An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book II: Of Ideas, Chapters 12-33

6. Why Words in one Language have none answering in another.

This shows us how it comes to pass that there are in every language many particular words which cannot be rendered by any one single word of another. For the several fashions, customs, and manners of one nation, making several combinations of ideas familiar and necessary in one, which another people have had never an occasion to make, or perhaps so much as take notice of, names come of course to be annexed to them, to avoid long periphrases in things of daily conversation; and so they become so many distinct complex ideas in their minds. Thus ostrakismos amongst the Greeks, and proscriptio amongst the Romans, were words which other languages had no names that exactly answered; because they stood for complex ideas which were not in the minds of the men of other nations. Where there was no such custom, there was no notion of any such actions; no use of such combinations of ideas as were united, and, as it were, tied together, by those terms: and therefore in other countries there were no names for them.

7. And Languages change.

Hence also we may see the reason, why languages constantly change, take up new and lay by old terms. Because change of customs and opinions bringing with it new combinations of ideas, which it is necessary frequently to think on and talk about, new names, to avoid long descriptions, are annexed to them; and so they become new species of complex modes. What a number of different ideas are by this means wrapped up in one short sound, and how much of our time and breath is thereby saved, any one will see, who will but take the pains to enumerate all the ideas that either REPRIEVE or APPEAL stand for; and instead of either of those names, use a periphrasis, to make any one understand their meaning.

8. Mixed Modes

Though I shall have occasion to consider this more at-large when I come to treat of Words and their use, yet I could not avoid to take thus much notice here of the NAMES OF MIXED MODES; which being fleeting and transient combinations of simple ideas, which have but a short existence anywhere but in the minds of men, and there too have no longer any existence than whilst they are thought on, have not so much anywhere the appearance of a constant and lasting existence as in their names: which are therefore, in this sort of ideas, very apt to be taken for the ideas themselves. For, if we should inquire where the idea of a TRIUMPH or APOTHEOSIS exists, it is evident they could neither of them exist altogether anywhere in the things themselves, being actions that required time to their performance, and so could never all exist together; and as to the minds of men, where the ideas of these actions are supposed to be lodged, they have there too a very uncertain existence: and therefore we are apt to annex them to the names that excite them in us.

9. How we get the Ideas of mixed Modes.

There are therefore three ways whereby we get these complex ideas of mixed modes: — (1) By experience and OBSERVATION of things themselves: thus, by seeing two men mixed wrestle or fence, we get the idea of wrestling or fencing. (2) By INVENTION, or voluntary putting together of several simple ideas in our own minds: so he that first invented printing or etching, had an idea of it in his mind before it ever existed. (3) Which is the most usual way, by EXPLAINING THE NAMES of actions we never saw, or motions we cannot see; and by enumerating, and thereby, as it were, setting before our imaginations all those ideas which go to the making them up, and are the constituent parts of them. For, having by sensation and reflection stored our minds with simple ideas, and by use got the names that stand for them, we can by those means represent to another any complex idea we would have him conceive; so that it has in it no simple ideas but what he knows, and has with us the same name for. For all our complex ideas are ultimately resolvable into simple ideas, of which they are compounded and originally made up, though perhaps their immediate ingredients, as I may so say, are also complex ideas. Thus, the mixed mode which the word LIE stands for is made of these simple ideas: — (1) Articulate sounds. (2) Certain ideas in the mind of the speaker. (3) Those words the signs of those ideas. (4) Those signs put together, by affirmation or negation, otherwise than the ideas they stand for are in the mind of the speaker. I think I need not go any further in the analysis of that complex idea we call a lie: what I have said is enough to show that it is made up of simple ideas. And it could not be but an offensive tediousness to my reader, to trouble him with a more minute enumeration of every particular simple idea that goes to this complex one; which, from what has been said, he cannot but be able to make out to himself. The same may be done in all our complex ideas whatsoever; which, however compounded and decompounded, may at last be resolved into simple ideas, which are all the materials of knowledge or thought we have, or can have. Nor shall we have reason to fear that the mind is hereby stinted to too scanty a number of ideas, if we consider what an inexhaustible stock of simple modes number and figure alone afford us. How far then mixed modes, which admit of the various combinations of different simple ideas, and their infinite modes, are from being few and scanty, we may easily imagine. So that, before we have done, we shall see that nobody need be afraid he shall not have scope and compass enough for his thoughts to range in, though they be, as I pretend, confined only to simple ideas, received from sensation or reflection, and their several combinations.

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