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"The proper study of mankind is man."
– Alexander Pope

THE 17th and 18th CENTURIES

The history of disabilities prior to the 17th and 18th centuries has been referred to as "a [time] of confusion," lacking in understanding of, and services for, persons with disabilities. However, the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed a more constructive, scientific approach to individuals with disabilities. The earlier efforts of Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo contributed to an understanding of the physical world, while philosophers of the time tried to understand human nature.


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) were interested in rationalism and the study of human nature. Locke believed that learning comes through association ("ideas derive from experience"). He said all minds are tabula rasas, blank slates upon which to write. Along with the philosopher Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke are considered the Social Contract theorists, interested in the balance of individual freedom and control by the government.


Locke's idea of the mind being a tabula rasa had a significant influence on later approaches to mental retardation. If ideas derive from experience, from the senses and through reflection, then there is hope of developing these capacities in persons with intellectual disabilities. Prior to this time, it was assumed that persons born with any type of mental disability were unable to learn. Of course, not everyone shared Locke's view, but it did play a significant role in the development of psychology.