Innatism: Origin, Characteristics And Representatives

The nativism in philosophy is a theory that holds the pre – existence of ideas or fundamental notions of innate origin thinking; that is, not acquired by experience or learning. According to this current, knowledge is an inherent quality of the human being, which has skills, characteristics and unlearned knowledge.

Innate doctrine proclaims that humans are born with some knowledge (and even knowledge in its entirety) or that they are determined to acquire it. This notion starts from the premise that knowledge is born together with the individual. Nativity as a philosophy has two variants or areas.


On the one hand there is the innateness of knowledge, in which the individual has access to certain knowledge that is their own by nature. On the other hand, there is innateness as an idea; that is, the subject has access to certain innate ideas.

The innateness of knowledge implies innateness as an idea, but not the other way around. In other words (although it is debatable), innateness as an idea does not necessarily lead to innateness of knowledge. In the field of linguistics, nativist theory has gained relevance today in studies on the origin of children’s language.


The term innateness suggests the presence of something (idea or knowledge) at birth. In philosophy, all the different currents of nativism are linked with rationalism. Such is the case of the doctrine of Plato, who is considered the father of this notion.

Nativity is also present in the thought of other modern rationalist philosophers, such as René Descartes , Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza and Inmanuel Kant, among others.

The rationalists considered that, if reason is the great producer of knowledge, then innate ideas must exist either partially or totally. Such ideas would be exempt from the influence of teaching or learning as sources of knowledge.

Kant tried to save or approximate the existing differences between rationalism and empiricism, without leaving aside the nativist premises; that is to say, intuitions about time and space and the a priori concepts or categories of pure reason.

Its essential function is to organize the chaos of sensations into which the experience is translated and, from there, to generate knowledge.

Contemporary innateness

At present, innate presuppositions have been rescued by the American linguist Noam Chomsky in universal grammar and in transformational generative grammar.

Chomsky proposes that language is inherent in human beings. In other words, we are born with a predisposition to produce sounds and, therefore, to communicate. Therefore, the ability to speak and understand that human beings possess is not acquired through experience.

According to the linguist, this faculty is determined by a genetic basis without which it would not be possible to execute it. In this sense, he maintains that language is transitive and raises the question of whether intelligence is also transitive.

According to this theory, human beings are born with multiple developed intelligences. In the same way, it establishes that there are mental structures or preconceptions prior to the experience.

Another philosophical doctrine linked to nativism is constructivism, although it does not defend the notion of “universal reason” nor empiricism.


– Knowledge or some ideas are inherent or born with the human being. In other words, it is a capacity or ability present in the individual from the moment of his birth.

– The knowledge or part of it does not depend on the interaction or experience of the individual with their social environment.

– Innateness is considered a predominant characteristic in rationalist philosophical systems, which try to find an origin or source of knowledge other than sensory experience.

– Innate thought has also relied on modern genetics that has studied the predisposition of human beings at the time of conception.

– Opposes the empiricist thinking of philosophers such as Aristotle, David Hume or John Locke, who deny the preexistence of ideas in humans.

– Philosophers of nativism or rationalism attach great importance to mathematics because, through this, it is possible to better argue how some people have greater ability with arithmetic than others.

– All currents of rationalist thought converge in the innate doctrine insofar as it defends the principle that ideas are connatural to reason, in contrast to empiricist philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke and Hume, who do not accept the existence of any type of idea prior to sensory experience.


Plato (427 – 347 BC)


He was one of the three most important Greek philosophers, along with his teacher Socrates and Aristotle, his disciple. Western thought is largely influenced by the ideas of Plato, as stated by the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

According to Plato, the most important knowledge of man – such as mathematics or science in general – cannot be explained simply from empirical or merely perceptual experiences.

That is why he defended the idea of ​​the reminiscences that the human being has of his previous spiritual life before incarnating.

René Descartes (1596 – 1650)


He was a French philosopher, physicist and mathematician, regarded as the father of modern philosophy and analytical geometry. Throughout his life he focused his philosophical study on the problem of knowledge, to then study other inherent issues.

In overcoming the methodical doubt and the demonstrations of the existence of God, Descartes based his arguments on innate ideas as the central point of the development of his thought.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)


Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher whose Jewish family came to the Netherlands in exile. He studied in depth the Jewish Kabbalah, medieval philosophy and modern philosophy, becoming one of its most prominent figures.

He had a very original system of thought without totally departing from the traditional rationalism of the time in which he lived, influenced by René Descartes.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)


This philosopher, theologian, politician and mathematician is one of the most renowned German thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the point that he is classified as the “last universal genius”, whose contribution in the epistemological area was remarkable.

Leibniz, along with Descartes and Spinoza, made up the group of the three most prominent rationalists of the seventeenth century. His innate ideas were formulated in his work Discourse on metaphysics (1686), and then in  New essays (1703).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


He is one of the most prominent Prussian philosophers of the Enlightenment, the father of criticism and also a precursor of idealism. His contribution to universal philosophy has been widely recognized, as he is the last philosopher of Modernity.

Among his most outstanding works is the Critique of Pure Reason . In this work he investigates the structure of reason and proposes that traditional metaphysics can be reinterpreted through epistemology.

Noam Chomsky (1928 – present)


He is an American linguist and philosopher and one of the most notable figures in linguistics and cognitive science. From his early studies, Chomsky rescued innateness to oppose behaviorism in relation to language.

He argues that the human brain has an innate device called a “language acquisition device,” through which man learns to speak.


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