I don't see any justification to argue a person has an idea or knowledge that is not derived from its environment. How come Plato raised this question at all:

How is it that we have certain ideas which are not conclusively derivable from our environments?

I would love to hear what kind of idea/knowledge I didn't get from the environment and had in my mind since birth.

  • 3
    Elementary logic and arithmetic, moral principles, knowledge of God, or so thought Descartes et al., see Wikipedia's Innate Ideas.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 4:32
  • 1
    He arrived at this position from reason, which was wrong. Plato was wrong about a lot of things...
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 11:32
  • 1
    Our DNA is perhaps the prime factor in our environment, because we have no choice but to live in our own bodies. The brains and senses we were born with is all that we can ever hope to have, despite possible efforts to maximize their effectiveness.
    – Bread
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 14:16
  • @Bread I think the idea of environment has to be transcendental to the entity. What’s the Greek word that Plato used?
    – 0x90
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 14:19
  • But the intellect presents too many limitations on us to be dismissed as an important source of influence.
    – Bread
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 14:22

6 Answers 6


Welcome to PSE, 0x90.

Analysing the innate

We need to distinguish between innate ideas and innate belief and knowledge. The two are often conflated but one might have innate ideas such as the concept of God (as many though not myself have claimed) without having an innate belief, let alone innate knowledge, that God exists.

Innate ideas - Socrates and the slave

Of Socrates interrogation of the slave boy, Peter Smith has written :

Reading through it, one feels more than ever that Socrates is eliciting the desired answer by asking biased questions. This does not detract from Socrates' claim that he is not, in fact, teaching the boy anything, but one has to doubt whether he is, on the other hand, uncovering something already in the boy, viz., some sort of innate belief. (Peter Smith, 'Reviewed Work(s): Innate Ideas. by Stephen P. Stich', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 26, No. 104 (Jul., 1976), pp. 277-279: 277.)

Innate belief and knowledge

Here's Smith again :

If we accept that a necessary condition for true belief to count as knowledge is that it should be justified, then a distinction can be made between a priori knowledge and innate belief in the sense that the former is implicitly about justification whereas the latter is about cause or origin. [W.D.] Hart accepts the condition and argues that as a result no appeal to innate ideas can explain how beliefs are justified and so cannot justify a priori knowledge. (Smith: 277-8.)

Briefly, back to Plato.

Innate knowledge - Socrates and the slave

I find it hard to accept that in the Meno, 'Plato, in effect, is questioning his society's knowledge of mathematics.' Plato assumes a special case of Pythagoras' theorem as mathematically valid - this isn't questioned. Mathematics is used merely as an example of an area in which knowledge can be possessed which is not taught and this again is not questioned. The exchange with the slave illustrates this point. Knowledge of a geometrical truth is drawn out of the boy, not instilled in him. So we are expected to accept.

The Forms are the basis of mathematical knowledge but the Meno does nothing to prove or even suggest it. The slave boy is 'reminded' of something - I will come back to this shortly* - by means of Socrates' questions and his diagram work. That he is reminded is again not questioned. There is no claim and there is no evidence that what the slave is reminded of are Forms precisely.

The Forms are not explicitly present in the Meno though they are prefigured and 'eidos' ('form') language is used non-technically that Plato will later use in the Republic for his technical theory of Forms. The main point is that ...

The slave does not have innate knowledge

**The entire doctrine of anamnesis (or 'recollection' - but see below*) as illustrated in the slave boy episode has absolutely no connection with innate knowledge is this is generally understood. The slave does not bring geometrical knowledge into the world with him, fully intact. On the contrary he has learned some geometrical truths in a former existence and forgotten that knowledge. He has lost it and so it has not been 'in his mind since birth'. Its recovery is a slow and painful process of recall.

*In fact 'recollection' is not the best translation; the process that goes on is one of 'being reminded'.

This answer only scratches the surface with a needle but it may be of use in separating issues and summarising arguments.

  • SEP is much more ambivalent:"One could argue, following Whitehead's famous remark, that all the key elements in subsequent Nativist theorizing are anticipated in Plato." The most literal translation of an-amnesis would be un-forgetting, and it is generally taken that what is forgotten is still in the mind, just not ready to mind, and can take time and pains to recover. That was certainly Descartes's take on it, as well as modern psychology's. You can see it re-emerging in Chomsky's universal grammar, even along with the Cartesian "poverty of the sense/stimulus" argument.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 10:10

I am new to Philosophy SE so I am not certain of the protocol, if any, to answer questions. Feel free to adjust, or tell me to adjust my format, sources, terminology, etc. if it fails to meet the expected standard.

The questions:

  1. How come Plato raised this question at all:

How is it that we have certain ideas which are not conclusively derivable from our environments?

  1. What kind of idea/knowledge I didn't get from the environment and had on my mind from birth?

Plato's Meno and Phaedo explore epistemology, i.e. what do we mean when we say that we know something. An example would be geometry and the knowledge of Pythagorean scholars. Plato, in effect, is questioning his society's knowledge of mathematics.

If we can agree that perfect circles do not exist in the real (natural) world, then it is obvious that the quote by OP from Wikipedia, "How is it that we have certain ideas which are not conclusively derivable from our environments" applies to adults as well as babies because, even as adults, we say things like "imagine a perfectly straight line ...". Yet, straight lines are not "conclusively derivable from our environments".

In other words, Plato knew that mathematical models are not real, and do not exist in the natural world. Hence, his enquiry into our a priori knowledge of mathematics.

So, the reason Plato raised this question at all, is simply because he wanted to know how we know what we know of mathematics (geometry) and other knowledge. This should also answer OP's secondary question, on innatism, what a person (new-born or adult) might mentally possess from birth.

Perhaps a better explanation is this quote, from "mathematics, history of the philosophy of" in Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

Many areas of philosophy owe their beginning to Plato, and the philosophy of mathematics is a star example. It was he who first reflected on the fact that geometers speak of perfect squares, perfect circles, and so on, though no examples are to be found in this world. He thought that the same applied to arithmetic too, on the ground that in arithmetic we study numbers that are composed of units perfectly equal to one another in every way, whereas again there are no such units to be found in this world. ... since the objects were not of this world, our knowledge of them must also be independent of our experience of this world, i.e. it must be a priori.

(Meno dealt mainly with "virtue", whereas Phaedo was his last dialogue with Socrates before the latter was put to death.)

  • Platos reasoning which you.explain well is faulty though. Irrational numbers were discovered from observation of reality. we may not see examples of perfect circles or golden ratios in nature.. but we cannot explain what we do see in nature without them. How would Plato explain bacteria, that could not be seen before extremely.powerful microscopes were invented. In fact the more i think about philosophy, the more i think bacteria are the very thing that all philosophical thought must try to explain.
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 12:19
  • @Richard - "Irrational numbers were discovered from observation of reality" ? Niot at all: they were discovered through a math proof. Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 12:24
  • 1
    @MauroALLEGRANZA i'm not sure what you think maths is. it's a language invented by humans.. to explain natural phenomena. Like the nature of triangles etc. Circles do exist in nature.. we make them. With compasses. Whats your position on bacteria. Do they exist?
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 12:28

Babies look at faces, they find faces more interesting than other things and that cues them to develop reactions to human facial expressions. That faces are interesting is an idea. And it does seem to be inborn. So the idea that there are interesting things is an idea that must also be inborn. You can follow this thread around and identify a number of ideas that necessarily have to be part of us before we can begin to do even the things that very young infants do.

Other ideas seem to occur to an infant due to purely developmental criteria. There is an age at which failures of object constancy draw more attention from the child. We play peekaboo because anything apparently disappearing becomes fascinating to a child after a few months of life. This does not seem to depend upon exposure to objects. Children who have spent part of their infancy blind, seem to develop it at about the same age as those who have had sight since birth. It appears to be a spontaneously occurring idea that is not learned, but appears automatically. So it also appears to be inborn, but to require some cues to activate it. (It obviously won't develop in a totally blind child, and will atrophy in someone who grows up without sight and develops it later.)

There are even spontaneously occurring ideas that may not be activated until adulthood. Phobias tend to be about specific things, and they can develop in the absence of exposure to the trigger. Many adults will instinctively fear snakes, if they have never been exposed to them, for reasons that seem to be totally biological. You don't learn to fear snakes and spiders, if you are born prone to be phobic of them, you unlearn the idea that they are likely to be signs of danger.

Of course these are ideas that are necessary for life, they are is bred into us by our environment. So that is where they ultimately come from. But they are not acquired from the environment by individuals. They are built in.

So it is not silly to presume a lot of ideas are of this form. The basic properties of three-dimensional Euclidean space seem to be among them. There is no experience of 3-D space, we only ever see two dimensions. But we all share expectations of what that space should act like, and to handle it abstractly in similar ways.

  • also their metabolism is inborn and their nervous system. A baby has evolved for 9 months before it came out. It also had reflexes.
    – 0x90
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 1:52
  • 3
    There are no faces in the womb. So it cannot be acquired there. And yes, looking at faces is a reflex. It gives biologically pleasant feedback as an automatic reaction. But it is complex enough to qualify as an idea.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 1:54
  • saying that a baby found face more interesting is a subjective statement imho. And I also think it’s not conscious whatsoever. It’s not knowledge or idea. It’s reflex. I can’t think on something if I have never since something similar before.
    – 0x90
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 2:32
  • If you are going to play definition games, give a definition. Is 'I like that' or 'Eek, am in danger." ideas? They are also a reflexes, and often not conscious. if these kind of things are not ideas, why not? What is the intended point of your delimitation of the kind of mental response you consider an idea as the only kind that matters?
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 12:35
  • 2
    And no, measuring responses is still science, that a baby repeatedly chooses to look at faces is not a subjective statement. And that we presume 'interest' is the driver for choosing repeatedly to seek similar experience is a matter of psychological principle and not a subjective statement. You would need something other than your subjective opinion to declare a statement to be subjective, or you are just arguing hypocritically that my statements have no value if they are not objective, but this one still has value despite not being objective.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 12:41

Philosophers have claimed the existence of innate ideas and innate knowledge, e.g.,

  • Innate ideas: God (Descartes)
  • Innate knowledge: Doubling area of a square (Plato)

Other philosophers have argued against the concept of innateness in the mental domain:

  • Locke, Hume.

The problem is continuously debated within the context of philosophy without reaching a final agreement. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-history/

In the 20th century the psychologist Jean Piaget made a new approach from empirical science. His interest was the cognitive development of children. Piaget observed children of different age solving cognitive tasks and answering questions about transactions in their environment.

His results emphasize that childrens‘ cognitive schemes develop in continuous interaction with their making new experience.

IMO it seems too simple to expect a binary yes-or-no answer concerning the question of innate ideas or innate knowledge. Up to now I do not see any empirical evidence for their existence.


A major idea of Chomsky that he argues for is that our sense of language is innate. Not of course the specifics of each language, it’s vocabulary and sentence structure. But the deep grammatical structure.

Kant argues for innate notions too, of possibility and necessity, of a sense of time and space.

It seems to me that our senses themselves are innate ideas that we have. I mean that of sight and sound. It seems a little strange to me that we think of AI that can ‘recognise’ the world around them as ‘intelligent’ but not the man who can already do this. Of course, this is due to the fact that everyone can, and we look for, amongst ourselves those special abilities that mark off one man from another, rather than thinking about the kinds of ideas that are common to all.


Babies develop fear of falling, not from experience, but, as a sort of side-effect of acquiring proprioception. As soon as they understand where their body is in space, around 7-9 months, they become wary of height, unrelated to any personal experience of injury.

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