John Locke.

An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 online

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therefore many words which seem to express some action, signify nothing
of the action or MODUS OPERANDI at all, but barely the effect, with
some circumstances of the subject wrought on, or cause operating: v.g.
CREATION, ANNIHILATION, contain in them no idea of the action or manner
whereby they are produced, but barely of the cause, and the thing done.
And when a countryman says the cold freezes water, though the word
freezing seems to import some action, yet truly it signifies nothing but
the effect, viz. that water that was before fluid is become hard and
consistent, without containing any idea of the action whereby it is

12. Mixed Modes made also of other Ideas than those of Power and Action.

I think I shall not need to remark here that, though power and action
make the greatest part of mixed modes, marked by names, and familiar in
the minds and mouths of men, yet other simple ideas, and their several
combinations, are not excluded: much less, I think, will it be necessary
for me to enumerate all the mixed modes which have been settled, with
names to them. That would be to make a dictionary of the greatest part
of the words made use of in divinity, ethics, law, and politics, and
several other sciences. All that is requisite to my present design, is
to show what sort of ideas those are which I call mixed modes; how the
mind comes by them; and that they are compositions made up of simple
ideas got from sensation and reflection; which I suppose I have done.



The mind being, as I have declared, furnished with a great number of the
simple ideas, conveyed in by the senses as they are found in exterior
things, or by reflection on its own operations, takes notice also that a
certain number of these simple ideas go constantly together; which
being presumed to belong to one thing, and words being suited to common
apprehensions, and made use of for quick dispatch are called, so
united in one subject, by one name; which, by inadvertency, we are apt
afterward to talk of and consider as one simple idea, which indeed is
a complication of many ideas together: because, as I have said, not
imagining how these simple ideas CAN subsist by themselves, we accustom
ourselves to suppose some SUBSTRATUM wherein they do subsist, and from
which they do result, which therefore we call SUBSTANCE.

2. Our obscure Idea of Substance in general.

So that if any one will examine himself concerning his notion of pure
substance in general, he will find he has no other idea of it at all,
but only a supposition of he knows not what SUPPORT of such qualities
which are capable of producing simple ideas in us; which qualities are
commonly called accidents. If any one should be asked, what is the
subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say,
but the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded, what is it that
solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better
case than the Indian before mentioned who, saying that the world was
supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to
which his answer was - a great tortoise: but being again pressed to know
what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied - SOMETHING, HE
KNEW NOT WHAT. And thus here, as in all other cases where we use words
without having clear and distinct ideas, we talk like children: who,
being questioned what such a thing is, which they know not, readily give
this satisfactory answer, that it is SOMETHING: which in truth signifies
no more, when so used, either by children or men, but that they know not
what; and that the thing they pretend to know, and talk of, is what they
have no distinct idea of at all, and so are perfectly ignorant of it,
and in the dark. The idea then we have, to which we give the GENERAL
name substance, being nothing but the supposed, but unknown, support of
those qualities we find existing, which we imagine cannot subsist SINE
RE SUBSTANTE, without something to support them, we call that support
SUBSTANTIA; which, according to the true import of the word, is, in
plain English, standing under or upholding.

3. Of the Sorts of Substances.

An obscure and relative idea of SUBSTANCE IN GENERAL being thus made we
come to have the ideas of PARTICULAR SORTS OF SUBSTANCES, by collecting
SUCH combinations of simple ideas as are, by experience and observation
of men's senses, taken notice of to exist together; and are therefore
supposed to flow from the particular internal constitution, or unknown
essence of that substance. Thus we come to have the ideas of a man,
horse, gold, water, &c.; of which substances, whether any one has any
other CLEAR idea, further than of certain simple ideas co-existent
together, I appeal to every one's own experience. It is the ordinary
qualities observable in iron, or a diamond, put together, that make
the true complex idea of those substances, which a smith or a jeweller
commonly knows better than a philosopher; who, whatever SUBSTANTIAL
FORMS he may talk of, has no other idea of those substances, than what
is framed by a collection of those simple ideas which are to be found in
them: only we must take notice, that our complex ideas of substances,
besides all those simple ideas they are made up of, have always the
confused idea of something to which they belong, and in which they
subsist: and therefore when we speak of any sort of substance, we say
it is a thing having such or such qualities; as body is a thing that is
extended, figured, and capable of motion; spirit, a thing capable of
thinking; and so hardness, friability, and power to draw iron, we say,
are qualities to be found in a loadstone. These, and the like fashions
of speaking, intimate that the substance is supposed always SOMETHING
BESIDES the extension, figure, solidity, motion, thinking, or other
observable ideas, though we know not what it is.

4. No clear or distinct idea of Substance in general.

Hence, when we talk or think of any particular sort of corporeal
substances, as horse, stone, &c., though the idea we have of either of
them be but the complication or collection of those several simple ideas
of sensible qualities, which we used to find united in the thing called
ALONE, NOR ONE IN ANOTHER, we suppose them existing in and supported
by some common subject; which support we denote by the name substance,
though it be certain we have no clear or distinct idea of that thing we
suppose a support.

5. As clear an Idea of spiritual substance as of corporeal substance.

The same thing happens concerning the operations of the mind, viz.
thinking, reasoning, fearing, &c., which we concluding not to subsist of
themselves, nor apprehending how they can belong to body, or be produced
by it, we are apt to think these the actions of some other SUBSTANCE,
which we call SPIRIT; whereby yet it is evident that, having no other
idea or notion of matter, but something wherein those many sensible
qualities which affect our senses do subsist; by supposing a substance
wherein thinking, knowing, doubting, and a power of moving, &c., do
subsist, we have as clear a notion of the substance of spirit, as we
have of body; the one being supposed to be (without knowing what it is)
the SUBSTRATUM to those simple ideas we have from without; and the other
supposed (with a like ignorance of what it is) to be the SUBSTRATUM to
those operations we experiment in ourselves within. It is plain then,
that the idea of CORPOREAL SUBSTANCE in matter is as remote from our
conceptions and apprehensions, as that of SPIRITUAL SUBSTANCE, or
spirit: and therefore, from our not having, any notion of the substance
of spirit, we can no more conclude its non-existence, than we can, for
the same reason, deny the existence of body; it being as rational to
affirm there is no body, because we have no clear and distinct idea of
the substance of matter, as to say there is no spirit, because we have
no clear and distinct idea of the substance of a spirit.

6. Our ideas of particular Sorts of Substances.

Whatever therefore be the secret abstract nature of substance in
general, all the ideas we have of particular distinct sorts of
substances are nothing but several combinations of simple ideas,
co-existing in such, though unknown, cause of their union, as makes the
whole subsist of itself. It is by such combinations of simple ideas,
and nothing else, that we represent particular sorts of substances to
ourselves; such are the ideas we have of their several species in our
minds; and such only do we, by their specific names, signify to others,
v.g. man, horse, sun, water, iron: upon hearing which words, every one
who understands the language, frames in his mind a combination of those
several simple ideas which he has usually observed, or fancied to exist
together under that denomination; all which he supposes to rest in and
be, as it were, adherent to that unknown common subject, which inheres
not in anything else. Though, in the meantime, it be manifest, and every
one, upon inquiry into his own thoughts, will find, that he has no other
idea of any substance, v.g. let it be gold, horse, iron, man, vitriol,
bread, but what he has barely of those sensible qualities, which he
supposes to inhere; with a supposition of such a substratum as gives,
as it were, a support to those qualities or simple ideas, which he has
observed to exist united together. Thus, the idea of the sun, - what
is it but an aggregate of those several simple ideas, bright, hot,
roundish, having a constant regular motion, at a certain distance from
us, and perhaps some other: as he who thinks and discourses of the sun
has been more or less accurate in observing those sensible qualities,
ideas, or properties, which are in that thing which he calls the sun.

7. Their active and passive Powers a great part of our complex Ideas of

For he has the perfectest idea of any of the particular sorts of
substances, who has gathered, and put together, most of those simple
ideas which do exist in it; among which are to be reckoned its active
powers, and passive capacities, which, though not simple ideas, yet in
this respect, for brevity's sake, may conveniently enough be reckoned
amongst them. Thus, the power of drawing iron is one of the ideas of the
complex one of that substance we call a loadstone; and a power to be so
drawn is a part of the complex one we call iron: which powers pass for
inherent qualities in those subjects. Because every substance, being as
apt, by the powers we observe in it, to change some sensible qualities
in other subjects, as it is to produce in us those simple ideas which
we receive immediately from it, does, by those new sensible qualities
introduced into other subjects, discover to us those powers which do
thereby mediately affect our senses, as regularly as its sensible
qualities do it immediately: v. g. we immediately by our senses perceive
in fire its heat and colour; which are, if rightly considered, nothing
but powers in it to produce those ideas in US: we also by our senses
perceive the colour and brittleness of charcoal, whereby we come by the
knowledge of another power in fire, which it has to change the colour
and consistency of WOOD. By the former, fire immediately, by the latter,
it mediately discovers to us these several powers; which therefore we
look upon to be a part of the qualities of fire, and so make them a part
of the complex idea of it. For all those powers that we take cognizance
of, terminating only in the alteration of some sensible qualities in
those subjects on which they operate, and so making them exhibit to us
new sensible ideas, therefore it is that I have reckoned these powers
amongst the simple ideas which make the complex ones of the sorts of
substances; though these powers considered in themselves, are truly
complex ideas. And in this looser sense I crave leave to be understood,
when I name any of these POTENTIALITIES among the simple ideas which we
recollect in our minds when we think of PARTICULAR SUBSTANCES. For the
powers that are severally in them are necessary to be considered, if we
will have true distinct notions of the several sorts of substances.

8. And why.

Nor are we to wonder that powers make a great part of our complex ideas
of substances; since their secondary qualities are those which in most
of them serve principally to distinguish substances one from another,
and commonly make a considerable part of the complex idea of the several
sorts of them. For, our senses failing us in the discovery of the bulk,
texture, and figure of the minute parts of bodies, on which their real
constitutions and differences depend, we are fain to make use of their
secondary qualities as the characteristical notes and marks whereby to
frame ideas of them in our minds, and distinguish them one from another:
all which secondary qualities, as has been shown, are nothing but bare
powers. For the colour and taste of opium are, as well as its soporific
or anodyne virtues, mere powers, depending on its primary qualities,
whereby it is fitted to produce different operations on different parts
of our bodies.

9. Three sorts of Ideas make our complex ones of Corporeal Substances.

The ideas that make our complex ones of corporeal substances, are of
these three sorts. First, the ideas of the primary qualities of things,
which are discovered by our senses, and are in them even when we
perceive them not; such are the bulk, figure, number, situation, and
motion of the parts of bodies; which are really in them, whether we
take notice of them or not. Secondly, the sensible secondary qualities,
which, depending on these, are nothing but the powers those substances
have to produce several ideas in us by our senses; which ideas are not
in the things themselves, otherwise than as anything is in its cause.
Thirdly, the aptness we consider in any substance, to give or receive
such alterations of primary qualities, as that the substance so altered
should produce in us different ideas from what it did before; these are
called active and passive powers: all which powers, as far as we have
any notice or notion of them, terminate only in sensible simple ideas.
For whatever alteration a loadstone has the power to make in the minute
particles of iron, we should have no notion of any power it had at all
to operate on iron, did not its sensible motion discover it: and I doubt
not, but there are a thousand changes, that bodies we daily handle have
a power to cause in one another, which we never suspect, because they
never appear in sensible effects.

10. Powers thus make a great Part of our complex Ideas of particular

POWERS therefore justly make a great part of our complex ideas of
substances. He that will examine his complex idea of gold, will find
several of its ideas that make it up to be only powers; as the power of
being melted, but of not spending itself in the fire; of being dissolved
in AQUA REGIA, are ideas as necessary to make up our complex idea of
gold, as its colour and weight: which, if duly considered, are also
nothing but different powers. For, to speak truly, yellowness is not
actually in gold, but is a power in gold to produce that idea in us by
our eyes, when placed in a due light: and the heat, which we cannot
leave out of our ideas of the sun, is no more really in the sun, than
the white colour it introduces into wax. These are both equally powers
in the sun, operating, by the motion and figure of its sensible parts,
so on a man, as to make him have the idea of heat; and so on wax, as to
make it capable to produce in a man the idea of white.

11. The now secondary Qualities of Bodies would disappear, if we could
discover the primary ones of their minute Parts.

Had we senses acute enough to discern the minute particles of bodies,
and the real constitution on which their sensible qualities depend, I
doubt not but they would produce quite different ideas in us: and that
which is now the yellow colour of gold, would then disappear, and
instead of it we should see an admirable texture of parts, of a certain
size and figure. This microscopes plainly discover to us; for what to
our naked eyes produces a certain colour, is, by thus augmenting the
acuteness of our senses, discovered to be quite a different thing; and
the thus altering, as it were, the proportion of the bulk of the minute
parts of a coloured object to our usual sight, produces different ideas
from what it did before. Thus, sand or pounded glass, which is opaque,
and white to the naked eye, is pellucid in a microscope; and a hair
seen in this way, loses its former colour, and is, in a great measure,
pellucid, with a mixture of some bright sparkling colours, such as
appear from the refraction of diamonds, and other pellucid bodies.
Blood, to the naked eye, appears all red; but by a good microscope,
wherein its lesser parts appear, shows only some few globules of red,
swimming in a pellucid liquor, and how these red globules would appear,
if glasses could be found that could yet magnify them a thousand or ten
thousand times more, is uncertain.

12. Our Faculties for Discovery of the Qualities and powers of
Substances suited to our State.

The infinite wise Contriver of us, and all things about us, hath fitted
our senses, faculties, and organs, to the conveniences of life, and the
business we have to do here. We are able, by our senses, to know and
distinguish things: and to examine them so far as to apply them to our
uses, and several ways to accommodate the exigences of this life. We
have insight enough into their admirable contrivances and wonderful
effects, to admire and magnify the wisdom, power and goodness of
their Author. Such a knowledge as this which is suited to our present
condition, we want not faculties to attain. But it appears not that God
intended we should have a perfect, clear, and adequate knowledge of
them: that perhaps is not in the comprehension of any finite being. We
are furnished with faculties (dull and weak as they are) to discover
enough in the creatures to lead us to the knowledge of the Creator, and
the knowledge of our duty; and we are fitted well enough with abilities
to provide for the conveniences of living: these are our business in
this world. But were our senses altered, and made much quicker and
acuter, the appearance and outward scheme of things would have quite
another face to us; and, I am apt to think, would be inconsistent with
our being, or at least wellbeing, in the part of the universe which we
inhabit. He that considers how little our constitution is able to bear
a remove into part of this air, not much higher than that we commonly
breathe in, will have reason to be satisfied, that in this globe of
earth allotted for our mansion, the all-wise Architect has suited our
organs, and the bodies that are to affect them, one to another. If our
sense of hearing were but a thousand times quicker than it is, how would
a perpetual noise distract us. And we should in the quietest retirement
be less able to sleep or meditate than in the middle of a sea-fight.
Nay, if that most instructive of our senses, seeing, were in any man a
thousand or a hundred thousand times more acute than it is by the best
microscope, things several millions of times less than the smallest
object of his sight now would then be visible to his naked eyes, and so
he would come nearer to the discovery of the texture and motion of the
minute parts of corporeal things; and in many of them, probably get
ideas of their internal constitutions: but then he would be in a quite
different world from other people: nothing would appear the same to him
and others: the visible ideas of everything would be different. So that
I doubt, whether he and the rest of men could discourse concerning
the objects of sight, or have any communication about colours, their
appearances being so wholly different. And perhaps such a quickness and
tenderness of sight could not endure bright sunshine, or so much as open
daylight; nor take in but a very small part of any object at once,
and that too only at a very near distance. And if by the help of such
MICROSCOPICAL EYES (if I may so call them) a man could penetrate further
than ordinary into the secret composition and radical texture of bodies,
he would not make any great advantage by the change, if such an acute
sight would not serve to conduct him to the market and exchange; if he
could not see things he was to avoid, at a convenient distance; nor
distinguish things he had to do with by those sensible qualities others
do. He that was sharp-sighted enough to see the configuration of the
minute particles of the spring of a clock, and observe upon what
peculiar structure and impulse its elastic motion depends, would no
doubt discover something very admirable: but if eyes so framed could not
view at once the hand, and the characters of the hour-plate, and thereby
at a distance see what o'clock it was, their owner could not be much
benefited by that acuteness; which, whilst it discovered the secret
contrivance of the parts of the machine, made him lose its use.

13. Conjecture about the corporeal organs of some Spirits.

And here give me leave to propose an extravagant conjecture of mine,
viz. That since we have some reason (if there be any credit to be given
to the report of things that our philosophy cannot account for) to
imagine, that Spirits can assume to themselves bodies of different bulk,
figure, and conformation of parts - whether one great advantage some of
them have over us may not lie in this, that they can so frame and shape
to themselves organs of sensation or perception, as to suit them to
their present design, and the circumstances of the object they would
consider. For how much would that man exceed all others in knowledge,
who had but the faculty so to alter the structure of his eyes, that one
sense, as to make it capable of all the several degrees of vision which
the assistance of glasses (casually at first lighted on) has taught us
to conceive? What wonders would he discover, who could so fit his eyes
to all sorts of objects, as to see when he pleased the figure and motion
of the minute particles in the blood, and other juices of animals, as
distinctly as he does, at other times, the shape and motion of the
animals themselves? But to us, in our present state, unalterable organs,
so contrived as to discover the figure and motion of the minute parts of
bodies, whereon depend those sensible qualities we now observe in them,
would perhaps be of no advantage. God has no doubt made them so as
is best for us in our present condition. He hath fitted us for the
neighbourhood of the bodies that surround us, and we have to do with;
and though we cannot, by the faculties we have, attain to a perfect
knowledge of things, yet they will serve us well enough for those ends
above-mentioned, which are our great concernment. I beg my reader's
pardon for laying before him so wild a fancy concerning the ways of
perception of beings above us; but how extravagant soever it be, I doubt
whether we can imagine anything about the knowledge of angels but after
this manner, some way or other in proportion to what we find and observe
in ourselves. And though we cannot but allow that the infinite power and
wisdom of God may frame creatures with a thousand other faculties and
ways of perceiving things without them than what we have, yet our
thoughts can go no further than our own: so impossible it is for us
to enlarge our very guesses beyond the ideas received from our own
sensation and reflection. The supposition, at least, that angels do
sometimes assume bodies, needs not startle us; since some of the most
ancient and most learned Fathers of the church seemed to believe that
they had bodies: and this is certain, that their state and way of
existence is unknown to us.

14. Our specific Ideas of Substances.

But to return to the matter in hand, - the ideas we have of substances,
and the ways we come by them. I say, our SPECIFIC ideas of substances
CONSIDERED AS UNITED IN ONE THING. These ideas of substances, though
they are commonly simple apprehensions, and the names of them simple
terms, yet in effect are complex and compounded. Thus the idea which an
Englishman signifies by the name swan, is white colour, long neck, red
beak, black legs, and whole feet, and all these of a certain size, with

Online LibraryJohn LockeAn Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 → online text (page 25 of 34)