The Concept of Tabula Rasa: Humans Are Born with a "Blank Slate"

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Language has been the first stepping-stone that defined human communication. It has the power to change the world around us and also has the power to reshape our thoughts and perception of the society we live in. We have come a long way in establishing gender equalities in society but language biases can still have dire consequences in altering our understanding of world runnings and issues at center. Language gendering has been the central topic of discussions and debates. Gender is restricted by the boundaries of social construct and language has an important role to play in setting the foundations of gendered divisions. An example of it is the development of the language and how sexism has been the continuous backdrop of it: She as He Suffix: She, Wo as Man Suffix: Woman, Fe as Male: Female, Hu as Man Suffix: Human, and Person with ‘Son’. These ideas have been fabricated by men with default sex at the center. The paper recognizes this difference and discusses the pivotal role that language continues to play in our society and in our lives. 

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Language is fundamental to all societies. It allows people to communicate and to receive and share ideas or values. Many feminist philosophers, writers, and thinkers have seen language as a critical area for study and analysis, particularly to explore the ways in which language helps to perpetuate patriarchy and discrimination against women. Language’s relation to gender was an important topic of discussion from the onset of the second wave of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Dale Spender, an Australian feminist writer, argued in her book ‘Man-Made Language’ that “males, as the dominant group, have produced language, thought and reality”.

For Spender, language and the rules of language are under male control and reflect male values. As a result, women are either invisible or defined as the “other.” They find it difficult to change or challenge this situation since they have to use the language they inherited. Language, therefore, perpetuates male supremacy. However, an important question raised by critics was whether language could be the powerful domineering influence that Spender represented. Language is often viewed as a vehicle for the perpetuation of women’s subordination. Several feminist writers and scholars gave attention to the sexism inherent in language that contains supposedly generic uses of masculine terms, especially the supposedly neutral ‘man’ and male pronouns. Over the years there has been a major drift in feminist philosophy of language from material to symbolic - from the sociological understandings of patriarchy to explorations of the contingencies of gendered identities. Is Language Neutral? Feminist philosophers and writers have argued that “language is not neutral”, but is man-made.

The words and phrases we use today were created in a heavily male-focused culture and still reflect sexist attitudes. For instance, a mixed-gender group is referred to as “guys” but never as “girls.” Language assumes men to be the norm and women to be the “other.” We often see calling a woman by a male term as fine, but calling a man by a female term as negative- upholding the position of men as superior to women. Grammatical gender as a concept is found in a quarter of the world’s languages, you can sort all nouns into male or female. La or le in French, Der, die, or das in German- the das is for neuter. In Zande, which is found across a few countries in Central Africa, there are four grammatical genders: human male, human female, animate, and inanimate. There are hardly any convincing arguments for grammatical gender usage in languages. One vaguely convincing argument is that it can help clear up ambiguities and speeds up the recognition of words by a small amount. However, three-quarters of the world’s languages manage just fine without it. Gendered language creates a number of problems which directly (or indirectly) affects the way one thinks.

For instance, when asked to describe a key, German speakers- who classify key as male- were likely to associate it with “hard”, “heavy”, and “jagged”, whereas Spanish speakers- who classify key as female- were more likely to say it was “golden,” “intricate,” and “little.” These differences say a lot about gender roles in society. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir writes in her book ‘The Second Sex” that “throughout history, the standard measure of what we take to be human—both in philosophy and in society at large—has been a peculiarly male view”. Some philosophers, such as Aristotle, have been explicit in equating full humanity with maleness. It is for this reason that de Beauvoir says that the Self (or “I”) of philosophical knowledge is by default male, and his binary pair—the female—is, therefore, something else, which she calls “the Other.”

The Self is active and knowing, whereas the Other is all that the Self rejects: passivity, voicelessness, and powerlessness. Masculine nature of language The Belgian philosopher and analyst Luce Irigaray is concerned above all else with the idea of sexual difference. Irigaray claims that all language is essentially masculine in nature. In Sex and Genealogies she writes: “Everywhere, in everything, men’s speech, men’s values, dreams, and desires are law. Man, as an animal gifted with language, as a rational animal, has always represented the only possible subject of discourse, the only possible subject. And his language appears to be the universe itself”. She further suggests that sex has a correlation with desire, and as a result, each sex has a relation to madness. This calls into question the long tradition of equating maleness with rationality and femaleness with irrationality. Irigaray understands sexual differences to be different from social gender in several ways. She points out that “sexual difference expresses deep-seated fantasies that are not straightforwardly social in origin, if by “society” we mean a set of collective arrangements into which each individual comes and by which he or she is shaped.”

Irigaray says, “the human subject, woman or man, is not a mere social effect.” Furthermore, for Irigaray, men and women assume different subject positions by taking on symbolic meanings, a process that establishes our basic identities as men and women (boys and girls). Only having taken on the rudiments of these identities do we then come to respond to and take on particular—socially and historically changing—gender norms. Moreover, our sexed identities are psychical and bodily, unlike gender roles, which are taken on by the mind rather than the body. The male line Sexism in language appears in many forms: an obvious example is the use of the pronoun “he” to refer to both men and women, which assumes male supremacy and subjugates women. The roots of “man language” where “he” is considered a generic pronoun and “mankind” is used to describe the entire human race, depict the inherited biases towards males. The period of the 17th and 18th centuries was when male grammarians laid down rules that explicitly stated males should take pride of place in language and that the male gender was “more comprehensive” than the female. This not only implies that men are more powerful than women but also effectively states that men are the “norm.” Women cannot then identify or find themselves in these terms. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill have argued extensively on “perfect equality.” His essay on the “Subjection of Women” established a correlation between the degree of people and the social position of its women. He argued against Essentialism. Upon becoming an MP, J.S. Mill introduced an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act by replacing instances of the word “man” with “person,” a change that would have included (some) women in the mass of newly eligible voters. The woman does not share equal status with a man (linguistically or otherwise) because, in accordance with the semantic rule, a woman has become pejorated while the man has remained pure and untainted, protected by its semantic association with the male.

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The concept of tabula rasa which has been used by several philosophers including, Aristotle, John Locke, and Rousseau states that humans are born with a “blank slate”. John Locke in “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” argues that all humans begin life as a white paper, void of all characters and the experiences are what make us who we are today. Tabula rasa points out how the human mind gets corrupted over time, and how the binaries of gender which are not entrenched in our minds at the beginning of birth, slowly start to define a large area of language. Human beings are symbolizing creatures, and we are constantly engaged in the process of producing symbols as a means of categorizing and organizing our world. This use (or misuse) of symbols constitutes a large area of language, thought, and reality. It is seen that English, which is spoken by 20% of the world’s population, doesn’t have grammatical gender. However, the usage of third-person pronouns (he, she, and it) has created problems in language. Most often than not, people are asked to fit into two categories of “he” and “she,” while filling out forms or other documents. But there are people who don’t fit into or don’t want to declare as, either of those categories. Since “it” is a bit dehumanizing, there’s really no suitable pronoun to use. To come with a solution to this problem, people are now using “they.” Though it is argued that gendering of language is important to clear up ambiguities and speed up recognition of words, however, it’s important to understand that our minds were initially nothing but clean slates and language only serves as a construct created by our minds to reinforce the divisions between the dominant [male] and muted female groups.


  1. Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
  2. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books 1989, c1952.
  3. Irigaray, Luce, and Erin G. Carlston. “The Language of Man.” Cultural Critique, no. 13, 1989, pp. 191–202.
  4. Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Columbia University Press, 1993
  5. Mill, John. On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1879.
  6. Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  7. Saul, Jennifer and Diaz-Leon, Esa, 'Feminist Philosophy of Language', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
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The Concept of Tabula Rasa: Humans are Born with a “Blank Slate”. (2022, May 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from
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