Leibniz Corrects an Old Idea

by AdamStanislav - uploaded on March 26, 2021, 2:37 am

This phrase is in Latin, but the idea comes from Greek philosophy, including that of Aristotle. Nihil est in intellectu quod non erat prius in sensu is one of the Latin expressions of the idea. Usually translated to English as if the words in it had the same meaning now as they did long ago, i.e., Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. Sorry, I have to disagree with that translation.

But before I get into that, Thomas Aquinas used the word sit rather than erat making it sound more like ...that not be first in... Another variation uses fuit for erat which is essentially ...that had not been in... Since it is a translation of a Greek idea, all of those variations are reasonable. I am using the one I am using because that was how I remember it from way back in my first year of Psychology studies half a century ago.

Now, as to my objection to the modern translation, the medieval Latin intellectus has a much wider meaning than the modern word intellect. In this context, I prefer to translate it as mind.

My second objection is to the translation of in sensu as in the senses. Sensu is the ablative singular of sensus, from which our modern word of sense(s) comes from. But even then they would have used sensibus, the ablative plural of sensus if they meant the old idea of the five senses. But they did not, they used the singular, so they meant a much wider meaning of the word sensus, which includes perception, sensation, even notion.

So I prefer to express it in English as Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the perception. The idea the ancient philosophers were expressing was that we are what Locke called a tabula rasa (clean slate), that we are born with nothing in the mind and we only became the person we are by perceiving/sensing/experiencing things outside of ourselves. They actually believed that with proper conditioning of newborns they could prevent them from committing crimes and such.

Enter Leibniz, the German genius mathematician, logician, and philosopher. He corrected their error by adding the words nisi ipse intellectus, meaning except for the mind. He observed that the (human) mind can figure out it exists without ever seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, etc, itself.

Obviously, none of them knew what we know now, how the brain works, how genetics influences us (though in the 20 Century there was still some debate of nature vs. nurture, which is pretty much the same old argument).

And the existence of Open Clipart clearly shows we can come up with ideas of things we have never seen, and we can even draw them. So yes, the mind can contain things/ideas/notions that have never been perceived/sensed/experienced in the physical world, outside the mind. Creativity is a product of the mind.

nihil Latin tabula+rasa clean+slate Leibniz Aristotle Philosophy Locke
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