complex weave of philosophy, mysticism, science, and religion. This section will be divided into three parts, each dealing with the history of the idea of innate ideas in one of these areas.

4. Criticisms and Debates

An example of such evidence is a study where Piaget showed children a rectangle with a smaller rectangle inside it and asked them to describe what would happen if the smaller rectangle were placed in various positions inside the larger rectangle. It was demonstrated that the children aged 4-5 would randomly place the smaller rectangle in different positions and describe superficial or impossible changes. However, children aged 6-7 would conduct a mental trial and error of various placements and use trial and improvement to arrive at a solution at a higher level of descriptive abstraction than the trial and error actions used. This led Piaget to believe that the children of the older age had an understanding of the criteria for the top rectangle to serve as a rule and/or variable in taking the possible positions of the smaller rectangle. Therefore, children of this age were demonstrating their understanding of the concepts of variable and transformation of coordinates, which he claimed was evidence of innate knowledge of certain aspects of geometry.

Eminent psychologist Jean Piaget was a modern advocate of the theory of innate knowledge. Although Piaget is often inappropriately identified as a genetic epistemologist, he considered himself a genetic psychologist. His intent was to investigate the nature, development, and origins of human knowledge. His fascination with the origins of knowledge caused him to be a steadfast believer in the theory of innate knowledge. Despite this, his main contribution to the theory was as a result of his research in the area of genetic development of thought, which he claimed was evidence for the presence of the systematic structures of knowledge as a result of innate schemas during early childhood.

In the mid-18th century, David Hume wrote an influential essay titled “Of National Characters” in which he argued that innate propositions do not exist. Innate concepts, in contrast, are substantial and correctly identified by rational reflection on the semantic relations of terms in propositions. Modern proponents of the innate knowledge thesis, largely from the rationalist tradition, by and large agree with this distinction between innate concepts and innate propositions. Rationalists have identified a number of plausible candidates for innate concepts, including the concepts of substance, cause, extension, time, space, and self.

5. Contemporary Understanding

There are two modern schools of thought on the nature of ideas. One is that ideas are abstract objects, the other is that they are modes of thought. The ‘object’ theory posits that all ideas are intrinsically linked to an object which they represent. Berkeley’s argument that an idea cannot exist in an unsound or unthinking mind provides important support for this theory and this link was discussed in more detail by Hume who added that an idea is always less vivid than the impression its object provokes. The theory that ideas are modes of thought sees them as mental events which are caused by certain objects. Innate ideas have become an unfashionable idea and this is mirrored by the fact that there are presently very few modern adherents to this theory. Descartes’ special emphasis on the soul as a necessary factor in experiencing innate ideas has led to the gradual notoriety of his theories among modern scientists. Locke’s further undermining of innate ideas by presenting a well-documented theory of how self and identity can be formed through experience has rendered his theory of Lack of Innate Knowledge as one of Man’s integral ideas, for it stated that man naturally lacking an idea is a better; coherent idea would be generally accepted in modern philosophy.

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