An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding by John Locke - HTML preview

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other side, question everything, and disclaim all knowledge, because

some things are not to be understood. It is of great use to the sailor

to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom al the

depths of the ocean. It is well he knows that it is long enough to reach

the bottom, at such places as are necessary to direct his voyage, and

caution him against running upon shoals that may ruin him. Our business

here is not to know al things, but those which concern our conduct. If

we can find out those measures, whereby a rational creature, put in

that state in which man is in this world, may and ought to govern his

opinions, and actions depending thereon, we need not to be troubled that

some other things escape our knowledge.

7. Occasion of this Essay.

This was that which gave the first rise to this Essay concerning the

understanding. For I thought that the first step towards satisfying

several inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was, to take

a survey of our own understandings, examine our own powers, and see to

what things they were adapted. Til that was done I suspected we began

at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and

sure possession of truths that most concerned us, whilst we let loose

our thoughts into the vast ocean of Being; as if all that boundless

extent were the natural and undoubted possession of our understandings,

wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions, or that escaped

its comprehension. Thus men, extending their inquiries beyond their

capacities, and letting their thoughts wander into those depths where

they can find no sure footing, it is no wonder that they raise questions

and multiply disputes, which, never coming to any clear resolution, are

proper only to continue and increase their doubts, and to confirm them

at last in perfect scepticism. Whereas, were the capacities of our

understandings well considered, the extent of our knowledge once

discovered, and the horizon found which sets the bounds between the

enlightened and dark parts of things; between what is and what is not

comprehensible by us, men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in

the avowed ignorance of the one, and employ their thoughts and discourse

with more advantage and satisfaction in the other.

8. What Idea stands for.

Thus much I thought necessary to say concerning the occasion of this

inquiry into human Understanding. But, before I proceed on to what I

have thought on this subject, I must here in the entrance beg pardon of

my reader for the frequent use of the word IDEA, which he wil find in

the following treatise. It being that term which, I think, serves best

to stand for whatsoever is the OBJECT of the understanding when a man

thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by PHANTASM, NOTION,


THINKING; and I could not avoid frequently using it. I presume it wil

be easily granted me, that there are such IDEAS in men's minds: every

one is conscious of them in himself; and men's words and actions wil

satisfy him that they are in others.

Our first inquiry then shall be,--how they come into the mind. BOOK I




1. The way shown how we come by any Knowledge, sufficient to prove it

not innate.

It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the

understanding certain INNATE PRINCIPLES; some primary notions, KOIVAI

EVVOIAI, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the

soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with

it. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the

falseness of this supposition, if I should only show (as I hope I shall

in the following parts of this Discourse) how men, barely by the use

of their natural faculties may attain to all the knowledge they have,

without the help of any innate impressions; and may arrive at certainty,

without any such original notions or principles. For I imagine any one

will easily grant that it would be impertinent to suppose the ideas of

colours innate in a creature to whom God hath given sight, and a

power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less

unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions

of nature, and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves

faculties fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them as if they

were original y imprinted on the mind.

But because a man is not permitted without censure to follow his own

thoughts in the search of truth, when they lead him ever so little out

of the common road, I shall set down the reasons that made me doubt of

the truth of that opinion, as an excuse for my mistake, if I be in one;

which I leave to be considered by those who, with me, dispose themselves

to embrace truth wherever they find it.

2. General Assent the great Argument.

There is nothing more commonly taken for granted than that there are

certain PRINCIPLES, both SPECULATIVE and PRACTICAL, (for they speak of

both), universally agreed upon by al mankind: which therefore, they

argue, must needs be the constant impressions which the souls of men

receive in their first beings, and which they bring into the world

with them, as necessarily and really as they do any of their inherent


3. Universal Consent proves nothing innate.

This argument, drawn from universal consent, has this misfortune in it,

that if it were true in matter of fact, that there were certain truths

wherein all mankind agreed, it would not prove them innate, if there can

be any other way shown how men may come to that universal agreement, in

the things they do consent in, which I presume may be done.

4. "What is is," and "It is possible for the same Thing to be and not to be," not universally assented to.

But, which is worse, this argument of universal consent, which is made

use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that

there are none such: because there are none to which al mankind give an

universal assent. I shall begin with the speculative, and instance in

those magnified principles of demonstration, "Whatsoever is, is," and

"It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be"; which, of all others, I think have the most allowed title to innate. These have so

settled a reputation of maxims universally received, that it will no

doubt be thought strange if any one should seem to question it. But yet

I take liberty to say, that these propositions are so far from having an

universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they

are not so much as known.

5. Not on Mind naturally imprinted, because not known to Children,

Idiots, &c.

For, first, it is evident, that al children and idiots have not the

least apprehension or thought of them. And the want of that is enough

to destroy that universal assent which must needs be the necessary

concomitant of al innate truths: it seeming to me near a contradiction

to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul, which it perceives

or understands not: imprinting, if it signify anything, being nothing

else but the making certain truths to be perceived. For to imprint

anything on the mind without the mind's perceiving it, seems to me

hardly intelligible. If therefore children and idiots have souls, have

minds, with those impressions upon them, THEY must unavoidably perceive

them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; which since they

do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they

are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? and if

they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown? To say a notion is

imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind

is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this

impression nothing. No proposition can be said to be in the mind which

it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of. For if any one

may, then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the

mind is capable ever of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and

to be imprinted: since, if any one can be said to be in the mind, which

it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it;

and so the mind is of all truths it ever shall know. Nay, thus truths

may be imprinted on the mind which it never did, nor ever shall know;

for a man may live long, and die at last in ignorance of many truths

which his mind was capable of knowing, and that with certainty. So that

if the capacity of knowing be the natural impression contended for, all

the truths a man ever comes to know wil , by this account, be every one

of them innate; and this great point wil amount to no more, but only to

a very improper way of speaking; which, whilst it pretends to assert the

contrary, says nothing different from those who deny innate principles.

For nobody, I think, ever denied that the mind was capable of knowing

several truths. The capacity, they say, is innate; the knowledge

acquired. But then to what end such contest for certain innate maxims?

If truths can be imprinted on the understanding without being perceived,

I can see no difference there can be between any truths the mind is

CAPABLE of knowing in respect of their original: they must all be innate

or all adventitious: in vain shall a man go about to distinguish them.

He therefore that talks of innate notions in the understanding, cannot

(if he intend thereby any distinct sort of truths) mean such truths

to be in the understanding as it never perceived, and is yet whol y

ignorant of. For if these words "to be in the understanding" have

any propriety, they signify to be understood. So that to be in the

understanding, and not to be understood; to be in the mind and never to

be perceived, is all one as to say anything is and is not in the mind or

understanding. If therefore these two propositions, "Whatsoever is, is,"

and "It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be," are by nature imprinted, children cannot be ignorant of them: infants, and al

that have souls, must necessarily have them in their understandings,

know the truth of them, and assent to it.

6. That men know them when they come to the Use of Reason answered.

To avoid this, it is usually answered, that al men know and assent to

them, WHEN THEY COME TO THE USE OF REASON; and this is enough to prove

them innate. I answer:

7. Doubtful expressions, that have scarce any signification, go for

clear reasons to those who, being prepossessed, take not the pains to

examine even what they themselves say. For, to apply this answer with

any tolerable sense to our present purpose, it must signify one of these

two things: either that as soon as men come to the use of reason these

supposed native inscriptions come to be known and observed by them; or

else, that the use and exercise of men's reason, assists them in the

discovery of these principles, and certainly makes them known to them.

8. If Reason discovered them, that would not prove them innate.

If they mean, that by the use of reason men may discover these

principles, and that this is sufficient to prove them innate; their

way of arguing wil stand thus, viz. that whatever truths reason can

certainly discover to us, and make us firmly assent to, those are all

naturally imprinted on the mind; since that universal assent, which is

made the mark of them, amounts to no more but this,--that by the use of

reason we are capable to come to a certain knowledge of and assent to

them; and, by this means, there wil be no difference between the maxims

of the mathematicians, and theorems they deduce from them: all must be

equally al owed innate; they being all discoveries made by the use of

reason, and truths that a rational creature may certainly come to know,

if he apply his thoughts rightly that way.

9. It is false that Reason discovers them.

But how can these men think the use of reason necessary to discover

principles that are supposed innate, when reason (if we may believe

them) is nothing else but the faculty of deducing unknown truths from

principles or propositions that are already known? That certainly can

never be thought innate which we have need of reason to discover;

unless, as I have said, we will have all the certain truths that reason

ever teaches us, to be innate. We may as wel think the use of reason

necessary to make our eyes discover visible objects, as that there

should be need of reason, or the exercise thereof, to make the

understanding see what is originally engraven on it, and cannot be in

the understanding before it be perceived by it. So that to make reason

discover those truths thus imprinted, is to say, that the use of reason

discovers to a man what he knew before: and if men have those innate

impressed truths originally, and before the use of reason, and yet are

always ignorant of them till they come to the use of reason, it is in

effect to say, that men know and know them not at the same time.

10. No use made of reasoning in the discovery of these two maxims.

It wil here perhaps be said that mathematical demonstrations, and other

truths that are not innate, are not assented to as soon as proposed,

wherein they are distinguished from these maxims and other innate

truths. I shall have occasion to speak of assent upon the first

proposing, more particularly by and by. I shall here only, and that very

readily, allow, that these maxims and mathematical demonstrations are in

this different: that the one have need of reason, using of proofs,

to make them out and to gain our assent; but the other, as soon as

understood, are, without any the least reasoning, embraced and assented

to. But I withal beg leave to observe, that it lays open the weakness of

this subterfuge, which requires the use of reason for the discovery of

these general truths: since it must be confessed that in their discovery

there is no use made of reasoning at all. And I think those who give

this answer will not be forward to affirm that the knowledge of this

maxim, "That it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be,"

is a deduction of our reason. For this would be to destroy that bounty

of nature they seem so fond of, whilst they make the knowledge of those

principles to depend on the labour of our thoughts. For al reasoning is

search, and casting about, and requires pains and application. And how

can it with any tolerable sense be supposed, that what was imprinted by

nature, as the foundation and guide of our reason, should need the use

of reason to discover it?

11. And if there were this would prove them not innate.

Those who will take the pains to reflect with a little attention on the

operations of the understanding, wil find that this ready assent of the

mind to some truths, depends not, either on native inscription, or the

use of reason, but on a faculty of the mind quite distinct from both of

them, as we shall see hereafter. Reason, therefore, having nothing to do

in procuring our assent to these maxims, if by saying, that "men know

and assent to them, when they come to the use of reason," be meant, that the use of reason assists us in the knowledge of these maxims, it is

utterly false; and were it true, would prove them not to be innate.

12. The coming of the Use of Reason not the Time we come to know these


If by knowing and assenting to them "when we come to the use of reason,"

be meant, that this is the time when they come to be taken notice of by

the mind; and that as soon as children come to the use of reason, they

come also to know and assent to these maxims; this also is false and

frivolous. First, it is false; because it is evident these maxims are

not in the mind so early as the use of reason; and therefore the coming

to the use of reason is falsely assigned as the time of their discovery.

How many instances of the use of reason may we observe in children, a

long time before they have any knowledge of this maxim, "That it is

impossible for the same thing to be and not to be?" And a great part of il iterate people and savages pass many years, even of their rational

age, without ever thinking on this and the like general propositions. I

grant, men come not to the knowledge of these general and more abstract

truths, which are thought innate, til they come to the use of reason;

and I add, nor then neither. Which is so, because, til after they come

to the use of reason, those general abstract ideas are not framed in

the mind, about which those general maxims are, which are mistaken

for innate principles, but are indeed discoveries made and verities

introduced and brought into the mind by the same way, and discovered by

the same steps, as several other propositions, which nobody was ever

so extravagant as to suppose innate. This I hope to make plain in the

sequel of this Discourse. I al ow therefore, a necessity that men should

come to the use of reason before they get the knowledge of those general

truths; but deny that men's coming to the use of reason is the time of

their discovery.

13. By this they are not distinguished from other knowable Truths.

In the mean time it is observable, that this saying that men know and

assent to these maxims "when they come to the use of reason," amounts in reality of fact to no more but this,--that they are never known nor

taken notice of before the use of reason, but may possibly be assented

to some time after, during a man's life; but when is uncertain. And so

may al other knowable truths, as well as these which therefore have no

advantage nor distinction from other by this note of being known when

we come to the use of reason; nor are thereby proved to be innate, but

quite the contrary.

14. If coming to the Use of Reason were the Time of their Discovery, it

would not prove them innate.

But, secondly, were it true that the precise time of their being known

and assented to were, when men come to the use of reason; neither would

that prove them innate. This way of arguing is as frivolous as the

supposition itself is false. For, by what kind of logic will it appear

that any notion is originally by nature imprinted in the mind in its

first constitution, because it comes first to be observed and assented

to when a faculty of the mind, which has quite a distinct province,

begins to exert itself? And therefore the coming to the use of speech,

if it were supposed the time that these maxims are first assented to,

(which it may be with as much truth as the time when men come to the use

of reason,) would be as good a proof that they were innate, as to say

they are innate because men assent to them when they come to the use of

reason. I agree then with these men of innate principles, that there is

no knowledge of these general and self-evident maxims in the mind, till

it comes to the exercise of reason: but I deny that the coming to the

use of reason is the precise time when they are first taken notice of;

and if that were the precise time, I deny that it would prove them

innate. All that can with any truth be meant by this proposition, that

men 'assent to them when they come to the use of reason,' is no more but

this,--that the making of general abstract ideas, and the understanding

of general names, being a concomitant of the rational faculty, and

growing up with it, children commonly get not those general ideas, nor

learn the names that stand for them, til , having for a good while

exercised their reason about familiar and more particular ideas, they

are, by their ordinary discourse and actions with others, acknowledged

to be capable of rational conversation. If assenting to these maxims,

when men come to the use of reason, can be true in any other sense, I

desire it may be shown; or at least, how in this, or any other sense,

it proves them innate.

15. The Steps by which the Mind attains several Truths.

The senses at first let in PARTICULAR ideas, and furnish the yet empty

cabinet, and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them,

they are lodged in the memory, and names got to them. Afterwards, the

mind proceeding further, abstracts them, and by degrees learns the use

of general names. In this manner the mind comes to be furnished with

ideas and language, the MATERIALS about which to exercise its discursive

faculty. And the use of reason becomes daily more visible, as these

materials that give it employment increase. But though the having of

general ideas and the use of general words and reason usually grow

together, yet I see not how this any way proves them innate. The

knowledge of some truths, I confess, is very early in the mind; but in a

way that shows them not to be innate. For, if we wil observe, we shall

find it still to be about ideas, not innate, but acquired; it being

about those first which are imprinted by external things, with which

infants have earliest to do, which make the most frequent impressions on

their senses. In ideas thus got, the mind discovers that some agree and

others differ, probably as soon as it has any use of memory; as soon as

it is able to retain and perceive distinct ideas. But whether it be then

or no, this is certain, it does so long before it has the use of words;

or comes to that which we commonly call "the use of reason." For a child knows as certainly before it can speak the difference between the

ideas of sweet and bitter (i.e. that sweet is not bitter), as it knows

afterwards (when it comes to speak) that wormwood and sugarplums are not

the same thing.

16. Assent to supposed innate truths depends on having clear and

distinct ideas of what their terms mean, and not on their innateness.

A child knows not that three and four are equal to seven, till he comes

to be able to count seven, and has got the name and idea of equality;

and then, upon explaining those words, he presently assents to, or

rather perceives the truth of that proposition. But neither does he then

readily assent because it is an innate truth, nor was his assent wanting

til then because he wanted the use of reason; but the truth of it

appears to him as soon as he has settled in his mind the clear and

distinct ideas that these names stand for. And then he knows the truth

of that proposition upon the same ground and by the same means, that he

knew before that a rod and a cherry are not the same thing; and upon

the same ground also that he may come to know afterwards "That it is

impossible for the same thing to be and not to be," as shall be more

fully shown hereafter. So that the later it is before any one comes to

have those general ideas about which those maxims are; or to know the

signification of those generic terms that stand for them; or to put

together in his mind the ideas they stand for; the later also wil it be

before he comes to assent to those maxims;--whose terms, with the ideas

they stand for, being no more innate than those of a cat or a weasel he

must stay till time and observation have acquainted him with them; and

then he wil be in a capacity to know the truth of these maxims, upon

the first occasion that shall make him put together those ideas in

his mind, and observe whether they agree or disagree, according as is

expressed in those propositions. And therefore it is that a man knows

that eighteen and nineteen are equal to thirty-seven, by the same

self-evidence that he knows one and two to be equal to three: yet a

child knows this not so soon as the other; not for want of the use of

reason, but because the ideas the words eighteen nineteen, and

thirty-seven stand for, are not so soon got, as those which are

signified by one, two, and three.

17. Assenting as soon as proposed and understood, proves them not


This evasion therefore of general assent when men come to the use of

reason, failing as it does, and leaving no difference between those

supposed innate and other truths that a