An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding HTML version

VIII. Of Liberty And Necessity
62. It might reasonably be expected in questions which have been canvassed and disputed
with great eagerness, since the first origin of science and philosophy, that the meaning of
all the terms, at least, should have been agreed upon among the disputants; and our
enquiries, in the course of two thousand years, been able to pass from words to the true
and real subject of the controversy. For how easy may it seem to give exact definitions of
the terms employed in reasoning, and make these definitions, not the mere sound of
words, the object of future scrutiny and examination? But if we consider the matter more
narrowly, we shall be apt to draw a quite opposite conclusion. From this circumstance
alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot, and remains still undecided, we may
presume that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the disputants affix
different ideas to the terms employed in the controversy. For as the faculties of the mind
are supposed to be naturally alike in every individual; otherwise nothing could be more
fruitless than to reason or dispute together; it were impossible, if men affix the same ideas
to their terms, that they could so long form different opinions of the same subject;
especially when they communicate their views, and each party turn themselves on all
sides, in search of arguments which may give them the victory over their antagonists. It is
true, if men attempt the discussion of questions which lie entirely beyond the reach of
human capacity, such as those concerning the origin of worlds, or the economy of the
intellectual system or region of spirits, they may long beat the air in their fruitless
contests, and never arrive at any determinate conclusion. But if the question regard any
subject of common life and experience, nothing, one would think, could preserve the
dispute so long undecided but some ambiguous expressions, which keep the antagonists
still at a distance, and hinder them from grappling with each other.
63. This has been the case in the long disputed question concerning liberty and necessity;
and to so remarkable a degree that, if I be not much mistaken, we shall find, that all
mankind, both learned and ignorant, have always been of the same opinion with regard to
this subject, and that a few intelligible definitions would immediately have put an end to
the whole controversy. I own that this dispute has been so much canvassed on all hands,
and has led philosophers into such a labyrinth of obscure sophistry, that it is no wonder, if
a sensible reader indulge his ease so far as to turn a deaf ear to the proposal of such a
question, from which he can expect neither instruction or entertainment. But the state of
the argument here proposed may, perhaps, serve to renew his attention; as it has more
novelty, promises at least some decision of the controversy, and will not much disturb his
ease by any intricate or obscure reasoning.
I hope, therefore, to make it appear that all men have ever agreed in the doctrine both of
necessity and of liberty, according to any reasonable sense, which can be put on these
terms; and that the whole controversy has hitherto turned merely upon words. We shall
begin with examining the doctrine of necessity.
64. It is universally allowed that matter, in all its operations, is actuated by a necessary
force, and that every natural effect is so precisely determined by the energy of its cause