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

CHAPTER XXIII.

OF OUR COMPLEX IDEAS OF SUBSTANCES.

The mind being, as I have declared, furnished with a great number of the simple ideas, conveyed in by the senses as they are found in exterior things, or by reflection on its own operations, takes notice also that a certain number of these simple ideas go constantly together; which being presumed to belong to one thing, and words being suited to common apprehensions, and made use of for quick dispatch are called, so united in one subject, by one name; which, by inadvertency, we are apt afterward to talk of and consider as one simple idea, which indeed is a complication of many ideas together: because, as I have said, not imagining how these simple ideas CAN subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some SUBSTRATUM wherein they do subsist, and from which they do result, which therefore we call SUBSTANCE.

2. Our obscure Idea of Substance in general.

So that if any one will examine himself concerning his notion of pure substance in general, he will find he has no other idea of it at all, but only a supposition of he knows not what SUPPORT of such qualities which are capable of producing simple ideas in us; which qualities are commonly called accidents. If any one should be asked, what is the subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say, but the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded, what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better case than the Indian before mentioned who, saying that the world was supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to which his answer was — a great tortoise: but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — SOMETHING, HE KNEW NOT WHAT. And thus here, as in all other cases where we use words without having clear and distinct ideas, we talk like children: who, being questioned what such a thing is, which they know not, readily give this satisfactory answer, that it is SOMETHING: which in truth signifies no more, when so used, either by children or men, but that they know not what; and that the thing they pretend to know, and talk of, is what they have no distinct idea of at all, and so are perfectly ignorant of it, and in the dark. The idea then we have, to which we give the GENERAL name substance, being nothing but the supposed, but unknown, support of those qualities we find existing, which we imagine cannot subsist SINE RE SUBSTANTE, without something to support them, we call that support SUBSTANTIA; which, according to the true import of the word, is, in plain English, standing under or upholding.

3. Of the Sorts of Substances.

An obscure and relative idea of SUBSTANCE IN GENERAL being thus made we come to have the ideas of PARTICULAR SORTS OF SUBSTANCES, by collecting SUCH combinations of simple ideas as are, by experience and observation of men's senses, taken notice of to exist together; and are therefore supposed to flow from the particular internal constitution, or unknown essence of that substance. Thus we come to have the ideas of a man, horse, gold, water, &c.; of which substances, whether any one has any other CLEAR idea, further than of certain simple ideas co-existent together, I appeal to every one's own experience. It is the ordinary qualities observable in iron, or a diamond, put together, that make the true complex idea of those substances, which a smith or a jeweller commonly knows better than a philosopher; who, whatever SUBSTANTIAL FORMS he may talk of, has no other idea of those substances, than what is framed by a collection of those simple ideas which are to be found in them: only we must take notice, that our complex ideas of substances, besides all those simple ideas they are made up of, have always the confused idea of something to which they belong, and in which they subsist: and therefore when we speak of any sort of substance, we say it is a thing having such or such qualities; as body is a thing that is extended, figured, and capable of motion; spirit, a thing capable of thinking; and so hardness, friability, and power to draw iron, we say, are qualities to be found in a loadstone. These, and the like fashions of speaking, intimate that the substance is supposed always SOMETHING BESIDES the extension, figure, solidity, motion, thinking, or other observable ideas, though we know not what it is.

4. No clear or distinct idea of Substance in general.

Hence, when we talk or think of any particular sort of corporeal substances, as horse, stone, &c., though the idea we have of either of them be but the complication or collection of those several simple ideas of sensible qualities, which we used to find united in the thing called horse or stone; yet, BECAUSE WE CANNOT CONCEIVE HOW THEY SHOULD SUBSIST ALONE, NOR ONE IN ANOTHER, we suppose them existing in and supported by some common subject; which support we denote by the name substance, though it be certain we have no clear or distinct idea of that thing we suppose a support.

5. As clear an Idea of spiritual substance as of corporeal substance.

The same thing happens concerning the operations of the mind, viz. thinking, reasoning, fearing, &c., which we concluding not to subsist of themselves, nor apprehending how they can belong to body, or be produced by it, we are apt to think these the actions of some other SUBSTANCE, which we call SPIRIT; whereby yet it is evident that, having no other idea or notion of matter, but something wherein those many sensible qualities which affect our senses do subsist; by supposing a substance wherein thinking, knowing, doubting, and a power of moving, &c., do subsist, we have as clear a notion of the substance of spirit, as we have of body; the one being supposed to be (without knowing what it is) the SUBSTRATUM to those simple ideas we have from without; and the other supposed (with a like ignorance of what it is) to be the SUBSTRATUM to those operations we experiment in ourselves within. It is plain then, that the idea of CORPOREAL SUBSTANCE in matter is as remote from our conceptions and apprehensions, as that of SPIRITUAL SUBSTANCE, or spirit: and therefore, from our not having, any notion of the substance of spirit, we can no more conclude its non-existence, than we can, for the same reason, deny the existence of body; it being as rational to affirm there is no body, because we have no clear and distinct idea of the substance of matter, as to say there is no spirit, because we have no clear and distinct idea of the substance of a spirit.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Locke, why can't ideas be present in a soul before it is united with a body?




Quiz