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

8. How men suppose that their ideas must correspond to things, and to the customary meanings of names.

But this ABSTRACT IDEA, being something in the mind, between the thing that exists, and the name that is given to it; it is in our ideas that both the rightness of our knowledge, and the propriety and intelligibleness of our speaking, consists. And hence it is that men are so forward to suppose, that the abstract ideas they have in their minds are such as agree to the things existing without them, to which they are referred; and are the same also to which the names they give them do by the use and propriety of that language belong. For without this double conformity of their ideas, they find they should both think amiss of things in themselves, and talk of them unintelligibly to others.

9. Simple Ideas may be false, in reference to others of the same Name, but are least liable to be so.

First, then, I say, that when the truth of our ideas is judged of by the conformity they have to the ideas which other men have, and commonly signify by the same name, they may be any of them false. But yet SIMPLE IDEAS are least of all liable to be so mistaken. Because a man, by his senses and every day's observation, may easily satisfy himself what the simple ideas are which their several names that are in common use stand for; they being but few in number, and such as, if he doubts or mistakes in, he may easily rectify by the objects they are to be found in. Therefore it is seldom that any one mistakes in his names of simple ideas, or applies the name red to the idea green, or the name sweet to the idea bitter: much less are men apt to confound the names of ideas belonging to different senses, and call a colour by the name of a taste, &c. Whereby it is evident that the simple ideas they call by any name are commonly the same that others have and mean when they use the same names.

10. Ideas of mixed Modes most liable to be false in this Sense.

Complex ideas are much more liable to be false in this respect; and the complex ideas of MIXED MODES, much more than those of substances; because in substances (especially those which the common and unborrowed names of any language are applied to) some remarkable sensible qualities, serving ordinarily to distinguish one sort from another, easily preserve those who take any care in the use of their words, from applying them to sorts of substances to which they do not at all belong. But in mixed modes we are much more uncertain; it being not so easy to determine of several actions, whether they are to be called JUSTICE or CRUELTY, LIBERALITY or PRODIGALITY. And so in referring our ideas to those of other men, called by the same names, ours may be false; and the idea in our minds, which we express by the word JUSTICE, may perhaps be that which ought to have another name.

11. Or at least to be thought false.

But whether or no our ideas of mixed modes are more liable than any sort to be different from those of other men, which are marked by the same names, this at least is certain. That this sort of falsehood is much more familiarly attributed to our ideas of mixed modes than to any other. When a man is thought to have a false idea of JUSTICE, or GRATITUDE, or GLORY, it is for no other reason, but that his agrees not with the ideas which each of those names are the signs of in other men.

12. And why.

The reason whereof seems to me to be this: That the abstract ideas of mixed modes, being men's voluntary combinations of such a precise collection of simple ideas, and so the essence of each species being made by men alone, whereof we have no other sensible standard existing anywhere but the name itself, or the definition of that name; we having nothing else to refer these our ideas of mixed modes to, as a standard to which we would conform them, but the ideas of those who are thought to use those names in their most proper significations; and, so as our ideas conform or differ from THEM, they pass for true or false. And thus much concerning the truth and falsehood of our ideas, in reference to their names.

13. As referred to Real Existence, none of our Ideas can be false but those of Substances.

Secondly, as to the truth and falsehood of our ideas, in reference to the real existence of things. When that is made the standard of their truth, none of them can be termed false but only our complex ideas of substances.

14. First, Simple Ideas in this Sense not false and why.

First, our simple ideas, being barely such perceptions as God has fitted us to receive, and given power to external objects to produce in us by established laws and ways, suitable to his wisdom and goodness, though incomprehensible to us, their truth consists in nothing else but in such appearances as are produced in us, and must be suitable to those powers he has placed in external objects or else they could not be produced in us: and thus answering those powers, they are what they should be, true ideas. Nor do they become liable to any imputation of falsehood, if the mind (as in most men I believe it does) judges these ideas to be in the things themselves. For God in his wisdom having set them as marks of distinction in things, whereby we may be able to discern one thing from another, and so choose any of them for our uses as we have occasion; it alters not the nature of our simple idea, whether we think that the idea of blue be in the violet itself, or in our mind only; and only the power of producing it by the texture of its parts, reflecting the particles of light after a certain manner, to be in the violet itself. For that texture in the object, by a regular and constant operation producing the same idea of blue in us, it serves us to distinguish, by our eyes, that from any other thing; whether that distinguishing mark, as it is really in the violet, be only a peculiar texture of parts, or else that very colour, the idea whereof (which is in us) is the exact resemblance. And it is equally from that appearance to be denominated blue, whether it be that real colour, or only a peculiar texture in it, that causes in us that idea: since the name, BLUE, notes properly nothing but that mark of distinction that is in a violet, discernible only by our eyes, whatever it consists in; that being beyond our capacities distinctly to know, and perhaps would be of less use to us, if we had faculties to discern.

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