Front Page Titles (by Subject) BOOK III. - The Works, vol. 2 An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 2 and Other Writings
Return to Title Page for The Works, vol. 2 An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 2 and Other Writings
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
BOOK III. - John Locke, The Works, vol. 2 An Essay concerning Human Understanding Part 2 and Other Writings 
The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Particles connect parts, or whole sentences together.
§ 1. Besides words which are names of ideas in the mind, there are a great many others that are made use of, to signify the connexion that the mind gives to ideas, or propositions, one with another. The mind, in communicating its thoughts to others, does not only need signs of the ideas it has then before it, but others also, to show or intimate some particular action of its own, at that time, relating to those ideas. This it does several ways; as is, and is not, are the general marks of the mind, affirming or denying. But besides affirmation or negation, without which there is in words no truth or falsehood, the mind does, in declaring its sentiments to others, connect not only the parts of propositions, but whole sentences one to another, with their several relations and dependencies, to make a coherent discourse.
In them consists the art of well-speaking.
§ 2. The words, whereby it signifies what connexion it gives to the several affirmations and negations, that it unites in one continued reasoning or narration, are generally called particles; and it is in the right use of these, that more particularly consists the clearness and beauty of a good style. To think well, it is not enough that a man has ideas clear and distinct in his thoughts, nor that he observes the agreement or disagreement of some of them; but he must think in train, and observe the dependence of his thoughts and reasonings upon one another. And to express well such methodical and rational thoughts, he must have words to show what connexion, restriction, distinction, opposition, emphasis, &c. he gives to each respective part of his discourse. To mistake in any of these, is to puzzle, instead of informing his hearer; and therefore it is that those words which are not truly by themselves the names of any ideas, are of such constant and indispensable use in language, and do much contribute to men’s well expressing themselves.
They show what relation the mind gives to its own thoughts.
§ 3. This part of grammar has been perhaps as much neglected, as some others over-diligently cultivated. It is easy for men to write, one after another, of cases and genders, moods and tenses, gerunds and supines: in these, and the like, there has been great diligence used; and particles themselves, in some languages, have been, with great show of exactness, ranked into their several orders. But though prepositions and conjunctions, &c. are names well known in grammar, and the particles contained under them carefully ranked into their distinct subdivisions; yet he who would show the right use of particles, and what significancy and force they have, must take a little more pains, enter into his own thoughts, and observe nicely the several postures of his mind in discoursing.
§ 4. Neither is it enough, for the explaining of these words, to render them, as is usual in dictionaries, by words of another tongue which come nearest to their signification; for what is meant by them is commonly as hard to be understood in one, as another language. They are all marks of some action, or intimation of the mind; and therefore to understand them rightly, the several views, postures, stands, turns, limitations, and exceptions, and several other thoughts of the mind, for which we have either none, or very deficient names, are diligently to be studied. Of these there is a great variety, much exceeding the number of particles that most languages have to express them by; and therefore it is not to be wondered that most of these particles have divers, and sometimes almost opposite significations. In the Hebrew tongue there is a particle consisting of but one single letter, of which there are reckoned up, as I remember, seventy, I am sure above fifty several significations.
Instance in But.
§ 5. But is a particle, none more familiar in our language; and he that says it is a discretive conjunction, and that it answers sed in Latin, or mais in French, thinks he has sufficiently explained it. But it seems to me to intimate several relations the mind gives to the several propositions or parts of them, which it joins by this monosyllable.
First, “but to say no more:” here it intimates a stop of the mind in the course it was going, before it came quite to the end of it.
Secondly, “I saw but two plants:” here it shows, that the mind limits the sense to what is expressed, with a negation of all other.
Thirdly, “you pray; but it is not that God would bring you to the true religion.”
Fourthly, “but that he would confirm you in your own.” The first of these Buts intimates a supposition in the mind of something otherwise than it should be; the latter shows, that the mind makes a direct opposition between that, and what goes before it.
Fifthly, “all animals have sense; but a dog is an animal:” here it signifies little more, but that the latter proposition is joined to the former, as the minor of a syllogism.
This matter but lightly touched here.
§ 6. To these, I doubt not, might be added a great many other significations of this particle, if it were my business to exmine it in its full latitude, and consider it in all the places it is to be found: which if one should do, I doubt, whether in all those manners it is made use of, it would deserve the title of discretive, which grammarians give to it. But I intend not here a full explication of this sort of signs. The instances I have given in this one, may give occasion to reflect on their use and force in language, and lead us into the contemplation of several actions of our minds in discoursing, which it has found a way to intimate to others by these particles; some whereof constantly, and others in certain constructions, have the sense of a whole sentence contained in them.
Of Abstract and Concrete Terms.
Abstract terms not predicable one of another, and why.
§ 1. The ordinary words of language, and our common use of them, would have given us light into the nature of our ideas, if they had been but considered with attention. The mind, as has been shown, has a power to abstract its ideas, and so they become essences, general essences, whereby the sorts of things are distinguished. Now each abstract idea being distinct, so that of any two the one can never be the other, the mind will, by its intuitive knowledge, perceive their difference; and therefore in propositions no two whole ideas can ever be affirmed one of another. This we see in the common use of language, which permits not any two abstract words, or names of abstract ideas, to be affirmed one of another. For how near of kin soever they may seem to be, and how certain soever it is, that man is an animal, or rational, or white, yet every one at first hearing perceives the falsehood of these propositions; humanity is animality, or rationality, or whiteness: and this is as evident, as any of the most allowed maxims. All our affirmations then are only inconcrete, which is the affirming, not one abstract idea to be another, but one abstract idea to be joined to another; which abstract ideas, in substances, may be of any sort; in all the rest, are little else but of relations; and in substances, the most frequent are of powers; v. g. “a man is white,” signifies, that the thing that has the essence of a man, has also in it the essence of whiteness, which is nothing but a power to produce the idea of whiteness in one, whose eyes can discover ordinary objects: or “a man is rational,” signifies that the same thing that hath the essence of a man, hath also in it the essence of rationality, i. e. a power of reasoning.
They show the difference of our ideas.
§ 2. This distinction of names shows us also the difference of our ideas: for if we observe them, we shall find that our simple ideas have all abstract, as well as concrete names; the one whereof is (to speak the language of grammarians) a substantive, the other an adjective; as whiteness, white, sweetness, sweet. The like also holds in our ideas of modes and relations; as justice, just; equality, equal; only with this difference, that some of the concrete names of relations, amongst men chiefly, are substantives; as paternitas, pater; whereof it were easy to render a reason. But as to our ideas of substances, we have very few or no abstract names at all. For though the schools have introduced animalitas, humanitas, corporietas, and some others; yet they hold no proportion with that infinite number of names of substances, to which they never were ridiculous enough to attempt the coining of abstract ones: and those few that the schools forged, and put into the mouths of their scholars, could never yet get admittance into common use, or obtain the licence of public approbation. Which seems to me at least to intimate the confession of all mankind, that they have no ideas of the real essences of substances, since they have not names for such ideas: which no doubt they would have had, had not their consciousness to themselves of their ignorance of them kept them from so idle an attempt. And therefore though they had ideas enough to distinguish gold from a stone, and metal from wood; yet they but timorously ventured on such terms, as aurietas and saxietas, metallietas and lignietas, or the like names, which should pretend to signify the real essences of those substances, whereof they knew they had no ideas. And indeed it was only the doctrine of substantial forms, and the confidence of mistaken pretenders to a knowledge that they had not, which first coined, and then introduced animalitas, and humanitas, and the like; which yet went very little farther than their own schools, and could never get to be current amongst understanding men. Indeed, humanitas was a word familiar amongst the Romans, but in a far different sense, and stood not for the abstract essence of any substance; but was the abstracted name of a mode, and its concrete humanus, not homo.
Of the Imperfection of Words.
Words are used for recording and communicating our thoughts.
§ 1. From what has been said in the foregoing chapters, it is easy to perceive what imperfection there is in language, and how the very nature of words makes it almost unavoidable for many of them to be doubtful and uncertain in their significations. To examine the perfection or imperfection of words, it is necessary first to consider their use and end: for as they are more or less fitted to attain that, so they are more or less perfect. We have, in the former part of this discourse, often upon occasion mentioned a double use of words.
First, one for the recording of our own thoughts.
Secondly, the other for the communicating of our thoughts to others.
Any words will serve for recording.
§ 2. As to the first of these, for the recording our own thoughts for the help of our own memories, whereby, as it were, we talk to ourselves, any words will serve the turn. For since sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any ideas, a man may use what words he pleases, to signify his own ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly use the same sign for the same idea; for then he cannot fail of having his meaning understood, wherein consists the right use and perfection of language.
Communication by words civil or philosophical.
§ 3. Secondly, as to communication of words, that too has a double use.
First, by their civil use, I mean such a communication of thoughts and ideas by words, as may serve for the upholding common conversation and commerce, about the ordinary affairs and conveniencies of civil life, in the societies of men one amongst another.
Secondly, by the philosophical use of words, I mean such an use of them, as may serve to convey the precise notions of things, and to express, in general propositions, certain and undoubted truths, which the mind may rest upon, and be satisfied with, in its search after true knowledge. These two uses are very distinct; and a great deal less exactness will serve in the one than in the other, as we shall see in what follows.
The imperfection of words is the doubtfulness of their signification.
§ 4. The chief end of language in communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end, neither in civil nor philosophical discourse, when any word does not excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker. Now since sounds have no natural connexion with our ideas, but have all their signification from the arbitrary imposition of men, the doubtfulness and uncertainty of their signification, which is the imperfection we here are speaking of, has its cause more in the ideas they stand for, than in any incapacity there is in one sound more than in another, to signify any idea: for in that regard they are all equally perfect.
That then which makes doubtfulness and uncertainty in the signification of some more than other words, is the difference of ideas they stand for.
Causes of their imperfection.
§ 5. Words having naturally no signification, the idea which each stands for must be learned and retained by those who would exchange thoughts, and hold intelligible discourse with others in any language. But this is hardest to be done, where,
First, the ideas they stand for are very complex, and made up of a great number of ideas put together.
Secondly, where the ideas they stand for have no certain connexion in nature; and so no settled standard, any where in nature existing, to rectify and adjust them by.
Thirdly, when the signification of the word is referred to a standard, which standard is not easy to be known.
Fourthly, where the signification of the word, and the real essence of the thing, are not exactly the same.
These are difficulties that attend the signification of several words that are intelligible. Those which are not intelligible at all, such as names standing for any simple ideas, which another has not organs or faculties to attain; as the names of colours to a blind man, or sounds to a deaf man: need not here be mentioned.
In all these cases we shall find an imperfection in words, which I shall more at large explain, in their particular application to our several sorts of ideas: for if we examine them, we shall find that the names of mixed modes are most liable to doubtfulness and imperfection; for the two first of these reasons; and the names of substances chiefly for the two latter.
The names of mixed modes doubtful. First, because the ideas they stand for are so complex.
§ 6. First the names of mixed modes are many of them liable to great uncertainty and obscurity in their signification.
I. Because of that great composition these complex ideas are often made up of. To make words serviceable to the end of communication, it is necessary (as has been said) that they excite in the hearer exactly the same idea they stand for in the mind of the speaker. Without this, men fill one another’s heads with noise and sounds; but convey not thereby their thoughts, and lay not before one another their ideas, which is the end of discourse and language. But when a word stands for a very complex idea that is compounded and decompounded, it is not easy for men to form and retain that idea so exactly, as to make the name in common use stand for the same precise idea, without any the least variation. Hence it comes to pass that men’s names of very compound ideas, such as for the most part are moral words, have seldom, in two different men, the same precise signification; since one man’s complex idea seldom agrees with another’s, and often differs from his own, from that which he had yesterday, or will have to-morrow.
Secondly, because they have no standards.
§ 7. II. Because the names of mixed modes, for the most part, want standards in nature, whereby men may rectify and adjust their significations; therefore they are very various and doubtful. They are assemblages of ideas put together at the pleasure of the mind, pursuing its own ends of discourse, and suited to its own notions; whereby it designs not to copy any thing really existing, but to denominate and rank things, as they come to agree with those archetypes or forms it has made. He that first brought the word sham, or wheedle, or banter, in use, put together, as he thought fit, those ideas he made it stand for: and as it is with any new names of modes, that are now brought into any language; so it was with the old ones, when they were first made use of. Names therefore that stand for collections of ideas which the mind makes at pleasure, must needs be of doubtful signification, when such collections are no where to be found constantly united in nature, nor any patterns to be shown whereby men may adjust them. What the word murder, or sacrilege, &c. signifies, can never be known from things themselves: there be many of the parts of those complex ideas, which are not visible in the action itself; the intention of the mind, or the relation of holy things, which make a part of murder or sacrilege, have no necessary connexion with the outward and visible action of him that commits either: and the pulling the trigger of the gun, with which the murder is committed, and is all the action that perhaps is visible, has no natural connexion with those other ideas that make up the complex one, named murder. They have their union and combination only from the understanding, which unites them under one name: but uniting them without any rule or pattern, it cannot be but that the signification of the name that stands for such voluntary collections should be often various in the minds of different men, who have scarce any standing rule to regulate themselves and their notions by, in such arbitrary ideas.
Propriety not a sufficient remedy.
§ 8. It is true, common use, that is the rule of propriety, may be supposed here to afford some aid, to settle the signification of language; and it cannot be denied, but that in some measure it does. Common use regulates the meaning of words pretty well for common conversation; but nobody having an authority to establish the precise signification of words, nor determined to what ideas any one shall annex them, common use is not sufficient to adjust them to philosophical discourses; there being scarce any name of any very complex idea (to say nothing of others) which in common use has not a great latitude, and which keeping within the bounds of propriety, may not be made the sign of far different ideas. Besides, the rule and measure of propriety itself being no where established, it is often matter of dispute whether this or that way of using a word be propriety of speech or no. From all which it is evident, that the names of such kind of very complex ideas are naturally liable to this imperfection, to be of doubtful and uncertain signification; and even in men that have a mind to understand one another, do not always stand for the same idea in speaker and hearer. Though the names glory and gratitude be the same in every man’s mouth through a whole country, yet the complex collective idea, which every one thinks on, or intends by that name, is apparently very different in men using the same language.
The way of learning these names contributes also to their doubtfulness.
§ 9. The way also wherein the names of mixed modes are ordinarily learned, does not a little contribute to the doubtfulness of their signification. For if we will observe how children learn languages, we shall find that to make them understand what the names of simple ideas, or substances, stand for, people ordinarily show them the thing, whereof they would have them have the idea; and then repeat to them the name that stands for it, as white, sweet, milk, sugar, cat, dog. But as for mixed modes, especially the most material of them, moral words, the sounds are usually learned first; and then to know what complex ideas they stand for, they are either beholden to the explication of others, or (which happens for the most part) are left to their own observation and industry; which being little laid out in the search of the true and precise meaning of names, these moral words are in most men’s mouths little more than bare sounds; or when they have any, it is for the most part but a very loose and undetermined, and consequently obscure and confused signification. And even those themselves who have with more attention settled their notions, do yet hardly avoid the inconvenience, to have them stand for complex ideas, different from those which other, even intelligent and studious men, make them the signs of. Where shall one find any, either controversial debate, or familiar discourse, concerning honour, faith, grace, religion, church, &c. wherein it is not easy to observe the different notions men have of them? which is nothing but this, that they are not agreed in the signification of those words, nor have in their minds the same complex ideas which they make them stand for: and so all the contests that follow thereupon, are only about the meaning of a sound. And hence we see, that in the interpretation of laws, whether divine or human, there is no end; comments beget comments, and explications make new matter for explications; and of limiting, distinguishing, varying the signification of these moral words, there is no end. These ideas of men’s making are, by men still having the same power, multiplied in infinitum. Many a man who was pretty well satisfied of the meaning of a text of scripture, or clause in the code at first reading, has by consulting commentators quite lost the sense of it, and by these elucidations given rise or increase to his doubts, and drawn obscurity upon the place. I say not this, that I think commentaries needless; but to show how uncertain the names of mixed modes naturally are, even in the mouths of those who had both the intention and the faculty of speaking as clearly as language was capable to express their thoughts.
Hence unavoidable obscurity in ancient authors.
§ 10. What obscurity this has unavoidably brought upon the writings of men, who have lived in remote ages and different countries, it will be needless to take notice; since the numerous volumes of learned men, employing their thoughts that way, are proofs more than enough to show what attention, study, sagacity, and reasoning are required, to find out the true meaning of ancient authors. But there being no writings we have any great concernment to be very solicitous about the meaning of, but those that contain either truths we are required to believe, or laws we are to obey, and draw inconveniencies on us when we mistake or transgress, we may be less anxious about the sense of other authors; who writing but their own opinions, we are under no greater necessity to know them, than they to know ours. Our good or evil depending not on their decrees, we may safely be ignorant of their notions: and therefore, in the reading of them, if they do not use their words with a due clearness and perspicuity, we may lay them aside, and, without any injury done them, resolve thus with ourselves,
“Si non vis intelligi, debes negligi.”
Names of substances of doubtful signification.
§ 11. If the signification of the names of mixed modes are uncertain, because there be no real standards existing in nature, to which those ideas are referred, and by which they may be adjusted; the names of substances are of a doubtful signification, for a contrary reason, viz. because the ideas they stand for are supposed conformable to the reality of things, and are referred to standards made by nature. In our ideas of substances we have not the liberty, as in mixed modes, to frame what combinations we think fit, to be the characteristical notes to rank and denominate things by. In these we must follow nature, suit our complex ideas to real existences, and regulate the signification of their names by the things themselves, if we will have our names to be signs of them, and stand for them. Here, it is true, we have patterns to follow; but patterns that will make the signification of their names very uncertain: for names must be of a very unsteady and various meaning, if the ideas they stand for be referred to standards without us, that either cannot be known at all, or can be known but imperfectly and uncertainly.
Names of substances referred, 1. To real essences that cannot be known.
§ 12. The names of substances have, as has been shown, a double reference in their ordinary use.
First, sometimes they are made to stand for, and so their signification is supposed to agree to the real constitution of things, from which all their properties flow, and in which they all centre. But this real constitution, or (as it is apt to be called) essence being utterly unknown to us, any sound that is put to stand for it, must be very uncertain in its application; and it will be impossible to know what things are, or ought to be called a horse, or anatomy, when those words are put for real essences, that we have no ideas of at all. And therefore, in this supposition, the names of substances being referred to standards that cannot be known, their significations can never be adjusted and established by those standards.
2. To co-existing qualities, which are known but imperfectly.
§ 13. Secondly, the simple ideas that are found to co-exist in substances being that which their names immediately signify, these as united in the several sorts of things, are the proper standards to which their names are referred, and by which their significations may be best rectified. But neither will these archetypes so well serve to this purpose, as to leave these names without very various and uncertain significations. Because these simple ideas that co-exist, and are united in the same subject, being very numerous, and having all an equal right to go into the complex specific idea, which the specific name is to stand for; men, though they propose to themselves the very same subject to consider, yet frame very different ideas about it; and so the name they use for it unavoidably comes to have, in several men, very different significations. The simple qualities which make up the complex ideas being most of them powers, in relation to changes, which they are apt to make in, or receive from other bodies, are almost infinite. He that shall but observe what a great variety of alterations any one of the baser metals is apt to receive from the different application only of fire; and how much a greater number of changes any of them will receive in the hands of a chemist, by the application of other bodies; will not think it strange that I count the properties of any sort of bodies not easy to be collected, and completely known by the ways of inquiry, which our faculties are capable of. They being therefore at least so many, that no man can know the precise and definite number, they are differently discovered by different men, according to their various skill, attention, and ways of handling; who therefore cannot choose but have different ideas of the same substance, and therefore make the signification of its common name very various and uncertain. For the complex ideas of substances being made up of such simple ones as are supposed to co-exist in nature, every one has a right to put into his complex idea those qualities he has found to be united together. For though in the substance of gold one satisfies himself with colour and weight, yet another thinks solubility in aq. regia as necessary to be joined with that colour in his idea of gold, as any one does its fusibility; solubility in aq. regia being a quality as constantly joined with its colour and weight, as fusibility, or any other; others put into it ductility or fixedness, &c. as they have been taught by tradition or experience. Who of all these has established the right signification of the word gold? or who shall be the judge to determine? Each has its standard in nature, which he appeals to, and with reason thinks he has the same right to put into his complex idea, signified by the word gold, those qualities which upon trial he has found united; as another, who was not so well examined, has to leave them out; or a third, who has made other trials, has to put in others. For the union in nature of these qualities being the true ground of their union in one complex idea, who can say, one of them has more reason to be put in, or left out, than another? From hence it will always unavoidably follow, that the complex ideas of substances, in men using the same name for them, will be very various; and so the significations of those names very uncertain.
3. To co-existing qualities which are known but imperfectly.
§ 14. Besides, there is scarce any particular thing existing, which, in some of its simple ideas, does not communicate with a greater, and in others a less number of particular beings: who shall determine in this case which are those that are to make up the precise collection that is to be signified by the specific name; or can with any just authority prescribe, which obvious or common qualities are to be left out; or which more secret, or more particular, are to be put into the signification of the name of any substance? All which together seldom or never fail to produce that various and doubtful signification in the names of substances, which causes such uncertainty, disputes, or mistakes, when we come to a philosophical use of them.
With this imperfection they may serve for civil, but not well for philosophical use.
§ 15. It is true, as to civil and common conversation, the general names of substances, regulated in their ordinary signification by some obvious qualities, (as by the shape and figure in things of known seminal propagation, and in other substances, for the most part by colour, joined with some other sensible qualities) do well enough to design the things men would be understood to speak of: and so they usually conceive well enough the substances meant by the word gold, or apple, to distinguish the one from the other. But in philosophical inquiries and debates, where general truths are to be established, and consequences drawn from positions laid down; there the precise signification of the names of substances will be found, not only not to be well established, but also very hard to be so. For example, he that shall make malleableness, or a certain degree of fixedness, a part of his complex idea of gold, may make propositions concerning gold, and draw consequences from them, that will truly and clearly follow from gold, taken in such a signification; but yet such as another man can never be forced to admit, nor be convinced of their truth, who makes not malleableness, or the same degree of fixedness, part of that complex idea, that the name gold, in his use of it, stands for.
§ 16. This is a natural, and almost unavoidable imperfection in almost all the names of substances, in all languages whatsoever which men will easily find, when once passing from confused or loose notions, they come to more strict and close inquiries. For then they will be convinced how doubtful and obscure those words are in their signification, which in ordinary use appeared very clear and determined. I was once in a meeting of very learned and ingenious physicians, where by chance there arose a question, whether any liquor passed through the filaments of the nerves. The debate having been managed a good while, by variety of arguments on both sides, I (who had been used to suspect, that the greatest part of disputes was more about the signification of words than a real difference in the conception of things) desired, that before they went any farther on in this dispute, they would first examine, and establish amongst them, what the word liquor signified. They at first were a little surprised at the proposal; and had they been persons less ingenious, they might perhaps have taken it for a very frivolous or extravagant one: since there was no one there that thought not himself to understand very perfectly what the word liquor stood for; which I think too none of the most perplexed names of substances. However, they were pleased to comply with my motion, and upon examination found, that the signification of that word was not so settled and certain as they had all imagined; but that each of them made it a sign of a different complex idea. This made them perceive that the main of their dispute was about the signification of that term; and that they differed very little in their opinions, concerning some fluid and subtile matter, passing through the conduits of the nerves; though it was not so easy to agree whether it was to be called liquor or no, a thing which, when considered, they thought it not worth the contending about.
§ 17. How much this is the case, in the greatest part of disputes that men are engaged so hotly in, I shall perhaps have an occasion in another place to take notice. Let us only here consider little more exactly the fore-mentioned instance of the word gold, and we shall see how hard it is precisely to determine its signification. I think all agree to make it stand for a body of a certain yellow shining colour; which being the idea to which children have annexed that name, the shining yellow part of a peacock’s tail is properly to them gold. Others finding fusibility joined with that yellow colour in certain parcels of matter, make of that combination a complex idea, to which they give the name gold to denote a sort of substances; and so exclude from being gold all such yellow shining bodies, as by fire will be reduced to ashes; and admit to be of that species, or to be comprehended under that name gold, only such substances as having that shining yellow colour will by fire be reduced to fusion, and not to ashes. Another by the same reason adds the weight, which being a quality, as straitly joined with that colour, as its fusibility, he thinks has the same reason to be joined in its idea, and to be signified by its name: and therefore the other made up of body, of such a colour and fusibility, to be imperfect; and so on of all the rest: wherein no one can show a reason why some of the inseparable qualities, that are always united in nature, should be put into the nominal essence, and others left out: or why the word gold, signifying that sort of body the ring on his finger is made of, should determine that sort rather by its colour, weight, and fusibility, than by its colour, weight, and solubility in aq. regia: since the dissolving it by that liquor is as inseparable from it as the fusion by fire; and they are both of them nothing but the relation which that substance has to two other bodies, which have a power to operate differently upon it. For by what right is it that fusibility comes to be a part of the essence signified by the word gold, and solubility but a property of it? or why is its colour part of the essence, and its malleableness but a property? That which I mean is this, That these being all but properties depending on its real constitution, and nothing but powers, either active or passive, in reference to other bodies: no one has authority to determine the signification of the word gold (as referred to such a body existing in nature) more to one collection of ideas to be found in that body than to another: whereby the signification of that name must unavoidably be very uncertain; since, as has been said, several people observe several properties in the same substance; and, I think, I may say nobody at all. And therefore we have but very imperfect descriptions of things, and words have very uncertain significations.
The names of simple ideas the least doubtful.
§ 18. From what has been said, it is easy to observe what has been before remarked, viz. That the names of simple ideas are, of all others, the least liable to mistakes, and that for these reasons. First, because the ideas they stand for, being each but one single perception, are much easier got, and more clearly retained, than the more complex ones, and therefore are not liable to the uncertainty which usually attends those compounded ones of substances and mixed modes, in which the precise number of simple ideas, that make them up, are not easily agreed, and so readily kept in the mind. And secondly, because they are never referred to any other essence, but barely that perception they immediately signify: which reference is that which renders the signification of the names of substances naturally so perplexed, and gives occasion to so many disputes. Men that do not perversely use their words, or on purpose set themselves to cavil, seldom mistake in any language, which they are acquainted with, the use and signification of the names of simple ideas: white and sweet, yellow and bitter, carry a very obvious meaning with them, which every one precisely comprehends, or easily perceives he is ignorant of, and seeks to be informed. But what precise collection of simple ideas modesty or frugality stand for in another’s use, is not so certainly known. And however we are apt to think we well enough know what is meant by gold or iron; yet the precise complex idea, others make them the signs of, is not so certain: and I believe it is very seldom that, in speaker and hearer, they stand for exactly the same collection. Which must needs produce mistakes and disputes, when they are made use of in discourses, wherein men have to do with universal propositions, and would settle in their minds universal truths, and consider the consequences that follow from them.
And next to them, simple modes.
§ 19. By the same rule, the names of simple modes are, next to those of simple ideas, least liable to doubt and uncertainty, especially those of figure and number, of which men have so clear and distinct ideas. Who ever, that had a mind to understand them, mistook the ordinary meaning of seven, or a triangle? And in general the least compounded ideas in every kind have the least dubious names.
The most doubtful are the names of very compounded mixed modes and substances.
§ 20. Mixed modes therefore, that are made up but of a few and obvious simple ideas, have usually names of no very uncertain signification. But the names of mixed modes, which comprehend a great number of simple ideas, are commonly of a very doubtful and undetermined meaning, as has been shown. The names of substances being annexed to ideas that are neither the real essences nor exact representations of the patterns they are referred to, are liable yet to greater imperfection and uncertainty, especially when we come to a philosophical use of them.
Why this imperfection charged upon words.
§ 21. The great disorder that happens in our names of substances, proceeding for the most part from our want of knowledge, and inability to penetrate into their real constitutions, it may probably be wondered, why I charge this as an imperfection rather upon our words than understandings. This exception has so much appearance of justice, that I think myself obliged to give a reason why I have followed this method. I must confess then, that when I first began this discourse of the understanding, and a good while after, I had not the least thought that any consideration of words was at all necessary to it. But when having passed over the original and composition of our ideas, I began to examine the extent and certainty of our knowledge, I found it had so near a connexion with words, that, unless their force and manner of signification were first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and pertinently concerning knowledge; which being conversant about truth, had constantly to do with propositions. And though it terminated in things, yet it was for the most part so much by the intervention of words, that they seemed scarce separable from our general knowledge. At least they interpose themselves so much between our understandings and the truth which it would contemplate and apprehend, that like the medium through which visible objects pass, their obscurity and disorder do not seldom cast a mist before our eyes, and impose upon our understandings. If we consider, in the fallacies men put upon themselves as well as others, and the mistakes in men’s disputes and notions, how great a part is owing to words, and their uncertain or mistaken significations, we shall have reason to think this no small obstacle in the way to knowledge; which, I conclude, we are the more carefully to be warned of, because it has been so far from being taken notice of as an inconvenience, that the arts of improving it have been made the business of men’s study; and obtained the reputation of learning and subtilty, as we shall see in the following chapter. But I am apt to imagine, that were the imperfections of language, as the instrument of knowledge, more thoroughly weighed, a great many of the controversies that make such a noise in the world, would of themselves cease; and the way to knowledge, and perhaps peace too, lie a great deal opener than it does.
This should teach us moderation, in imposing our own sense of old authors.
§ 22. Sure I am, that the signification of words in all languages depending very much on the thoughts, notions, and ideas of him that uses them, must unavoidably be of great uncertainty to men of the same language and country. This is so evident in the Greek authors, that he that shall peruse their writings will find in almost every one of them a distinct language, though the same words. But when to this natural difficulty in every country there shall be added different countries and remote ages, wherein the speakers and writers had very different notions, tempers, customs, ornaments and figures of speech, &c. every one of which influenced the signification of their words then, though to us now they are lost and unknown; it would become us to be charitable one to another in our interpretations or misunderstanding of those ancient writings: which though of great concernment to be understood, are liable to the unavoidable difficulties of speech, which (if we except the names of simple ideas, and some very obvious things) is not capable, without a constant defining the terms, of conveying the sense and intention of the speaker, without any manner of doubt and uncertainty, to the hearer. And in discourses of religion, law, and morality, as they are matters of the highest concernment, so there will be the greatest difficulty.
§ 23. The volumes of interpreters and commentators on the old and new Testament are but too manifest proofs of this. Though every thing said in the text be infallibly true, yet the reader may be, nay cannot choose but be very fallible in the understanding of it. Nor is it to be wondered, that the will of God, when cloathed in words, should be liable to that doubt and uncertainty, which unavoidably attends that sort of conveyance; when even his Son, whilst cloathed in flesh, was subject to all the frailties and inconveniencies of human nature, sin excepted. And we ought to magnify his goodness that he hath spread before all the world such legible characters of his works and providence, and given all mankind so sufficient a light of reason, that they to whom this written word never came, could not (whenever they set themselves to search) either doubt of the being of a God, or of the obedience due to him. Since then the precepts of natural religion are plain, and very intelligible to all mankind, and seldom come to be controverted; and other revealed truths, which are conveyed to us by books and languages, are liable to the common and natural obscurities and difficulties incident to words; methinks it would become us to be more careful and diligent in observing the former, and less magisterial, positive, and imperious, in imposing our own sense and interpretations of the latter.
Of the Abuse of Words.
Abuse of words.
§ 1. Besides the imperfection that is naturally in language, and the obscurity and confusion that is so hard to be avoided in the use of words, there are several wilful faults and neglects which men are guilty of in this way of communication, whereby they render these signs less clear and distinct in their signification, than naturally they need to be.
First, Words without any, or without clear ideas.
§ 2. First, in this kind, the first and most palpable abuse is, the using of words without clear and distinct ideas; or, which is worse, signs without any thing signified. Of these there are two sorts:
I. One may observe, in all languages, certain words, that if they be examined, will be found, in their first original and their appropriated use, not to stand for any clear and distinct ideas. These, for the most part, the several sects of philosophy and religion have introduced. For their authors, or promoters, either affecting something singular and out of the way of common apprehensions, or to support some strange opinions, or cover some weakness of their hypothesis, seldom fail to coin new words, and such as, when they come to be examined, may justly be called insignificant terms. For having either had no determinate collection of ideas annexed to them, when they were first invented; or at least such as, if well examined, will be found inconsistent; it is no wonder if afterwards, in the vulgar use of the same party, they remain empty sounds, with little or no signification, amongst those who think it enough to have them often in their mouths, as the distinguishing characters of their church, or school, without much troubling their heads to examine what are the precise ideas they stand for. I shall not need here to heap up instances; every man’s reading and conversation will sufficiently furnish him; or if he wants to be better stored, the great mint-masters of this kind of terms, I mean the school-men and metaphysicians (under which, I think, the disputing natural and moral philosophers of these latter ages may be comprehended) have wherewithal abundantly to content him.
§ 3. II. Others there be, who extend this abuse yet farther, who take so little care to lay by words, which in their primary notation have scarce any clear and distinct ideas which they are annexed to, that by an unpardonable negligence they familiarly use words, which the propriety of language has affixed to very important ideas, without any distinct meaning at all. Wisdom, glory, grace, &c. are words frequent enough in every man’s mouth; but if a great many of those who use them, should be asked what they mean by them, they would be at a stand, and not know what to answer: a plain proof, that though they have learned those sounds, and have them ready at their tongue’s end, yet there are no determined ideas laid up in their minds, which are to be expressed to others by them.
Occasioned by learning names before the ideas they belong to.
§ 4. Men having been accustomed from their cradles to learn words, which are easily got and retained, before they knew, or had framed the complex ideas, to which they were annexed, or which were to be found in the things they were thought to stand for; they usually continue to do so all their lives; and without taking the pains necessary to settle in their minds determined ideas, they use their words for such unsteady and confused notions as they have, contenting themselves with the same words other people use: as if their very sound necessarily carried with it constantly the same meaning. This, though men make a shift with, in the ordinary occurrences of life, where they find it necessary to be understood, and therefore they make signs till they are so; yet this insignificancy in their words, when they come to reason concerning either their tenets or interest, manifestly fills their discourse with abundance of empty unintelligible noise and jargon, especially in moral matters, where the words for the most part standing for arbitrary and numerous collections of ideas, not regularly and permanently united in nature, their bare sounds are often only thought on, or at least very obscure and uncertain notions annexed to them. Men take the words they find in use amongst their neighbours; and that they may not seem ignorant what they stand for, use them confidently, without much troubling their heads about a certain fixed meaning; whereby, besides the ease of it, they obtain this advantage, that as in such discourses they seldom are in the right, so they are as seldom to be convinced that they are in the wrong; it being all one to go about to draw those men out of their mistakes, who have no settled notions, as to dispossess a vagrant of his habitation, who has no settled abode. This I guess to be so; and every one may observe in himself and others, whether it be or no.
2. Unsteady application of them.
§ 5. Secondly, another great abuse of words is inconstancy in the use of them. It is hard to find a discourse written of any subject, especially of controversy, wherein one shall not observe, if he read with attention, the same words (and those commonly the most material in the discourse, and upon which the argument turns) used sometimes for one collection of simple ideas, and sometimes for another: which is a perfect abuse of language. Words being intended for signs of my ideas, to make them known to others, not by any natural signification, but by a voluntary imposition, it is plain cheat and abuse, when I make them stand sometimes for one thing, and sometimes for another; the wilful doing whereof, can be imputed to nothing but great folly, or greater dishonesty. And a man, in his accounts with another, may, with as much fairness, make the characters of numbers stand sometimes for one, and sometimes for another collection of units (v. g. this character 3 stands sometimes for three, sometimes for four, and sometimes for eight) as in his discourse, or reasoning, make the same words stand for different collections of simple ideas. If men should do so in their reckonings, I wonder who would have to do with them? One who would speak thus, in the affairs and business of the world, and call 8 sometimes seven, and sometimes nine, as best served his advantage, would presently have clapped upon him one of the two names men are commonly disgusted with. And yet in arguings and learned contests, the same sort of proceedings passes commonly for wit and learning: but to me it appears a greater dishonesty, than the misplacing of counters in the casting up a debt; and the cheat the greater, by how much truth is of greater concernment and value than money.
3. Affected obscurity by wrong application.
§ 6. Thirdly, another abuse of language is an affected obscurity, by either applying old words to new and unusual significations, or introducing new and ambiguous terms, without defining either; or else putting them so together, as may confound their ordinary meaning. Though the Peripatetic philosophy has been most eminent in this way, yet other sects have not been wholly clear of it. There are scarce any of them that are not cumbered with some difficulties (such is the imperfection of human knowledge) which they have been fain to cover with obscurity of terms, and to confound the signification of words, which, like a mist before people’s eyes, might hinder their weak parts from being discovered. That body and extension, in common use, stand for two distinct ideas, is plain to any one that will but reflect a little. For were their signification precisely the same, it would be proper, and as intelligible to say, the body of an extension, as the extension of a body; and yet there are those who find it necessary to confound their signification. To this abuse, and the mischiefs of confounding the signification of words, logick and the liberal sciences, as they have been handled in the schools, have given reputation; and the admired art of disputing hath added much to the natural imperfection of languages, whilst it has been made use of and fitted to perplex the signification of words, more than to discover the knowledge and truth of things: and he that will look into that sort of learned writings, will find the words there much more obscure, uncertain, and undetermined in their meaning, than they are in ordinary conversation.
Logick and dispute have much contributed to this.
§ 7. This is unavoidably to be so, where men’s parts and learning are estimated by their skill in disputing. And if reputation and reward shall attend these conquests, which depend mostly on the fineness and niceties of words, it is no wonder if the wit of man, so employed, should perplex, involve, and subtilize the signification of sounds, so as never to want something to say, in opposing or defending any question; the victory being adjudged not to him who had truth on his side, but the last word in the dispute.
Calling it subtilty.
§ 8. This, though a very useless skill, and that which I think the direct opposite to the ways of knowledge, hath yet passed hitherto under the laudable and esteemed names of subtilty and acuteness: and has had the applause of the schools, and encouragement of one part of the learned men of the world. And no wonder, since the philosophers of old (the disputing and wrangling philosophers I mean, such as Lucian wittily and with reason taxes) and the schoolmen since, aiming at glory and esteem for their great and universal knowledge, easier a great deal to be pretended to than really acquired, found this a good expedient to cover their ignorance with a curious and inexplicable web of perplexed words, and procure to themselves the admiration of others by unintelligible terms, the apter to produce wonder, because they could not be understood: whilst it appears in all history, that these profound doctors were no wiser, nor more useful than their neighbours; and brought but small advantage to human life, or the societies wherein they lived: unless the coining of new words, where they produced no new things to apply them to, or the perplexing or obscuring the signification of old ones, and so bringing all things into question and dispute, were a thing profitable to the life of man, or worthy commendation and reward.
This learning very little benefits society.
§ 9. For notwithstanding these learned disputants, these all-knowing doctors, it was to the unscholastic statesman, that the governments of the world owed their peace, defence, and liberties; and from the illiterate and contemned mechanick (a name of disgrace) that they received the improvements of useful arts. Nevertheless, this artificial ignorance, and learned gibberish, prevailed mightily in these last ages, by the interest and artifice of those who found no easier way to that pitch of authority and dominion they have attained, than by amusing the men of business and ignorant with hard words, or employing the ingenious and idle in intricate disputes about unintelligible terms, and holding them perpetually entangled in that endless labyrinth. Besides, there is no such way to gain admittance, or give defence to strange and absurd doctrines, as to guard them round about with legions of obscure, doubtful, and undefined words: which yet make these retreats more like the dens of robbers, or holes of foxes, than the fortresses of fair warriors; which if it be hard to get them out of, it is not for the strength that is in them, but the briars and thorns, and the obscurity of the thickets they are beset with. For untruth being unacceptable to the mind of man, there is no other defence left for absurdity, but obscurity.
But destroys the instruments of knowledge and communication.
§ 10. Thus learned ignorance, and this art of keeping, even inquisitive men, from true knowledge, hath been propagated in the world, and hath much perplexed whilst it pretended to inform the understanding. For we see that other well-meaning and wise men, whose education and parts had not acquired that acuteness, could intelligibly express themselves to one another; and in its plain use make a benefit of language. But though unlearned men well enough understood the words white and black, &c. and had constant notions of the ideas signified by those words; yet there were philosophers found, who had learning and subtilty enough to prove, that snow was black; i. e. to prove, that white was black. Whereby they had the advantage to destroy the instruments and means of discourse, conversation, instruction, and society; whilst with great art and subtilty they did no more but perplex and confound the signification of words, and thereby render language less useful, than the real defects of it had made it; a gift, which the illiterate had not attained to.
As useful as to confound the sound of the letters.
§ 11. These learned men did equally instruct men’s understandings, and profit their lives, as he who should alter the signification of known characters, and, by a subtle device of learning, far surpassing the capacity of the illiterate, dull, and vulgar, should in his writing, show that he could put A for B, and D for E, &c. to the no small admiration and benefit of his reader: it being as senseless to put black, which is a word agreed on to stand for one sensible idea, to put it, I say, for another, or the contrary idea, i. e. to call snow black, as to put this mark A, which is a character agreed on to stand for one modification of sound, made by a certain motion of the organs of speech, for B; which is agreed on to stand for another modification of sound, made by another certain mode of the organs of speech.
This art has perplexed religion and justice.
§ 12. Nor hath this mischief stopped in logical niceties, or curious empty speculations; it hath invaded the great concernments of human life and society, obscured and perplexed the material truths of law and divinity; brought confusion, disorder, and uncertainty into the affairs of mankind; and if not destroyed, yet in a great measure rendered useless, these two great rules, religion and justice. What have the greatest part of the comments and disputes upon the laws of God and man served for, but to make the meaning more doubtful, and perplex the sense? What have been the effect of those multiplied curious distinctions and acute niceties, but obscurity and uncertainty, leaving the words more unintelligible, and the reader more at a loss? How else comes it to pass that princes, speaking or writing to their servants, in their ordinary commands, are easily understood; speaking to their people, in their laws, are not so? And, as I remarked before, doth it not often happen, that a man of an ordinary capacity very well understands a text or a law that he reads, till he consults an expositor, or goes to counsel; who, by that time he hath done explaining them, makes the words signify either nothing at all, or what he pleases.
And ought not to pass for learning.
§ 13. Whether any by interests of these professions have occasioned this, I will not here examine; but I leave it to be considered, whether it would not be well for mankind, whose concernment it is to know things as they are, and to do what they ought, and not to spend their lives in talking about them, or tossing words to and fro; whether it would not be well, I say, that the use of words were made plain and direct, and that language, which was given us for the improvement of knowledge and bond of society, should not be employed to darken truth, and unsettle people’s rights; to raise mists, and render unintelligible both morality and religion? Or that at least, if this will happen, it should not be thought learning or knowledge to do so?
4. Taking them for things.
§ 14. Fourthly, another great abuse of words is, the taking them for things. This though it in some degree concerns all names in general, yet more particularly affects those of substances. To this abuse those men are most subject, who most confine their thoughts to any one system, and give themselves up into a firm belief of the perfection of any received hypothesis; whereby they come to be persuaded, that the terms of that sect are so suited to the nature of things, that they perfectly correspond with their real existence. Who is there, that has been bred up in the Peripatetic philosophy, who does not think the ten names, under which are ranked the ten predicaments, to be exactly conformable to the nature of things? Who is there of that school, that is not persuaded, that substantial forms, vegetative souls, abhorrence of a vacuum, intentional species, &c. are something real? These words men have learned from their very entrance upon knowledge, and have found their masters and systems lay great stress upon them; and therefore they cannot quit the opinion, that they are conformable to nature, and are the representations of something that really exists. The Platonists have their soul of the world, and the Epicureans their endeavour towards motion in their atoms when at rest. There is scarce any sect in philosophy has not a distinct set of terms, that others understand not; but yet this gibberish, which, in the weakness of human understanding, serves so well to palliate men’s ignorance, and cover their errors, comes, by familiar use amongst those of the same tribe, to seem the most important part of language, and of all other the terms the most significant. And should aerial and ætherial vehicles come once, by the prevalency of that doctrine, to be generally received any where, no doubt those terms would make impressions on men’s minds, so as to establish them in the persuasion of the reality of such things, as much as Peripatetic forms and intentional species have heretofore done.
Instance in matter.
§ 15. How much names taken for things are apt to mislead the understanding, the attentive reading of philosophical writers would abundantly discover; and that, perhaps, in words little suspected of any such misuse. I shall instance in one only, and that a very familiar one: how many intricate disputes have there been about matter, as if there were some such thing really in nature, distinct from body; as it is evident the word matter stands for an idea distinct from the idea of body? For if the ideas these two terms stood for were precisely the same, they might indifferently, in all places, be put for one another. But we see, that though it be proper to say, there is one matter of all bodies, one cannot say there is one body of all matters: we familiarly say, one body is bigger than another; but it sounds harsh (and I think is never used) to say one matter is bigger than another. Whence comes this then? viz. from hence, that though matter and body be not really distinct, but wherever there is the one there is the other; yet matter and body stand for two different conceptions, whereof the one is incomplete, and but a part of the other. For body stands for a solid extended figured substance, whereof matter is but a partial and more confused conception, it seeming to me to be used for the substance and solidity of body, without taking in its extension and figure: and therefore it is that speaking of matter, we speak of it always as one, because in truth it expressly contains nothing but the idea of a solid substance, which is every where the same, every where uniform. This being our idea of matter, we no more conceive or speak of different matters in the world, than we do of different solidities; though we both conceive and speak of different bodies, because extension and figure are capable of variation. But since solidity cannot exist without extension and figure, the taking matter to be the name of something really existing under that precision, has no doubt produced those obscure and unintelligible discourses and disputes, which have filled the heads and books of philosophers concerning materia prima; which imperfection or abuse, how far it may concern a great many other general terms, I leave to be considered. This, I think, I may at least say, that we should have a great many fewer disputes in the world, if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves. For when we argue about matter, or any the like term, we truly argue only about the idea we express by that sound, whether that precise idea agree to any thing really existing in nature or no. And if men would tell what ideas they make their words stand for, there could not be half that obscurity or wrangling, in the search or support of truth, that there is.
This makes errors lasting.
§ 16. But whatever inconvenience follows from this mistake of words, this I am sure, that by constant and familiar use they charm men into notions far remote from the truth of things. It would be a hard matter to persuade any one, that the words which his father or schoolmaster, the parson of the parish, or such a reverend doctor used, signified nothing that really existed in nature; which, perhaps, is none of the least causes, that men are so hardly drawn to quit their mistakes, even in opinions purely philosophical, and where they have no other interest but truth. For the words they have a long time been used to, remaining firm in their minds, it is no wonder that the wrong notions annexed to them should not be removed.
5. Setting them for what they cannot signify.
§ 17. Fifthly, another abuse of words, is the setting them in the place of things which they do or can by no means signify. We may observe, that in the general names of substances, whereof the nominal essences are only known to us, when we put them into propositions, and affirm or deny any thing about them, we do most commonly tacitly suppose, or intend they should stand for the real essence of a certain sort of substances. For when a man says gold is malleable, he means and would insinuate something more than this, that what I call gold is malleable, (though truly it amounts to no more) but would have this understood, viz. that gold, i. e. what has the real essence of gold, is malleable; which amounts to thus much, that malleableness depends on, and is inseparable from the real essence of gold. But a man not knowing wherein that real essence consists, the connexion in his mind of malleableness, is not truly with an essence he knows not, but only with the sound gold he puts for it. Thus, when we say, that “animal rationale” is, and “animal implume bipes latis unguibus” is not a good definition of a man; it is plain, we suppose the name man in this case to stand for the real essence of a species, and would signify, that a rational animal better described that real essence than a two-legged animal with broad nails, and without feathers. For else, why might not Plato as properly make the word ἄνθρ¸ωποϛ, or man, stand for his complex idea, made up of the idea of a body, distinguished from others by a certain shape and other outward appearances, as Aristotle make the complex idea, to which he gave the name ἄνθρ¸ωποϛ, or man, of body and the faculty of reasoning joined together; unless the name ἄνθρ¸ωποϛ, or man, were supposed to stand for something else than what it signifies; and to be put in the place of some other thing than the idea a man professes he would express by it?
v. g. Putting them for the real essences of substances.
§ 18. It is true, the names of substances would be much more useful, and propositions made in them much more certain, were the real essences of substances the ideas in our minds which those words signified. And it is for want of those real essences that our words convey so little knowledge or certainty in our discourses about them: and therefore the mind, to remove that imperfection as much as it can, makes them, by a secret supposition, to stand for a thing, having that real essence, as if thereby it made some nearer approaches to it. For though the word man or gold signify nothing truly but a complex idea of properties united together in one sort of substances: yet there is scarce any body in the use of these words, but often supposes each of those names to stand for a thing having the real essence, on which these properties depend. Which is so far from diminishing the imperfection of our words, that by a plain abuse it adds to it when we would make them stand for something, which not being in our complex idea, the name we use can no ways be the sign of.
Hence we think every change of our idea in substances not to change the species.
§ 19. This shows us the reason why in mixed modes any of the ideas that make the composition of the complex one, being left out or changed, it is allowed to be another thing, i. e. to be of another species, it is plain in chance-medley, man-slaughter, murder, parricide, &c. The reason whereof is, because the complex idea signified by that name is the real as well as nominal essence; and there is no secret reference of that name to any other essence but that. But in substances it is not so. For though in that called gold one puts into his complex idea what another leaves out, and vice versa; yet men do not usually think that therefore the species is changed: because they secretly in their minds refer that name, and suppose it annexed to a real immutable essence of a thing existing, on which those properties depend. He that adds to his complex idea of gold that of fixedness and solubility in aq. regia, which he puts not in it before, is not thought to have changed the species; but only to have a more perfect idea, by adding another simple idea, which is always in fact joined with those other, of which his former complex idea consisted. But this reference of the name to a thing, whereof we had not the idea, is so far from helping at all, that it only serves the more to involve us in difficulties. For by this tacit reference to the real essence of that species of bodies, the word gold (which by standing for a more or less perfect collection of simple ideas, serves to design that sort of body well enough in civil discourses) comes to have no signification at all, being put for somewhat, whereof we have no idea at all, and so can signify nothing at all, when the body itself is away. For however it may be thought all one; yet, if well considered, it will be found a quite different thing to argue about gold in name, and about a parcel in the body itself, v. g. a piece of leaf-gold laid before us; though in discourse we are fain to substitute the name for the thing.
The cause of the abuse, a supposition of nature’s working always regularly.
§ 20. That which I think very much disposes men to substitute their names for the real essences of species, is the supposition before-mentioned, that nature works regularly in the production of things, and sets the boundaries to each of those species, by giving exactly the same real internal constitution to each individual, which we rank under one general name. Whereas any one who observes their different qualities, can hardly doubt, that many of the individuals, called by the same name, are, in their internal constitution, as different one from another as several of those which are ranked under different specifick names. This supposition, however, that the same precise and internal constitution goes always with the same specifick name, makes men forward to take those names for the representatives of those real essences, though indeed they signify nothing but the complex ideas they have in their minds when they use them. So that, if I may say, signifying one thing, and being supposed for, or put in the place of another, they cannot but, in such a kind of use, cause a great deal of uncertainty in men’s discourses; especially in those who have thoroughly imbibed the doctrine of substantial forms, whereby they firmly imagine the several species of things to be determined and distinguished.
This abuse contains two false suppositions.
§ 21. But however preposterous and absurd it be to make our names stand for ideas we have not, (or which is all one) essences that we know not, it being in effect to make our words the signs of nothing; yet it is evident to any one, who ever so little reflects on the use men make of their words, that there is nothing more familiar. When a man asks whether this or that thing he sees, let it be a drill, or a monstrous fœtus, be a man or no; it is evident, the question is not, whether that particular thing agree to his complex idea, expressed by the name man: but whether it has in it the real essence of a species of things, which he supposes his name man to stand for. In which way of using the names of substances, there are these false suppositions contained.
First, that there are certain precise essences according to which nature makes all particular things, and by which they are distinguished into species. That every thing has a real constitution, whereby it is what it is, and on which its sensible qualities depend, is past doubt: but I think it has been proved, that this makes not the distinction of species, as we rank them; nor the boundaries of their names.
Secondly, this tacitly also insinuates, as if we had ideas of these proposed essences. For to what purpose else is it to inquire whether this or that thing have the real essence of the species man, if we did not suppose that there were such a specifick essence known? which yet is utterly false: and therefore such application of names, as would make them stand for ideas which we have not, must needs cause great disorder in discourses and reasonings about them, and be a great inconvenience in our communication by words.
6. A supposition that words have a certain and evident signification.
§ 22. Sixthly, there remains yet another more general, though perhaps less observed abuse of words: and that is, that men having by a long and familiar use annexed to them certain ideas, they are apt to imagine so near and necessary a connexion between the names and the signification they use them in, that they forwardly suppose one cannot but understand what their meaning is; and therefore one ought to acquiesce in the words delivered, as if it were past doubt, that, in the use of those common received sounds, the speaker and hearer had necessarily the same precise ideas. Whence presuming, that when they have in discourse used any term, they have thereby, as it were, set before others the very thing they talked of; and so likewise taking the words of others, as naturally standing for just what they themselves have been accustomed to apply them to, they never trouble themselves to explain their own, or understand clearly others meaning. From whence commonly proceed noise and wrangling, without improvement or information; whilst men take words to be the constant regular marks of agreed notions, which in truth are no more but the voluntary and unsteady signs of their own ideas. And yet men think it strange, if in discourse, or (where it is often absolutely necessary) in dispute, one sometimes asks the meaning of their terms: though the arguings one may every day observe in conversation, make it evident, that there are few names of complex ideas which any two men use for the same just precise collection. It is hard to name a word which will not be a clear instance of this. Life is a term, none more familiar. Any one almost would take it for an affront to be asked what he meant by it. And yet if it comes in question, whether a plant, that lies ready formed in the seed, have life: whether the embryo in an egg before incubation, or a man in a swoon without sense or motion, be alive or no; it is easy to perceive that a clear distinct settled idea does not always accompany the use of so known a word as that of life is. Some gross and confused conceptions men indeed ordinarily have, to which they apply the common words of their language; and such a loose use of their words serves them well enough in their ordinary discourses or affairs. But this is not sufficient for philosophical inquiries. Knowledge and reasoning require precise determinate ideas. And though men will not be so importunately dull, as not to understand what others say without demanding an explication of their terms: nor so troublesomely critical, as to correct others in the use of the words they receive from them; yet where truth and knowledge are concerned in the case, I know not what fault it can be to desire the explication of words, whose sense seems dubious; or why a man should be ashamed to own his ignorance, in what sense another man uses his words, since he has no other way of certainly knowing it, but by being informed. This abuse of taking words upon trust has no where spread so far, nor with so ill effects, as amongst men of letters. The multiplication and obstinacy of disputes, which have so laid waste the intellectual world, is owing to nothing more, than to this ill use of words. For though it be generally believed that there is great diversity of opinions in the volumes and variety of controversies the world is distracted with, yet the most I can find that the contending learned men of different parties do, in their arguings one with another, is, that they speak different languages. For I am apt to imagine, that when any of them quitting terms, think upon things, and know what they think, they think all the same; though perhaps what they would have, be different.
The ends of language: 1. To convey our ideas.
§ 23. To conclude this consideration of the imperfection and abuse of language; the ends of language in our discourse with others, being chiefly these three: first, to make known one man’s thoughts or ideas to another; secondly, to do it with as much ease and quickness as possible; and, thirdly, thereby to convey the knowledge of things: language is either abused or deficient, when it fails of any of these three.
First, words fail in the first of these ends, and lay not open one man’s ideas to another’s view: 1. When men have names in their mouths, without any determinate ideas in their minds, whereof they are the signs; or, 2. When they apply the common received names of any language to ideas, to which the common use of that language does not apply them: or, 3. When they apply them very unsteadily, making them stand now for one, and by and by for another idea.
2. To do it with quickness.
§ 24. Secondly, men fail of conveying their thoughts with all the quickness and ease that may be, when they have complex ideas without having any distinct names for them. This is sometimes the fault of the language itself, which has not in it a sound yet applied to such a signification; and sometimes the fault of the man, who has not yet learned the name for that idea he would show another.
3. Therewith to convey the knowledge of things.
§ 25. Thirdly, there is no knowledge of things conveyed by men’s words, when their ideas agree not to the reality of things. Though it be a defect, that has its original in our ideas, which are not so conformable to the nature of things, as attention, study, and application might make them; yet it fails not to extend itself to our words too, when we use them as signs of real beings, which yet never had any reality or existence.
How men’s words fail in all these.
§ 26. First, he that hath words of any language, without distinct ideas in his mind to which he applies them, does, so far as he uses them in discourse, only make a noise without any sense or signification; and how learned soever he may seem by the use of hard words or learned terms, is not much more advanced thereby in knowledge than he would be in learning, who had nothing in his study but the bare titles of books, without possessing the contents of them. For all such words, however put into discourse, according to the right construction of grammatical rules, or the harmony of well-turned periods, do yet amount to nothing but bare sounds, and nothing else.
§ 27. Secondly, he that has complex ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better case than a bookseller, who had in his warehouse volumes, that lay there unbound, and without titles; which he could therefore make known to others, only by showing the loose sheets, and communicate them only by tale. This man is hindered in his discourse for want of words to communicate his complex ideas, which he is therefore forced to make known by an enumeration of the simple ones that compose them; and so is fain often to use twenty words, to express what another man signifies in one.
§ 28. Thirdly, he that puts not constantly the same sign for the same idea, but uses the same words sometimes in one, and sometimes in another signification, ought to pass in the schools and conversation for as fair a man, as he does in the market and exchange, who sells several things under the same name.
§ 29. Fourthly, he that applies the words of any language to ideas different from those to which the common use of that country applies them, however his own understanding may be filled with truth and light, will not by such words be able to convey much of it to others, without defining his terms. For however the sounds are such as are familiarly known, and easily enter the ears of those who are accustomed to them; yet standing for other ideas than those they usually are annexed to, and are wont to excite in the mind of the hearers, they cannot make known the thoughts of him who thus uses them.
§ 30. Fifthly, he that imagined to himself substances such as never have been, and filled his head with ideas which have not any correspondence with the real nature of things, to which yet he gives settled and defined names; may fill his discourse, and perhaps another man’s head, with the fantastical imaginations of his own brain, but will be very far from advancing thereby one jot in real and true knowledge.
§ 31. He that hath names without ideas, wants meaning in his words, and speaks only empty sounds. He that hath complex ideas without names for them, wants liberty and dispatch in his expressions, and is necessitated to use periphrases. He that uses his words loosely and unsteadily will either be not minded, or not understood. He that applies his names to ideas different from their common use, wants propriety in his language, and speaks gibberish. And he that hath the ideas of substances disagreeing with the real existence of things, so far wants the materials of true knowledge in his understanding, and hath instead thereof chimeras.
How in substances.
§ 32. In our notions concerning substances, we are liable to all the former inconveniencies; v. g. he that uses the word tarantula, without having any imagination or idea of what it stands for, pronounces a good word; but so long means nothing at all by it. 2. He that in a new-discovered country shall see several sorts of animals and vegetables, unknown to him before, may have as true ideas of them, as of a horse or stag: but can speak of them only by a description, till he shall either take the names the natives call them by, or give them names himself. 3. He that uses the word body sometimes for pure extension, and sometimes for extension and solidity together, will talk very fallaciously. 4. He that gives the name horse to that idea, which common usage calls mule, talks improperly, and will not be understood. 5. He that thinks the name centaur stands for some real being, imposes on himself, and mistakes words for things.
How in modes and relations.
§ 33. In modes and relations generally we are liable only to the four first of these inconveniencies; viz. 1. I may have in my memory the names of modes, as gratitude or charity, and yet not have any precise ideas annexed in my thoughts to those names. 2. I may have ideas, and not know the names that belong to them; v. g. I may have the idea of a man’s drinking till his colour and humour be altered, till his tongue trips, and his eyes look red, and his feet fail him; and yet not know, that it is to be called drunkenness. 3. I may have the ideas of virtues or vices, and names also, but apply them amiss: v. g. when I apply the name frugality to that idea which others call and signify by this sound, covetousness. 4. I may use any of those names with inconstancy. 5. But in modes and relations, I cannot have ideas disagreeing to the existence of things: for modes being complex ideas, made by the mind at pleasure; and relation being but by way of considering or comparing two things together, and so also an idea of my own making; these ideas can scarce be found to disagree with any thing existing, since they are not in the mind as the copies of things regularly made by nature, nor as properties inseparably flowing from the internal constitution or essence of any substance; but as it were patterns lodged in my memory, with names annexed to them, to denominate actions and relations by, as they come to exist. But the mistake is commonly in my giving a wrong name to my conceptions; and so using words in a different sense from other people, I am not understood, but am thought to have wrong ideas of them, when I give wrong names to them. Only if I put in my ideas of mixed modes or relations any inconsistent ideas together, I fill my head also with chimeras; since such ideas, if well examined, cannot so much as exist in the mind, much less any real being ever be denominated from them.
7. Figurative speech also an abuse of language.
§ 34. Since wit and fancy find easier entertainment in the world, than dry truth and real knowledge, figurative speeches and allusion in language will hardly be admitted as an imperfection or abuse of it. I confess in discourses where we seek rather pleasure and delight than information and improvement, such ornaments as are borrowed from them can scarce pass for faults. But yet if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetorick, besides order and clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment, and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them. What, and how various they are, will be superfluous here to take notice; the books of rhetorick which abound in the world, will instruct those who want to be informed; only I cannot but observe how little the preservation and improvement of truth and knowledge is the care and concern of mankind: since the arts of fallacy are endowed and preferred. It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetorick, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publickly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and, I doubt not, but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality in me, to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it, to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived.
Of the Remedies of the foregoing Imperfections and Abuses.
They are worth seeking.
§ 1. The natural and improved imperfections of languages we have seen above at large; and speech being the great bond that holds society together, and the common conduit whereby the improvements of knowledge are conveyed from one man, and one generation to another; it would well deserve our most serious thoughts to consider what remedies are to be found for the inconveniencies above-mentioned.
Are not easy.
§ 2. I am not so vain to think, that any one can pretend to attempt the perfect reforming the languages of the world, no not so much as of his own country, without rendering himself ridiculous. To require that men should use their words constantly in the same sense, and for none but determined and uniform ideas, would be to think that all men should have the same notions, and should talk of nothing but what they have clear and distinct ideas of; which is not to be expected by any one, who hath not vanity enough to imagine he can prevail with men to be very knowing or very silent. And he must be very little skilled in the world who thinks that a voluble tongue shall accompany only a good understanding; or that men’s talking much or little should hold proportion only to their knowledge.
But yet necessary to philosophy.
§ 3. But though the market and exchange must be left to their own ways of talking, and gossipings not be robbed of their ancient privilege; though the schools and men of argument would perhaps take it amiss to have any thing offered to abate the length, or lessen the number, of their disputes: yet methinks those who pretend seriously to search after or maintain truth, should think themselves obliged to study how they might deliver themselves without obscurity, doubtfulness, or equivocation, to which men’s words are naturally liable, if care be not taken.
Misuse of words the great cause of errors.
§ 4. For he that shall well consider the errors and obscurity, the mistakes and confusion, that are spread in the world by an ill use of words, will find some reason to doubt whether language, as it has been employed, has contributed more to the improvement or hindrance of knowledge amongst mankind. How many are there that, when they would think on things, fix their thoughts only on words, especially when they would apply their minds to moral matters? And who then can wonder, if the result of such contemplations and reasonings, about little more than sounds, whilst the ideas they annexed to them are very confused and very unsteady, or perhaps none at all; who can wonder, I say, that such thoughts and reasonings end in nothing but obscurity and mistake, without any clear judgment and knowledge?
§ 5. This inconvenience, in an ill use of words, men suffer in their own private meditations; but much more manifest are the disorders which follow from it, in conversation, discourse, and arguings with others. For language being the great conduit, whereby men convey their discoveries, reasonings, and knowledge, from one to another; he that makes an ill use of it, though he does not corrupt the fountains of knowledge, which are in things themselves; yet he does, as much as in him lies, break or stop the pipes, whereby it is distributed to the public use and advantage of mankind. He that uses words without any clear and steady meaning, what does he but lead himself and others into errors? And he that designedly does it, ought to be looked on as an enemy to truth and knowledge. And yet who can wonder, that all the sciences and parts of knowledge have been so overcharged with obscure and equivocal terms, and insignificant and doubtful expressions, capable to make the most attentive or quick-sighted very little or not at all the more knowing or orthodox; since subtilty, in those who make profession to teach or defend truth, hath passed so much for a virtue: a virtue, indeed, which consisting for the most part in nothing but the fallacious and illusory use of obscure or deceitful terms, is only fit to make men more conceited in their ignorance, and more obstinate in their errors.
§ 6. Let us look into the books of controversy of any kind; there we shall see, that the effect of obscure, unsteady or equivocal terms, is nothing but noise and wrangling about sounds, without convincing or bettering a man’s understanding. For if the idea be not agreed on betwixt the speaker and hearer, for which the words stand, the argument is not about things, but names. As often as such a word, whose signification is not ascertained betwixt them, comes in use, their understandings have no other object wherein they agree, but barely the sound; the things that they think on at that time, as expressed by that word, being quite different.
Instance; bat and bird.
§ 7. Whether a bat be a bird or no, is not a question; whether a bat be another thing than indeed it is, or have other qualities than indeed it has, for that would be extremely absurd to doubt of: but the question is, 1. Either between those that acknowledged themselves to have but imperfect ideas of one or both of this sort of things, for which these names are supposed to stand; and then it is a real inquiry concerning the name of a bird or a bat, to make their yet imperfect ideas of it more complete, by examining whether all the simple ideas, to which, combined together, they both give the name bird, be all to be found in a bat; but this is a question only of inquirers (not disputers) who neither affirm, nor deny, but examine. Or, 2. It is a question between disputants, whereof the one affirms, and the other denies, that a bat is a bird. And then the question is barely about the signification of one or both these words; in that they not having both the same complex ideas, to which they give these two names, one holds, and the other denies, that these two names may be affirmed one of another. Were they agreed in the signification of these two names, it were impossible they should dispute about them; for they would presently and clearly see (were that adjusted between them) whether all the simple ideas, of the more general name bird, were found in the complex ideas of a bat, or no; and so there could be no doubt whether a bat were a bird or no. And here I desire it may be considered, and carefully examined, whether the greatest part of the disputes in the world are not merely verbal, and about the signification of words; and whether if the terms they are made in were defined, and reduced in their signification (as they must be where they signify any thing) to determined collections of the simple ideas they do or should stand for, those disputes would not end of themselves, and immediately vanish. I leave it then to be considered, what the learning of disputation is, and how well they are employed for the advantage of themselves or others, whose business is only the vain ostentation of sounds; i. e. those who spend their lives in disputes and controversies. When I shall see any of those combatants strip all his terms of ambiguity and obscurity (which every one may do in the words he uses himself) I shall think him a champion for knowledge, truth and peace, and not the slave of vain-glory, ambition, or a party.
§ 8. To remedy the defects of speech before-mentioned to some degree, and to prevent the inconveniencies that follow from them, I imagine the observation of these following rules may be of use, till somebody better able shall judge it worth his while to think more maturely on this matter, and oblige the world with his thoughts on it.
1. Remedy to use no word without an idea.
First, a man shall take care to use no word without a signification, no name without an idea for which he makes it stand. This rule will not seem altogether needless, to any one who shall take the pains to recollect how often he has met with such words, as instinct, sympathy and antipathy, &c. in the discourse of others, so made use of, as he might easily conclude that those that used them had no ideas in their minds to which they applied them; but spoke them only as sounds, which usually served instead of reasons on the like occasions. Not but that these words, and the like, have very proper significations in which they may be used; but there being no natural connexion between any words and any ideas, these, and any other, may be learned by rote, and pronounced or writ by men, who have no ideas in their minds, to which they have annexed them, and for which they make them stand; which is necessary they should, if men would speak intelligibly even to themselves alone.
2. To have distinct ideas annexed to them in modes.
§ 9. Secondly, it is not enough a man uses his words as signs of some ideas: those he annexes them to, if they be simple, must be clear and distinct; if complex, must be determinate, i. e. the precise collection of simple ideas settled in the mind, with that sound annexed to it, as the sign of that precise determined collection, and no other. This is very necessary in names of modes, and especially moral words; which having no settled objects in nature, from whence their ideas are taken, as from their original, are apt to be very confused. Justice is a word in every man’s mouth, but most commonly with a very undetermined loose signification: which will always be so, unless a man has in his mind a distinct comprehension of the component parts, that complex idea consists of: and if it be decompounded, must be able to resolve it still on, till he at last comes to the simple ideas that make it up: and unless this be done, a man makes an ill use of the word, let it be justice, for example, or any other. I do not say, a man need stand to recollect and make this analysis at large, every time the word justice comes in his way: but this at least is necessary, that he have so examined the signification of that name, and settled the idea of all its parts in his mind, that he can do it when he pleases. If one, who makes his complex idea of justice to be such a treatment of the person or goods of another, as is according to law, hath not a clear and distinct idea what law is, which makes a part of his complex idea of justice; it is plain his idea of justice itself will be confused and imperfect. This exactness will, perhaps, be judged very troublesome; and therefore most men will think they may be excused from settling the complex ideas of mixed modes so precisely in their minds. But yet I must say, till this be done, it must not be wondered that they have a great deal of obscurity and confusion in their own minds, and a great deal of wrangling in their discourse with others.
And distinct and conformable in substances.
§ 10. In the names of substances, for a right use of them, something more is required than barely determined ideas. In these the names must also be conformable to things as they exist: but of this I shall have occasion to speak more at large by and by. This exactness is absolutely necessary in inquiries after philosophical knowledge, and in controversies about truth. And though it would be well too, if it extended itself to common conversation, and the ordinary affairs of life; yet I think that is scarce to be expected. Vulgar notions suit vulgar discourses; and both, though confused enough, yet serve pretty well the market and the wake. Merchants and lovers, cooks and taylors, have words wherewithal to dispatch their ordinary affairs; and so, I think, might philosophers and disputants too, if they had a mind to understand, and to be clearly understood.
§ 11. Thirdly, it is not enough that men have ideas, determined ideas, for which they make these signs stand; but they must also take care to apply their words as near as may be, to such ideas as common use has annexed them to. For words, especially of languages already framed, being no man’s private possession, but the common measure of commerce and communication, it is not for any one, at pleasure, to change the stamp they are current in, nor alter the ideas they are affixed to; or at least, when there is a necessity to do so, he is bound to give notice of it. Men’s intentions in speaking are, or at least should be, to be understood; which cannot be without frequent explanations, demands, and other the like incommodious interruptions, where men do not follow common use. Propriety of speech is that which gives our thoughts entrance into other men’s minds with the greatest ease and advantage; and therefore deserves some part of our care and study, especially in the names of moral words. The proper signification and use of terms is best to be learned from those, who in their writings and discourses appear to have had the clearest notions, and applied to them their terms with the exactest choice and fitness. This way of using a man’s words, according to the propriety of the language, though it have not always the good fortune to be understood; yet most commonly leaves the blame of it on him who is so unskilful in the language he speaks, as not to understand it, when made use of as it ought to be.
4. To make known their meaning.
§ 12. Fourthly, but because common use has not so visibly annexed any signification to words, as to make men know always certainly what they precisely stand for; and because men, in the improvement of their knowledge, come to have ideas different from the vulgar and ordinary received ones, for which they must either make new words (which men seldom venture to do, for fear of being thought guilty of affectation or novelty) or else must use old ones, in a new signification: therefore after the observation of the foregoing rules, it is sometimes necessary, for the ascertaining the signification of words, to declare their meaning; where either common use has left it uncertain and loose (as it has in most names of very complex ideas) or where the term, being very material in the discourse, and that upon which it chiefly turns, is liable to any doubtfulness or mistake.
And that three ways.
§ 13. As the ideas men’s words stand for, are of different sorts; so the way of making known the ideas they stand for, when there is occasion, is also different. For though defining be thought the proper way to make known the proper signification of words; yet there are some words that will not be defined, as there are others, whose precise meaning cannot be made known but by definition; and perhaps a third, which partake somewhat of both the other, as we shall see in the names of simple ideas, modes, and substances.
1. In simple ideas by synonymous terms, or showing.
§ 14. First, when a man makes use of the name of any simple idea, which he perceives is not understood, or is in danger to be mistaken, he is obliged by the laws of ingenuity, and the end of speech, to declare his meaning, and make known what idea he makes it stand for. This, as has been shown, cannot be done by definition; and therefore, when a synonymous word fails to do it, there is but one of these ways left. First, sometimes the naming the subject, wherein that simple idea is to be found, will make its name to be understood by those who are acquainted with that subject, and know it by that name. So to make a countryman understand what “feuillemorte” colour signifies, it may suffice to tell him, it is the colour of withered leaves falling in autumn. Secondly, but the only sure way of making known the signification of the name of any simple idea is by presenting to his senses that subject, which may produce it in his mind, and make him actually have the idea that word stands for.
2. In mixed modes, by definition.
§ 15. Secondly, mixed modes, especially those belonging to morality, being most of them such combinations of ideas, as the mind puts together of its own choice, and whereof there are not always standing patterns to be found existing; the signification of their names cannot be made known, as those of simple ideas, by any showing; but, in recompence thereof, may be perfectly and exactly defined. For they being combinations of several ideas, that the mind of man has arbitrarily put together, without reference to any archetypes, men may, if they please, exactly know the ideas that go to each composition, and so both use these words in a certain and undoubted signification, and perfectly declare, when there is occasion, what they stand for. This, if well considered, would lay great blame on those, who make not their discourses about moral things very clear and distinct. For since the precise signification of the names of mixed modes, or, which is all one, the real essence of each species is to be known, they being not of nature’s but man’s making, it is a great negligence and perverseness to discourse of moral things with uncertainty and obscurity; which is more pardonable in treating of natural substances, where doubtful terms are hardly to be avoided, for a quite contrary reason, as we shall see by and by.
Morality capable of demonstration.
§ 16. Upon this ground it is, that I am bold to think, that morality is capable of demonstration, as well as mathematicks: since the precise real essence of the things moral words stand for may be perfectly known; and so the congruity and incongruity of the things themselves be certainly discovered; in which consists perfect knowledge. Nor let any one object, that the names of substances are often to be made use of in morality, as well as those of modes, from which will arise obscurity. For as to substances, when concerned in moral discourses, their divers natures are not so much inquired into, as supposed; v. g. when we say that man is subject to law, we mean nothing by man, but a corporeal rational creature: what the real essence or other qualities of that creature are, in this case, is no way considered. And therefore whether a child or changeling be a man in a physical sense, may amongst the naturalists be as disputable as it will, it concerns not at all the moral man, as I may call him, which is this immoveable unchangeable idea, a corporeal rational being. For were there a monkey, or any other creature to be found, that has the use of reason to such a degree as to be able to understand general signs, and to deduce consequences about general ideas, he would no doubt be subject to law, and in that sense be a man, how much soever he differed in shape from others of that name. The names of substances, if they be used in them as they should, can no more disturb moral than they do mathematical discourses: where, if the mathematician speaks of a cube or globe of gold, or any other body, he has his clear settled idea which varies not, though it may by mistake be applied to a particular body to which it belongs not.
Definitions can make moral discourses clear.
§ 17. This I have here mentioned by the by, to show of what consequence it is for men, in their names of mixed modes, and consequently in all their moral discourses, to define their words when there is occasion: since thereby moral knowledge may be brought to so great clearness and certainty. And it must be great want of ingenuity (to say no worse of it) to refuse to do it: since a definition is the only way whereby the precise meaning of moral words can be known; and yet a way whereby their meaning may be known certainly, and without leaving any room for any contest about it. And therefore the negligence or perverseness of mankind cannot be excused, if their discourses in morality be not much more clear than those in natural philosophy: since they are about ideas in the mind, which are none of them false or disproportionate: they having no external beings for the archetypes which they are referred to, and must correspond with. It is far easier for men to frame in their minds an idea which shall be the standard to which they will give the name justice, with which pattern so made, all actions that agree shall pass under that denomination: than, having seen Aristides, to frame an idea that shall in all things be exactly like him; who is as he is, let men make what idea they please of him. For the one, they need but know the combination of ideas that are put together in their own minds; for the other, they must inquire into the whole nature, and abstruse hidden constitution, and various qualities of a thing existing without them.
And is the only way.
§ 18. Another reason that makes the defining of mixed modes so necessary, especially of moral words, is what I mentioned a little before, viz. that it is the only way whereby the signification of the most of them can be known with certainty. For the ideas they stand for, being for the most part such whose component parts no where exist together, but scattered and mingled with others, it is the mind alone that collects them, and gives them the union of one idea: and it is only by words, enumerating the several simple ideas which the mind has united, that we can make known to others what their names stand for; the assistance of the senses in this case not helping us, by the proposal of sensible objects, to show the ideas which our names of this kind stand for, as it does often in the names of sensible simple ideas, and also to some degree in those of substances.
3. In substances, by showing and defining.
§ 19. Thirdly, for the explaining the signification of the names of substances, as they stand for the ideas we have of their distinct species, both the fore-mentioned ways, viz. of showing and defining, are requisite in many cases to be made use of. For there being ordinarily in each sort some leading qualities, to which we suppose the other ideas, which make up our complex idea of that species, annexed; we forwardly give the specific name to that thing, wherein that characteristical mark is found, which we take to be the most distinguishing idea of that species. These leading or characteristical (as I may call them) ideas, in the sorts of animals and vegetables, are (as has been before remarked, ch. vi. § 29. and ch. ix. § 15.) mostly figure, and in inanimate bodies, colour, and in some both together. Now,
Ideas of the leading qualities of substances are best got by showing.
§ 20. These leading sensible qualities are those which make the chief ingredients of our specific ideas, and consequently the most observable and invariable part in the definitions of our specific names, as attributed to sorts of substances coming under our knowledge. For though the sound man, in its own nature, be as apt to signify a complex idea made up of animality and rationality, united in the same subject, as to signify any other combination; yet used as a mark to stand for a sort of creatures we count of our own kind, perhaps, the outward shape is as necessary to be taken into our complex idea, signified by the word man, as any other we find in it: and therefore why Plato’s “animal implume bipes latis unguibus” should not be a good definition of the name man, standing for that sort of creatures, will not be easy to show: for it is the shape, as the leading quality, that seems more to determine that species, than a faculty of reasoning, which appears not at first, and in some never. And if this be not allowed to be so, I do not know how they can be excused from murder, who kill monstrous births, (as we call them) because of an unordinary shape, without knowing whether they have a rational soul or no; which can be no more discerned in a well-formed than ill-shaped infant, as soon as born. And who is it has informed us, that a rational soul can inhabit no tenement, unless it has just such a sort of frontispiece; or can join itself to, and inform no sort of body but one that is just of such an outward structure?
§ 21. Now these leading qualities are best made known by showing, and can hardly be made known otherwise. For the shape of an horse, or cassuary, will be but rudely and imperfectly imprinted on the mind by words; the sight of the animals doth it a thousand times better: and the idea of the particular colour of gold is not to be got by any description of it, but only by the frequent exercise of the eyes about it, as is evident in those who are used to this metal, who will frequently distinguish true from counterfeit, pure from adulterate, by the sight; where others (who have as good eyes, but yet by use have not got the precise nice idea of that peculiar yellow) shall not perceive any difference. The like may be said of those other simple ideas, peculiar in their kind to any substance; for which precise ideas there are no peculiar names. The particular ringing sound there is in gold, distinct from the sound of other bodies, has no particular name annexed to it, no more than the particular yellow that belongs to that metal.
The ideas of their powers best by definition.
§ 22. But because many of the simple ideas that make up our specific ideas of substances, are powers which lie not obvious to our senses in the things as they ordinarily appear; therefore in the signification of our names of substances, some part of the signification will be better made known by enumerating those simple ideas, than by showing the substance itself. For he that to the yellow shining colour of gold got by sight, shall, from my enumerating them, have the ideas of great ductility, fusibility, fixedness, and solubility in aq. regia, will have a perfecter idea of gold, than he can have by seeing a piece of gold, and thereby imprinting in his mind only its obvious qualities. But if the formal constitution of this shining, heavy, ductile thing (from whence all these its properties flow) lay open to our senses, as the formal constitution, or essence of a triangle does, the signification of the word gold might as easily be ascertained as that of triangle.
A reflection on the knowledge of spirits.
§ 23. Hence we may take notice how much the foundation of all our knowledge of corporeal things lies in our senses. For how spirits, separate from bodies (whose knowledge and ideas of these things are certainly much more perfect than ours) know them, we have no notion, no idea at all. The whole extent of our knowledge or imagination reaches not beyond our own ideas limited to our ways of perception. Though yet it be not to be doubted that spirits of a higher rank than those immersed in flesh, may have as clear ideas of the radical constitution of substances, as we have of a triangle, and so perceive how all their properties and operations flow from thence: but the manner how they come by that knowledge exceeds our conceptions.
4. Ideas also of substances must be conformable to things.
§ 24. But though definitions will serve to explain the names of substances as they stand for our ideas; yet they leave them not without great imperfection as they stand for things. For our names of substances being not put barely for our ideas, but being made use of ultimately to represent things, and so are put in their place; their signification must agree with the truth of things as well as with men’s ideas. And therefore in substances we are not always to rest in the ordinary complex idea, commonly received as the signification of that word, but must go a little farther, and inquire into the nature and properties of the things themselves, and thereby perfect, as much as we can, our ideas of their distinct species; or else learn them from such as are used to that sort of things, and are experienced in them. For since it is intended their names should stand for such collections of simple ideas as do really exist in things themselves, as well as for the complex idea in other men’s minds, which in their ordinary acceptation they stand for: therefore to define their names right, natural history is to be inquired into; and their properties are, with care and examination, to be found out. For it is not enough, for the avoiding inconveniencies in discourse and arguings about natural bodies and substantial things, to have learned from the propriety of the language, the common but confused, or very imperfect idea, to which each word is applied, and to keep them to that idea in our use of them: but we must, by acquainting ourselves with the history of that sort of things, rectify and settle our complex idea belonging to each specific name; and in discourse with others, (if we find them mistake us) we ought to tell what the complex idea is, that we make such a name stand for. This is the more necessary to be done by all those who search after knowledge and philosophical verity, in that children, being taught words whilst they have but imperfect notions of things, apply them at random, and without much thinking, and seldom frame determined ideas to be signified by them. Which custom (it being easy, and serving well enough for the ordinary affairs of life and conversation) they are apt to continue when they are men: and so begin at the wrong end, learning words first and perfectly, but make the notions to which they apply those words afterwards very overtly. By this means it comes to pass, that men speaking the proper language of their country, i. e. according to grammar rules of that language, do yet speak very improperly of things themselves; and, by their arguing one with another, make but small progress in the discoveries of useful truths, and the knowledge of things, as they are to be found in themselves, and not in our imaginations; and it matters not much, for the improvement of our knowledge, how they are called.
Not easy to be made so.
§ 25. It were therefore to be wished, that men, versed in physical inquiries, and acquainted with the several sorts of natural bodies, would set down those simple ideas, wherein they observe the individuals of each sort constantly to agree. This would remedy a great deal of that confusion which comes from several persons applying the same name to a collection of a smaller or greater number of sensible qualities, proportionably as they have been more or less acquainted with, or accurate in examining the qualities of any sort of things which come under one denomination. But a dictionary of this sort containing, as it were, a natural history, requires too many hands, as well as too much time, cost, pains, and sagacity, ever to be hoped for; and till that be done, we must content ourselves with such definitions of the names of substances as explain the sense men use them in. And it would be well, where there is occasion, if they would afford us so much. This yet is not usually done; but men talk to one another, and dispute in words, whose meaning is not agreed between them, out of a mistake, that the significations of common words are certainly established, and the precise ideas they stand for perfectly known; and that it is a shame to be ignorant of them. Both which suppositions are false: no names of complex ideas having so settled determined significations, that they are constantly used for the same precise ideas. Nor is it a shame for a man not to have a certain knowledge of any thing, but by the necessary ways of attaining it; and so it is no discredit not to know what precise idea any sound stands for in another man’s mind, without he declare it to me by some other way than barely using that sound; there being no other way, without such a declaration, certainly to know it. Indeed the necessity of communication by language brings men to an agreement in the signification of common words, within some tolerable latitude, that may serve for ordinary conversation: and so a man cannot be supposed wholly ignorant of the ideas which are annexed to words by common use, in a language familiar to him. But common use, being but a very uncertain rule, which reduces itself at last to the ideas of particular men, proves often but a very variable standard. But though such a dictionary, as I have above-mentioned, will require too much time, cost, and pains, to be hoped for in this age; yet methinks it is not unreasonable to propose, that words standing for things, which are known and distinguished by their outward shapes, should be expressed by little draughts and prints made of them. A vocabulary made after this fashion would perhaps, with more ease, and in less time, teach the true signification of many terms, especially in languages of remote countries or ages, and settle truer ideas in men’s minds of several things, whereof we read the names in ancient authors, than all the large and laborious comments of learned criticks. Naturalists, that treat of plants and animals, have found the benefit of this way; and he that has had occasion to consult them, will have reason to confess, that he has a clearer idea of apium or ibex, from a little print of that herb or beast, than he could have from a long definition of the names of either of them. And so no doubt he would have of strigil and sistrum, if instead of curry-comb and cymbal, which are the English names dictionaries render them by, he could see stamped in the margin small pictures of these instruments, as they were in use amongst the ancients. “Toga, tunica, pallium,” are words easily translated by gown, coat, and cloak: but we have thereby no more true ideas of the fashion of those habits amongst the Romans, than we have of the faces of the taylors who made them. Such things as these, which the eye distinguishes by their shapes, would be best let into the mind by draughts made of them, and more determine the signification of such words than any other words set for them, or made use of to define them. But this only by the by.
5. By constancy in their signification.
§ 26. Fifthly, if men will not be at the pains to declare the meaning of their words, and definitions of their terms are not to be had; yet this is the least that can be expected, that in all discourses, wherein one man pretends to instruct or convince another, he should use the same word constantly in the same sense: if this were done (which nobody can refuse without great disingenuity) many of the books extant might be spared; many of the controversies in dispute would be at an end; several of those great volumes, swoln with ambiguous words, now used in one sense, and by and by in another, would shrink into a very narrow compass; and many of the philosophers (to mention no other) as well as poets’ works, might be contained in a nutshell.
When the variation is to be explained.
§ 27. But after all, the provision of words is so scanty in respect of that infinite variety of thoughts, that men, wanting terms to suit their precise notions, will, notwithstanding their utmost caution, be forced often to use the same word in somewhat different senses. And though in the continuation of a discourse, or the pursuit of an argument, there can be hardly room to digress into a particular definition, as often as a man varies the signification of any term; yet the import of the discourse will, for the most part, if there be no designed fallacy, sufficiently lead candid and intelligent readers into the true meaning of it: but where there is not sufficient to guide the reader, there it concerns the writer to explain his meaning, and show in what sense he there uses that term.