©The Royal Society/Richard Valencia.

Empiricism and innate ideas

Alberto Vanzo writes…

The empiricism/rationalism distinction (RED) is still often characterized, at least in part, in terms of the rejection or endorsement of innate ideas. Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley and Hume are said to deny that we have innate ideas, whereas rationalists are said to have endorsed innatism. Empiricists are also said to have rejected, and rationalists to have endorsed, substantive a priori truths. However, I will only focus on innate ideas in this post. Is it plausible to distinguish early modern empiricists from early modern rationalists on the basis of their attitude toward innate ideas? Here are five reasons to doubt that this is plausible.

1. Spinoza. As Luis Loeb noted, “Spinoza is completely silent on the subject of innateness”. He never claimed that we have innate ideas. However, he famously denied that mind and body interact. This may be taken to imply that our ideas, rather than deriving from sense experience, are innate.

2. Berkeley. In his most famous writings, Berkeley did not claim that all of our ideas have sensory origin, nor did he reject innate ideas. He only rejected abstract ideas. But the greatest difficulties for enrolling the “empiricist” Berkeley among the enemies of innatism come from his personal notes. Not only did he write that Locke was “tedious about innate ideas” (Luce/Jessop, 9:153), but he also wrote in his Notebooks (649) that “[t]here are innate ideas i.e. Ideas created with us.” (1, 2).

3. Malebranche. The “rationalist” Malebranche attacked, rather than endorsed, innate ideas. As Nicholas Jolley noted, Malebranche’s rejection of innatism derives from his anti-psychologism. Ideas, “according to Malebranche, are not in the mind at all; indeed, they are not the sort of entities which could be in a mind. So if there are, and could be, no ideas in a mind at any time, a fortiori there are no innate ideas.”

Descartes can reply that ideas are only innate in us in

    the same sense as that in which we say that generosity is “innate” in certain families, or that certain diseases such as gout or stones are innate in others: it is not so much that the babies of such families suffer from these diseases in their mother’s womb, but simply that they are born with a certain “faculty” or tendency to contract them. (Comments on a Certain Broadsheet)

Malebranche rebuts that this form of innatism is trivial and vacuous. Saying that our ideas are innate because our mind has the capacity to form or bring them to consciousness under appropriate circumstances is like saying that we fall asleep because we have a dormitive virtue. What we need to know are the categorical, non-dispositional properties that ground these dispositions.

4. Leibniz. Leibniz was aware of Malebranche’s criticism. When he defends the doctrine of innate ideas (most notably, in the New Essays), he is fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, he counters Locke’s rejection of innatism in the first book of the Essay. On the other hand, he responds to Malebranche, because he too endorses the dispositional account of innate ideas attacked by Malebranche: “This is how ideas and truths are innate in us – as inclinations, dispositions, tendencies, or natural potentialities and not as actions”. So, the standard account of Leibniz’s innatism as a rationalist reply to Locke’s concept-empiricism is too simplistic. Leibniz is opposing the “rationalist” Malebranche as well as the “empiricist” Locke. (As Nicholas Jolley explains in The Light of the Soul, Leibniz replies to Malebranche by identifying the categorical basis of the relevant dispositions with unconscious petites perceptiones).

5. Boyle and the Cimento. Things become even more complicated if we consider less-known authors like Robert Boyle or the Italian natural philosophers who were associated with the Accademia del Cimento. They are usually regarded as empiricists. Yet Boyle mentions “inbred notions” or endorses innatism in various passages (e.g. The Christian Virtuoso, in The Works of Robert Boyle, eds. Hunter/Davis, 11:300-301). The opening of the Cimento’s Saggi di naturali esperienze mentions innate notizie that God has planted in our soul and that we recollect in the course of experience. Passages like these are hard to reconcile with the tendency to take the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as a criterion to distinguish between early modern empiricists and rationalists.

I agree with Loeb that the empiricism/rationalism distinction is broken-backed. However, if one still wants to use it, one cannot appeal to the endorsement or rejection of innate ideas as scholars have often done. Do you think that this conclusion is convincing? I would love to hear your views in the comments.

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