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An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding by John Locke - HTML preview

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they believe innate may be easily observed, in the variety of opposite

principles held and contended for by al sorts and degrees of men. And

he that shall deny this to be the method wherein most men proceed to the

assurance they have of the truth and evidence of their principles, will

perhaps find it a hard matter any other way to account for the contrary

tenets, which are firmly believed, confidently asserted, and which great

numbers are ready at any time to seal with their blood. And, indeed, if

it be the privilege of innate principles to be received upon their own

authority, without examination, I know not what may not be believed, or

how any one's principles can be questioned. If they may and ought to be

examined and tried, I desire to know how first and innate principles

can be tried; or at least it is reasonable to demand the MARKS and

CHARACTERS whereby the genuine innate principles may be distinguished

from others: that so, amidst the great variety of pretenders, I may be

kept from mistakes in so material a point as this. When this is done, I

shall be ready to embrace such welcome and useful propositions; and til

then I may with modesty doubt; since I fear universal consent, which is

the only one produced, wil scarcely prove a sufficient mark to direct

my choice, and assure me of any innate principles.

From what has been said, I think it past doubt, that there are no

practical principles wherein all men agree; and therefore none innate.





1. Principles not innate, unless their Ideas be innate

Had those who would persuade us that there are innate principles not

taken them together in gross, but considered separately the parts out of

which those propositions are made, they would not, perhaps, have been so

forward to believe they were innate. Since, if the IDEAS which made up

those truths were not, it was impossible that the PROPOSITIONS made up

of them should be innate, or our knowledge of them be born with us. For,

if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without

those principles; and then they wil not be innate, but be derived from

some other original. For, where the ideas themselves are not, there can

be no knowledge, no assent, no mental or verbal propositions about them.

2. Ideas, especialy those belonging to Principles, not born with


If we will attentively consider new-born children, we shall have little

reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them.

For, bating perhaps some faint ideas of hunger, and thirst, and warmth,

and some pains, which they may have felt in the womb, there is not the

least appearance of any settled ideas at all in them; especially of


THAT ARE ESTEEMED INNATE PRINCIPLES. One may perceive how, by degrees,

afterwards, ideas come into their minds; and that they get no more, nor

other, than what experience, and the observation of things that come in

their way, furnish them with; which might be enough to satisfy us that

they are not original characters stamped on the mind.

3. Impossibility and Identity not innate ideas

"It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be," is certainly (if there be any such) an innate PRINCIPLE. But can any one think, or

will any one say, that "impossibility" and "identity" are two innate IDEAS? Are they such as al mankind have, and bring into the world with

them? And are they those which are the first in children, and antecedent

to all acquired ones? If they are innate, they must needs be so. Hath a

child an idea of impossibility and identity, before it has of white or

black, sweet or bitter? And is it from the knowledge of this principle

that it concludes, that wormwood rubbed on the nipple hath not the same

taste that it used to receive from thence? Is it the actual knowledge of

IMPOSSIBILE EST IDEM ESSE, ET NON ESSE, that makes a child distinguish

between its mother and a stranger; or that makes it fond of the one and

flee the other? Or does the mind regulate itself and its assent by

ideas that it never yet had? Or the understanding draw conclusions

from principles which it never yet knew or understood? The names

IMPOSSIBILITY and IDENTITY stand for two ideas, so far from being

innate, or born with us, that I think it requires great care and

attention to form them right in our understandings. They are so far from

being brought into the world with us, so remote from the thoughts of

infancy and childhood, that I believe, upon examination it wil be found

that many grown men want them.

4. Identity, an Idea not innate.

If IDENTITY (to instance that alone) be a native impression, and

consequently so clear and obvious to us that we must needs know it even

from our cradles, I would gladly be resolved by any one of seven, or

seventy years old, whether a man, being a creature consisting of soul

and body, be the same man when his body is changed? Whether Euphorbus

and Pythagoras, having had the same soul, were the same men, though they

lived several ages asunder? Nay, whether the cock too, which had the

same soul, were not the same, with both of them? Whereby, perhaps, it

will appear that our idea of SAMENESS is not so settled and clear as to

deserve to be thought innate in us. For if those innate ideas are not

clear and distinct, so as to be universally known and naturally agreed

on, they cannot be subjects of universal and undoubted truths, but will

be the unavoidable occasion of perpetual uncertainty. For, I suppose

every one's idea of identity wil not be the same that Pythagoras and

thousands of his followers have. And which then shall be true? Which

innate? Or are there two different ideas of identity, both innate?

5. What makes the same man?

Nor let any one think that the questions I have here proposed about the

identity of man are bare empty speculations; which, if they were, would

be enough to show, that there was in the understandings of men no innate

idea of identity. He that shall with a little attention reflect on the

resurrection, and consider that divine justice wil bring to judgment,

at the last day, the very same persons, to be happy or miserable in the

other, who did wel or il in this life, will find it perhaps not easy

to resolve with himself, what makes the same man, or wherein identity

consists; and wil not be forward to think he, and every one, even

children themselves, have naturally a clear idea of it.

6. Whole and Part not innate ideas.

Let us examine that principle of mathematics, viz. THAT THE WHOLE

IS BIGGER THAN A PART. This, I take it, is reckoned amongst innate

principles. I am sure it has as good a title as any to be thought so;

which yet nobody can think it to be, when he considers the ideas it

comprehends in it, WHOLE and PART, are perfectly relative; but the

positive ideas to which they properly and immediately belong are

extension and number, of which alone whole and part are relations. So

that if whole and part are innate ideas, extension and number must be so

too; it being impossible to have an idea of a relation, without having

any at all of the thing to which it belongs, and in which it is founded.

Now, whether the minds of men have naturally imprinted on them the ideas

of extension and number, I leave to be considered by those who are the

patrons of innate principles.

7. Idea of Worship not innate.

That GOD IS TO BE WORSHIPPED, is, without doubt, as great a truth as

any that can enter into the mind of man, and deserves the first place

amongst all practical principles. But yet it can by no means be thought

innate, unless the ideas of GOD and WORSHIP are innate. That the idea

the term worship stands for is not in the understanding of children, and

a character stamped on the mind in its first original, I think wil be

easily granted, by any one that considers how few there be amongst grown

men who have a clear and distinct notion of it. And, I suppose, there

cannot be anything more ridiculous than to say, that children have this

practical principle innate, "That God is to be worshipped," and yet that they know not what that worship of God is, which is their duty. But to

pass by this.

8. Idea of God not innate.

If any idea can be imagined innate, the idea of GOD may, of all others,

for many reasons, be thought so; since it is hard to conceive how there

should be innate moral principles, without an innate idea of a Deity.

Without a notion of a law-maker, it is impossible to have a notion of a

law, and an obligation to observe it. Besides the atheists taken notice

of amongst the ancients, and left branded upon the records of history,

hath not navigation discovered, in these later ages, whole nations,

at the bay of Soldania, in Brazil, and in the Caribbee islands, &c.,

amongst whom there was to be found no notion of a God, no religion?

Nicholaus del Techo, in Literis ex Paraquaria, de Caiguarum Conversione,

has these words: Reperi eam gentem nullum nomen habere quod Deum, et

hominis animam significet; nulla sacra habet, nulla idola.

And perhaps, if we should with attention mind the lives and discourses

of people not so far off, we should have too much reason to fear,

that many, in more civilized countries, have no very strong and clear

impressions of a Deity upon their minds, and that the complaints of

atheism made from the pulpit are not without reason. And though only

some profligate wretches own it too barefacedly now; yet perhaps we

should hear more than we do of it from others, did not the fear of

the magistrate's sword, or their neighbour's censure, tie up people's

tongues; which, were the apprehensions of punishment or shame taken

away, would as openly proclaim their atheism as their lives do.

9. The name of God not universal or obscure in meaning.

But had al mankind everywhere a notion of a God, (whereof yet history

tells us the contrary,) it would not from thence follow, that the idea

of him was innate. For, though no nation were to be found without a

name, and some few dark notions of him, yet that would not prove them to

be natural impressions on the mind; no more than the names of fire,

or the sun, heat, or number, do prove the ideas they stand for to be

innate; because the names of those things, and the ideas of them, are so

universally received and known amongst mankind. Nor, on the contrary, is

the want of such a name, or the absence of such a notion out of men's

minds, any argument against the being of a God; any more than it would

be a proof that there was no loadstone in the world, because a great

part of mankind had neither a notion of any such thing nor a name for

it; or be any show of argument to prove that there are no distinct and

various species of angels, or intelligent beings above us, because we

have no ideas of such distinct species, or names for them. For, men

being furnished with words, by the common language of their own

countries, can scarce avoid having some kind of ideas of those things

whose names those they converse with have occasion frequently to mention

to them. And if they carry with it the notion of excellency, greatness,

or something extraordinary; if apprehension and concernment accompany

it; if the fear of absolute and irresistible power set it on upon the

mind,--the idea is likely to sink the deeper, and spread the further;

especial y if it be such an idea as is agreeable to the common light of

reason, and naturally deducible from every part of our knowledge, as

that of a God is. For the visible marks of extraordinary wisdom and

power appear so plainly in all the works of the creation, that a

rational creature, who wil but seriously reflect on them, cannot miss

the discovery of a Deity. And the influence that the discovery of such a

Being must necessarily have on the minds of al that have but once

heard of it is so great, and carries such a weight of thought and

communication with it, that it seems stranger to me that a whole nation

of men should be anywhere found so brutish as to want the notion of a

God, than that they should be without any notion of numbers, or fire.

10. Ideas of God and idea of Fire.

The name of God being once mentioned in any part of the world, to

express a superior, powerful, wise, invisible Being, the suitableness of

such a notion to the principles of common reason, and the interest men

will always have to mention it often, must necessarily spread it far and

wide; and continue it down to all generations: though yet the general

reception of this name, and some imperfect and unsteady notions conveyed

thereby to the unthinking part of mankind, prove not the idea to be

innate; but only that they who made the discovery had made a right use

of their reason, thought maturely of the causes of things, and traced

them to their original; from whom other less considering people having

once received so important a notion, it could not easily be lost again.

11. Idea of God not innate.

This is all could be inferred from the notion of a God, were it to

be found universally in al the tribes of mankind, and generally

acknowledged, by men grown to maturity in al countries. For the

generality of the acknowledging of a God, as I imagine, is extended no

further than that; which, if it be sufficient to prove the idea of God

innate, will as well prove the idea of fire innate; since I think it may

be truly said, that there is not a person in the world who has a notion

of a God, who has not also the idea of fire. I doubt not but if a colony

of young children should be placed in an island where no fire was, they

would certainly neither have any notion of such a thing, nor name for

it, how generally soever it were received and known in all the world

besides; and perhaps too their apprehensions would be as far removed

from any name, or notion, of a God, till some one amongst them had

employed his thoughts to inquire into the constitution and causes of

things, which would easily lead him to the notion of a God; which having

once taught to others, reason, and the natural propensity of their own

thoughts, would afterwards propagate, and continue amongst them.

12. Suitable to God's goodness, that all Men should have an idea of Him,

therefore naturally imprinted by Him, answered.

Indeed it is urged, that it is suitable to the goodness of God, to

imprint upon the minds of men characters and notions of himself, and not

to leave them in the dark and doubt in so grand a concernment; and also,

by that means, to secure to himself the homage and veneration due from

so intel igent a creature as man; and therefore he has done it.

This argument, if it be of any force, wil prove much more than those

who use it in this case expect from it. For, if we may conclude that God

hath done for men al that men shall judge is best for them, because it

is suitable to his goodness so to do, it wil prove, not only that God

has imprinted on the minds of men an idea of himself, but that he hath

plainly stamped there, in fair characters, all that men ought to know or

believe of him; al that they ought to do in obedience to his wil ; and

that he hath given them a will and affections conformable to it. This,

no doubt, every one will think better for men, than that they should, in

the dark, grope after knowledge, as St. Paul tells us all nations did

after God (Acts xvi . 27); than that their wills should clash with their

understandings, and their appetites cross their duty. The Romanists say

it is best for men, and so suitable to the goodness of God, that there

should be an infallible judge of controversies on earth; and therefore

there is one. And I, by the same reason, say it is better for men that

every man himself should be infallible. I leave them to consider,

whether, by the force of this argument, they shall think that every man

IS so. I think it a very good argument to say,--the infinitely wise God

hath made it so; and therefore it is best. But it seems to me a little

too much confidence of our own wisdom to say,--'I think it best; and

therefore God hath made it so.' And in the matter in hand, it wil be

in vain to argue from such a topic, that God hath done so, when certain

experience shows us that he hath not. But the goodness of God hath not

been wanting to men, without such original impressions of knowledge

or ideas stamped on the mind; since he hath furnished man with those

faculties which wil serve for the sufficient discovery of al things

requisite to the end of such a being; and I doubt not but to show, that

a man, by the right use of his natural abilities, may, without any

innate principles, attain a knowledge of a God, and other things that

concern him. God having endued man with those faculties of knowledge

which he hath, was no more obliged by his goodness to plant those innate

notions in his mind, than that, having given him reason, hands, and

materials, he should build him bridges or houses,--which some people in

the world, however of good parts, do either totally want, or are but

il provided of, as wel as others are wholly without ideas of God and

principles of morality, or at least have but very ill ones; the reason

in both cases being, that they never employed their parts, faculties,

and powers industriously that way, but contented themselves with the

opinions, fashions, and things of their country, as they found them,

without looking any further. Had you or I been born at the Bay of

Soldania, possibly our thoughts and notions had not exceeded those

brutish ones of the Hottentots that inhabit there. And had the Virginia

king Apochancana been educated in England, he had been perhaps as

knowing a divine, and as good a mathematician as any in it; the

difference between him and a more improved Englishman lying barely in

this, that the exercise of his faculties was bounded within the ways,

modes, and notions of his own country, and never directed to any other

or further inquiries. And if he had not any idea of a God, it was only

because he pursued not those thoughts that would have led him to it.

13. Ideas of God various in different Men.

I grant that if there were any ideas to be found imprinted on the minds

of men, we have reason to expect it should be the notion of his Maker,

as a mark God set on his own workmanship, to mind man of his dependence

and duty; and that herein should appear the first instances of human

knowledge. But how late is it before any such notion is discoverable in

children? And when we find it there, how much more does it resemble the

opinion and notion of the teacher, than represent the true God? He that

shall observe in children the progress whereby their minds attain the

knowledge they have, will think that the objects they do first and most

familiarly converse with are those that make the first impressions on

their understandings; nor wil he find the least footsteps of any other.

It is easy to take notice how their thoughts enlarge themselves, only as

they come to be acquainted with a greater variety of sensible objects;

to retain the ideas of them in their memories; and to get the skil to

compound and enlarge them, and several ways put them together. How, by

these means, they come to frame in their minds an idea men have of a

Deity, I shall hereafter show.

14. Contrary and inconsistent ideas of God under the same name.

Can it be thought that the ideas men have of God are the characters and

marks of himself, engraven in their minds by his own finger, when we see

that, in the same country, under one and the same name, men have far

different, nay often contrary and inconsistent ideas and conceptions of

him? Their agreeing in a name, or sound, will scarce prove an innate

notion of him.

15. Gross ideas of God.

What true or tolerable notion of a Deity could they have, who

acknowledged and worshipped hundreds? Every deity that they owned above

one was an infallible evidence of their ignorance of Him, and a proof

that they had no true notion of God, where unity, infinity, and

eternity were excluded. To which, if we add their gross conceptions

of corporeity, expressed in their images and representations of their

deities; the amours, marriages, copulations, lusts, quarrels, and other

mean qualities attributed by them to their gods; we shall have little

reason to think that the heathen world, i.e. the greatest part of

mankind, had such ideas of God in their minds as he himself, out of care

that they should not be mistaken about him, was author of. And this

universality of consent, so much argued, if it prove any native

impressions, it wil be only this:--that God imprinted on the minds of

al men speaking the same language, a NAME for himself, but not any

IDEA; since those people who agreed in the name, had, at the same time,

far different apprehensions about the thing signified. If they say

that the variety of deities worshipped by the heathen world were

but figurative ways of expressing the several attributes of that

incomprehensible Being, or several parts of his providence, I answer:

what they might be in the original I wil not here inquire; but that

they were so in the thoughts of the vulgar I think nobody wil affirm.

And he that wil consult the voyage of the Bishop of Beryte, c. 13,

(not to mention other testimonies,) wil find that the theology of the

Siamites professedly owns a plurality of gods: or, as the Abbe de Choisy

more judiciously remarks in his Journal du Voyage de Siam, 107/177, it

consists properly in acknowledging no God at all. 16. Idea of God not

innate although wise men of al nations come to have it.

If it be said, that wise men of al nations came to have true

conceptions of the unity and infinity of the Deity, I grant it. But then


First, excludes universality of consent in anything but the name;

for those wise men being very few, perhaps one of a thousand, this

universality is very narrow.

Secondly, it seems to me plainly to prove, that the truest and best

notions men have of God were not imprinted, but acquired by thought

and meditation, and a right use of their faculties: since the wise and

considerate men of the world, by a right and careful employment of their

thoughts and reason, attained true notions in this as wel as other

things; whilst the lazy and inconsiderate part of men, making far the

greater number, took up their notions by chance, from common tradition

and vulgar conceptions, without much beating their heads about them. And

if it be a reason to think the notion of God innate, because all wise

men had it, virtue too must be thought innate; for that also wise men

have always had.

17. Odd, low, and pitiful ideas of God common among men.

This was evidently the case of al Gentilism. Nor hath even amongst

Jews, Christians, and Mahometans, who acknowledged but one God, this

doctrine, and the care taken in those nations to teach men to have true

notions of a God, prevailed so far as to make men to have the same and

the true ideas of him. How many even amongst us, will be found upon

inquiry to fancy him in the shape of a man sitting in heaven; and to

have many other absurd and unfit conceptions of him? Christians as

well as Turks have had whole sects owning and contending earnestly for

it,--that the Deity was corporeal, and of human shape: and though we

find few now amongst us who profess themselves Anthropomorphites,

(though some I have met with that own it,) yet I believe he that wil

make it his business may find amongst the ignorant and uninstructed

Christians many of that opinion. Talk but with country people, almost

of any age, or young people almost of any condition, and you shall find

that, though the name of God be frequently in their mouths, yet the

notions they apply this name to are so odd, low, and pitiful, that

nobody can imagine they were taught by a rational man; much less that