Concept Innatism

Concept Innatism

1. The view that we are born with (at least some) innate ideas

2. Argues that reason is a more reliable source than experience for deducing what ideas we have

3. We can have (at least some) 'substantive' ideas about how the world is that are not grounded in experience

1 of 19

Plato's dilemma

"And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn't know?"
- Meno's Paradox

2 of 19

Plato's response

  • Learning is not a process of discovery, but of recollection (anamnesis)
  • There are ideas present to the mind at birth which (via the act of Socratic questioning) can be drawn to the surface without the need for empirical contribution (experience)
  • The notion of reincarnation (recollection from our past lives) may seem unconvincing from a contemporary perspective, there is much current neurological support for Plato's argument
3 of 19

Plato's "Slave-boy"

  • Drawing a square in the sand, Plato asks Meno's slave (who has no prior mathematical education) what the size of the new shape would be, were each side doubled
  • After careful consideration, the boy, being prompted but not informed by Plato, correctly responds "4 times the size" (as opposed to double, which would be more intuative)
  • Plato continues in this vein and manages to draw out Pythagoras' theorem (a^2 + b^2 = c^2\!\, , (
4 of 19

What can we conclude from this example?

  • Certain mathematical ideas (e.g. equality) are innate (Plato's conclusion)

BUT, people have argued with him because:

  • A neoate would have been unable to formulate the same answer
  • The slave-boy must have had at least some prior exposure to mathematics
  • Plato's questions acted as implicit 'prompts'

This would seem like an unwarranted conclusion to draw 

5 of 19

A more charitable analysis

  • It was the capacity rather than the actual knowledge which was present at birth
  • Therefore, the capacity is latent within, but not directly present to the mind of a new-born
  • Experience thus plays some role in activating this capacity, but the capacity itself is non-experiential
6 of 19

Locke's definition of innateness

  • Present to the mind at birth
  • Universally assented to
  • Knwon without recourse to experience

This relates to the straw man argument:
This means that it deliberately misrepresents and weakens the argument of the opposing side (the opposing side being Plato).
This is done by leaving out key points of Plato's argument or quoting his words out of context.
This is basically saying that he puts forward a weak defense which can be easily defeated.

7 of 19

Locke's criticisms of innateness

  • All ideas, including those believed to be innate, can be shown to have come from experience
  • Colour etc. are not innate - for why would God have given us eyes? (A blind man can form no notion of colour nor a deaf man of sound) HUME
  • No ideas are universally assented to, so no ideas are innate (e.g. babies and idiots)
  • Nor does universal assent entail innateness (if it can be explained through experience
  • If an idea requires experience to be unearthed, then it is not innate
  • It is contradictory to claim that an idea is present to the mind without our being aware of it
8 of 19

Plato's forms

  • For every particular thing in the world there has to be a Form
  • It is this 'Form' which allows us to recognise particular objects in the world
  • Because knowledge of Forms cannot be aquired from experience (in the same way particular things can) these ideas must be innate
9 of 19

Argument for temporality and relativity

Backs up the point that experience cannot provide us with ideas

  • "Man cannot step in the same river twice - for it's not the same river and he's not the same man" (Heraclitus)
  • If the world is in a continual state of change, and knowledge can only be of that which is permanent, we cannot have knowledge of particular things in the world
10 of 19

The 'one and the many' argument

  • The world is filled with particular things
  • Our knowledge extends beyond knowledge of particulars
11 of 19

Problems with Plato's account

Where are they?

  • If 'outside of space and time,' how do they relate to particulars?
  • If inside space and time, how can they be universal?
12 of 19


The 3 Sceptical


13 of 19

Descartes: Error/illusion

"All that I have, up until this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I recieved either from of through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have have even once been decieved."

14 of 19

Possible responses

  • Descartes weak response: The senses are generally reliable
    "Yet although the senses sometimes decieve us about objects that are very small or distant, that doesn't apply to my belief that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on. It seems to be quite impossible to doubt beliefs like these, which come from the senses."
  • A more plausible response: we can rectify cases of perceptual illusion by appealing to the other senses
15 of 19

Descartes: Dreaming

"How often have I dreamt that I was inthese familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied by this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I percieve it; the occurences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been decievced in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I percieve so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can never be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming."

16 of 19

Possible responses

Descartes 1: Everything dreamt of must first have been experienced in reality: "Suppose, indeed that I don’t even have hands or any body at all. Still, it has to be admitted that the visions that come in sleep are like paintings: they must have been made as copies of real things; so at least these general kinds of things— eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole—must be real and not imaginary." Descartes 2: Not strong enough to doubt  a priori  knowledge: For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three makes five, and a square has only four sides. A modern response: The concept of dreaming can only be understood when juxtaposed against waking/veridical experience

17 of 19

Descartes: Deception

"Nevertheless, the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind. How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objectsm and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I percieve them? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also decieved each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgement still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined?"

18 of 19

A modern version: Brain in a Vat

Imagine that a human being had been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings. (Putnam)

19 of 19


No comments have yet been made

Similar Philosophy resources:

See all Philosophy resources »See all Epistemology resources »