Tabula Rasa

The philosophical concept of “tabula rasa”, or blank slate, has been attributed to Aristotle, later developed in the 11th century by Avicenna, and brought into the modern context through John Locke’s empirical theories.

The term is specifically applied to the construction of our consciousness. According to classical notions of tabula rasa, at birth we are a blank slate, and that through our own sensory experiences, data is added and the rules for processing are formed. It is significantly supportive of the notion of free will, but also supports an idea of nurture over nature.

According to this fascinating blog, tabula rasa theories manifest also in certain modernist aesthetics, like that of Le Corbousier:

I wonder if one can apply (or if someone has applied) the notion of tabula rasa to particular societies and their aesthetic or philosophical identity, how they construct and reveal themselves. Going back to the original Latin meaning, a tabula rasa is not an untouched tablet, but rather one whose writing has been erased … scraped off. In this sense, it corresponds to our colloquialism, “a clean slate”, which has had particular resonance in the migratory patterns in Australia since colonial times.

I often question what it is that guides or forms an overarching Australian identity, and whether we can glean a trope through our aesthetic (specifically musical) portrayals. At certain times, I tend to favour the idea that the Australian aesthetic is guided by an imperative to forget … an erasure of history, of stain, of taint, a desire to keep silent about a shameful past. The “clean slate” is, in fact, a trompe l’oeil, an optical illusion of a non-existent blank state that allows us to reconstruct a ‘new’ identity, without having to come to terms with past heritage, history, baggage, issues and problems.

I’ll come back to this idea in future posts, but for now, I should clarify that the times when I do favour this idea of a forgetful aesthetic are the times when I am pessimistic about the direction of our culture. It is not my constant belief about the state of Australian culture.


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy

3 Responses to Tabula Rasa

  1. Karin

    I really like the idea of a clean slate. It’s hard to achieve though, although I try on a daily basis to ‘start again’ and make each day fresh, new and full of delightful possibilities.

    I agree also that while our experiences shape us, we should not let them rule our lives. Take the lesson on board and then start anew. Carrying around a ‘shameful’ past can be a terrible burden that can also lead to lasting health problems and if we are able to offload that past, again taking the lesson on board for future reference, then start again, all the better for us.

    Like your work. xx

    • joseph

      Hi Karen! I agree with you that the notion of a clean slate is a useful psychological tool for inter-personal relations and individual circumstances, especially as a result of post-traumatic circumstances. Certainly, from my many conversations with survivors, Australia provided a context for a ‘clean slate’, a place where they could rebuild their lives, not dwell on past pain and loss, and start anew.

      My concern with allying the notion of tabula rasa to an actual cultural identity (and I do believe that this is an increasingly present trope in the development of an Australian aesthetic and identity) is that if it becomes the dominant factor, then in the societal context, the culture is skipping over the essential process of dealing with the past in healthy ways. The legal fiction of “terra nullius” seems awfully close to “tabula rasa”, and the consequent manner in which we treated, and continue to treat the indigenous peoples of Australia is a matter in point. There are many other cases too. I guess that’s where I locate my concern with the term as it applies to our culture.


  2. Ms M

    A clean slate is a nice thought, but agree the past has to be dealt with and processed in a healthy and positive way for the slate to be clean, and even so, I don’t think the past can ever be forgotten or ignored.
    I look forward to you writing more about this, and in particular about Australia’s cultural identity, which is so rarely spoken about anymore.

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