The way we use to learn things is to associate a concept with something that we already know. I see no other way of learning things, there are books explaining how to memorize a horribly long sequence of numbers just associating it to something that we already know.

So our brain just builds a link between a new concept and another one that we learnt in the past, and that way we learn things. But I fail to see how we can learn things when we don't know anything yet. How can we associate a new concept with something that we already know if we don't know anything? Do we born already knowing something, or our mind finds a way to learn the first things even if we don't know anything yet?

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    Related (philosophical) source: Innatism. Related (psychological) source: Nativism.
    – user3164
    May 12 '13 at 18:31

We are born with sensory inputs that enable us to feel pleasure and pain.

Cannot these experiences comprise the initial foundations of knowledge, without postulating anything previous thereto?

  • Yes, I guess that when we are just born, we use the signals that our body gives to our brains to build the first associations. May 14 '13 at 17:57
  • @RamyAlZuhouri - I don't claim that this is necessarily true, but I believe it is a possibility that eliminates the need to assume 'innate knowledge'.
    – Vector
    May 14 '13 at 18:09
  • It might be interesting to consider Chomsky in this context -- postulating a universal grammar and so on
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 27 '13 at 16:37

We must. The least that can be said is that we must be born with the ability and 'knowledge' to learn.

Kant says that the knowledge of space & time is deeply embedded within us - he calls it an intuitive faculty of the mind.

We must learn also how to make sense of our senses and our social environment. I expect these faculties of the mind are inate in its orginary form - that is of course that they develop - but they are in fact already within in as a seed flowers at the touch of the sun.


We are born with innate concepts as the understanding of numbers, language, geometry, moral ideas, and the idea of the Divine.

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    Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to unpack this a little bit further? :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 26 '13 at 21:58

This is probably a question that would receive a better answer if it were asked through one of the science boards. That said, here's an answer to your question that I picked-up while helping my wife study for her psychiatry licensing-exams.

A human's 'innate' knowledge is analogous to the latent image in an undeveloped photograph - an event 'out in the world' is required to develop it into its explicit form.

A psychologist once conducted a small, but well regarded, study on the matter: two groups of infants were shown silhouettes of animals. Infants in the first group were shown a silhouette of an animal that most people regard to be benign {a moose, a cow...}; whereas infants in the second group were shown a silhouette of an animal that many people regard to be frightening {a spider, a snake...}. The psychologist pricked the infants immediately after they were shown the silhouette. After twelve rounds of conditioning, infants in the first group would cry upon being presented with the silhouette; whereas, infants in the second group would cry upon being presented with the silhouette after just three rounds of conditioning.

An interesting aside: The results of the study suggested that humans also are innately afraid of birds-of-prey and big cats. That universal innate-fear may help explain why images of those animals are often used on national flags, coats-of-arms, etc. It is also interesting that dragons have been imagined in discrete cultures, and that they have been imagined to be amalgams of three of the four animals that humans are predisposed to fearing {snakes, birds-of-prey, big cats}.

  • -1 - While interesting, this doesn't address the philosophical doubts on this topic.
    – user2953
    May 27 '13 at 12:02
  • It does. Scientific knowledge is important to philosophy; so says every philosopher that's mattered since the 18th century.
    – Hal
    May 27 '13 at 12:34
  • Yes, your answer gives information, but still doesn't address the philosophical doubts. Yes, it's a start, but as it stands now it doesn't really answer the question "do we necessarily birth ...".
    – user2953
    May 27 '13 at 12:36
  • Yes, it does, and in the second paragraph it describes the nature of that knowledge.
    – Hal
    May 27 '13 at 12:37
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    It still points out that we have a form of knowledge when we born, so I've found it useful. May 28 '13 at 12:11

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