Information on John Locke

FIRST published in 1690, twenty editions of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding had appeared before 1700. Extending to some three hundred thousand words, seventeen years were spent on its preparation. The design of the work, Locke explains, is to inquire "into the origin, certainty and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent." Locke's resolute devotion to truth, his instant surrender to the proven fact, his distrust of the emotional, his tolerance, are conspicuous in the Essay.


'IDEA' being that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is the mind can be, employed about in thinking. Let us, then, suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters--without any ideas. Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? To this, I answer in one word--experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.

Let anyone examine his own thoughts and thoroughly search his understanding, and then let him tell me whether of all the original ideas he has there are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the observations of his mind considered as objects of his reflection.

Though the qualities that affect our senses are, in the things themselves, so united and blended that there is no separation, no distance between them, yet it is plain the ideas they produce in the mind enter by the senses simple and unmixed. For though the sight and touch often take in from the same object at the same time different ideas, yet the simple ideas thus united in the same subject are as perfectly distinct as those that come in by different senses; the coldness and hardness which a man feels in a piece of ice being as distinct ideas in the mind as the smell and whiteness of a lily, and each of them being in itself uncompounded contains nothing but one uniform appearance, or conception, in the mind, and is not distinguishable into different ideas.

When the understanding is once stored with these simple ideas, it has the power to repeat, compare and unite them even to an almost infinite variety, and so can make at will new complex ideas. But it is not in the power of any most exalted wit or enlarged understanding, by any quickness or variety of thought, to invent or frame one new simple idea in the mind, nor to destroy those that are there. I would have anyone try to fancy any taste which had never affected his palate, or frame the idea of a scent he had never smelt; and when he can do this, I will also conclude that a blind man hath ideas of colours and a deaf man true, distinct notions of sound.

THERE are some ideas which have admittance only through one sense which is peculiarly adapted to receive them. Thus, light and colours come in only by the eye, all kinds of noises by the ear, the tastes and smells by the nose and palate. The most considerable of those belonging to the touch are heat, cold and solidity--which is the idea that belongs to the body, whereby we conceive it to fill space.

Simple ideas of divers senses are the ideas of space or extension, figure, rest and motion, for these make perceivable impressions on the eyes and touch, and we can receive and convey into our minds the ideas of the extension, figure, motion and rest of bodies by seeing and feeling.

The mind, receiving the ideas mentioned in the foregoing from without, when it turns its view inward upon itself and observes its own actions about those ideas it has, takes from thence other ideas which are as capable to be the objects of its contemplation as any of those it received from foreign things.

The two great and principal actions of the mind which are most frequently considered, and which are so frequent that everyone that pleases may take notice of them in himself, are these two: perception or thinking, and volition or will. The power of thinking is called the understanding, and the power of volition is called the will. And these two powers or abilities in the mind are denominated faculties. Modes of these simple ideas of reflection are remembrance, discerning, reasoning, judging, knowledge, faith.

It has, further, pleased our wise Creator to annex to several objects and to the ideas which we receive from them, as also to several of our thoughts, a concomitant pleasure, and that in several objects to several degrees, that those faculties which He has endowed us with might not remain wholly unemployed by us. Pain has the same efficacy and use to set us on work that pleasure has, we being as ready to employ our faculties to avoid that as to pursue this.

Existence and unity are two other ideas that are suggested to the understanding by every object without and every idea within. Power is another of those simple ideas which we receive from sensation and reflection; and, besides these, there is succession.

Nor let anyone think these too narrow bounds for the capacious mind of man to expatiate in, which takes its flight farther than the stars and cannot be confined by the limits of the world, that extends its thoughts often even beyond the utmost expansion of matter and makes excursions into that incomprehensible inane. Nor will it be so strange to think these few simple ideas sufficient to employ the quickest thought or largest capacity if we consider how many words may be made out of the various composition of twenty-four letters; or if, going one step farther, we will but reflect on the variety of combinations that may be made with barely one of the above-mentioned ideas--viz. number, whose stock is inexhaustible. And what a large and immense field doth extension alone afford the mathematicians!


THE power to produce any idea in our mind I call quality of the subject wherein the power is. Qualities are, first, such as are utterly inseparable from the body in what state soever it be. These I call original or primary qualities, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us--viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.

Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities--i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture and motion of their insensible parts. These secondary qualities are colours, sounds, tastes, etc. From whence it is easy to draw this observation: that the ideas of primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, but the ideas produced in us by the secondary qualities have no resemblance in them at all.

If anyone will consider that the same fire that at one distance produces in us the sensation of warmth does, at a nearer approach, produce in us the far different sensation of pain, let him bethink himself what reason he has to say that his idea of warmth, which was produced in him by the fire, is actually in the fire; and his idea of pain, which the same fire produced in him in the same way, is not in the fire. The particular bulk, number, figure and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether anyone's senses perceive them or not; and, therefore, they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are no more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell; and all colours, tastes, odours and sounds vanish and are reduced to their causes--i.e. bulk, figure and motion of parts.

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