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Black Stork in a Landscape, ca. 1780 India, probably Lucknow, Colonial British Watercolor on European paper (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

The Tabula rasa: a Rupture

I mentioned René Descartes‘ (15 February 1564 — 8 January 1642) concept of tabula rasa (Discours de la méthode)[1] in a post entitled “There are limits,” says Pope Francis (19 Jan 2015). If I may, I will return to this subject and point to one of history’s most significant ruptures with mental content: Descartes’ tabula rasa. In order to seek truth in the sciences, Descartes cleared the table. He needed a clean slate, proceeded methodically —Descartes uses four steps— guided by reason.  In other words, Descartes discarded all that he had learned since birth. The tabula rasa, is the clearing (se raser means to shave) of the table (tabula).

Descartes was a polymath and therefore combined several intellectual abilities, from philosophy to science. However, he defined himself as a scientist, un géomètre, and did so from the moment he wrote his first work, his Regulæ ad directionem ingenii, (the rules for conducting one’s reason; 1628), written in Latin.

 The Discourse on Method (1637)

In the Discourse, Descartes finds it unavoidable to rid his mind of all knowledge acquired since birth, as this knowledge is not necessarily based on reason, but “desires and our preceptors.”

“And because we have all to pass through a state of infancy to manhood, and have been of necessity, for a length of time, governed by our desires and our preceptors (whose dictates were frequently, while neither perhaps counselled us for best), I farther concluded that it is almost impossible that our judgments can be so correct as they would have been, had our reason been mature from the moment of birth, and had always been guided by it [reason] alone.” (Discourse, p. 10)

Consequently, among Descartes’ personal four rules in seeking the truth,

“[t]he first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” (Discourse, p. 15)

However, Descartes knew that clearing off the table and marching ahead was dangerous. Galileo (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) had been found guilty of heresy in 1633. Galileo supported Copernicusheliocentrism (the sun is at the centre of the universe) and had determined that the planet earth moved. He had to abjure his findings and was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life: 9 years.

Similarly, if Descartes’ quest for the truth in the sciences was to be guided by reason alone, it could lead to observations that might contradict the teachings of the Church, which meant that he too could be tried and found guilty of heresy.

Raif Badawi was condemned to a harsh sentence, possibly death, for asking that liberals in Saudi Arabia be tolerated.

At any rate, the Discourse on Method was not written in France.

“I was in Germany, attracted thither by the wars in that country which have not yet been brought to a termination; and as I was returning to the army from the coronation of the emperor, the setting in of winter arrested me, and was besides fortunately undisturbed by my care or passions, I remained the whole day in seclusion¹ with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts.”
¹ literally in a room heated by means of a stove.—Tr. (p. 10)

In fact, Descartes (adjectival form: Cartesian) spent most of his life in the more tolerant Dutch Republic.

Mental Content

The tabula rasa could be considered a conscious removal of knowledge acquired since birth. Descartes could do this. But his rationalism was critiqued and criticized. As Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) wrote, there are two entrances to the soul, l’esprit de finesse and l’esprit de géométrie, which I will translate as instinct and “pure reason,” a term I am borrowing from Immanuel Kant‘s Critique of Pure Reason(1781). Kant critiqued Descartes. Descartes, however can at least be credited with setting about his research using an uncluttered mind.

One cannot expect a tabula rasa on the part of persons whose thinking is rigid: extremists, fundamentalists, terrorists, racists, etc.

There is nothing reasonable about the burning alive of an innocent Jordanian pilot, locked in a cage. There is nothing reasonable in the pain he was subjected to. Nor is there anything reasonable in filming the dreadful event for a father to view and die a thousand times.

I pity the converts who have flocked to the Middle East only to watch the raping and killing of children, serial cold-blooded beheadings and the burning alive of captured Jordanian Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh. In the 21st century, no faith should allow depravity incarnate, and this is depravity incarnate.

I have already quoted King Abdullah II:

“King Abdullah of Jordan described ISIS today [5 February 2015] as a ‘criminal and misguided group which is not related in any shape or form to our great faith.’” (Daily Mail, UK)

As for Safi al-Kasasbeh, Muath al-Kasasbeh’s father, he is asking for revenge.


We can all understand, but revenge has its price…

The Muslim world has just had its 9/11. So has Japan. 

Raif Badawi

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is again before a court. I believe there’s hope for Mr Badawi. He has not been flogged since King Salman ascended to the throne. King Salman is an absolute monarch. He may pardon Mr Badawi. However, ideally, a court should find Raif Badawi innocent.

Saudis are attached to their customs, customs Europeans and other people may look upon as barbaric, but…  In view of the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the grief of his father and family, the people of the Middle East may feel more divided on the subject of torture, but I am speculating. All we know is that ISIS crossed the line, and that the conflict has taken on new dimensions.

Human Rights

Freedom of speech is a Human Right according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2]

Moreover, flogging Raif Badawi is torture and, therefore, a second infringement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Flogging can kill and it has.


At the moment, however, humanity is in violation of several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


We have a better self both as individuals, i.e. individually, and as nations, collectively. At the individual level, it’s called the soul, the conscience, compassion… That has been trampled upon. At the collective level, our better self has at times been called “justice.” Justice? That has also been trampled on and it varies from country to country:

Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà.
Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error beyond.
Pensées, Blaise Pascal (posthumous)

My dear mother once remarked that I was fortunate to work in a morally superior institution: a university. I told her the truth. Universities are human institutions and, therefore, they are at times very difficult milieus. My universities have asked me to do what they have also prevented me from doing.

And if King Salman does not release Raif Badawi, love has died. Or is reason faltering?

I apologize for recycling images.

I hope this was my last post on this subject and wish all of you a good weekend.


Sources and Resources

  • Descartes’ Œuvres complètes, Le Discours de la méthode is the Gutenberg Project [EBook #13846] (V. Cousin; 1824 – 1826) (FR)
  • Descartes Discourse on Method is an Internet Archive publication (EN)
  • Pascal’s Pensées is the Gutenberg Project [EBook #18269] (EN)
  • Pascal’s Pensées is an Internet Archive publication (Édition princeps des Pensées, publiée en 1669 – 1670 par MM. de Port-Royal.) (FR)

Photo credit: Internet Archives (Descartes)


[1] René Descartes, André Bridoux (ed), Œuvres complètes (Éditions Gallimard, Collection de la Pléiade, 1953). (my copy)

[2] The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights /Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme (UDHR) was adopted on 10 December 1948 and ratified on 16 December 1949.

Maher Zain – Number One For Me | Official Music Video

Ensaf Haidar

Ensaf Haidar, Raif Badawi’s Wife

© Micheline Walker
7 February 2015