It is widely believed that the philosophical concept of ‘tabula rasa’ originates with Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and refers to a state in which a child is as formless as a blank slate. Given that both these beliefs are entirely false, this article will examine why they have endured from the eighteenth century to the present. Attending to the history of philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and feminist scholarship it will be shown how the image of the tabula rasa has been used to signify an originary state of formlessness, against which discourses on the true nature of the human being can differentiate their position. The tabula rasa has operated less as a substantive position than as a whipping post. However, it will be noted that innovations in psychological theory over the past decade have begun to undermine such narratives by rendering unintelligible the idea of an ‘originary’ state of human nature.
Robbie Duschinsky is Senior Lecturer in Social Science for Social Work at Northumbria University. His research spans applied social science and the humanities, addressing social and political theory, children and families, and the use of psychology in social policy. Foucault, the Family and Politics, edited with Leon A. Rocha, is in press with Palgrave MacMillan. He has also published articles in a variety of journals.