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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

conceived; nor is any thing beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute
But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a
nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this
creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding,
transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and
experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas,
gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted. A virtuous horse we can
conceive; because, from our own feeling, we can conceive virtue; and this we may unite
to the figure and shape of a horse, which is an animal familiar to us. In short, all the
materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the
mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, to express
myself in philosophical language, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of
our impressions or more lively ones.
14. To prove this, the two following arguments will, I hope, be sufficient. First, when we
analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they
resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or
sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are
found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it. The idea of God, as meaning an
infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our
own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom. We
may prosecute this enquiry to what length we please; where we shall always find, that
every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression. Those who would
assert that this position is not universally true nor without exception, have only one, and
that an easy method of refuting it; by producing that idea, which, in their opinion, is not
derived from this source. It will then be incumbent on us, if we would maintain our
doctrine, to produce the impression, or lively perception, which corresponds to it.
15. Secondly. If it happen, from a defect of the organ, that a man is not susceptible of any
species of sensation, we always find that he is as little susceptible of the correspondent
ideas. A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of
them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you
also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects. The
case is the same, if the object, proper for exciting any sensation, has never been applied
to the organ. A Laplander or Negro has no notion of the relish of wine. And though there
are few or no instances of a like deficiency in the mind, where a person has never felt or
is wholly incapable of a sentiment or passion that belongs to his species; yet we find the
same observation to take place in a less degree. A man of mild manners can form no idea
of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of
friendship and generosity. It is readily allowed, that other beings may possess many
senses of which we can have no conception; because the ideas of them have never been
introduced to us in the only manner by which an idea can have access to the mind, to wit,
by the actual feeling and sensation.