Locke’s Essay: Books I, II

John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Final Edition, 1699 (Original 1690).

Book I—NEITHER PRINCIPLES NOR IDEAS ARE INNATE

Locke argues against the view that all decent humans share ceratin principles or ideas, not even enough to inform ‘right action’. This was strongly advertised in the prologue, where I comment further.

Book II—OF IDEAS

CHAPTER XI.—OF DISCERNING, AND OTHER OPERATIONS OF THE MIND.

9. Abstraction.

The use of words then being to stand as outward mark of our internal ideas, and those ideas being taken from particular things, if every particular idea that we take up should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this, the mind makes the particular ideas received from particular objects to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances,—separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called ABSTRACTION, whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general representatives of all of the same kind; and their names general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas. Such precise, naked appearances in the mind, without considering how, whence, or with what others they came there, the understanding lays up (with names commonly annexed to them) as the standards to rank real existences into sorts, as they agree with these patterns, and to denominate them accordingly. Thus the same colour being observed to-day in chalk or snow, which the mind yesterday received from milk, it considers that appearance alone, makes it a representative of all of that kind; and having given it the name WHITENESS, it by that sound signifies the same quality wheresoever to be imagined or met with; and thus universals, whether ideas or terms, are made.

Compare Berkeley.

13. Difference between Idiots and Madmen.

In fine, the defect in naturals seems to proceed from want of quickness, activity, and motion in the intellectual faculties, whereby they are deprived of reason; whereas madmen, on the other side, seem to suffer by the other extreme. For they do not appear to me to have lost the faculty of reasoning, but having joined together some ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for truths; and they err as men do that argue right from wrong principles. For, by the violence of their imaginations, having taken their fancies for realities, they make right deductions from them. Thus you shall find a distracted man fancying himself a king, with a right inference require suitable attendance, respect, and obedience: others who have thought themselves made of glass, have used the caution necessary to preserve such brittle bodies. Hence it comes to pass that a man who is very sober, and of a right understanding in all other things, may in one particular be as frantic as any in Bedlam; if either by any sudden very strong impression, or long fixing his fancy upon one sort of thoughts, incoherent ideas have been cemented together so powerfully, as to remain united. But there are degrees of madness, as of folly; the disorderly jumbling ideas together is in some more, and some less. In short, herein seems to lie the difference between idiots and madmen: that madmen put wrong ideas together, and so make wrong propositions, but argue and reason right from them; but idiots make very few or no propositions, and reason scarce at all.

CHAPTER XVI.—IDEA OF NUMBER.

1. Number the simplest and most universal Idea.

Amongst all the ideas we have, as there is none suggested to the mind by more ways, so there is none more simple, than that of UNITY, or one: it has no shadow of variety or composition in it: every object our senses are employed about; every idea in our understandings; every thought of our minds, brings this idea along with it. And therefore it is the most intimate to our thoughts, as well as it is, in its agreement to all other things, the most universal idea we have. For number applies itself to men, angels, actions, thoughts; everything that either doth exist or can be imagined.

2. Its Modes made by Addition.

By repeating this idea in our minds, and adding the repetitions together, we come by the COMPLEX ideas of the MODES of it. Thus, by adding one to one, we have the complex idea of a couple; by putting twelve units together we have the complex idea of a dozen; and so of a score or a million, or any other number.

3. Each Mode distinct.

The SIMPLE MODES of NUMBER are of all other the most distinct; every the least variation, which is an unit, making each combination as clearly different from that which approacheth nearest to it, as the most remote; two being as distinct from one, as two hundred; and the idea of two as distinct from the idea of three, as the magnitude of the whole earth is from that of a mite. This is not so in other simple modes, in which it is not so easy, nor perhaps possible for us to distinguish betwixt two approaching ideas, which yet are really different. For who will undertake to find a difference between the white of this paper and that of the next degree to it: or can form distinct ideas of every the least excess in extension?

4. Therefore Demonstrations in Numbers the most precise.

The contemporary view is much the same, with some logical refinements.

6. Another reason for the necessity of names to numbers.

This I think to be the reason why some Americans I have spoken with, (who were otherwise of quick and rational parts enough,) could not, as we do, by any means count to 1000; nor had any distinct idea of that number, though they could reckon very well to 20. Because their language being scanty, and accommodated only to the few necessaries of a needy, simple life, unacquainted either with trade or mathematics, had no words in it to stand for 1000; so that when they were discoursed with of those greater numbers, they would show the hairs of their head, to express a great multitude, which they could not number; which inability, I suppose, proceeded from their want of names.

CHAPTER XIX.—OF THE MODES OF THINKING.

1. Sensation, Remembrance, Contemplation, &c., modes of thinking.

When the mind turns its view inwards upon itself, and contemplates its own actions, THINKING is the first that occurs

CHAPTER XXI.—OF POWER.

31. Uneasiness determines the Will.

To return, then, to the inquiry, what is it that determines the will in regard to our actions? And that, upon second thoughts, I am apt to imagine is not, as is generally supposed, the greater good in view; but some (and for the most part the most pressing) UNEASINESS a man is at present under.

35. The greatest positive Good determines not the Will, but present Uneasiness alone.

It seems so established and settled a maxim, by the general consent of all mankind, that good, the greater good, determines the will, that I do not at all wonder that, when I first published my thoughts on this subject I took it for granted; and I imagine that, by a great many, I shall be thought more excusable for having then done so, than that now I have ventured to recede from so received an opinion. But yet, upon a stricter inquiry, I am forced to conclude that GOOD, the GREATER GOOD, though apprehended and acknowledged to be so, does not determine the will, until our desire, raised proportionably to it, makes us uneasy in the want of it. Convince a man never so much, that plenty has its advantages over poverty; make him see and own, that the handsome conveniences of life are better than nasty penury: yet, as long as he is content with the latter, and finds no uneasiness in it, he moves not; his will never is determined to any action that shall bring him out of it. Let a man be ever so well persuaded of the advantages of virtue, that it is as necessary to a man who has any great aims in this world, or hopes in the next, as food to life: yet, till he hungers or thirsts after righteousness, till he FEELS AN UNEASINESS in the want of it, his WILL will not be determined to any action in pursuit of this confessed greater good; but any other uneasiness he feels in himself shall take place, and carry his will to other actions.

This is in contrast to mainstream utility theory, which by contrast seems more magical.

48. The Power to suspend the Prosecution of any Desire makes way for consideration.

49. To be determined by our own Judgment, is no Restraint to Liberty.

50. The freest Agents are so determined

53. Power to Suspend.

This is the hinge on which turns the LIBERTY of intellectual beings, in their constant endeavours after, and a steady prosecution of true felicity,—That they CAN SUSPEND this prosecution in particular cases, till they have looked before them, and informed themselves whether that particular thing which is then proposed or desired lie in the way to their main end,

55. How Men come to pursue different, and often evil Courses.

From what has been said, it is easy to give an account how it comes to pass, that, though all men desire happiness, yet their wills carry them so contrarily; and consequently, some of them to what is evil. And to this I say, that the various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike.

61. Our wrong judgments have regard to future good and evil only.

68. Wrong judgment in considering Consequences of Actions.

(II). As to THINGS GOOD OR BAD IN THEIR CONSEQUENCES, and by the aptness that is in them to procure us good or evil in the future, we judge amiss several ways.

  1. When we judge that so much evil does not really depend on them as in truth there does.

  2. When we judge that, though the consequence be of that moment, yet it is not of that certainty, but that it may otherwise fall out, or else by some means be avoided; as by industry, address, change, repentance, &c.

That these are wrong ways of judging, were easy to show in every particular, if I would examine them at large singly: but I shall only mention this in general, viz. that it is a very wrong and irrational way of proceeding, to venture a greater good for a less, upon uncertain guesses; and before a due examination be made, proportionable to the weightiness of the matter, and the concernment it is to us not to mistake. This I think every one must confess, especially if he considers the usual cause of this wrong judgment, whereof these following are some:—

69. Causes of this.

(i) IGNORANCE: He that judges without informing himself to the utmost that he is capable, cannot acquit himself of judging amiss.

(ii) INADVERTENCY: When a man overlooks even that which he does know. This is an affected and present ignorance, which misleads our judgments as much as the other. Judging is, as it were, balancing an account, and determining on which side the odds lie. If therefore either side be huddled up in haste, and several of the sums that should have gone into the reckoning be overlooked and left out, this precipitancy causes as wrong a judgment as if it were a perfect ignorance. That which most commonly causes this is, the prevalency of some present pleasure or pain, heightened by our feeble passionate nature, most strongly wrought on by what is present. To check this precipitancy, our understanding and reason were given us, if we will make a right use of them, to search and see, and then judge thereupon. How much sloth and negligence, heat and passion, the prevalency of fashion or acquired indispositions do severally contribute, on occasion, to these wrong judgments, I shall not here further inquire. I shall only add one other false judgment, which I think necessary to mention, because perhaps it is little taken notice of, though of great influence.

70. Wrong judgment of what is necessary to our Happiness.

73. Recapitulation—Liberty of indifferency.

To conclude this inquiry into human liberty, which, as it stood before, I myself from the beginning fearing, and a very judicious friend of mine, since the publication, suspecting to have some mistake in it, though he could not particularly show it me, I was put upon a stricter review of this chapter. Wherein lighting upon a very easy and scarce observable slip I had made, in putting one seemingly indifferent word for another that discovery opened to me this present view, which here, in this second edition, I submit to the learned world, and which, in short, is this: LIBERTY is a power to act or not to act, according as the mind directs.

75. Summary of our Original ideas.

And thus I have, in a short draught, given a view of OUR ORIGINAL IDEAS, from whence all the rest are derived, and of which they are made up; which, if I would consider as a philosopher, and examine on what causes they depend, and of what they are made, I believe they all might be reduced to these very few primary and original ones, viz. EXTENSION, SOLIDITY, MOBILITY, or the power of being moved; which by our senses we receive from body: PERCEPTIVITY, or the power of perception, or thinking; MOTIVITY, or the power of moving: which by reflection we receive from OUR MINDS.

I crave leave to make use of these two new words, to avoid the danger of being mistaken in the use of those which are equivocal.

To which if we add EXISTENCE, DURATION, NUMBER, which belong both to the one and the other, we have, perhaps, all the original ideas on which the rest depend. For by these, I imagine, might be EXPLAINED the nature of colours, sounds, tastes, smells, and ALL OTHER IDEAS WE HAVE, if we had but faculties acute enough to perceive the severally modified extensions and motions of these minute bodies, which produce those several sensations in us. But my present purpose being only to inquire into the knowledge the mind has of things, by those ideas and appearances which God has fitted it to receive from them, and how the mind comes by that knowledge; rather than into their causes or manner of Production, I shall not, contrary to the design of this Essay, see myself to inquire philosophically into the peculiar constitution of BODIES, and the configuration of parts, whereby THEY have the power to produce in us the ideas of their sensible qualities. I shall not enter any further into that disquisition; it sufficing to my purpose to observe, that gold or saffron has power to produce in us the idea of yellow, and snow or milk the idea of white, which we can only have by our sight without examining the texture of the parts of those bodies or the particular figures or motion of the particles which rebound from them, to cause in us that particular sensation, though, when we go beyond the bare ideas in our minds and would inquire into their causes, we cannot conceive anything else to be in any sensible object, whereby it produces different ideas in us, but the different bulk, figure, number, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.

CHAPTER XXV.—OF RELATION.

8. Our Ideas of Relations often clearer than of the Subjects related

THE IDEAS, THEN, OF RELATIONS, ARE CAPABLE AT LEAST OF BEING MORE PERFECT AND DISTINCT IN OUR MINDS THAN THOSE OF SUBSTANCES.

This is along the lines of Russell’s process theory, but more readable.

CHAPTER XXVI.—OF CAUSE AND EFFECT, AND OTHER RELATIONS.

1. Whence the Ideas of cause and effect got.

In the notice that our senses take of the constant vicissitude of things, we cannot but observe that several particular, both qualities and substances, begin to exist; and that they receive this their existence from the due application and operation of some other being. From this observation we get our ideas of CAUSE and EFFECT. THAT WHICH PRODUCES ANY SIMPLE OR COMPLEX IDEA we denote by the general name, CAUSE, and THAT WHICH IS PRODUCED, EFFECT. Thus, finding that in that substance which we call wax, fluidity, which is a simple idea that was not in it before, is constantly produced by the application of a certain degree of heat we call the simple idea of heat, in relation to fluidity in wax, the cause of it, and fluidity the effect. So also, finding that the substance, wood, which is a certain collection of simple ideas so called, by the application of fire, is turned into another substance, called ashes; i. e., another complex idea, consisting of a collection of simple ideas, quite different from that complex idea which we call wood; we consider fire, in relation to ashes, as cause, and the ashes, as effect. So that whatever is considered by us to conduce or operate to the producing any particular simple idea, or collection of simple ideas, whether substance or mode, which did not before exist, hath thereby in our minds the relation of a cause, and so is denominated by us.

CHAPTER XXVII.—OF IDENTITY AND DIVERSITY.

CHAPTER XXX.—OF REAL AND FANTASTICAL IDEAS.

2. Simple Ideas are all real appearances of things.

First, Our SIMPLE IDEAS are all real, all agree to the reality of things: not that they are all of them the images or representations of what does exist; the contrary whereof, in all but the primary qualities of bodies, hath been already shown. But, though whiteness and coldness are no more in snow than pain is; yet those ideas of whiteness and coldness, pain, &c., being in us the effects of powers in things without us, ordained by our Maker to produce in us such sensations; they are real ideas in us, whereby we distinguish the qualities that are really in things themselves.

12. Simple Ideas, [word in Greek], and adequate.

Thus the mind has three sorts of abstract ideas or nominal essences:

First, SIMPLE ideas, which are [word in Greek] or copies; but yet certainly adequate. Because, being intended to express nothing but the power in things to produce in the mind such a sensation, that sensation, when it is produced, cannot but be the effect of that power. So the paper I write on, having the power in the light (I speak according to the common notion of light) to produce in men the sensation which I call white, it cannot but be the effect of such a power in something without the mind; since the mind has not the power to produce any such idea in itself: and being meant for nothing else but the effect of such a power that simple idea is [* words missing] the sensation of white, in my mind, being the effect of that power which is in the paper to produce it, is perfectly adequate to that power; or else that power would produce a different idea.

13. Ideas of Substances are Echthypa, and inadequate.

Secondly, the COMPLEX ideas of SUBSTANCES are ectypes, copies too; but not perfect ones, not adequate: which is very evident to the mind, in that it plainly perceives, that whatever collection of simple ideas it makes of any substance that exists, it cannot be sure that it exactly answers all that are in that substance. Since, not having tried all the operations of all other substances upon it, and found all the alterations it would receive from, or cause in, other substances, it cannot have an exact adequate collection of all its active and passive capacities; and so not have an adequate complex idea of the powers of any substance existing, and its relations; which is that sort of complex idea of substances we have. And, after all, if we would have, and actually had, in our complex idea, an exact collection of all the secondary qualities or powers of any substance, we should not yet thereby have an idea of the ESSENCE of that thing. For, since the powers or qualities that are observable by us are not the real essence of that substance, but depend on it, and flow from it, any collection whatsoever of these qualities cannot be the real essence of that thing. Whereby it is plain, that our ideas of substances are not adequate; are not what the mind intends them to be. Besides, a man has no idea of substance in general, nor knows what substance is in itself.

14. Ideas of Modes and Relations are Archetypes, and cannot be adequate.

Thirdly, COMPLEX ideas of MODES AND RELATIONS are originals, and archetypes; are not copies, nor made after the pattern of any real existence, to which the mind intends them to be conformable, and exactly to answer. These being such collections of simple ideas that the mind itself puts together, and such collections that each of them contains in it precisely all that the mind intends that it should, they are archetypes and essences of modes that may exist; and so are designed only for, and belong only to such modes as, when they do exist, have an exact conformity with those complex ideas The ideas, therefore, of modes and relations cannot but be adequate.

In particular, ‘abstract thought’, as distinct from reasoning about simple ideas, is never adequate. (Locke seems to regard mathematical reasoning, which many people consider to be abstract, the ‘gold standard’, in which case there is an apparent paradox. It disapears if we regard the mathematical reasoning as being about ‘simple ideas’, as distinct from the application of mathematics, which entails abstraction.)

CHAPTER XXXII.—OF TRUE AND FALSE IDEAS.

1. Truth and Falsehood properly belong to Propositions, not to Ideas.

CHAPTER XXXIII.—OF THE ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS.

1. Something unreasonable in most Men.

There is scarce any one that does not observe something that seems odd to him, and is in itself really extravagant, in the opinions, reasonings, and actions of other men. The least flaw of this kind, if at all different from his own, every one is quick-sighted enough to espy in another, and will by the authority of reason forwardly condemn; though he be guilty of much greater unreasonableness in his own tenets and conduct, which he never perceives, and will very hardly, if at all, be convinced of.

4. A Degree of Madness found in most Men.

I shall be pardoned for calling it by so harsh a name as madness, when it is considered that opposition to reason deserves that name, and is really madness; and there is scarce a man so free from it, but that if he should always, on all occasions, argue or do as in some cases he constantly does, would not be thought fitter for Bedlam than civil conversation. I do not here mean when he is under the power of an unruly passion, but in the steady calm course of his life. That which will yet more apologize for this harsh name, and ungrateful imputation on the greatest part of mankind, is, that, inquiring a little by the bye into the nature of madness, (b. ii. ch. xi., Section 13,) I found it to spring from the very same root, and to depend on the very same cause we are here speaking of. This consideration of the thing itself, at a time when I thought not I the least on the subject which I am now treating of, suggested it to me. And if this be a weakness to which all men are so liable, if this be a taint which so universally infects mankind, the greater care should be taken to lay it open under its due name, thereby to excite the greater care in its prevention and cure.

5. From a wrong Connexion of Ideas.

19. Conclusion.

Having thus given an account of the original, sorts, and extent of our IDEAS, with several other considerations about these (I know not whether I may say) instruments, or materials of our knowledge, the method I at first proposed to myself would now require that I should immediately proceed to show, what use the understanding makes of them, and what KNOWLEDGE we have by them. This was that which, in the first general view I had of this subject, was all that I thought I should have to do: but, upon a nearer approach, I find that there is so close a connexion between ideas and WORDS, and our abstract ideas and general words have so constant a relation one to another, that it is impossible to speak clearly and distinctly of our knowledge, which all consists in propositions, without considering, first, the nature, use, and signification of Language; which, therefore, must be the business of the next Book.

Dave Marsay

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