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your arguing on one side, and apply distinctions as much
as you can on the other side to every term, to nonplus
your opponent ; so that in this sort of scholarship, there
being no bounds set to distinguishing, some men have
thought all acuteness to have lain in it, and therefore in
all they have read or thought on, their great business has
been to amuse themselves with distinctions, and multiply
to themselves divisions ; at least, more than the nature of
the thing required. There seems to me, as I said, to be
no other rule for this but a due and right consideration
of things as they are in themselves. He that has settled
in his mind determined ideas, with names affixed to them,
will be able both to discern their differences one from
another, which is really distinguishing ; and where the
penury of words affords not terms answering every dis-
tinct idea, will be able to apply proper distinguishing
terms to the comprehensive and equivocal names he is
forced to make use of. 1 This is all the need I know of
distinguishing terms, and in such verbal distinctions each
term of the distinction, joined to that whose signification
it distinguishes, is but a distinct name for a distinct idea.
Where they are so, and men have clear and distinct con-
ceptions that answer their verbal distinctions, they are
right, and are pertinent as far as they serve to clear any-
thing in the subject under consideration. And this is
that which seems to me the proper and only measure of
distinctions and divisions ; which he that will conduct his
understanding right must not look for in the acuteness of
invention nor the authority of writers, but will find only in
the consideration of things themselves, whether he is led
into it by his own meditations or the information of books.
An aptness to jumble things together wherein can be
1 See sec. 29.


found any likeness, is a fault in the understanding on
the other side which will not fail to mislead it, and by thus
lumping of things, hinder the mind from distinct and
accurate conceptions of them.

32. Similes. To which let me here add another near
of kin to this, at least in name, and that is letting the
mind, upon the suggestion of any new notion, run im-
mediately after similes to make it the clearer to itself ;
which, though it may be a good way and useful in the ex-
plaining our thoughts to others, yet it is by no means a
right method to settle true notions of anything in our-
selves, because similes always fail in some part, and come
short of that exactness which our conceptions should
have to things if we would think aright. 1 This indeed
makes men plausible talkers, for those are always most
acceptable in discourse who have the way to let their
thoughts into other men's minds with the greatest ease
and facility ; whether these thoughts are well formed and
correspond with things matters not ; few men care to
be instructed but at an easy rate. They who in their
discourse strike the fancy, and take the hearers' concep-
tions along with them as fast as their words flow, are the
applauded talkers, and go for the only men of clear
thoughts. Nothing contributes so much to this as similes,
whereby men think they themselves understand better,
because they are the better understood. But it is one
thing to think right, and another thing to know the right
way to lay our thoughts before others with advantage
and clearness, be they right or wrong. Well-chosen
similes, metaphors, and allegories, with method and order,
do this the best of anything, because being taken from
objects already known and familiar to the understanding,
they are conceived as fast as spoken, and the corre-
spondence being concluded, the thing they are brought
to explain and elucidate is thought to be understood
too. Thus fancy passes for knowledge, and what is
prettily said is mistaken for solid. I say not this to decry

1 Locke's own similes of " blank paper " and " wax " might be
retorted upon him. See sec. 2 note.

32. SIMILES 33. ASSENT 241

metaphor, or with design to take away that ornament of
speech ; my business here is not with rhetoricians and
orators, 1 but with philosophers and lovers of truth, to
whom I would beg leave to give this one rule whereby
to try whether in the application of their thoughts to
anything for the improvement of their knowledge, they
do in truth comprehend the matter before them really
such as it is in itself. The way to discover this is to
observe whether, in the laying it before themselves or
others, they make use only of borrowed representations
and ideas foreign to the things which are applied to it
by way of accommodation, as bearing some proportion
or imagined likeness to the subject under consideration.
Figured and metaphorical expressions do well to illus-
trate more abstruse and unfamiliar ideas which the mind
is not yet thoroughly accustomed to, but then they must
be made use of to illustrate ideas that we already have,
not to paint to us those which we yet have not. Such
borrowed and allusive ideas may follow real and solid
truth, to set it off when found, but must by no means
be set in its place and taken for it. If all our search has
yet reached no farther than simile and metaphor, we
may assure ourselves we rather fancy than know, and
have not yet penetrated into the inside and reality of the
thing, be it what it will, but content ourselves with
what our imaginations, not things themselves, furnish
us with.

33. Assent. In the whole conduct of the understand-
ing, there is nothing of more moment than to know when
and where, and how far to give assent, and possibly
there is nothing harder. It is very easily said, and nobody
questions it, that giving and withholding our assent and
the degrees of it should be regulated by the evidence
which things carry with them ; and yet we see men are
not the better for this rule ; some firmly embrace doc-
trines upon slight grounds, some upon no grounds, and
some contrary to appearance : some admit of certainty,

1 But men who " have business " with rhetoricians should bear
Locke's warning in mind.



and are not to be moved in what they hold ; others waver
in everything, and there want not those that reject all
as uncertain. What then shall a novice, an inquirer, a
stranger do in the case ? I answer, use his eyes. There
is a correspondence in things, and agreement and dis-
agreement in ideas, discernible in very different degrees,
and there are eyes in men to see them if they please ;
only their eyes may be dimmed or dazzled, and the dis-
cerning sight in them impaired or lost. Interest and
passion dazzle ; the custom of arguing on any side, even
against our persuasions, dims the understanding, and
makes it by degrees lose the faculty of discerning clearly
between truth and falsehood, and so of adhering to the
right side. It is not safe to play with error and dress
it up to ourselves or others in the shape of truth. The
mind by degrees loses its natural relish of real solid truth,
is reconciled insensibly to anything that can be dressed
up into any feint 1 appearance of it; and if the fancy be
allowed the place of judgment at first in sport, it after-
wards comes by use to usurp it, and what is recommended
by this flatterer (that studies but to please) is received
for good. There are so many ways of fallacy, such arts of
giving colours, appearances, and resemblances by this
court-dresser, the fancy, that he who is not wary to admit
nothing but truth itself, very careful not to make his
mind subservient to anything else, cannot but be caught.
He that has a mind to believe, has half assented already ;
and he that by often arguing against his own sense im-
poses falsehood on others, is not far from believing him-
self. This takes away the great distance there is be-
twixt truth and falsehood ; it brings them almost together,
and makes it no great odds, in things that approach so
near, which you take ; and when things are brought to
that pass, passion, or interest, &c., easily, and without
being perceived, determine which shall be the right.

34. Indifferency. 2 I have said above that we should
keep a perfect indifferency for all opinions, not wish any
of them true, or try to make them appear so, but being
1 Feigned. 2 Impartiality. See sec. 11.


indifferent, receive and embrace them according as
evidence, and that alone, gives the attestation of truth.
They that do thus, i.e., keep their minds indifferent to
opinions, to be determined only by evidence, will always
find the understanding has perception enough to distin-
guish between evidence and no evidence, betwixt plain
and doubtful ; and if they neither give nor refuse their
assent but by that measure, they will be safe in the
opinions they have. Which being perhaps but few, this
caution will have also this good in it, that it will put them
upon considering, and teach them the necessity of
examining more than they do ; without which the mind
is but a receptacle of inconsistencies, not the storehouse
of truths. They that do not keep up this indifferency
in themselves for all but truth, not supposed, but evi-
denced in themselves, put coloured spectacles before their
eyes, and look on things through false glasses, and then
think themselves excused in following the false appear-
ances which they themselves put upon them. I do not
expect that by this way the assent should in every one be
proportioned to the grounds and clearness wherewith
every truth is capable to be made out, or that men
should be perfectly kept from error ; that is more than
human nature can by any means be advanced to ; I aim
at no such unattainable privilege : I am only speaking
of what they should do, who would deal fairly with their
own minds, and make a right use of their faculties in the
pursuit of truth ; we fail them l a great deal more than
they fail us. It is mismanagement more than want of
abilities that men have reason to complain of, and which
they actually do complain of in those that differ from
them. He that by indifferency for all but truth, suffers
not his assent to go faster than his evidence, nor beyond
it, will learn to examine, and examine fairly instead of
presuming, and nobody will be at a loss or in danger for
want of embracing those truths which are necessary in his
station and circumstances. In any other way but this
all the world are born to orthodoxy ; they imbibe at first
1 I.e., our faculties.


the allowed opinions of their country and party, and so
never questioning their truth, not one of an hundred ever
examines. They are applauded for presuming they are
in the right. He that considers, is a foe to orthodoxy,
because possibly he may deviate from some of the received
doctrines there. And thus men, without any industry
or acquisition of their own, inherit local truths (for it is
not the same everywhere) and are inured to assent with-
out evidence. This influences farther than is thought,
for what one of an hundred of the zealous bigots in all
parties ever examined the tenets he is so stiff in, or ever
thought it his business or duty so to do ? It is suspected
of lukewarmness to suppose it necessary, and a tendency
to apostacy to go about it. And if a man can bring his
mind, once to be positive and fierce for positions whose
evidence he has never once examined, and that in matters
of greatest concernment to him, what shall keep him from
this short and easy way of being in the right in cases of
less moment ? Thus we are taught to clothe our minds
as we do our bodies, after the fashion in vogue, and it is
accounted fantasticalness, or something worse, not to do
so. This custom (which who dares oppose ?) makes the
short-sighted, bigots, and the warier, sceptics, as far as
it prevails : and those that break from it are in danger of
heresy : for taking the whole world, how much of it doth
truth and orthodoxy possess together ? Though it is by
the last alone (which has the good luck to be everywhere)
that error and heresy are judged of : for argument and
evidence signify nothing in the case, and excuse no where,
but are sure to be borne down in all societies by the
infallible orthodoxy of the place. Whether this be the
way to truth and right assent, let the opinions that take
place and prescribe in the several habitable parts of the
earth declare. I never saw any reason yet why truth
might not be trusted on its own evidence : I am sure if
that be not able to support it there is no fence against
error ; and then truth and falsehood are but names that
stand for the same things. Evidence therefore is that by
which alone every man is (and should be) taught to

34, 35. INDIFFERENCY 245

regulate his assent, who is then, and then only, in the
right way when he follows it.

Men deficient in knowledge are usually in one of these
three states : either wholly ignorant, or as doubting of
some proposition they have either embraced formerly,
or are at present inclined to ; or lastly, they do
with assurance hold and profess without ever having
examined and being convinced by well-grounded argu-

The first of these are in the best state of the three, by
having their minds yet in their perfect freedom and
indifferency, the likelier to pursue the truth better, having
no bias yet clapped on to mislead them.

35. For ignorance with an indifferency for truth is
nearer to it than opinion with ungrounded inclination,
which is the great source of error ; and they are more in
danger to go out of the way who are marching under the
conduct of a guide l that it is a hundred to one will mislead
them, than he that has not yet taken a step, and is likelier
to be prevailed on to inquire after the right way. The
last of the three sorts are in the worst condition of all ;
for if a man can be persuaded and fully assured of any-
thing for a truth, without having examined, what is there
that he may not embrace for truth ? and if he has given
himself up to believe a lie, what means is there left to
recover one who can be assured without examining ?
To the other two, this I crave leave to say, that as he
that is ignorant is in the best state of the two, so he
should pursue truth in a method suitable to that state ;
i.e., by inquiring directly into the nature of the thing
itself, without minding the opinions of others, or troubling
himself with their questions or disputes about it ; but to
see what he himself can, sincerely searching after truth,
find out. He that proceeds upon other principles in his
inquiry into any sciences, though he be resolved to examine
them and judge of them freely, does yet at least put himself
on that side, and post himself in a party which he will not
quit till he be beaten out : by which the mind is insensibly
1 Viz., inclination.


engaged to make what defence 1 it can, and so is unawares
biassed. I do not say but a man should embrace some
opinion when he has examined, else he examines to no
purpose ; but the surest and safest way is to have no
opinion at all till he has examined, and that without any
the least regard to the opinions or systems of other men
about it. For example, were it my business to under-
stand physic, would not the safe and readier way be to
consult nature herself, and inform myself in the history
of diseases and their cures, than espousing the principles
of the dogmatists, methodists, or chemists, to engage in
all the disputes concerning either of those systems, and
suppose it to be true, till I have tried what they can say
to beat me out of it ? Or, supposing that Hippocrates, 2
or any other book, infallibly contains the whole art of
physic ; would not the direct way be to study, read, and
consider that book, weigh and compare the parts of it to
find the truth, rather than espouse the doctrines of any
party ? who, though they acknowledge his authority, have
already interpreted and wire-drawn all his text to their
own sense ; the tincture whereof when I have imbibed, I
am more in danger to misunderstand his true meaning,
than if I had come to him with a mind unprepossessed by
doctors and commentators of my sect ; whose reasonings,
interpretation, and language which I have been used to,
will of course make all chime that way, and make another,
and perhaps the genuine, meaning of the author seem
harsh, strained, and uncouth to me. For words having
naturally none of their own, carry that signification to
the hearer that he is used to put upon them, whatever be
the sense of him that uses them. This, I think, is visibly
so ; and if it be, he that begins to have any doubt of any
of his tenets, which he received without examination,
ought as much as he can, to put himself wholly inta this
state of ignorance in reference to that question ; and
throwing wholly by all his former notions, and the opinions

1 Edition of 1706: the 1812 edition reads, " difference."

2 Hippocrates, a great Greek physician of the fifth century B.C.
It is probable that by the " other book " Locke means the Bible.


of others, examine, with a perfect indifferency, the ques-
tion in its source, without any inclination to either side
or any regard to his or others' unexamined opinions.
This I own is no easy thing to do ; but I am not inquiring
the easy way to opinion, but the right way to truth,
which they must follow who will deal fairly with their
own understandings and their own souls.

36. Question. The indifferency that I here propose will
also enable them to state the question right which they
are in doubt about, without which they can never come
to a fair and clear decision of it.

37. Perseverance. Another fruit from this indifferency,
and the considering things in themselves abstract 1 from
our own opinions and other men's notions and discourses
on them, will be, that each man will pursue his thoughts
in that method which will be most agreeable to the nature
of the thing, and to his apprehension of what it suggests
to him, in which he ought to proceed with regularity and
constancy, until he come to a well-grounded resolution
wherein he may acquiesce. If it be objected that this
will require every man to be a scholar, and quit all his
other business and betake himself wholly to study, I
answer, I propose no more to any one than he has time
for. Some men's state and condition require no great
extent of knowledge ; the necessary provision for life
swallows the greatest part of their time. But one man's
want of leisure is no excuse for the oscitancy 2 and ignor-
ance of those who have time to spare ; and every one has
enough to get as much knowledge as is required and
expected of him, and he that does not that, is in love with
ignorance, and is accountable for it.

38. Presumption. The variety of distempers in men's
minds is as great as of those in their bodies ; some are
epidemic, few escape them ; and every one too, if he
would look into himself, would find some defect of his
particular genius. There is scarce any one without some
idiosyncrasy that he suffers by. This man presumes
upon his parts, that they will not fail him at time of need ;

1 I.e., abstracted. a Yawning.


and so thinks it superfluous labour to make any provision
beforehand. His understanding is to him like Fortu-
natus's purse, 1 which is always to furnish him, without
ever putting anything into it beforehand ; and so he sits
still satisfied, without endeavouring to store his under-
standing with knowledge. It is the spontaneous product
of the country, and what need of labour in tillage ? Such
men may spread their native riches before the ignorant ;
but they were best not come to stress and trial with the
skilful. We are born ignorant of everything. The
superficies of things that surround them make impressions
on the negligent, but nobody penetrates into the inside
without labour, attention, and industry. Stones and
timber grow of themselves, but yet there is no uniform
pile with symmetry and convenience to lodge in without
toil and pains. God has made the intellectual world
harmonious and beautiful without us ; but it will never
come into our heads all at once ; we must bring it home
piecemeal, and there set it up by our own industry, or else
we shall have nothing but darkness and a chaos within,
whatever order and light there be in things without us.

39. Despondency. On the other side, there are others
that depress their own minds, despond at the first diffi-
culty, and conclude that the getting an insight in any of
the sciences, or making any progress in knowledge farther
than serves their ordinary business, is above their capaci-
ties. These sit still, because they think they have not
legs to go ; as the others I last mentioned do, because
they think they have wings to fly, and can soar on high
when they please. To these latter one may for answer
apply the proverb, " Use legs and have legs." Nobody
knows what strength of parts he has till he has tried them.
And of the understanding one may most truly say, that
its force is greater generally than it thinks, till it is put
to it. " Viresque acquirit eundo." 2

And therefore the proper remedy here is but to set the

1 Fortune at his request gave Fortunatus an inexhaustible purse,
which proved his ruin.

2 " And it gathers strength in the going" (MnziA, iv. 175). On
this section, cf. Thoughts, sec. 195.


mind to work, and apply the thoughts vigorously to the
business ; for it holds in the struggles of the mind as in
those of war, " dum putant se vincere vicere." 1 A per-
suasion that we shall overcome any difficulties that we
meet with in the sciences seldom fails to carry us through
them. Nobody knows the strength of his mind, and the
force of steady and regular application, till he has tried.
This is certain, he that sets out upon weak legs, will not
only go farther, but grow stronger too than one who, with
a vigorous constitution and firm limbs, only sits still.

Something of kin to this men may observe in themselves,
when the mind frights itself (as it often does) with any-
thing reflected on in gross, and transiently viewed con-
fusedly and at a distance. Things thus offered to the
mind carry the show of nothing but difficulty in them,
and are thought to be wrapt up in impenetrable obscurity.
But the truth is, these are nothing but spectres that the
understanding raises to itself to flatter its own laziness.
It sees nothing distinctly in things remote and in a huddle ;
and therefore concludes too faintly, that there is nothing
more clear to be discovered in them. It is but to ap-
proach nearer, and that mist of our own raising that
enveloped them will remove ; and those that in that mist
appeared hideous giants not to be grappled with, will be
found to be of the ordinary and natural size and shape.
Things that in a remote and confused view seem very
obscure, must be approached by gentle and regular steps ;
and what is most visible, easy, and obvious in them first
considered. Eeduce them into their distinct parts ; and
then in their due order bring all that should be known
concerning every one of those parts into plain and simple
questions ; and then what was thought obscure, per-
plexed, and too hard for our weak parts, will lay itself
open to the understanding in a fair view, and let the
mind into that which before 2 it was awed with, and kept
at a distance from, as wholly mysterious. I appeal to

1 " They conquered as long as they believed they were conquer-
ing," (Liv., ii. 64).

2 Previously.


my reader's experience, whether this has never happened
to him, especially when, busy on one thing, he has occa-
sionally reflected on another. I ask him whether he has
never thus been scared with a sudden opinion of mighty
difficulties, which yet have vanished, when he has seriously
and methodically applied himself to the consideration
of this seeming terrible subject ; and there has been no
other matter of astonishment left, but that he amused
himself with so discouraging a prospect of his own raising,
about a matter which in the handling was found to have
nothing in it more strange nor intricate than several
other things which he had long since, and with ease,
mastered. This experience would teach us how to deal
with such bugbears another time, which should rather
serve to excite our vigour than enervate our industry.
The surest way for a learner in this, as in all other cases,

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Online LibraryJohn LockeThe educational writings → online text (page 22 of 25)