Locke essay concerning human understanding book 2 chapter 21

For, though he that contemplates the operations of his mind, cannot but have plain and clear ideas of them; yet, unless he turn his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear and distinct ideas of all the operations of his mind, and all that may be observed therein, than he will have all the particular ideas of any landscape, or of the parts and motions of a clock, who will not turn his eyes to it, and with attention heed all the parts of it. The picture, or clock may be so placed, that they may come in his way every day; but yet he will have but a confused idea of all the parts they are made up of, till he applies himself with attention, to consider them each in particular.

Ideas of reflection later, because they need attention. And hence we see the reason why it is pretty late before most children get ideas of the operations of their own minds; and some have not any very clear or perfect ideas of the greatest part of them all their lives. Because, though they pass there continually, yet, like floating visions, they make not deep impressions enough to leave in their mind clear, distinct, lasting ideas, till the understanding turns inward upon itself, reflects on its own operations, and makes them the objects of its own contemplation.

Children when they come first into it, are surrounded with a world of new things, which, by a constant solicitation of their senses, draw the mind constantly to them; forward to take notice of new, and apt to be delighted with the variety of changing objects. Thus the first years are usually employed and diverted in looking abroad. Men's business in them is to acquaint themselves with what is to be found without; and so growing up in a constant attention to outward sensations, seldom make any considerable reflection on what passes within them, till they come to be of riper years; and some scarce ever at all.

Made by the mind out of simple ones.

According to Locke, why can't ideas be present in a soul before it is united with a body?

We have hitherto considered those ideas, in the reception whereof the mind is only passive, which are those simple ones received from sensation and reflection before mentioned, whereof the mind cannot make one to itself, nor have any idea which does not wholly consist of them. But as the mind is wholly passive in the reception of all its simple ideas, so it exerts several acts of its own, whereby out of its simple ideas, as the materials and foundations of the rest, the others are framed. The acts of the mind, wherein it exerts its power over its simple ideas, are chiefly these three: Combining several simple ideas into one compound one; and thus all complex ideas are made.

The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another, so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one; by which way it gets all its ideas of relations.

The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction: and thus all its general ideas are made. This shows man's power, and its ways of operation, to be much the same in the material and intellectual world. For the materials in both being such as he has no power over, either to make or destroy, all that man can do is either to unite them together, or to set them by one another, or wholly separate them.

I shall here begin with the first of these in the consideration of complex ideas, and come to the other two in their due places. As simple ideas are observed to exist in several combinations united together, so the mind has a power to consider several of them united together as one idea; and that not only as they are united in external objects, but as itself has joined them together. Ideas thus made up of several simple ones put together, I call complex;- such as are beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe; which, though complicated of various simple ideas, or complex ideas made up of simple ones, yet are, when the mind pleases, considered each by itself, as one entire thing, and signified by one name.

CHAP. I.: Introduction.

Adequate ideas are such as perfectly represent their archetypes. Of our real ideas, some are adequate, and some are inadequate. Those I call adequate, which perfectly represent those archetypes which the mind supposes them taken from: which it intends them to stand for, and to which it refers them. Inadequate ideas are such, which are but a partial or incomplete representation of those archetypes to which they are referred.

Simple ideas all adequate. First, that all our simple ideas are adequate. Because, being nothing but the effects of certain powers in things, fitted and ordained by God to produce such sensations in us, they cannot but be correspondent and adequate to those powers: and we are sure they agree to the reality of things.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – Book IV: OF KNOWLEDGE AND PROBABILITY

For, if sugar produce in us the ideas which we call whiteness and sweetness, we are sure there is a power in sugar to produce those ideas in our minds, or else they could not have been produced by it. And so each sensation answering the power that operates on any of our senses, the idea so produced is a real idea, and not a fiction of the mind, which has no power to produce any simple idea ; and cannot but be adequate, since it ought only to answer that power: and so all simple ideas are adequate.

It is true, the things producing in us these simple ideas are but few of them denominated by us, as if they were only the causes of them; but as if those ideas were real beings in them. For, though fire be called painful to the touch, whereby is signified the power of producing in us the idea of pain, yet it is denominated also light and hot; as if light and heat were really something in the fire, more than a power to excite these ideas in us; and therefore are called qualities in or of the fire.

But these being nothing, in truth, but powers to excite such ideas in us, I must in that sense be understood, when I speak of secondary qualities as being in things; or of their ideas as being the objects that excite them in us. Such ways of speaking, though accommodated to the vulgar notions, without which one cannot be well understood, yet truly signify nothing but those powers which are in things to excite certain sensations or ideas in us.

Since were there no fit organs to receive the impressions fire makes on the sight and touch, nor a mind joined to those organs to receive the ideas of light and heat by those impressions from the fire or sun, there would yet be no more light or heat in the world than there would be pain if there were no sensible creature to feel it, though the sun should continue just as it is now, and Mount Etna flame higher than ever it did.

Solidity and extension, and the termination of it, figure, with motion and rest, whereof we have the ideas, would be really in the world as they are, whether there were any sensible being to perceive them or no: and therefore we have reason to look on those as the real modifications of matter, and such as are the exciting causes of all our various sensations from bodies. But this being an inquiry not belonging to this place, I shall enter no further into it, but proceed to show what complex ideas are adequate, and what not.

Truth and falsehood properly belong to propositions, not to ideas.

Extracts from Locke's "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding"

Though truth and falsehood belong, in propriety of speech, only to propositions: yet ideas are oftentimes termed true or false as what words are there that are not used with great latitude, and with some deviation from their strict and proper significations? Though I think that when ideas themselves are termed true or false, there is still some secret or tacit proposition, which is the foundation of that denomination: as we shall see, if we examine the particular occasions wherein they come to be called true or false.

In all which we shall find some kind of affirmation or negation, which is the reason of that denomination. For our ideas, being nothing but bare appearances, or perceptions in our minds, cannot properly and simply in themselves be said to be true or false, no more than a single name of anything can be said to be true or false. Ideas and words may be said to be true, inasmuch as they really are ideas and words. Indeed both ideas and words may be said to be true, in a metaphysical sense of the word truth; as all other things that any way exist are said to be true, i.

Though in things called true, even in that sense, there is perhaps a secret reference to our ideas, looked upon as the standards of that truth; which amounts to a mental proposition, though it be usually not taken notice of. No idea, as an appearance in the mind, either true or false. But it is not in that metaphysical sense of truth which we inquire here, when we examine, whether our ideas are capable of being true or false, but in the more ordinary acceptation of those words: and so I say that the ideas in our minds, being only so many perceptions or appearances there, none of them are false; the idea of a centaur having no more falsehood in it when it appears in our minds, than the name centaur has falsehood in it, when it is pronounced by our mouths, or written on paper.

For truth or falsehood lying always in some affirmation or negation, mental or verbal, our ideas are not capable, any of them, of being false, till the mind passes some judgment on them; that is, affirms or denies something of them. Ideas referred to anything extraneous to them may be true or false. Whenever the mind refers any of its ideas to anything extraneous to them, they are then capable to be called true or false. Because the mind, in such a reference, makes a tacit supposition of their conformity to that thing; which supposition, as it happens to be true or false, so the ideas themselves come to be denominated.

Other men's ideas; real existence; and supposed real essences, are what men usually refer their ideas to. Thus the two ideas of a man and a centaur, supposed to be the ideas of real substances, are the one true and the other false; the one having a conformity to what has really existed, the other not. The cause of such reference. These suppositions the mind is very apt tacitly to make concerning its own ideas. But yet, if we will examine it, we shall find it is chiefly, if not only, concerning its abstract complex ideas.


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For the natural tendency of the mind being towards knowledge; and finding that, if it should proceed by and dwell upon only particular things, its progress would be very slow, and its work endless; therefore, to shorten its way to knowledge, and make each perception more comprehensive, the first thing it does, as the foundation of the easier enlarging its knowledge, either by contemplation of the things themselves that it would know, or conference with others about them, is to bind them into bundles, and rank them so into sorts, that what knowledge it gets of any of them it may thereby with assurance extend to all of that sort; and so advance by larger steps in that which is its great business, knowledge.

This, as I have elsewhere shown, is the reason why we collect things under comprehensive ideas, with names annexed to them, into genera and species; i. Names of things supposed to carry in them knowledge of their essences. If therefore we will warily attend to the motions of the mind, and observe what course it usually takes in its way to knowledge, we shall I think find, that the mind having got an idea which it thinks it may have use of either in contemplation or discourse, the first thing it does is to abstract it, and then get a name to it; and so lay it up in its storehouse, the memory, as containing the essence of a sort of things, of which that name is always to be the mark.

Hence it is, that we may often observe that, when any one sees a new thing of a kind that he knows not, he presently asks, what it is; meaning by that inquiry nothing but the name.

John Locke (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

As if the name carried with it the knowledge of the species, or the essence of it; whereof it is indeed used as the mark, and is generally supposed annexed to it. How men suppose that their ideas must correspond to things, and to the customary meanings of names. But this abstract idea, being something in the mind, between the thing that exists, and the name that is given to it; it is in our ideas that both the rightness of our knowledge, and the propriety and intelligibleness of our speaking, consists.

And hence it is that men are so forward to suppose, that the abstract ideas they have in their minds are such as agree to the things existing without them, to which they are referred; and are the same also to which the names they give them do by the use and propriety of that language belong. For without this double conformity of their ideas, they find they should both think amiss of things in themselves, and talk of them unintelligibly to others. Simple ideas may be false, in reference to others of the same name, but are least liable to be so.

First, then, I say, that when the truth of our ideas is judged of by the conformity they have to the ideas which other men have, and commonly signify by the same name, they may be any of them false. But yet simple ideas are least of all liable to be so mistaken. Because a man, by his senses and every day's observation, may easily satisfy himself what the simple ideas are which their several names that are in common use stand for; they being but few in number, and such as, if he doubts or mistakes in, he may easily rectify by the objects they are to be found in.

Whereby it is evident that the simple ideas they call by any name are commonly the same that others have and mean when they use the same names. Ideas of mixed modes most liable to be false in this sense.


  1. Digital Texts - John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
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  5. Book II, chapters ix-xi: Faculties of the Mind.
  6. Online Library of Liberty.
  7. Complex ideas are much more liable to be false in this respect; and the complex ideas of mixed modes, much more than those of substances; because in substances especially those which the common and unborrowed names of any language are applied to some remarkable sensible qualities, serving ordinarily to distinguish one sort from another, easily preserve those who take any care in the use of their words, from applying them to sorts of substances to which they do not at all belong.

    But in mixed modes we are much more uncertain; it being not so easy to determine of several actions, whether they are to be called justice or cruelly, liberality or prodigality. And so in referring our ideas to those of other men, called by the same names, ours may be false; and the idea in our minds, which we express by the word justice, may perhaps be that which ought to have another name.

    Or at least to be thought false. But whether or no our ideas of mixed modes are more liable than any sort to be different from those of other men, which are marked by the same names, this at least is certain, That this sort of falsehood is much more familiarly attributed to our ideas of mixed modes than to any other. When a man is thought to have a false idea of justice, or gratitude, or glory, it is for no other reason, but that his agrees not with the ideas which each of those names are the signs of in other men. And why. The reason whereof seems to me to be this: That the abstract ideas of mixed modes, being men's voluntary combinations of such a precise collection of simple ideas, and so the essence of each species being made by men alone, whereof we have no other sensible standard existing anywhere but the name itself, or the definition of that name; we having nothing else to refer these our ideas of mixed modes to, as a standard to which we would conform them, but the ideas of those who are thought to use those names in their most proper significations; and, so as our ideas conform or differ from them, they pass for true or false.

    And thus much concerning the truth and falsehood of our ideas, in reference to their names. As referred to real existence, none of our ideas can be false but those of substances. Secondly, as to the truth and falsehood of our ideas, in reference to the real existence of things. When that is made the standard of their truth, none of them can be termed false but only our complex ideas of substances. Simple ideas in this sense not false, and why. First, our simple ideas, being barely such perceptions as God has fitted us to receive, and given power to external objects to produce in us by established laws and ways, suitable to his wisdom and goodness, though incomprehensible to us, their truth consists in nothing else but in such appearances as are produced in us, and must be suitable to those powers he has placed in external objects or else they could not be produced in us: and thus answering those powers, they are what they should be, true ideas.

    Nor do they become liable to any imputation of falsehood, if the mind as in most men I believe it does judges these ideas to be in the things themselves. For God in his wisdom having set them as marks of distinction in things, whereby we may be able to discern one thing from another, and so choose any of them for our uses as we have occasion; it alters not the nature of our simple idea, whether we think that the idea of blue be in the violet itself, or in our mind only; and only the power of producing it by the texture of its parts, reflecting the particles of light after a certain manner, to be in the violet itself.

    For that texture in the object, by a regular and constant operation producing the same idea of blue in us, it serves us to distinguish, by our eyes, that from any other thing; whether that distinguishing mark, as it is really in the violet, be only a peculiar texture of parts, or else that very colour, the idea whereof which is in us is the exact resemblance.

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