John Locke.

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

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the idea of action, which is any kind of thought or motion; fifthly, the
idea of good, which signifies anything that may advance his happiness,
and terminates at last, if examined, in particular simple ideas, of
which the word good in general signifies any one; but, if removed from
all simple ideas quite, it signifies nothing at all. And thus also
all moral words terminate at last, though perhaps more remotely, in a
collection of simple ideas: the immediate signification of relative
words, being very often other supposed known relations; which, if traced
one to another, still end in simple ideas.

19. We have ordinarily as clear a Notion of the Relation, as of the
simple ideas in things on which it is founded.

Secondly, That in relations, we have for the most part, if not always,
as clear a notion of THE RELATION as we have of THOSE SIMPLE IDEAS
WHEREIN IT IS FOUNDED: agreement or disagreement, whereon relation
depends, being things whereof we have commonly as clear ideas as of any
other whatsoever; it being but the distinguishing simple ideas, or
their degrees one from another, without which we could have no distinct
knowledge at all. For, if I have a clear idea of sweetness, light, or
extension, I have, too, of equal, or more, or less, of each of these: if
I know what it is for one man to be born of a woman, viz. Sempronia, I
know what it is for another man to be born of the same woman Sempronia;
and so have as clear a notion of brothers as of births, and perhaps
clearer. For it I believed that Sempronia digged Titus out of the
parsley-bed, (as they used to tell children,) and thereby became his
mother; and that afterwards, in the same manner, she digged Caius out
of the parsley-bed, I has as clear a notion of the relation of brothers
between them, as it I had all the skill of a midwife: the notion that
the same woman contributed, as mother, equally to their births, (though
I were ignorant or mistaken in the manner of it,) being that on which
I grounded the relation; and that they agreed in the circumstance of
birth, let it be what it will. The comparing them then in their descent
from the same person, without knowing the particular circumstances of
that descent, is enough to found my notion of their having, or not
having, the relation of brothers. But though the ideas of PARTICULAR
RELATIONS are capable of being as clear and distinct in the minds of
those who will duly consider them as those of mixed modes, and more
determinate than those of substances: yet the names belonging to
relation are often of as doubtful and uncertain signification as those
of substances or mixed modes; and much more than those of simple ideas.
Because relative words, being the marks of this comparison, which is
made only by men's thoughts, and is an idea only in men's minds, men
frequently apply them to different comparisons of things, according to
their own imaginations; which do not always correspond with those of
others using the same name.

20. The Notion of Relation is the same, whether the Rule any Action is
compared to be true or false.

Thirdly, That in these I call MORAL RELATIONS, I have a true notion of
relation, by comparing the action with the rule, whether the rule be
true or false. For if I measure anything by a yard, I know whether the
thing I measure be longer or shorter than that supposed yard, though
perhaps the yard I measure by be not exactly the standard: which indeed
is another inquiry. For though the rule be erroneous, and I mistaken in
it; yet the agreement or disagreement observable in that which I compare
with, makes me perceive the relation. Though, measuring by a wrong
rule, I shall thereby be brought to judge amiss of its moral rectitude;
because I have tried it by that which is not the true rule: yet I am not
mistaken in the relation which that action bears to that rule I compare
it to, which is agreement or disagreement.



1. Ideas, come clear and distinct, others obscure and confused.

Having shown the original of our ideas, and taken a view of their
several sorts; considered the difference between the simple and the
complex; and observed how the complex ones are divided into those of
modes, substances, and relations - all which, I think, is necessary
to be done by any one who would acquaint himself thoroughly with the
progress of the mind, in its apprehension and knowledge of things - it
will, perhaps, be thought I have dwelt long enough upon the examination
of IDEAS. I must, nevertheless, crave leave to offer some few other
considerations concerning them.

The first is, that some are CLEAR and others OBSCURE; some DISTINCT and
others CONFUSED.

2. Clear and obscure explained by Sight.

The perception of the mind being most aptly explained by words relating
to the sight, we shall best understand what is meant by CLEAR and
OBSCURE in our ideas, by reflecting on what we call clear and obscure
in the objects of sight. Light being that which discovers to us visible
objects, we give the name of OBSCURE to that which is not placed in a
light sufficient to discover minutely to us the figure and colours
which are observable in it, and which, in a better light, would be
discernible. In like manner, our simple ideas are CLEAR, when they are
such as the objects themselves from whence they were taken did or might,
in a well-ordered sensation or perception, present them. Whilst the
memory retains them thus, and can produce them to the mind whenever it
has occasion to consider them, they are clear ideas. So far as they
either want anything of the original exactness, or have lost any of
their first freshness, and are, as it were, faded or tarnished by time,
so far are they obscure. Complex ideas, as they are made up of simple
ones, so they are clear, when the ideas that go to their composition
are clear, and the number and order of those simple ideas that are the
ingredients of any complex one is determinate and certain.

3. Causes of Obscurity.

The causes of obscurity, in simple ideas, seem to be either dull organs;
or very slight and transient impressions made by the objects; or else
a weakness in the memory, not able to retain them as received. For to
return again to visible objects, to help us to apprehend this matter.
If the organs, or faculties of perception, like wax over-hardened with
cold, will not receive the impression of the seal, from the usual
impulse wont to imprint it; or, like wax of a temper too soft, will not
hold it well, when well imprinted; or else supposing the wax of a temper
fit, but the seal not applied with a sufficient force to make a clear
impression: in any of these cases, the print left by the seal will be
obscure. This, I suppose, needs no application to make it plainer.

4. Distinct and confused, what.

As a clear idea is that whereof the mind has such a full and evident
perception, as it does receive from an outward object operating duly
on a well-disposed organ, so a DISTINCT idea is that wherein the mind
perceives a difference from all other; and a CONFUSED idea is such an
one as is not sufficiently distinguishable from another, from which it
ought to be different.

5. Objection.

If no idea be confused, but such as is not sufficiently distinguishable
from another from which it should be different, it will be hard, may any
one say, to find anywhere a CONFUSED idea. For, let any idea be as it
will, it can be no other but such as the mind perceives it to be; and
that very perception sufficiently distinguishes it from all other ideas,
which cannot be other, i.e. different, without being perceived to be so.
No idea, therefore, can be undistinguishable from another from which it
ought to be different, unless you would have it different from itself:
for from all other it is evidently different.

6. Confusion of Ideas is in Reference to their Names.

To remove this difficulty, and to help us to conceive aright what it is
that makes the confusion ideas are at any time chargeable with, we must
consider, that things ranked under distinct names are supposed different
enough to be distinguished, that so each sort by its peculiar name may
be marked, and discoursed of apart upon any occasion: and there is
nothing more evident, than that the greatest part of different names are
supposed to stand for different things. Now every idea a man has, being
visibly what it is, and distinct from all other ideas but itself; that
which makes it confused, is, when it is such that it may as well be
called by another name as that which it is expressed by; the difference
which keeps the things (to be ranked under those two different names)
distinct, and makes some of them belong rather to the one and some
of them to the other of those names, being left out; and so the
distinction, which was intended to be kept up by those different names,
is quite lost.

7. Defaults which make this Confusion.

The defaults which usually occasion this confusion, I think, are chiefly
these following:

First, complex ideas made up of too few simple ones.

First, when any complex idea (for it is complex ideas that are most
liable to confusion) is made up of too small a number of simple ideas,
and such only as are common to other things, whereby the differences
that make it deserve a different name, are left out. Thus, he that has
an idea made up of barely the simple ones of a beast with spots, has
but a confused idea of a leopard; it not being thereby sufficiently
distinguished from a lynx, and several other sorts of beasts that are
spotted. So that such an idea, though it hath the peculiar name leopard,
is not distinguishable from those designed by the names lynx or panther,
and may as well come under the name lynx as leopard. How much the custom
of defining of words by general terms contributes to make the ideas
we would express by them confused and undetermined, I leave others to
consider. This is evident, that confused ideas are such as render the
use of words uncertain, and take away the benefit of distinct names.
When the ideas, for which we use different terms, have not a difference
answerable to their distinct names, and so cannot be distinguished by
them, there it is that they are truly confused.

8. Secondly, or their simple ones jumbled disorderly together.

Secondly, Another fault which makes our ideas confused is, when, though
the particulars that make up any idea are in number enough, yet they are
so jumbled together, that it is not easily discernible whether it more
belongs to the name that is given it than to any other. There is nothing
properer to make us conceive this confusion than a sort of pictures,
usually shown as surprising pieces of art, wherein the colours, as
they are laid by the pencil on the table itself, mark out very odd and
unusual figures, and have no discernible order in their position. This
draught, thus made up of parts wherein no symmetry nor order appears, is
in itself no more a confused thing, than the picture of a cloudy sky;
wherein, though there be as little order of colours or figures to be
found, yet nobody thinks it a confused picture. What is it, then, that
makes it be thought confused, since the want of symmetry does not? As it
is plain it does not: for another draught made barely in imitation of
this could not be called confused. I answer, That which makes it be
thought confused is, the applying it to some name to which it does no
more discernibly belong than to some other: v.g. when it is said to be
the picture of a man, or Caesar, then any one with reason counts it
confused; because it is not discernible in that state to belong more to
the name man, or Caesar, than to the name baboon, or Pompey: which are
supposed to stand for different ideas from those signified by man, or
Caesar. But when a cylindrical mirror, placed right, had reduced those
irregular lines on the table into their due order and proportion, then
the confusion ceases, and the eye presently sees that it is a man, or
Caesar; i.e. that it belongs to those names; and that it is sufficiently
distinguishable from a baboon, or Pompey; i.e. from the ideas signified
by those names. Just thus it is with our ideas, which are as it were the
pictures of things. No one of these mental draughts, however the
parts are put together, can be called confused (for they are plainly
discernible as they are) till it be ranked under some ordinary name to
which it cannot be discerned to belong, any more than it does to some
other name of an allowed different signification.

9. Thirdly, or their simple ones mutable and undetermined.

Thirdly, A third defect that frequently gives the name of confused to
our ideas, is, when any one of them is uncertain and undetermined. Thus
we may observe men who, not forbearing to use the ordinary words of
their language till they have learned their precise signification,
change the idea they make this or that term stand for, almost as often
as they use it. He that does this out of uncertainty of what he should
leave out, or put into his idea of CHURCH, or IDOLATRY, every time he
thinks of either, and holds not steady to any one precise combination of
ideas that makes it up, is said to have a confused idea of idolatry or
the church: though this be still for the same reason as the former,
viz. because a mutable idea (if we will allow it to be one idea) cannot
belong to one name rather than another, and so loses the distinction
that distinct names are designed for.

10. Confusion without Reference to Names, hardly conceivable.

By what has been said, we may observe how much NAMES, as supposed steady
signs of things, and by their difference to stand for, and keep
things distinct that in themselves are different, are the occasion of
denominating ideas distinct or confused, by a secret and unobserved
reference the mind makes of its ideas to such names. This perhaps will
be fuller understood, after what I say of Words in the third Book has
been read and considered. But without taking notice of such a reference
of ideas to distinct names, as the signs of distinct things, it will be
hard to say what a confused idea is. And therefore when a man designs,
by any name, a sort of things, or any one particular thing, distinct
from all others, the complex idea he annexes to that name is the more
distinct, the more particular the ideas are, and the greater and more
determinate the number and order of them is, whereof it is made up.
For, the more it has of these, the more it has still of the perceivable
differences, whereby it is kept separate and distinct from all ideas
belonging to other names, even those that approach nearest to it, and
thereby all confusion with them is avoided.

11. Confusion concerns always two Ideas.

Confusion making it a difficulty to separate two things that should be
separated, concerns always two ideas; and those most which most approach
one another. Whenever, therefore, we suspect any idea to be confused, we
must examine what other it is in danger to be confounded with, or which
it cannot easily be separated from; and that will always be found an
idea belonging to another name, and so should be a different thing, from
which yet it is not sufficiently distinct: being either the same with
it, or making a part of it, or at least as properly called by that name
as the other it is ranked under; and so keeps not that difference from
that other idea which the different names import.

12. Causes of confused Ideas.

This, I think, is the confusion proper to ideas; which still carries
with it a secret reference to names. At least, if there be any other
confusion of ideas, this is that which most of all disorders men's
thoughts and discourses: ideas, as ranked under names, being those that
for the most part men reason of within themselves, and always those
which they commune about with others. And therefore where there are
supposed two different ideas, marked by two different names, which are
not as distinguishable as the sounds that stand for them, there never
fails to be confusion; and where any ideas are distinct as the ideas
of those two sounds they are marked by, there can be between them no
confusion. The way to prevent it is to collect and unite into one
complex idea, as precisely as is possible, all those ingredients whereby
it is differenced from others; and to them, so united in a determinate
number and order, apply steadily the same name. But this neither
accommodating men's ease or vanity, nor serving any design but that of
naked truth, which is not always the thing aimed at, such exactness is
rather to be wished than hoped for. And since the loose application of
names, to undetermined, variable, and almost no ideas, serves both to
cover our own ignorance, as well as to perplex and confound others,
which goes for learning and superiority in knowledge, it is no wonder
that most men should use it themselves, whilst they complain of it in
others. Though I think no small part of the confusion to be found in the
notions of men might, by care and ingenuity, be avoided, yet I am far
from concluding it everywhere wilful. Some ideas are so complex, and
made up of so many parts, that the memory does not easily retain the
very same precise combination of simple ideas under one name: much less
are we able constantly to divine for what precise complex idea such a
name stands in another man's use of it. From the first of these, follows
confusion in a man's own reasonings and opinions within himself; from
the latter, frequent confusion in discoursing and arguing with others.
But having more at large treated of Words, their defects, and abuses, in
the following Book, I shall here say no more of it.

13. Complex Ideas may be distinct in one Part, and confused in another.

Our complex ideas, being made up of collections, and so variety of
simple ones, may accordingly be very clear and distinct in one part,
and very obscure and confused in another. In a man who speaks of a
chiliaedron, or a body of a thousand sides, the ideas of the figure may
be very confused, though that of the number be very distinct; so that
he being able to discourse and demonstrate concerning that part of his
complex idea which depends upon the number of thousand, he is apt to
think he has a distinct idea of a chiliaedron; though it be plain he has
no precise idea of its figure, so as to distinguish it, by that, from
one that has but 999 sides: the not observing whereof causes no small
error in men's thoughts, and confusion in their discourses.

14. This, if not heeded, causes Confusion in our Arguings.

He that thinks he has a distinct idea of the figure of a chiliaedron,
let him for trial sake take another parcel of the same uniform matter,
viz. gold or wax of an equal bulk, and make it into a figure of 999
sides. He will, I doubt not, be able to distinguish these two ideas one
from another, by the number of sides; and reason and argue distinctly
about them, whilst he keeps his thoughts and reasoning to that part only
of these ideas which is contained in their numbers; as that the sides of
the one could be divided into two equal numbers, and of the others not,
&c. But when he goes about to distinguish them by their figure, he will
there be presently at a loss, and not be able, I think, to frame in his
mind two ideas, one of them distinct from the other, by the bare figure
of these two pieces of gold; as he could, if the same parcels of gold
were made one into a cube, the other a figure of five sides. In which
incomplete ideas, we are very apt to impose on ourselves, and wrangle
with others, especially where they have particular and familiar names.
For, being satisfied in that part of the idea which we have clear; and
the name which is familiar to us, being applied to the whole, containing
that part also which is imperfect and obscure, we are apt to use it for
that confused part, and draw deductions from it in the obscure part of
its signification, as confidently as we do from the other.

15. Instance in Eternity.

Having frequently in our mouths the name Eternity, we are apt to think
we have a positive comprehensive idea of it, which is as much as to say,
that there is no part of that duration which is not clearly contained
in our idea. It is true that he that thinks so may have a clear idea
of duration; he may also have a clear idea of a very great length of
duration; he may also have a clear idea of the comparison of that great
one with still a greater: but it not being possible for him to include
in his idea of any duration, let it be as great as it will, the WHOLE
his idea, which is still beyond the bounds of that large duration he
represents to his own thoughts, is very obscure and undetermined. And
hence it is that in disputes and reasonings concerning eternity, or any
other infinite, we are very apt to blunder, and involve ourselves in
manifest absurdities.

16. Infinite Divisibility of Matter.

In matter, we have no clear ideas of the smallness of parts much beyond
the smallest that occur to any of our senses: and therefore, when we
talk of the divisibility of matter IN INFINITUM, though we have clear
ideas of division and divisibility, and have also clear ideas of parts
made out of a whole by division; yet we have but very obscure and
confused ideas of corpuscles, or minute bodies, so to be divided, when,
by former divisions, they are reduced to a smallness much exceeding
the perception of any of our senses; and so all that we have clear and
distinct ideas of is of what division in general or abstractedly is, and
the relation of TOTUM and PARS: but of the bulk of the body, to be thus
infinitely divided after certain progressions, I think, we have no
clear nor distinct idea at all. For I ask any one, whether, taking the
smallest atom of dust he ever saw, he has any distinct idea (bating
still the number, which concerns not extension) betwixt the 100,000th
and the 1,000,000th part of it. Or if he think he can refine his ideas
to that degree, without losing sight of them, let him add ten cyphers to
each of those numbers. Such a degree of smallness is not unreasonable to
be supposed; since a division carried on so far brings it no nearer the
end of infinite division, than the first division into two halves does.
I must confess, for my part, I have no clear distinct ideas of the
different bulk or extension of those bodies, having but a very obscure
one of either of them. So that, I think, when we talk of division of
bodies in infinitum, our idea of their distinct bulks, which is the
subject and foundation of division, comes, after a little progression,
to be confounded, and almost lost in obscurity. For that idea which is
to represent only bigness must be very obscure and confused, which we
cannot distinguish from one ten times as big, but only by number: so
that we have clear distinct ideas, we may say, of ten and one, but no
distinct ideas of two such extensions. It is plain from hence, that,
when we talk of infinite divisibility of body or extension, our distinct
and clear ideas are only of numbers: but the clear distinct ideas of
extension, after some progress of division, are quite lost; and of such
minute parts we have no distinct ideas at all; but it returns, as all
our ideas of infinite do, at last to that of NUMBER ALWAYS TO BE ADDED;
but thereby never amounts to any distinct idea of ACTUAL INFINITE PARTS.
We have, it is true, a clear idea of division, as often as we think
of it; but thereby we have no more a clear idea of infinite parts in
matter, than we have a clear idea of an infinite number, by being able
still to add new numbers to any assigned numbers we have: endless
divisibility giving us no more a clear and distinct idea of actually
infinite parts, than endless addibility (if I may so speak) gives us a
clear and distinct idea of an actually infinite number: they both being
only in a power still of increasing the number, be it already as great
as it will. So that of what remains to be added (WHEREIN CONSISTS THE
INFINITY) we have but an obscure, imperfect, and confused idea; from or
about which we can argue or reason with no certainty or clearness, no
more than we can in arithmetic, about a number of which we have no such
distinct idea as we have of 4 or 100; but only this relative obscure
one, that, compared to any other, it is still bigger: and we have no
more a clear positive idea of it, when we [dropped line*] than if we
should say it is bigger than 40 or 4: 400,000,000 having no nearer a

Online LibraryJohn LockeAn Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 → online text (page 31 of 34)