John Locke.

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

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useless sort of thinking; and the soul, in such a state of thinking,
does very little, if at all, excel that of a looking-glass, which
constantly receives variety of images, or ideas, but retains none;
they disappear and vanish, and there remain no footsteps of them; the
looking-glass is never the better for such ideas, nor the soul for,
such thoughts. Perhaps it will be said, that in a waking MAN the
materials of the body are employed, and made use of, in thinking; and
that the memory of thoughts is retained by the impressions that are made
on the brain, and the traces there left after such thinking; but that
in the thinking of the SOUL, which is not perceived in a sleeping man,
there the soul thinks apart, and making no use of the organs of the
body, leaves no impressions on it, and consequently no memory of such
thoughts. Not to mention again the absurdity of two distinct persons,
which follows from this supposition, I answer, further, - That whatever
ideas the mind can receive and contemplate without the help of the body,
it is reasonable to conclude it can retain without the help of the body
too; or else the soul, or any separate spirit, will have but little
advantage by thinking. If it has no memory of its own thoughts; if it
cannot lay them up for its own use, and be able to recall them upon
occasion; if it cannot reflect upon what is past, and make use of its
former experiences, reasonings, and contemplations, to what, purpose
does it think? They who make the soul a thinking thing, at this rate,
will not make it a much more noble being than those do whom they
condemn, for allowing it to be nothing but the subtilist parts of
matter. Characters drawn on dust, that the first breath of wind
effaces; or impressions made on a heap of atoms, or animal spirits, are
altogether as useful, and render the subject as noble, as the thoughts
of a soul that perish in thinking; that, once out of sight, are gone for
ever, and leave no memory of themselves behind them. Nature never makes
excellent things for mean or no uses: and it is hardly to be conceived
that our infinitely wise Creator should make so admirable a faculty as
the power of thinking, that faculty which comes nearest the excellency
of his own incomprehensible being, to be so idly and uselessly employed,
at least a fourth part of its time here, as to think constantly, without
remembering any of those thoughts, without doing any good to itself or
others, or being any way useful to any other part of the creation. If we
will examine it, we shall not find, I suppose, the motion of dull and
senseless matter, any where in the universe, made so little use of and
so wholly thrown away.

16. On this Hypothesis, the Soul must have Ideas not derived from
Sensation or Reflection, of which there is no Appearance.

It is true, we have sometimes instances of perception whilst we are
asleep, and retain the memory of those thoughts: but how extravagant and
incoherent for the most part they are; how little conformable to the
perfection and order of a rational being, those who are acquainted
with dreams need not be told. This I would willingly be satisfied
in, - whether the soul, when it thinks thus apart, and as it were
separate from the body, acts less rationally than when conjointly with
it, or no. If its separate thoughts be less rational, then these men
must say, that the soul owes the perfection of rational thinking to the
body: if it does not, it is a wonder that our dreams should be, for the
most part, so frivolous and irrational; and that the soul should retain
none of its more rational soliloquies and meditations.

17. If I think when I know it not, nobody else can know it.

Those who so confidently tell us that the soul always actually thinks, I
would they would also tell us, what those ideas are that are in the soul
of a child, before or just at the union with the body, before it hath
received any by sensation. The dreams of sleeping men are, as I take it,
all made up of the waking man's ideas; though for the most part oddly
put together. It is strange, if the soul has ideas of its own that
it derived not from sensation or reflection, (as it must have, if it
thought before it received any impressions from the body,) that it
should never, in its private thinking, (so private, that the man himself
perceives it not,) retain any of them the very moment it wakes out of
them, and then make the man glad with new discoveries. Who can find it
reason that the soul should, in its retirement during sleep, have so
many hours' thoughts, and yet never light on any of those ideas it
borrowed not from sensation or reflection; or at least preserve the
memory of none but such, which, being occasioned from the body, must
needs be less natural to a spirit? It is strange the soul should never
once in a man's whole life recall over any of its pure native thoughts,
and those ideas it had before it borrowed anything from the body; never
bring into the waking man's view any other ideas but what have a tang of
the cask, and manifestly derive their original from that union. If it
always thinks, and so had ideas before it was united, or before it
received any from the body, it is not to be supposed but that during
sleep it recollects its native ideas; and during that retirement from
communicating with the body, whilst it thinks by itself, the ideas it
is busied about should be, sometimes at least, those more natural and
congenial ones which it had in itself, underived from the body, or its
own operations about them: which, since the waking man never remembers,
we must from this hypothesis conclude either that the soul remembers
something that the man does not; or else that memory belongs only to
such ideas as are derived from the body, or the mind's operations about

18. How knows any one that the Soul always thinks? For if it be not a
self-evident Proposition, it needs Proof.

I would be glad also to learn from these men who so confidently
pronounce that the human soul, or, which is all one, that a man always
thinks, how they come to know it; nay, how they come to know that they
themselves think, when they themselves do not perceive it. This, I am
afraid, is to be sure without proofs, and to know without perceiving. It
is, I suspect, a confused notion, taken up to serve an hypothesis; and
none of those clear truths, that either their own evidence forces us to
admit, or common experience makes it impudence to deny. For the most
that can be said of it is, that it is possible the soul may always
think, but not always retain it in memory. And I say, it is as possible
that the soul may not always think; and much more probable that it
should sometimes not think, than that it should often think, and that
a long while together, and not be conscious to itself, the next moment
after, that it had thought.

19. That a Man should be busy in Thinking, and yet not retain it the
next moment, very improbable.

To suppose the soul to think, and the man not to perceive it, is, as has
been said, to make two persons in one man. And if one considers well
these men's way of speaking, one should be led into a suspicion that
they do so. For those who tell us that the SOUL always thinks, do never,
that I remember, say that a MAN always thinks. Can the soul think, and
not the man? Or a man think, and not be conscious of it? This, perhaps,
would be suspected of jargon in others. If they say the man thinks
always, but is not always conscious of it, they may as well say his body
is extended without having parts. For it is altogether as intelligible
to say that a body is extended without parts, as that anything thinks
without being conscious of it, or perceiving that it does so. They
who talk thus may, with as much reason, if it be necessary to their
hypothesis, say that a man is always hungry, but that he does not always
feel it; whereas hunger consists in that very sensation, as thinking
consists in being conscious that one thinks. If they say that a man
is always conscious to himself of thinking, I ask, How they know it?
Consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man's own mind. Can
another man perceive that I am conscious of anything, when I perceive it
not myself? No man's knowledge here can go beyond his experience. Wake a
man out of a sound sleep, and ask him what he was that moment thinking
of. If he himself be conscious of nothing he then thought on, he must be
a notable diviner of thoughts that can assure him that he was thinking.
May he not, with more reason, assure him he was not asleep? This is
something beyond philosophy; and it cannot be less than revelation, that
discovers to another thoughts in my mind, when I can find none there
myself. And they must needs have a penetrating sight who can certainly
see that I think, when I cannot perceive it myself, and when I declare
that I do not; and yet can see that dogs or elephants do not think, when
they give all the demonstration of it imaginable, except only telling
us that they do so. This some may suspect to be a step beyond the
Rosicrucians; it seeming easier to make one's self invisible to others,
than to make another's thoughts visible to me, which are not visible to
himself. But it is but defining the soul to be "a substance that
always thinks," and the business is done. If such definition be of any
authority, I know not what it can serve for but to make many men suspect
that they have no souls at all; since they find a good part of their
lives pass away without thinking. For no definitions that I know, no
suppositions of any sect, are of force enough to destroy constant
experience; and perhaps it is the affectation of knowing beyond what we
perceive, that makes so much useless dispute and noise in the world.

20. No ideas but from Sensation and Reflection, evident, if we observe

I see no reason, therefore, to believe that the soul thinks before
the senses have furnished it with ideas to think on; and as those are
increased and retained, so it comes, by exercise, to improve its faculty
of thinking in the several parts of it; as well as, afterwards, by
compounding those ideas, and reflecting on its own operations, it
increases its stock, as well as facility in remembering, imagining,
reasoning, and other modes of thinking.

21. State of a child on the mother's womb.

He that will suffer himself to be informed by observation and
experience, and not make his own hypothesis the rule of nature, will
find few signs of a soul accustomed to much thinking in a new-born
child, and much fewer of any reasoning at all. And yet it is hard to
imagine that the rational soul should think so much, and not reason at
all, And he that will consider that infants newly come into the world
spend the greatest part of their time in sleep, and are seldom awake
but when either hunger calls for the teat, or some pain (the most
importunate of all sensations), or some other violent impression on the
body, forces the mind to perceive and attend to it; - he, I say, who
considers this, will perhaps find reason to imagine that a FOETUS in the
mother's womb differs not much from the state of a vegetable, but passes
the greatest part of its time without perception or thought; doing very
little but sleep in a place where it needs not seek for food, and is
surrounded with liquor, always equally soft, and near of the same
temper; where the eyes have no light, and the ears so shut up are not
very susceptible of sounds; and where there is little or no variety, or
change of objects, to move the senses.

22. The mind thinks in proportion to the matter it gets from experience
to think about.

Follow a child from its birth, and observe the alterations that time
makes, and you shall find, as the mind by the senses comes more and more
to be furnished with ideas, it comes to be more and more awake; thinks
more, the more it has matter to think on. After some time it begins to
know the objects which, being most familiar with it, have made lasting
impressions. Thus it comes by degrees to know the persons it daily
converses with, and distinguishes them from strangers; which are
instances and effects of its coming to retain and distinguish the ideas
the senses convey to it. And so we may observe how the mind, BY DEGREES,
improves in these; and ADVANCES to the exercise of those other faculties
of enlarging, compounding, and abstracting its ideas, and of reasoning
about them, and reflecting upon all these; of which I shall have
occasion to speak more hereafter.

23. A man begins to have ideas when he first has sensation. What
sensation is.

If it shall be demanded then, WHEN a man BEGINS to have any ideas, I
think the true answer is, - WHEN HE FIRST HAS ANY SENSATION. For, since
there appear not to be any ideas in the mind before the senses have
conveyed any in, I conceive that ideas in the understanding are coeval

24. The Original of all our Knowledge.

The impressions then that are made on our sense by outward objects
that are extrinsical to the mind; and its own operations about these
impressions, reflected on by itself, as proper objects to be contemplated
by it, are, I conceive, the original of all knowledge. Thus the first
capacity of human intellect is, - that the mind is fitted to receive the
impressions made on it; either through the senses by outward objects, or
by its own operations when it reflects on them. This is the first step a
man makes towards the discovery of anything, and the groundwork whereon
to build all those notions which ever he shall have naturally in this
world. All those sublime thoughts which tower above the clouds, and
reach as high as heaven itself, take their rise and footing here: in all
that great extent wherein the mind wanders, in those remote speculations
it may seem to be elevated with, it stirs not one jot beyond those ideas
which SENSE or REFLECTION have offered for its contemplation.

25. In the Reception of simple Ideas, the Understanding is for the most
part passive.

In this part the understanding is merely passive; and whether or no it
will have these beginnings, and as it were materials of knowledge, is
not in its own power. For the objects of our senses do, many of them,
obtrude their particular ideas upon our minds whether we will or not;
and the operations of our minds will not let us be without, at least,
some obscure notions of them. No man can be wholly ignorant of what he
does when he thinks. These simple ideas, when offered to the mind,
the understanding can no more refuse to have, nor alter when they are
imprinted, nor blot them out and make new ones itself, than a mirror can
refuse, alter, or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects
set before it do therein produce. As the bodies that surround us
do diversely affect our organs, the mind is forced to receive the
impressions; and cannot avoid the perception of those ideas that are
annexed to them.



1. Uncompounded Appearances.

The better to understand the nature, manner, and extent of our
knowledge, one thing is carefully to be observed concerning the ideas we
have; and that is, that some of them, are SIMPLE and some COMPLEX.

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; - as a man sees at once motion and colour; the hand feels softness
and warmth in the same piece of wax: 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; or as the taste of sugar, and smell of a rose. And there is
nothing can be plainer to a man than the clear and distinct perception
he has of those simple ideas; which, being each in itself uncompounded,
MIND, and is not distinguishable into different ideas.

2. The Mind can neither make nor destroy them.

These simple ideas, the materials of all our knowledge, are suggested
and furnished to the mind only by those two ways above mentioned, viz.
sensation and reflection. 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 pleasure new
complex ideas. But it is not in the power of the most exalted wit, or
enlarged understanding, by any quickness or variety of thought, to
INVENT or FRAME one new simple idea in the mind, not taken in by the
ways before mentioned: nor can any force of the understanding DESTROY
those that are there. The dominion of man, in this little world of his
own understanding being much what the same as it is in the great world
of visible things; wherein his power, however managed by art and skill,
reaches no farther than to compound and divide the materials that are
made to his hand; but can do nothing towards the making the least
particle of new matter, or destroying one atom of what is already in
being. The same inability will every one find in himself, who shall go
about to fashion in his understanding one simple idea, not received
in by his senses from external objects, or by reflection from the
operations of his own mind about them. I would have any one 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 sounds.

3. Only the qualities that affect the senses are imaginable.

This is the reason why - though we cannot believe it impossible to God
to make a creature with other organs, and more ways to convey into the
understanding the notice of corporeal things than those five, as they
are usually counted, which he has given to man - yet I think it is not
possible for any MAN to imagine any other qualities in bodies, howsoever
constituted, whereby they can be taken notice of, besides sounds,
tastes, smells, visible and tangible qualities. And had mankind been
made but with four senses, the qualities then which are the objects
of the fifth sense had been as far from our notice, imagination, and
conception, as now any belonging to a sixth, seventh, or eighth sense
can possibly be; - which, whether yet some other creatures, in some other
parts of this vast and stupendous universe, may not have, will be a
great presumption to deny. He that will not set himself proudly at the
top of all things, but will consider the immensity of this fabric, and
the great variety that is to be found in this little and inconsiderable
part of it which he has to do with, may be apt to think that, in other
mansions of it, there may be other and different intelligent beings, of
whose faculties he has as little knowledge or apprehension as a worm
shut up in one drawer of a cabinet hath of the senses or understanding
of a man; such variety and excellency being suitable to the wisdom and
power of the Maker. I have here followed the common opinion of man's
having but five senses; though, perhaps, there may be justly counted
more; - but either supposition serves equally to my present purpose.



1. Division of simple ideas.

The better to conceive the ideas we receive from sensation, it may not
be amiss for us to consider them, in reference to the different ways
whereby they make their approaches to our minds, and make themselves
perceivable by us.

FIRST, then, There are some which come into our minds BY ONE SENSE ONLY.

SECONDLY, There are others that convey themselves into the mind BY MORE

THIRDLY, Others that are had from REFLECTION ONLY.

FOURTHLY, There are some that make themselves way, and are suggested to

We shall consider them apart under these several heads.

Ideas of one Sense.

There are some ideas which have admittance only through one sense, which
is peculiarly adapted to receive them. Thus light and colours, as white,
red, yellow, blue; with their several degrees or shades and mixtures,
as green, scarlet, purple, sea-green, and the rest, come in only by the
eyes. All kinds of noises, sounds, and tones, only by the ears. The
several tastes and smells, by the nose and palate. And if these organs,
or the nerves which are the conduits to convey them from without to
their audience in the brain, - the mind's presence-room (as I may
so call it) - are any of them so disordered as not to perform their
functions, they have no postern to be admitted by; no other way to bring
themselves into view, and be perceived by the understanding.

The most considerable of those belonging to the touch, are heat and
cold, and solidity: all the rest, consisting almost wholly in the
sensible configuration, as smooth and rough; or else, more or less firm
adhesion of the parts, as hard and soft, tough and brittle, are obvious

2. Few simple Ideas have Names.

I think it will be needless to enumerate all the particular simple ideas
belonging to each sense. Nor indeed is it possible if we would; there
being a great many more of them belonging to most of the senses than we
have names for. The variety of smells, which are as many almost, if not
more, than species of bodies in the world, do most of them want names.
Sweet and stinking commonly serve our turn for these ideas, which in
effect is little more than to call them pleasing or displeasing; though
the smell of a rose and violet, both sweet, are certainly very distinct
ideas. Nor are the different tastes, that by our palates we receive
ideas of, much better provided with names. Sweet, bitter, sour, harsh,
and salt are almost all the epithets we have to denominate that
numberless variety of relishes, which are to be found distinct, not only
in almost every sort of creatures, but in the different parts of the
same plant, fruit, or animal. The same may be said of colours and
sounds. I shall, therefore, in the account of simple ideas I am here
giving, content myself to set down only such as are most material to our
present purpose, or are in themselves less apt to be taken notice of
though they are very frequently the ingredients of our complex ideas;
amongst which, I think, I may well account solidity, which therefore I
shall treat of in the next chapter.



1. We receive this Idea from Touch.

The idea of SOLIDITY we receive by our touch: and it arises from the
resistance which we find in body to the entrance of any other body into
the place it possesses, till it has left it. There is no idea which we
receive more constantly from sensation than solidity. Whether we move or
rest, in what posture soever we are, we always feel something under us
that supports us, and hinders our further sinking downwards; and the
bodies which we daily handle make us perceive that, whilst they remain
between them, they do, by an insurmountable force, hinder the approach
of the parts of our hands that press them. THAT WHICH THUS HINDERS THE
SOLIDITY. I will not dispute whether this acceptation of the word solid
be nearer to its original signification than that which mathematicians
use it in. It suffices that I think the common notion of solidity will
allow, if not justify, this use of it; but if any one think it better to
call it IMPENETRABILITY, he has my consent. Only I have thought the term
solidity the more proper to express this idea, not only because of its
vulgar use in that sense, but also because it carries something more of
positive in it than impenetrability; which is negative, and is perhaps
more a consequence of solidity, than solidity itself. This, of all
other, seems the idea most intimately connected with, and essential to
body; so as nowhere else to be found or imagined, but only in matter.
And though our senses take no notice of it, but in masses of matter, of
a bulk sufficient to cause a sensation in us: yet the mind, having once
got this idea from such grosser sensible bodies, traces it further, and

Online LibraryJohn LockeAn Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 → online text (page 9 of 34)