John Locke.

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

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20. Ideas in themselves neither true nor false.

Any idea, then, which we have in our minds, whether conformable or not
to the existence of things, or to any idea in the minds of other
men, cannot properly for this alone be called false. For these
representations, if they have nothing in them but what is really
existing in things without, cannot be thought false, being exact
representations of something: nor yet if they have anything in them
differing from the reality of things, can they properly be said to be
false representations, or ideas of things they do not represent. But the
mistake and falsehood is:

21. But are false - 1. When judged agreeable to another Man's Idea,
without being so.

First, when the mind having any idea, it JUDGES and concludes it the
same that is in other men's minds, signified by the same name; or that
it is conformable to the ordinary received signification or definition
of that word, when indeed it is not: which is the most usual mistake in
mixed modes, though other ideas also are liable to it.

22. Secondly, When judged to agree to real Existence, when they do not.

(2) When it having a complex idea made up of such a collection of simple
ones as nature never puts together, it JUDGES it to agree to a species
of creatures really existing; as when it joins the weight of tin to the
colour, fusibility, and fixedness of gold.

23. Thirdly, When judged adequate, without being so.

(3) When in its complex idea it has united a certain number of simple
ideas that do really exist together in some sort of creatures, but has
also left out others as much inseparable, it JUDGES this to be a perfect
complete idea of a sort of things which really it is not; v.g. having
joined the ideas of substance, yellow, malleable, most heavy, and
fusible, it takes that complex idea to be the complete idea of gold,
when yet its peculiar fixedness, and solubility in AQUA REGIA, are as
inseparable from those other ideas, or qualities, of that body as they
are one from another.

24. Fourthly, When judged to represent the real Essence.

(4) The mistake is yet greater, when I JUDGE that this complex idea
contains in it the real essence of any body existing; when at least
it contains but some few of those properties which flow from its real
essence and constitution. I say only some few of those properties; for
those properties consisting mostly in the active and passive powers it
has in reference to other things, all that are vulgarly known of any one
body, of which the complex idea of that kind of things is usually made,
are but a very few, in comparison of what a man that has several ways
tried and examined it knows of that one sort of things; and all that the
most expert man knows are but a few, in comparison of what are really
in that body, and depend on its internal or essential constitution. The
essence of a triangle lies in a very little compass, consists in a very
few ideas: three lines including a space make up that essence: but the
properties that flow from this essence are more than can be easily known
or enumerated. So I imagine it is in substances; their real essences lie
in a little compass, though the properties flowing from that internal
constitution are endless.

25. Ideas, when called false.

To conclude, a man having no notion of anything without him, but by the
idea he has of it in his mind, (which idea he has a power to call by
what name he pleases,) he may indeed make an idea neither answering the
reason of things, nor agreeing to the idea commonly signified by other
people's words; but cannot make a wrong or false idea of a thing which
is no otherwise known to him but by the idea he has of it: v.g. when I
frame an idea of the legs, arms, and body of a man, and join to this a
horse's head and neck, I do not make a false idea of anything; because
it represents nothing without me. But when I call it a MAN or TARTAR,
and imagine it to represent some real being without me, or to be the
same idea that others call by the same name; in either of these cases I
may err. And upon this account it is that it comes to be termed a false
idea; though indeed the falsehood lies not in the idea, but in that
tacit mental proposition, wherein a conformity and resemblance is
attributed to it which it has not. But yet, if, having framed such an
idea in my mind, without thinking either that existence, or the name MAN
or TARTAR, belongs to it, I will call it MAN or TARTAR, I may be justly
thought fantastical in the naming; but not erroneous in my judgment; nor
the idea any way false.

26. More properly to be called right or wrong.

Upon the whole matter, I think that our ideas, as they are considered
by the mind, - either in reference to the proper signification of their
names; or in reference to the reality of things, - may very fitly be
called RIGHT or WRONG ideas, according as they agree or disagree to
those patterns to which they are referred. But if any one had rather
call them true or false, it is fit he use a liberty, which every one
has, to call things by those names he thinks best; though, in propriety
of speech, TRUTH or FALSEHOOD will, I think, scarce agree to them,
but as they, some way or other, virtually contain in them some mental
proposition. The ideas that are in a man's mind, simply considered,
cannot be wrong; unless complex ones, wherein inconsistent parts are
jumbled together. All other ideas are in themselves right, and the
knowledge about them right and true knowledge; but when we come to refer
them to anything, as to their patterns and archetypes then they are
capable of being wrong, as far as they disagree with such archetypes.



1. Something unreasonable in most Men.

There is scarce any one that does not observe something that seems
odd to him, and is in itself really extravagant, in the opinions,
reasonings, and actions of other men. The least flaw of this kind, if at
all different from his own, every one is quick-sighted enough to espy in
another, and will by the authority of reason forwardly condemn; though
he be guilty of much greater unreasonableness in his own tenets and
conduct, which he never perceives, and will very hardly, if at all, be
convinced of.

2. Not wholly from Self-love.

This proceeds not wholly from self-love, though that has often a great
hand in it. Men of fair minds, and not given up to the overweening of
self-flattery, are frequently guilty of it; and in many cases one with
amazement hears the arguings, and is astonished at the obstinacy of a
worthy man, who yields not to the evidence of reason, though laid before
him as clear as daylight.

3. Not from Education.

This sort of unreasonableness is usually imputed to education and
prejudice, and for the most part truly enough, though that reaches not
the bottom of the disease, nor shows distinctly enough whence it rises,
or wherein it lies. Education is often rightly assigned for the cause,
and prejudice is a good general name for the thing itself: but yet, I
think, he ought to look a little further, who would trace this sort
of madness to the root it springs from, and so explain it, as to show
whence this flaw has its original in very sober and rational minds, and
wherein it consists.

4. A Degree of Madness found in most Men.

I shall be pardoned for calling it by so harsh a name as madness, when
it is considered that opposition to reason deserves that name, and is
really madness; and there is scarce a man so free from it, but that if
he should always, on all occasions, argue or do as in some cases he
constantly does, would not be thought fitter for Bedlam than civil
conversation. I do not here mean when he is under the power of an unruly
passion, but in the steady calm course of his life. That which will yet
more apologize for this harsh name, and ungrateful imputation on the
greatest part of mankind, is, that, inquiring a little by the bye into
the nature of madness, (b. ii. ch. xi., Section 13,) I found it to
spring from the very same root, and to depend on the very same cause we
are here speaking of. This consideration of the thing itself, at a time
when I thought not I the least on the subject which I am now treating
of, suggested it to me. And if this be a weakness to which all men are
so liable, if this be a taint which so universally infects mankind, the
greater care should be taken to lay it open under its due name, thereby
to excite the greater care in its prevention and cure.

5. From a wrong Connexion of Ideas.

Some of our ideas have a NATURAL correspondence and connexion one with
another: it is the office and excellency of our reason to trace these,
and hold them together in that union and correspondence which is founded
in their peculiar beings. Besides this, there is another connexion of
ideas wholly owing to CHANCE or CUSTOM. Ideas that in themselves are not
all of kin, come to be so united in some men's minds, that it is very
hard to separate them; they always keep in company, and the one no
sooner at any time comes into the understanding, but its associate
appears with it; and if they are more than two which are thus united,
the whole gang, always inseparable, show themselves together.

6. This Connexion made by custom.

This strong combination of ideas, not allied by nature, the mind makes
in itself either voluntarily or by chance; and hence it comes in
different men to be very different, according to their different
inclinations, education, interests, &c. CUSTOM settles habits of
thinking in the understanding, as well as of determining in the will,
and of motions in the body: all which seems to be but trains of motions
in the animal spirits, which, once set a going, continue in the same
steps they have been used to; which, by often treading, are worn into a
smooth path, and the motion in it becomes easy, and as it were natural.
As far as we can comprehend thinking, thus ideas seem to be produced
in our minds; or, if they are not, this may serve to explain their
following one another in an habitual train, when once they are put into
their track, as well as it does to explain such motions of the body. A
musician used to any tune will find that, let it but once begin in his
head, the ideas of the several notes of it will follow one another
orderly in his understanding, without any care or attention, as
regularly as his fingers move orderly over the keys of the organ to play
out the tune he has begun, though his unattentive thoughts be elsewhere
a wandering. Whether the natural cause of these ideas, as well as of
that regular dancing of his fingers be the motion of his animal spirits,
I will not determine, how probable soever, by this instance, it appears
to be so: but this may help us a little to conceive of intellectual
habits, and of the tying together of ideas.

7. Some Antipathies an Effect of it.

That there are such associations of them made by custom, in the minds of
most men, I think nobody will question, who has well considered himself
or others; and to this, perhaps, might be justly attributed most of the
sympathies and antipathies observable in men, which work as strongly,
and produce as regular effects as if they were natural; and are
therefore called so, though they at first had no other original but the
accidental connexion of two ideas, which either the strength of the
first impression, or future indulgence so united, that they always
afterwards kept company together in that man's mind, as if they were but
one idea. I say most of the antipathies, I do not say all; for some of
them are truly natural, depend upon our original constitution, and are
born with us; but a great part of those which are counted natural, would
have been known to be from unheeded, though perhaps early, impressions,
or wanton fancies at first, which would have been acknowledged the
original of them, if they had been warily observed. A grown person
surfeiting with honey no sooner hears the name of it, but his fancy
immediately carries sickness and qualms to his stomach, and he cannot
bear the very idea of it; other ideas of dislike, and sickness, and
vomiting, presently accompany it, and he is disturbed; but he knows
from whence to date this weakness, and can tell how he got this
indisposition. Had this happened to him by an over-dose of honey when
a child, all the same effects would have followed; but the cause would
have been mistaken, and the antipathy counted natural.

8. Influence of association to be watched educating young children.

I mention this, not out of any great necessity there is in this present
argument to distinguish nicely between natural and acquired antipathies;
but I take notice of it for another purpose, viz. that those who have
children, or the charge of their education, would think it worth their
while diligently to watch, and carefully to prevent the undue connexion
of ideas in the minds of young people. This is the time most susceptible
of lasting impressions; and though those relating to the health of the
body are by discreet people minded and fenced against, yet I am apt
to doubt, that those which relate more peculiarly to the mind, and
terminate in the understanding or passions, have been much less
heeded than the thing deserves: nay, those relating purely to the
understanding, have, as I suspect, been by most men wholly overlooked.

9. Wrong connexion of ideas a great Cause of Errors.

This wrong connexion in our minds of ideas in themselves loose and
independent of one another, has such an influence, and is of so great
force to set us awry in our actions, as well moral as natural, passions,
reasonings, and notions themselves, that perhaps there is not any one
thing that deserves more to be looked after.

10. As instance.

The ideas of goblins and sprites have really no more to do with darkness
than light: yet let but a foolish maid inculcate these often on the mind
of a child, and raise them there together, possibly he shall never be
able to separate them again so long as he lives, but darkness shall ever
afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so
joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other.

11. Another instance.

A man receives a sensible injury from another, thinks on the man and
that action over and over, and by ruminating on them strongly, or much,
in his mind, so cements those two ideas together, that he makes them
almost one; never thinks on the man, but the pain and displeasure he
suffered comes into his mind with it, so that he scarce distinguishes
them, but has as much an aversion for the one as the other. Thus hatreds
are often begotten from slight and innocent occasions, and quarrels
propagated and continued in the world.

12. A third instance.

A man has suffered pain or sickness in any place; he saw his friend
die in such a room: though these have in nature nothing to do one with
another, yet when the idea of the place occurs to his mind, it brings
(the impression being once made) that of the pain and displeasure with
it: he confounds them in his mind, and can as little bear the one as the

13. Why Time cures some Disorders in the Mind, which Reason cannot cure.

When this combination is settled, and while it lasts, it is not in the
power of reason to help us, and relieve us from the effects of it. Ideas
in our minds, when they are there, will operate according to their
natures and circumstances. And here we see the cause why time cures
certain affections, which reason, though in the right, and allowed to be
so, has not power over, nor is able against them to prevail with those
who are apt to hearken to it in other cases. The death of a child that
was the daily delight of its mother's eyes, and joy of her soul, rends
from her heart the whole comfort of her life, and gives her all the
torment imaginable: use the consolations of reason in this case, and
you were as good preach ease to one on the rack, and hope to allay, by
rational discourses, the pain of his joints tearing asunder. Till time
has by disuse separated the sense of that enjoyment and its loss, from
the idea of the child returning to her memory, all representations,
though ever so reasonable, are in vain; and therefore some in whom the
union between these ideas is never dissolved, spend their lives in
mourning, and carry an incurable sorrow to their graves.

14. Another instance of the Effect of the Association of Ideas.

A friend of mine knew one perfectly cured of madness by a very harsh and
offensive operation. The gentleman who was thus recovered, with great
sense of gratitude and acknowledgment owned the cure all his life
after, as the greatest obligation he could have received; but, whatever
gratitude and reason suggested to him, he could never bear the sight of
the operator: that image brought back with it the idea of that agony
which he suffered from his hands, which was too mighty and intolerable
for him to endure.

15. More instances.

Many children, imputing the pain they endured at school to their books
they were corrected for, so join those ideas together, that a book
becomes their aversion, and they are never reconciled to the study and
use of them all their lives after; and thus reading becomes a torment to
them, which otherwise possibly they might have made the great pleasure
of their lives. There are rooms convenient enough, that some men cannot
study in, and fashions of vessels, which, though ever so clean and
commodious, they cannot drink out of, and that by reason of some
accidental ideas which are annexed to them, and make them offensive; and
who is there that hath not observed some man to flag at the appearance,
or in the company of some certain person not otherwise superior to him,
but because, having once on some occasion got the ascendant, the idea of
authority and distance goes along with that of the person, and he that
has been thus subjected, is not able to separate them.

16. A curious instance.

Instances of this kind are so plentiful everywhere, that if I add one
more, it is only for the pleasant oddness of it. It is of a young
gentleman, who, having learnt to dance, and that to great perfection,
there happened to stand an old trunk in the room where he learnt. The
idea of this remarkable piece of household stuff had so mixed itself
with the turns and steps of all his dances, that though in that chamber
he could dance excellently well, yet it was only whilst that trunk was
there; nor could he perform well in any other place, unless that or some
such other trunk had its due position in the room. If this story shall
be suspected to be dressed up with some comical circumstances, a little
beyond precise nature, I answer for myself that I had it some years
since from a very sober and worthy man, upon his own knowledge, as I
report it; and I dare say there are very few inquisitive persons who
read this, who have not met with accounts, if not examples, of this
nature, that may parallel, or at least justify this.

17. Influence of Association on intellectual Habits.

Intellectual habits and defects this way contracted, are not less
frequent and powerful, though less observed. Let the ideas of being and
matter be strongly joined, either by education or much thought; whilst
these are still combined in the mind, what notions, what reasonings,
will there be about separate spirits? Let custom from the very childhood
have joined figure and shape to the idea of God, and what absurdities
will that mind be liable to about the Deity? Let the idea of
infallibility be inseparably joined to any person, and these two
constantly together possess the mind; and then one body in two places at
once, shall unexamined be swallowed for a certain truth, by an implicit
faith, whenever that imagined infallible person dictates and demands
assent without inquiry.

18. Observable in the opposition between different Sects of philosophy
and of religion.

Some such wrong and unnatural combinations of ideas will be found to
establish the irreconcilable opposition between different sects of
philosophy and religion; for we cannot imagine every one of their
followers to impose wilfully on himself, and knowingly refuse truth
offered by plain reason. Interest, though it does a great deal in
the case, yet cannot be thought to work whole societies of men to so
universal a perverseness, as that every one of them to a man should
knowingly maintain falsehood: some at least must be allowed to do what
all pretend to, i.e. to pursue truth sincerely; and therefore there must
be something that blinds their understandings, and makes them not see
the falsehood of what they embrace for real truth. That which thus
captivates their reasons, and leads men of sincerity blindfold from
common sense, will, when examined, be found to be what we are speaking
of: some independent ideas, of no alliance to one another, are, by
education, custom, and the constant din of their party, so coupled in
their minds, that they always appear there together; and they can no
more separate them in their thoughts than if they were but one idea,
and they operate as if they were so. This gives sense to jargon,
demonstration to absurdities, and consistency to nonsense, and is the
foundation of the greatest, I had almost said of all the errors in
the world; or, if it does not reach so far, it is at least the most
dangerous one, since, so far as it obtains, it hinders men from seeing
and examining. When two things, in themselves disjoined, appear to the
sight constantly united; if the eye sees these things riveted which are
loose, where will you begin to rectify the mistakes that follow in two
ideas that they have been accustomed so to join in their minds as to
substitute one for the other, and, as I am apt to think, often without
perceiving it themselves? This, whilst they are under the deceit of
it, makes them incapable of conviction, and they applaud themselves as
zealous champions for truth, when indeed they are contending for error;
and the confusion of two different ideas, which a customary connexion
of them in their minds hath to them made in effect but one, fills their
heads with false views, and their reasonings with false consequences.

19. Conclusion.

Having thus given an account of the original, sorts, and extent of our
IDEAS, with several other considerations about these (I know not whether
I may say) instruments, or materials of our knowledge, the method I at
first proposed to myself would now require that I should immediately
proceed to show, what use the understanding makes of them, and what
KNOWLEDGE we have by them. This was that which, in the first general
view I had of this subject, was all that I thought I should have to do:
but, upon a nearer approach, I find that there is so close a connexion
between ideas and WORDS, and our abstract ideas and general words have
so constant a relation one to another, that it is impossible to
speak clearly and distinctly of our knowledge, which all consists
in propositions, without considering, first, the nature, use, and
signification of Language; which, therefore, must be the business of the
next Book.


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