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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


ought to be some excuse for the worthlessness of my present. It is that chiefly which secures me
from the fear of censure, which I expect not to escape more than better writers. Men's principles,
notions, and relishes are so different, that it is hard to find a book which pleases or displeases all
men. I acknowledge the age we live in is not the least knowing, and therefore not the most easy to
be satisfied. If I have not the good luck to please, yet nobody ought to be offended with me. I plainly
tell all my readers, except half a dozen, this Treatise was not at first intended for them; and therefore
they need not be at the trouble to be of that number. But yet if any one thinks fit to be angry and rail
at it, he may do it securely, for I shall find some better way of spending my time than in such kind of
conversation. I shall always have the satisfaction to have aimed sincerely at truth and usefulness,
though in one of the meanest ways. The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without
master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to
the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an
age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with
some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the
ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge;--which certainly
had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious
men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or
unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree that
Philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit or incapable to be
brought into well-bred company and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech,
and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied
words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning
and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who
hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in
upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance will be, I suppose, some service to human
understanding; though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or
that the language of the sect they are of has any faults in it which ought to be examined or
corrected, that I hope I shall be pardoned if I have in the Third Book dwelt long on this subject, and
endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalency
of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those who will not take care about the meaning of their own
words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into.
I have been told that a short Epitome of this Treatise, which was printed in 1688, was by some
condemned without reading, because innate ideas were denied in it; they too hastily concluding, that
if innate ideas were not supposed, there would be little left either of the notion or proof of spirits. If
any one take the like offence at the entrance of this Treatise, I shall desire him to read it through;
and then I hope he will be convinced, that the taking away false foundations is not to the prejudice
but advantage of truth, which is never injured or endangered so much as when mixed with, or built
on, falsehood.
In the Second Edition I added as followeth:--
The bookseller will not forgive me if I say nothing of this New Edition, which he has promised, by the
correctness of it, shall make amends for the many faults committed in the former. He desires too,
that it should be known that it has one whole new chapter concerning Identity, and many additions
and amendments in other places. These I must inform my reader are not all new matter, but most of
them either further confirmation of what I had said, or explications, to prevent others being mistaken
in the sense of what was formerly printed, and not any variation in me from it.
I must only except the alterations I have made in Book II. chap. xxi.
What I had there written concerning Liberty and the Will, I thought deserved as accurate a view as I
am capable of; those subjects having in all ages exercised the learned part of the world with
questions and difficulties, that have not a little perplexed morality and divinity, those parts of
knowledge that men are most concerned to be clear in. Upon a closer inspection into the working of
men's minds, and a stricter examination of those motives and views they are turned by, I have found
reason somewhat to alter the thoughts I formerly had concerning that which gives the last
determination to the Will in all voluntary actions. This I cannot forbear to acknowledge to the world
with as much freedom and readiness as I at first published what then seemed to me to be right;
thinking myself more concerned to quit and renounce any opinion of my own, than oppose that of
another, when truth appears against it. For it is truth alone I seek, and that will always be welcome
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