An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book III: Of Words

15. Fourthly, Names of simple Ideas of less doubtful meaning than those of mixed modes and substances.

Fourthly, But though the names of simple ideas have not the help of definition to determine their signification, yet that hinders not but that they are generally less doubtful and uncertain than those of mixed modes and substances; because they, standing only for one simple perception, men for the most part easily and perfectly agree in their signification; and there is little room for mistake and wrangling about their meaning. He that knows once that whiteness is the name of that colour he has observed in snow or milk, will not be apt to misapply that word, as long as he retains that idea; which when he has quite lost, he is not apt to mistake the meaning of it, but perceives he understands it not. There is neither a multiplicity of simple ideas to be put together, which makes the doubtfulness in the names of mixed modes; nor a supposed, but an unknown, real essence, with properties depending thereon, the precise number whereof is also unknown, which makes the difficulty in the names of substances. But, on the contrary, in simple ideas the whole signification of the name is known at once, and consists not of parts, whereof more or less being put in, the idea may be varied, and so the signification of name be obscure, or uncertain.

16. Simple Ideas have few Ascents in linea praedicamentali.

Fifthly, This further may be observed concerning simple Simple ideas and their names, that they have but few ascents in linea praedicamentali, (as they call it,) from the lowest species to the summum genus. The reason whereof is, that the lowest species being but one simple idea, nothing can be left out of it, that so the difference being taken away, it may agree with some other thing in one idea common to them both; which, having one name, is the genus of the other two: v.g. there is nothing that can be left out of the idea of white and red to make them agree in one common appearance, and so have one general name; as RATIONALITY being left out of the complex idea of man, makes it agree with brute in the more general idea and name of animal. And therefore when, to avoid unpleasant enumerations, men would comprehend both white and red, and several other such simple ideas, under one general name, they have been fain to do it by a word which denotes only the way they get into the mind. For when white, red, and yellow are all comprehended under the genus or name colour, it signifies no more but such ideas as are produced in the mind only by the sight, and have entrance only through the eyes. And when they would frame yet a more general term to comprehend both colours and sounds, and the like simple ideas, they do it by a word that signifies all such as come into the mind only by one sense. And so the general term QUALITY, in its ordinary acceptation, comprehends colours, sounds, tastes, smells, and tangible qualities, with distinction from extension, number, motion, pleasure, and pain, which make impressions on the mind and introduce their ideas by more senses than one.

17. Sixthly, Names of simple Ideas not arbitrary, but perfectly taken from the existence of things.

Sixthly, The names of simple ideas, substances, and mixed modes have also this difference: that those of MIXED MODES stand for ideas perfectly arbitrary; those of SUBSTANCES are not perfectly so, but refer to a pattern, though with some latitude; and those of SIMPLE IDEAS are perfectly taken from the existence of things, and are not arbitrary at all. Which, what difference it makes in the significations of their names, we shall see in the following chapters.

Simple modes.

The names of SIMPLE MODES differ little from those of simple ideas.

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