Locke’s Essay: Prologue

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

The prologue is:

Dedication:

TO THE ... LORD PRESIDENT OF HIS MAJESTY’S MOST HONOURABLE PRIVY COUNCIL; ...

. … The imputation of Novelty is a terrible charge amongst those who judge of men’s heads, as they do of their perukes, by the fashion, and can allow none to be right but the received doctrines.

THE EPISTLE TO THE READER

… Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

… If thou judgest for thyself I know thou wilt judge candidly, and then I shall not be harmed or offended, whatever be thy censure. For though it be certain that there is nothing in this Treatise of the truth whereof I am not fully persuaded, yet I consider myself as liable to mistakes as I can think thee, and know that this book must stand or fall with thee, not by any opinion I have of it, but thy own

This discontinued way of writing may have occasioned, besides others, two contrary faults, viz., that too little and too much may be said in it. … But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy, to make it shorter.  … There are few, I believe, who have not observed in themselves or others, that what in one way of proposing was very obscure, another way of expressing it has made very clear and intelligible; though afterwards the mind found little difference in the phrases, and wondered why one failed to be understood more than the other. But everything does not hit alike upon every man’s imagination. We have our understandings no less different than our palates; and he that thinks the same truth shall be equally relished by every one in the same dress, may as well hope to feast every one with the same sort of cookery: the meat may be the same, and the nourishment good, yet every one not be able to receive it with that seasoning; and it must be dressed another way, if you will have it go down with some, even of strong constitutions.

… Men’s principles, notions, and relishes are so different, that it is hard to find a book which pleases or displeases all men. … The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge;—which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree that Philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit or incapable to be brought into well-bred company and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance will be, I suppose, some service to human understanding; though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or that the language of the sect they are of has any faults in it which ought to be examined or corrected, that I hope I shall be pardoned if I have in the Third Book dwelt long on this subject, and endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalency of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those who will not take care about the meaning of their own words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into.

The bookseller will not forgive me if I say nothing of this New Edition, which he has promised, by the correctness of it, shall make amends for the many faults committed in the former. He desires too, that it should be known that it has one whole new chapter concerning Identity, and many additions and amendments in other places. These I must inform my reader are not all new matter, but most of them either further confirmation of what I had said, or explications, to prevent others being mistaken in the sense of what was formerly printed, and not any variation in me from it.

I must only except the alterations I have made in Book II. chap. xxi.

Of this the ingenious author of the Discourse Concerning the Nature of Man has given me a late instance, to mention no other. For the civility of his expressions, and the candour that belongs to his order, forbid me to think that he would have closed his Preface with an insinuation, as if in what I had said, Book II. ch. xxvii, concerning the third rule which men refer their actions to, I went about to make virtue vice and vice virtue, unless he had mistaken my meaning; which he could not have done if he had given himself the trouble to consider what the argument was I was then upon, and what was the chief design of that chapter, plainly enough set down in the fourth section and those following…. whatever authority the learned Mr. Lowde places in his Old English Dictionary, I daresay it nowhere tells him (if I should appeal to it) that the same action is not in credit, called and counted a virtue, in one place, which, being in disrepute, passes for and under the name of vice in another.

‘Tis to this zeal, allowable in his function, that I forgive his citing as he does these words of mine (ch. xxviii. sect. II): “Even the exhortations of inspired teachers have not feared to appeal to common repute, Philip, iv. 8;” without taking notice of those immediately preceding, which introduce them, and run thus: “Whereby even in the corruption of manners, the true boundaries of the law of nature, which ought to be the rule of virtue and vice, were pretty well preserved. So that even the exhortations of inspired teachers,” &c. By which words, and the rest of that section, it is plain that I brought that passage of St. Paul, not to prove that the general measure of what men called virtue and vice throughout the world was the reputation and fashion of each particular society within itself; but to show that, though it were so, yet, for reasons I there give, men, in that way of denominating their actions, did not for the most part much stray from the Law of Nature; which is that standing and unalterable rule by which they ought to judge of the moral rectitude and gravity of their actions, and accordingly denominate them virtues or vices. Had Mr. Lowde considered this, he would have found it little to his purpose to have quoted this passage in a sense I used it not; and would I imagine have spared the application he subjoins to it, as not very necessary. But I hope this Second Edition will give him satisfaction on the point, and that this matter is now so expressed as to show him there was no cause for scruple.

The booksellers preparing for the Fourth Edition of my Essay, gave me notice of it, that I might, if I had leisure, make any additions or alterations I should think fit. Whereupon I thought it convenient to advertise the reader, that besides several corrections I had made here and there, there was one alteration which it was necessary to mention, because it ran through the whole book, and is of consequence to be rightly understood. What I thereupon said was this:—

CLEAR and DISTINCT ideas are terms which, though familiar and frequent in men’s mouths, I have reason to think every one who uses does not perfectly understand. And possibly ‘tis but here and there one who gives himself the trouble to consider them so far as to know what he himself or others precisely mean by them. I have therefore in most places chose to put DETERMINATE or DETERMINED, instead of CLEAR and DISTINCT, as more likely to direct men’s thoughts to my meaning in this matter. By those denominations, I mean some object in the mind, and consequently determined, i. e. such as it is there seen and perceived to be. This, I think, may fitly be called a determinate or determined idea, when such as it is at any time objectively in the mind, and so determined there, it is annexed, and without variation determined, to a name or articulate sound, which is to be steadily the sign of that very same object of the mind, or determinate idea.

To explain this a little more particularly. By DETERMINATE, when applied to a simple idea, I mean that simple appearance which the mind has in its view, or perceives in itself, when that idea is said to be in it: by DETERMINED, when applied to a complex idea, I mean such an one as consists of a determinate number of certain simple or less complex ideas, joined in such a proportion and situation as the mind has before its view, and sees in itself, when that idea is present in it, or should be present in it, when a man gives a name to it. I say SHOULD be, because it is not every one, nor perhaps any one, who is so careful of his language as to use no word till he views in his mind the precise determined idea which he resolves to make it the sign of. The want of this is the cause of no small obscurity and confusion in men’s thoughts and discourses.

I know there are not words enough in any language to answer all the variety of ideas that enter into men’s discourses and reasonings. But this hinders not but that when any one uses any term, he may have in his mind a determined idea, which he makes it the sign of, and to which he should keep it steadily annexed during that present discourse. Where he does not, or cannot do this, he in vain pretends to clear or distinct ideas: it is plain his are not so; and therefore there can be expected nothing but obscurity and confusion, where such terms are made use of which have not such a precise determination.

Upon this ground I have thought determined ideas a way of speaking less liable to mistakes, than clear and distinct: and where men have got such determined ideas of all that they reason, inquire, or argue about, they will find a great part of their doubts and disputes at an end; the greatest part of the questions and controversies that perplex mankind depending on the doubtful and uncertain use of words, or (which is the same) indetermined ideas, which they are made to stand for. I have made choice of these terms to signify, (1) Some immediate object of the mind, which it perceives and has before it, distinct from the sound it uses as a sign of it. (2) That this idea, thus determined, i.e. which the mind has in itself, and knows, and sees there, be determined without any change to that name, and that name determined to that precise idea. If men had such determined ideas in their inquiries and discourses, they would both discern how far their own inquiries and discourses went, and avoid the greatest part of the disputes and wranglings they have with others.

My Comments

Locke may have had in mind something like Cromwell’s rule. Even if not, he ends up by taking mathematics as a ‘gold standard’ in reasoning, so it would be reasonable for us to think in terms of this as a vital principle. (It is perhaps unfortunate that it does not seem to be innate.)

In any case, Locke doubts the then commonplace logics and common sense, and starts by doubting the notion that ideas and principles are innate. I’m not sure if he really belives there are no such innate ideas or principles, and even if he did we might apply Cromwell’s rule to obtain:

We are never justified in supposing that any particular idea or principle is innate, or even shared completely.

Locke’s aim, I think, is to refine key ideas and principles to the point where they may be reasonably understood and accepted, as the basis for ongoing refinement, at least to be developed and maintained as fit for constitutional, legal and democratic purposes.

For example, Locke seems to regard the then mathematics as a ‘gold standard’, and specifically refers to Newton. This has led some to think that Locke was admitting the principles in Newton’s Principia. But, firstly, the Principia was published after Locke’s death and, secondly, while Newton’s principles are ‘mathematical’, they are principles of mathematical physics, not mathematics as such. Thus we might do well to follow his advice in critiqueing our ideas about mathematics and his example in further developing and refining them, thus creating an improved standard. (Compare Berkeley.)

We might also sympathize with Locke’s ‘laziness’ and with his response to his critics.

Main Contents

The main contents, as I see them are:

Book I—NEITHER PRINCIPLES NOR IDEAS ARE INNATE

Book II—OF IDEAS

  • CHAPTER XI.—OF DISCERNING, AND OTHER OPERATIONS OF THE MIND.
  • CHAPTER XVI.—IDEA OF NUMBER.
  • CHAPTER XIX.—OF THE MODES OF THINKING.
  • CHAPTER XXI.—OF POWER.
  • CHAPTER XXV.—OF RELATION.
  • CHAPTER XXVI.—OF CAUSE AND EFFECT, AND OTHER RELATIONS.
  • CHAPTER XXVII.—OF IDENTITY AND DIVERSITY.
  • CHAPTER XXX.—OF REAL AND FANTASTICAL IDEAS.
  • CHAPTER XXXII.—OF TRUE AND FALSE IDEAS.
  • CHAPTER XXXIII.—OF THE ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS.

Book III OF WORDS

  • CHAPTER II. OF THE SIGNIFICATION OF WORDS.
  • CHAPTER III. OF GENERAL TERMS.
  • CHAPTER X. OF THE ABUSE OF WORDS
  • CHAPTER XI. OF THE REMEDIES OF THE FOREGOING IMPERFECTIONS AND ABUSES OF WORDS.

Book IV: The Reality of Knowledge

  • CHAPTER I. OF KNOWLEDGE IN GENERAL.
  • CHAPTER II. OF THE DEGREES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE.
  • CHAPTER IV. OF THE REALITY OF KNOWLEDGE.
  • CHAPTER VII. OF MAXIMS
  • CHAPTER XII. OF THE IMPROVEMENT OF OUR KNOWLEDGE
  • CHAPTER XV: Probability
  • CHAPTER XVI: The degrees of assent
  • CHAPTER XX: Wrong assent, or error
  • CHAPTER XXI: The division of the sciences

The End

Dave Marsay

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