Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Tabula Rasa

A famous passage from Locke (1706/1977, p. 71) highlights key elements of empiricism: “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any idea, how comes it to be furnished? … To this I answer, in one word, from experience.”  The “white paper” in this quote is more often described as the tabula rasa or the blank slate, the notion of a mind being blank in the absence of experience.  Modern connectionist networks can be described, and sometimes criticized, as endorsing the notion of the blank slate (Pinker, 2002).    This is because prior to learning, modern networks have no pre-existing structure to their connections.  The networks either start literally as blank slates, with all connection weights being equal to zero (Anderson, Silverstein, Ritz, & Jones, 1977; Eich, 1982; Hinton & Anderson, 1981), or start with all connection weights being assigned small, randomly selected values (Rumelhart, Hinton, & Williams, 1986a; Rumelhart et al., 1986b).


  1. Anderson, J. A., Silverstein, J. W., Ritz, S. A., & Jones, R. S. (1977). Distinctive features, categorical perception and probability learning:  Some applications of a neural model. Psychological review, 84, 413-451.
  2. Eich, J. M. (1982). A composite holographic associative recall model. Psychological Review, 89, 627-661.
  3. Hinton, G. E., & Anderson, J. A. (1981). Parallel Models Of Associative Memory. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Locke, J. (1706/1977). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
  5. Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York, NY: Viking.
  6. Rumelhart, D. E., Hinton, G. E., & Williams, R. J. (1986a). Learning internal representations by error propagation. In D. E. Rumelhart & G. E. Hinton (Eds.), Parallel Distributed Processing (Vol. 1, pp. 318-362). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Rumelhart, D. E., Hinton, G. E., & Williams, R. J. (1986b). Learning representations by back-propagating errors. Nature, 323, 533-536.
  8. Widrow, B., & Hoff, M. E. (1960). Adaptive switching circuits. Institute of Radio Enginners, Wester Electronic Show and Convention, Convention Record, Part 4, 96-104.

(Added November 2010)