Tabula rasa is a Latin phrase which, as translated by Adelle DeWitt, means "blank slate." It is the philosophical idea that humans are born with no knowledge of any kind and that they gain knowledge through experience. The Dollhouse has, therefore, co-opted the term to refer to the empty mental state of a wiped Active.
Enlightenment philosophy gave rise to the concept of the tabula rasa in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In it, Locke posits that the human mind is born a blank. Knowledge and identity come not from anything innate or instinctual, but only from experience of the world. Two different kinds of experience impact development: sensation - what we perceive of the world - and reflection - what we think of it. Knowledge is empirical, that is, gained through observation of the physical world. Locke's ideas form the philosophical background to the "nurture" side of the classic nature vs. nurture debate about human development.
In the Whedonverse
Tabula rasa is a thematic concept which Joss Whedon often explores in his works. Whedon often explores this idea by wiping his characters memories. His exploration attempts to provide insight into human nature while showing the problematic side of tabula rasa.
An episode entitled "Tabula Rasa" appears in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In it, a memory loss spell goes awry and wipes the memories of most of the main characters. They (wrongly and to comedic effect) deduce their identities and relationships to each other through the empirical evidence they have available. They continue on to perform these new-found identities with gusto, playing the roles they have assigned themselves. However, there are several problems with the entire tabula rasa theory presented throughout the episode. The empirical evidence that should inform the characters' knowledge almost invariably leads them wrong. Two characters deduce from their English accents and apparent relative ages that they are father and son - although they are not, in fact, related at all. Two characters assume they are engaged because they find evidence of a business partnership, and the woman is wearing an engagement ring; later the man finds a one-way plane ticket in his pocket and thinks he is leaving her. In reality, the two are not romantically linked in any way. Additionally, the characters' minds - tabula - turn out not to be wholly blank - rasa - after all. One woman retains her irrational fear of rabbits, another, her unnatural ability to slay vampires.
In Angel, Cordelia Chase returns from heaven in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" with no memory of her life at all, while her friends try to figure out how best to help her be herself. Ultimately, where in Buffy the tabula rasa was flawed in that the characters were not truly blank and had retained pieces of their identities, Cordelia turns out to be so empty of her own identity that another being entirely has ridden out of heaven in her mind. She, too, is therefore anything but a blank slate.
In the episode "Spin the Bottle", another memory spell goes awry and the characters revert to the memories and personalities they had as teenagers, leaving them with no memory of each other or understanding of their current situation. In this case, the contrast is between their younger, more innocent selves and their present lives.
Whedon was either less interested in the concept of tabula rasa in Firefly, or its short run did not allow him the opportunity to explore it. However, the Alliance's problems with River Tam stem from the fact that they either could not or did not make a blank slate out of her when they attempted to reprogram her brain. River retained her sense of self and contacted her brother to help her escape rather than becoming a biddable piece of human technology for the Alliance to use at will. River also exhibits telepathic abilities and can mimic other people, raising questions over what part of her is not a reflection of other people.
Whedon continues his exploration of tabula rasa and human nature in Dollhouse. The dolls' inactive state is referred to as the tabula rasa. In it, they are supposedly completely devoid of both identity and memory, retaining only their ability to speak the English language, satisfy basic physical and hygienic needs, knowledge of Dollhouse routines and layout, and mobility (which exists in an advanced state, as they are capable of yoga and swimming, although combative skills are banned).
Like in other Whedon works, however, the dolls' blank slate is less blank than its architects intend it to be. Echo, Sierra, and Victor continually seek out each other's company in the Dollhouse, even after being wiped. Topher insisted that this behavior is instinctual and echoes herd animal behavior, but not only is instinct outside Locke's tabula rasa, the three dolls show each other signs of human friendship. Additionally, Echo has repeatedly retained memories of her past engagements through to her inactive state. In "The Target," she remembers her client Richard Connell's "shoulder to the wheel" philosophy and gesture; in "Gray Hour," she traces a simple version of a face she saw in a painting from the storage vault.
It is possible that the evolution of certain dolls in the blank state is coming from the "Nature Despises Vacuum Theory". In other words, without their original personalities, the dolls' minds attempt to make new personalities in order to fill the gaps left by their original ones. If this is the case, then all the dolls have the potential to evolve, and the Dollhouse cannot stop it since they are the cause. This would agree with what Dominic said to Echo before being wiped, about her taking down the Dollhouse.
Alpha underwent a catastrophic failure of the tabula rasa in his composite event. His mind has therefore become an inverse of Locke's concept. He has nearly infinite innate knowledge, abilities, and identities which he gained from essentially downloading them, rather than experiencing them.
Both Alpha and Echo exhibit strong influences of their original personalities (Caroline's idealism and altruism, and Carl's ruthlessness, violence and habit of slashing people's faces), even after their composite events.
Caroline Farrell a.k.a. Echo was born with a dormant specific gene in her spinal fluid which allowed her to resist the wipes and evolve in her tabula rasa state into Echo. Originally, Boyd had recruited Caroline Farrell in order to awaken that gene. Once activated, he planned on tapping and harvesting her spinal fluid to produce a cure to wiping.
- "The European Enlightenment: Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought" publisher=wsu.edu (1996). Retrieved on 2009-03-07.
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding last=Locke. oregonstate.edu (1690). Retrieved on 2009-03-07.