Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa


Human knowledge (or lack thereof) at birth

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … word-based formulations
  • Knowing is … written/recorded information
  • Learner is … a transcriber/recorder
  • Learning is … scribing, recording
  • Teaching is … dictating




Tabula rasa, Latin for “blank slate,” refers to the belief that human minds are blank at birth – and, hence, all personal knowledge derives from perception and experience. Similar constructs include:
  • Pu (Daoism, ancient) – a Chinese word meaning “uncarved wood, plain wood,” which serves as a metaphor in Daoism for the knower’s natural state. Common connotations include “rough, natural, essential quality, wholeness, without ornamentation, uncomplicated”


Tabula rasa only makes sense if the word “knowledge” is restricted to formal, language-based, propositions. This delimitation renders insensible such statements as, “Newborns know to suckle” – a delimitation that is so narrow as to render the construct of knowledge useless. There is ample neurological, biological, and psychological evidence that humans are born knowing many things, much of may be necessary to later learning of abstract formulations.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Aristotle; John Locke

Status as a Theory of Learning

Tabula rasa is certainly a perspective on learning, but it is more a metaphor than a theory.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Tabula rasa is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Tabula rasa has no scientific basis.


  • Pu

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Tabula rasa” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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