A priori

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The theory of "innate ideas," in any of its philosophically significant forms, claims that all morally right judgment or all science, or both, rest upon or consist in a knowledge a priori either of (a ) universal principles governing reality or (b ) objects transcending sensory experience. Representative of such universal principles are "From nothing, nothing comes" (Ex nihilo, nihil fit ); "Equals added to equals give equals"; "It is wrong to murder." Illustrations of transcendent objects are Platonic Forms and God. Concomitantly, the theory attempts to explain the genesis and epistemological status of the conception of such principles and objects. For this purpose it introduces the notion of innate ideas.

Proponents of the theory of innate ideas (henceforth "innatists") would typically agree with empiricists that sensory experience consists of particulars. They would claim, however, that scientific knowledge is knowledge that holds good everywhere and at every time, that such knowledge in fact exists, and that the abstracting and compounding of sensory particulars in empiricist inductions cannot possibly provide us with such knowledge, but at most only with opinion. Innatists would also maintain, in agreement with some empiricists, that the abstractions and compoundings of sensory particulars described by empiricism as the basis of conception cannot possibly provide us with the conception of such universal principles or transcendent objects as are referred to above. At the same time, innatists would typically disagree with those realists who claim that such conceptions and knowledge are attained through direct perceptions or intuitions of nonsensory reality, or if they did join the theory of innate ideas with a theory of such intuitions, as Plato seems to have done, they would hold that scientific knowledge, though it may conclude in such intuitions, does not commence with them. (To maintain that scientific knowledge commences with such intuitions would be to make the notion of innate ideas methodologically and epistemologically superfluous.) The notion of innate ideas rests, for its philosophical significance, on the assumption that knowledge of reality is not given directlyat least, not in its chronologically first premisesbut through representations. Where reality is viewed as something distinct from sensory particulars, innatists are thus representative realists.

Since proponents of the theory of innate ideas deny that such conceptions of universal principles or of transcendent objects as are described above are derived either from sensory experience or from intuitions of nonsensory reality, they are left with the problem of explaining their genesis. This they solve by holding these conceptions to be innate or inbornto be, in short, innate ideas. But in speaking of innate ideas, proponents of the theory seem to mean two things. By "idea" they sometimes mean an object of awareness, like a mental image. When speaking in this way, innatists must maintain that conceptions of universal principles or of transcendent objects are present in the mind from birth or even prior to it. Innatists then typically explain why children and savages do not seem to be cognizant of the principles or objects in question by holding that these conceptions or representations, though present in the mind, are obscured by the presence of other conceptions or ideasin particular, sensory ideas or perceptsmuch as the sound of a flute might be present in the air but be inaudible because of other sounds or noises. Again, innatists sometimes mean by "idea" not an object of awareness but, rather, a disposition of the mind or reason to form a determinate conception under certain conditions or stimuli. In René Descartes, for instance, whenever consciousness occurs, there also occurs the conception that something is consciousnamely, oneselfand this is innate in the dispositional sense.

An equally crucial problem for proponents of the theory of innate ideas is to explain the epistemological status of innate conceptions. Since these conceptions are held to constitute the foundation for all science and since science is conceived of as depicting reality, the question arises: How can we know that these conceptions apply to reality?

Again, two answers are traditionally given to this question. One answer, originating in Plato, holds that innate ideas are actually memories. These memories are the representations of direct intuitions of reality experienced before birth. Innate ideas express knowledge, then, in the way that memories do. A second answer, exemplified in Descartes, holds that the truth of innate ideas can be internally validated. Thus, in Descartes we find upon reflection that two innate ideas, the idea that I am and the idea that from nothing nothing comes, possess a special propertythey not only involve the immediate assent of reason (their denial being a contradiction of sorts) but they cannot be subjected to doubt, since any possible argument of doubt, as, for instance, appeal to an evil demon as the source of these ideas, must implicitly affirm the ideas in question. Thus, in arguing that an evil demon might be deceiving me, I at the same time affirm that I am and employ the principle that from nothing nothing comes. Taking a stand on these two innate ideas, Descartes then purports to prove the existence of God and God's goodness; by so doing, he thinks to establish clarity and distinctness as both the necessary and the sufficient condition of an idea's being true and thus validate all other innate ideas.

In summary, then, the theory of innate ideas states that certain conceptions of universal principles and nonsensory objects are innate, in the sense of being either images present in the mind at or before birth or inborn dispositions of the mind to form conceptions under certain circumstances. Since these conceptions, taken as either images or dispositions, exist chronologically before sensory experience, they are a priori in the literal, temporal sense of the term. Since they are not composed from or testable in sensory experience but since they provide the basis for all scientific knowledge, they are also a priori in the logical and epistemological senses.

History of the Theory

The notion of innate ideas patently lends itself to theological speculation and to systems of metaphysics that locate reality in realms transcending sensory experience. Plato employed the notion as the bridge to the realm of Forms, and similar metaphysical and theological uses of the doctrine occur in the works of the Neoplatonists (Plotinus, for example), as well as in the works of later philosophers and theologians belonging to the Platonic and the Neoplatonic tradition, including St. Augustine in the early period of Christianity, and Marsilio Ficino in the Italian Renaissance. Outside the strictly Platonic and Neoplatonic line, Descartes, as already noted, employed the doctrine in his proof of God's existence, and it was used in a similar fashion by the ancient Stoics, Herbert of Cherbury, and many other philosophers.

The doctrine of innate ideas also has an intimate relationship with the philosophy of science. Historically, this relationship has minifested itself in the fact that philosophical controversy over the doctrine has been greatest just when philosophers have been most concerned to establish foundations and methods for science. Thus, the existence of innate ideas was especially debated in the fourth century BCE by the philosophers of the Academy and the Lyceum and in the seventeenth century by the Continental rationalists and the British empiricists.

The question of whether innate ideas exist is not without consequences in the establishment of science. The doctrine of innate ideas favors certain scientific procedures and discourages others. In particular, it favors meditation as opposed to laboratory experimentation and mathematical methods as opposed to inductive methods. It might seem, however, that philosophical theories concerning the origins and foundations of scientific knowledge could have had, and therefore have had, no actual influence on the establishment of science, just as it has seemed to many philosophers that philosophical theories concerning ethics could have had and have had no actual influence on men's moral behavior. But this view overlooks the failures of would-be science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: On the one hand, the imposing but vacuous systems spun out of the doctrine of innate ideas, and, on the other, the aimless experimentation and observation that Jonathan Swift, for example, caricatures in parts of Gulliver's Travels. The truth would appear to be, not that the doctrine of innate ideas could have had no real influence upon the development of science, but that if it had been strictly and universally adhered to in the seventeenth century and afterward, science would not have been established; but, then, universal adherence to the stricter forms of empiricism would also have been a sterile cause, and so, too, it would seem, would have been an intellectual climate in which neither philosophical empiricism or philosophical rationalism played any part in men's thinking.


The classic attack upon the doctrine of innate ideas is made by John Locke in the first book of An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Locke argues that if the doctrine of innate ideas were true, one would expect to find certain ideas, such as the idea of God or the idea that whatever is, is, possessed by everyone and consciously employed in all their reasonings. This is not the case, however. Small children and savages do not possess these ideas, nor do persons consciously employ them in all their reasonings.

Commentators on the theory of innate ideas have sometimes complained that Locke's criticism of the theory sets up a straw man that no responsible innatist has ever cared to defend. In particular it has been claimed that responsible innatists have not held, and have not pretended to hold, that universal recognition and acceptance are corollaries to the existence of innate ideas. But this complaint is beside Locke's point. It is clear, for instance, that if small children everywhere, at the commencement of their discourse with others, appealed explicitly to the idea that whatever is, is, or to the idea of God, there would be good empirical grounds for supposing that innate ideas existed. For these would be at least some of the crucial empirical consequences one would want to deduce from the theory. Since these crucial consequences are not observed but might theoretically be observed, the theory is an empirical theory and, as such, it stands refuted by experience.

It has been argued against the theory of innate ideas that whatever transcendent principles or conceptions the theory pretends to account for can be accounted for more plausibly by supposing them to be constructed from givens of experience or acquired through transcendent intuitions. This argument, however, is not very convincing. It is, for example, impossible to conceive how the concept of infinity could be constructed from givens of experience or acquired through the contemplation of some transcendent realm of entities. But it is not clear, either, how possession of the concept can be accounted for through the theory of innate ideas.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Augustine, St.; Descartes, René; Ficino, Marsilio; Greek Academy; Herbert of Cherbury; Hume, David; Knowledge, A Priori; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Nativism, Innatism; Neoplatonism; Plato; Plotinus; Rationalism; Renaissance; Stoicism; Swift, Jonathan.


primary sources

Plato connects the theory of innate ideas with the doctrines of reminiscence and metempsychosis in Meno and Phaedo. (See Dialogues, edited by B. Jowett, 2 vols., 4th rev. ed., Oxford, 1953). He supports this by the case of the slave boy who carries out geometrical demonstrations in a manner suggesting recollection.

Herbert of Cherbury bases his doctrine of natural religion upon a theory of innate ideas. In his De Veritate, translated as On Truth by M. H. Carré (Bristol, U.K., 1937), universal recognition and acceptance are treated as criteria distinguishing innate ideas from other ideas. Pragmatic overtones are introduced: Our common or innate notions are also those that conduce to our preservation, and conversely.

Descartes lays the foundation for most subsequent discussion, pro and con, of the theory of innate ideas in his account of the wax tablet and our judgments of other minds in the "Second Meditation" and in his threefold division of ideas in the "Third Meditation." See Meditations, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, translated by E. S. Haldane and C. T. Ross. 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1911, 1931; New York, 1955).

Locke's classic attack upon the theory of innate ideas is given in Book I of the Essay concerning Human Understanding (edited by J. W. Yolton, 2 vols., London, 1961). Locke argues that the theory that all knowledge is acquired from experience can be substantiated in experience; the doctrine of innate ideas is disconfirmed by experience.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's New Essays concerning Human Understanding contains an exhaustive examination and critique of Locke's attack upon the theory of innate ideas. See "Specimens of Thoughts upon the First Book of the Essay on Human Understanding, 1698," the preface, and "Book I" in the New Essays as translated by A. G. Langley. 3rd ed. (La Salle, IL, 1949). In opposition to Locke, Leibniz argues that insensible perceptions exist and that thus Locke's arguments concerning children and savages being unaware of the concept of God or such principles as whatever is, is, do not refute the theory of innate ideas. Contains Leibniz's own version of the theory of innate ideas.

David Hume in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding offers a very brief but penetrating and informative discussion of the theory of innate ideas and its relation to his principle that every simple idea is the copy of a precedent simple impression. See Sec. 2, footnote 1, in the Enquiry edited by C. W. Hendel (New York, 1955).

N. O. Losskii connects the historical appearance of the doctrine of innate ideas in the seventeenth century with the failure of empiricists of that era to account for transcendent knowledge, necessary truths, and knowledge of an external world. See Ch. 2 of his The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge, translated by N. A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), where he argues that although the pre-Kantian rationalists seemed able to resolve the difficulties in question by the doctrine of innate ideas, the cost of this resolution was prohibitive. They "had to assume that the whole of knowledge is innate."

R. I. Aaron in The Nature of Knowing (London: Williams and Norgate, 1930) discusses innate ideas in connection with his intuitionist theory of knowledge. Although he maintains that all discursive knowledge rests upon a priori knowledge of indubitable or self-evident principles, he denies that the latter are innate ideas.

H. H. Price maintains in Perception (London: Methuen, 1932) that there are a priori innate ideas, but that "we only come to clear consciousness of such concepts when we have already applied them many times."

Lewis E. Hahn's A Contextualistic Theory of Perception (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1942) contains a detailed discussion of the interrelationship of strict sense-data theories of perception, pragmatic theories of perception, and the doctrine of innate ideas. Hahn argues that a strict sense-data theory of perception forces one to accept the doctrine of innate ideas in order to account for one's knowledge and conception of material things, whereas a pragmatic theory of perception does not. He takes this consequence to count in favor of pragmatic theories of perception and against sense-data theories.

John Wild maintains in his Introduction to Realistic Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1948) that what evidence we possess strongly indicates that rational knowledge does not rest upon innate ideas, but is acquired. This evidence consists in the fact that "first we do not know. Then we know."

secondary sources

Bealer, George. "The Incoherence of Empiricism." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplement 66 (1992): 99138. Reprinted in Rationality and Naturalism, edited by S. Wagner and R. Warner. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Carruthers, Peter. Human Knowledge and Human Nature: An Introduction to an Ancient Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Carruthers, Peter. "What Is Empiricism?I." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplement 64 (1990): 6379.

Flage, Daniel, and Clarence Bonnen. "Descartes and the Epistemology of Innate Ideas." History of Philosophy Quarterly 9 (1992): 1933.

Fodor, Jerry. "The Current Status of the Innateness Controversy." In Representations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Jolley, Nicholas. "Leibniz and Malebranche on Innate Ideas." Philosophical Review 97 (1988): 7191.

Newman, Lex. "Descartes on Unknown Faculties and Our Knowledge of the External World." Philosophical Review 103 (1994): 489531.

Rose, F. O. Die Lehre von den angeborenen Ideen bei Descartes und Locke. Berne, 1901.

Schmaltz, Tad. "Descartes on Innate Ideas, Sensation, and Scholasticism: The Response to Regius." In Studies in Seventeenth-Century European Philosophy, edited by M. A. Stewart. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Sigall, E. Platon und Leibniz über die angeborenen Ideen. 2 vols. Chernovtsy, Russia, 18971898.

Stich, S. Innate Ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

John O. Nelson (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

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a pri·o·ri / ˈä prēˈôrē; prīˈôrī; ˈā/ • adj. relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience: a priori assumptions about human nature. • adv. in a way based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation: sexuality may be a factor, but it cannot be assumed a priori. DERIVATIVES: a·pri·o·rism / ˌāprīˈôrizəm; -prē-; ˌäprē-/ n.

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[Latin, From the cause to the effect.]

This phrase refers to a type of reasoning that examines given general principles to discover what particular facts or real-life observations can be derived from them. Another name for this method is deductive reasoning.

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