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John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding Quotes


Science Quotes by John Locke (54 quotes)

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The Word Reason in the English Language has different Significances: sometimes it is taken for true, and clear Principles: Sometimes for clear, and fair deductions from those Principles: and sometimes for Cause, and particularly the final Cause: but the Consideration I shall have of it here, is in a Signification different from all these; and that is, as it stands for a Faculty of Man, That Faculty, whereby Man is supposed to be distinguished from Beasts; and wherein it is evident he much surpasses them.

— John Locke

In 'Of Reason', Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690), Book 4, Ch. 17, Sec. 1, 341.

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Truth then seems to me, in the proper import of the Word, to signifie nothing but the joining or separating of Signs, as the Things signified by them do agree or disagree one with another; which way of joining or separating of Signs, we call Proposition. So that Truth properly belongs only to Propositions: whereof there are two sorts, viz. Mental and Verbal; as there are two sorts of Signs commonly made use of, viz. Ideas and Words.

— John Locke

In 'Truth in General', Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), book 4, ch. 5, sec. 2, 289.

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All Men are liable to Error, and most Men are in many Points, by Passion or Interest, under Temptation to it.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 20, Section 17, 718.

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Amphibious Animals link the Terrestrial and Aquatique together; Seals live at Land and at Sea, and Porpoises have the warm Blood and Entrails of a Hog, not to mention what is confidently reported of Mermaids or Sea-men.

— John Locke

In An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1689, 1706, 5th ed.), 381. This was later quoted verbatim in Joseph Addison The Spectator (25 Oct 1712), No. 519, as collected in Vol. 7 (1729, 10th ed.), 176. Quote collections attributing to Addison are in error.

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As to a perfect Science of natural Bodies … we are, I think, so far from being capable of any such thing that I conclude it lost labour to seek after it.

— John Locke

In 'Extent of Human Knowledge', An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1700), Book 4, 335.

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Conscience is merely our own judgment of the moral rectitude or turpitude of our own actions

— John Locke

…...

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Crooked things may be as stiff and unflexible as streight: and Men may be as positive and peremptory in Error as in Truth.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 19, Section 11, 703.

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Euclid and Archimedes are allowed to be knowing, and to have demonstrated what they say: and yet whosoever shall read over their writings without perceiving the connection of their proofs, and seeing what they show, though he may understand all their words, yet he is not the more knowing. He may believe, indeed, but does not know what they say, and so is not advanced one jot in mathematical knowledge by all his reading of those approved mathematicians.

— John Locke

In Conduct of the Understanding, sect. 24.

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Every Man being conscious to himself, That he thinks, and that which his Mind is employ'd about whilst thinking, being the Ideas, that are there, 'tis past doubt, that Men have in their Minds several Ideas, such as are those expressed by the words, Whiteness, Hardness, Sweetness, Thinking, Motion, Man, Elephant, Army, Drunkenness, and others: It is in the first place then to be inquired, How he comes by them? I know it is a received Doctrine, That Men have native Ideas, and original Characters stamped upon their Minds, in their very first Being.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 1, 104.

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For the saving the long progression of the thoughts to remote and first principles in every case, the mind should provide itself several stages; that is to say, intermediate principles, which it might have recourse to in the examining those positions that come in its way. These, though they are not self-evident principles, yet, if they have been made out from them by a wary and unquestionable deduction, may be depended on as certain and infallible truths, and serve as unquestionable truths to prove other points depending upon them, by a nearer and shorter view than remote and general maxims. … And thus mathematicians do, who do not in every new problem run it back to the first axioms through all the whole train of intermediate propositions. Certain theorems that they have settled to themselves upon sure demonstration, serve to resolve to them multitudes of propositions which depend on them, and are as firmly made out from thence as if the mind went afresh over every link of the whole chain that tie them to first self-evident principles.

— John Locke

In The Conduct of the Understanding, Sect. 21.

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From whence it is obvious to conclude that, since our Faculties are not fitted to penetrate into the internal Fabrick and real Essences of Bodies; but yet plainly discover to us the Being of a GOD, and the Knowledge of our selves, enough to lead us into a full and clear discovery of our Duty, and great Concernment, it will become us, as rational Creatures, to imploy those Faculties we have about what they are most adapted to, and follow the direction of Nature, where it seems to point us out the way.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 11, 646.

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God having designed man for a sociable creature, furnished him with language, which was to be the great instrument and tie of society.

— John Locke

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1849), Book 3, Chap 1, Sec. 1, 288.

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Had you or I been born at the Bay of Soldania, possibly our Thoughts, and Notions, had not exceeded those brutish ones of the Hotentots that inhabit there: And had the Virginia King Apochancana, been educated in England, he had, perhaps been as knowing a Divine, and as good a Mathematician as any in it. The difference between him, and a more improved English-man, lying barely in this, That the exercise of his Facilities was bounded within the Ways, Modes, and Notions of his own Country, and never directed to any other or farther Enquiries.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book I, Chapter 4, Section 12, 92.

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He that believes, without having any Reason for believing, may be in love with his own Fancies; but neither seeks Truth as he ought, nor pays the Obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning Faculties he has given him, to keep him out of Mistake and Errour.

— John Locke

In 'Of Reason', Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690), Book 4, Ch. 17, Sec. 24, 347.

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He who appropriates land to himself by his labor, does not lessen but increases the common stock of mankind. For the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are … ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land, of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land and has a greater plenty of the conveniences of life from ten acres than he could have from a hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind.

— John Locke

In John Locke and Thomas Preston Peardon (ed.), The Second Treatise of Civil Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government (Dec 1689, 1952), 22.

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I have before mentioned mathematics, wherein algebra gives new helps and views to the understanding. If I propose these it is not to make every man a thorough mathematician or deep algebraist; but yet I think the study of them is of infinite use even to grown men; first by experimentally convincing them, that to make anyone reason well, it is not enough to have parts wherewith he is satisfied, and that serve him well enough in his ordinary course. A man in those studies will see, that however good he may think his understanding, yet in many things, and those very visible, it may fail him. This would take off that presumption that most men have of themselves in this part; and they would not be so apt to think their minds wanted no helps to enlarge them, that there could be nothing added to the acuteness and penetration of their understanding.

— John Locke

In The Conduct of the Understanding, Sect. 7.

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I have mentioned mathematics as a way to settle in the mind a habit of reasoning closely and in train; not that I think it necessary that all men should be deep mathematicians, but that, having got the way of reasoning which that study necessarily brings the mind to, they might be able to transfer it to other parts of knowledge, as they shall have occasion. For in all sorts of reasoning, every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration; the connection and dependence of ideas should be followed till the mind is brought to the source on which it bottoms, and observes the coherence all along; …

— John Locke

In The Conduct of the Understanding, Sect. 7.

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If, then, there must be something eternal, let us see what sort of Being it must be. And to that it is very obvious to Reason, that it must necessarily be a cogitative Being. For it is as impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce Matter...

— John Locke

In Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690, 1801), Book 4, Chap. 10, Sec. 10, 114.

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In all things, therefore, where we have clear evidence from our ideas, and those principles of knowledge I have above mentioned, reason is the proper judge; and revelation, though it may, in consenting with it, confirm its dictates, yet cannot in such cases invalidate its decrees: nor can we be obliged, where we have the clear and evident sentience of reason, to quit it for the contrary opinion, under a pretence that it is matter of faith: which can have no authority against the plain and clear dictates of reason.

— John Locke

in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), book 4, ch. 18, sec. 20.


In our search after the Knowledge of Substances, our want of Ideas, that are suitable to such a way of proceeding, obliges us to a quite different method. We advance not here, as in the other (where our abstract Ideas are real as well as nominal Essences) by contemplating our Ideas, and considering their Relations and Correspondencies; that helps us very little, for the Reasons, and in another place we have at large set down. By which, I think it is evident, that Substances afford Matter of very little general Knowledge; and the bare Contemplation of their abstract Ideas, will carry us but a very little way in the search of Truth and Certainty. What then are we to do for the improvement of our Knowledge in Substantial beings? Here we are to take a quite contrary Course, the want of Ideas of their real essences sends us from our own Thoughts, to the Things themselves, as they exist.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 9, 644.

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Is it possible that a promiscuous Jumble of Printing Letters should often fall into a Method and Order, which should stamp on Paper a coherent Discourse; or that a blind fortuitous Concourse of Atoms, not guided by an Understanding Agent, should frequently constitute the Bodies of any Species of Animals.

— John Locke

In 'Of Wrong Assent, or Error', An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1706), Book 4, 601.

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It is a great pity Aristotle had not understood mathematics as well as Mr. Newton, and made use of it in his natural philosophy with good success: his example had then authorized the accommodating of it to material things.

— John Locke

In Second Reply to the Bishop of Worcester.

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It is easier to believe than to be scientifically instructed.

— John Locke

In The Conduct of the Understanding (1794, 1801), 58.

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It is one thing, to shew a Man that he is in an Error; and another, to put him in possession of Truth.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 7, Section 11, 602.

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It is suitable to the magnificent harmony of the universe that the species of creatures should, by gentle degrees, ascend upward from us toward His perfection, as we see them gradually descend from us downward.

— John Locke

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1849), Book 3, Chap 6, Sec. 12, 326.

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Land that is left wholly to nature, that has no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, “waste”.

— John Locke

In John Locke and Thomas Preston Peardon (ed.), The Second Treatise of Civil Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government (Dec 1689, 1952), 25.

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Let us then suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless Fancy of Man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of Reason and Knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from Experience: In that, all our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives it self. Our Observation employ’d either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by our selves, is that, which supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking.

— John Locke

In 'Of Ideas in general, and their Original', An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book 2, Chap. 1, Sec. 2, 37.

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Mathematical proofs, like diamonds, are hard and clear, and will be touched with nothing but strict reasoning.

— John Locke

In 'Mr Locke’s Reply to the Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter', collected in The Works of John Locke (1824), Vol. 3, 428.

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Mathematics in gross, it is plain, are a grievance in natural philosophy, and with reason…Mathematical proofs are out of the reach of topical arguments, and are not to be attacked by the equivocal use of words or declamation, that make so great a part of other discourses; nay, even of controversies.

— John Locke

In 'Mr Locke’s Reply to the Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter', collected in The Works of John Locke (1824), Vol. 3, 428.

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Nature never makes excellent things, for mean or no uses: and it is hardly to be conceived, that our infinitely wise Creator, should make so admirable a Faculty, as the power of Thinking, that Faculty which comes nearest the Excellency of his own incomprehensible Being, to be so idlely and uselesly employ’d, at least 1/4 part of its time here, as to think constantly, without remembering any of those Thoughts, without doing any good to it self or others, or being anyway useful to any other part of Creation.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 15, 113.

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New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

— John Locke

In 'The Epistle Dedicatory', Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), second unnumbered page.

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No Man’s Knowledge here, can go beyond his Experience.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 19, 115.

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Not that we may not, to explain any Phenomena of Nature, make use of any probable Hypothesis whatsoever: Hypotheses, if they are well made, are at least great helps to the Memory, and often direct us to new discoveries. But my Meaning is, that we should not take up anyone too hastily, (which the Mind, that would always penetrate into the Causes of Things, and have Principles to rest on, is very apt to do,) till we have very well examined Particulars, and made several Experiments, in that thing which we would explain by our Hypothesis, and see whether it will agree to them all; whether our Principles will carry us quite through, and not be as inconsistent with one Phenomenon of Nature, as they seem to accommodate and explain another.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 13, 648.

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Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge, it is thinking makes what we read ours.

— John Locke

On the Conduct Of Understanding (written 1697, published posthumously 1706), collected in Works (5th Ed. 1751), Vol. 3, 387.

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Secondly, the study of mathematics would show them the necessity there is in reasoning, to separate all the distinct ideas, and to see the habitudes that all those concerned in the present inquiry have to one another, and to lay by those which relate not to the proposition in hand, and wholly to leave them out of the reckoning. This is that which, in other respects besides quantity is absolutely requisite to just reasoning, though in them it is not so easily observed and so carefully practised. In those parts of knowledge where it is thought demonstration has nothing to do, men reason as it were in a lump; and if upon a summary and confused view, or upon a partial consideration, they can raise the appearance of a probability, they usually rest content; especially if it be in a dispute where every little straw is laid hold on, and everything that can but be drawn in any way to give color to the argument is advanced with ostentation. But that mind is not in a posture to find truth that does not distinctly take all the parts asunder, and, omitting what is not at all to the point, draws a conclusion from the result of all the particulars which in any way influence it.

— John Locke

In Conduct of the Understanding, Sect. 7.

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Such propositions are therefore called Eternal Truths, not because they are Eternal Truths, not because they are External Propositions actually formed, and antecedent to the Understanding, that at any time makes them; nor because they are imprinted on the Mind from any patterns, that are any where out of the mind, and existed before: But because, being once made, about abstract Ideas, so as to be true, they will, whenever they can be supposed to be made again at any time, past or to come, by a Mind having those Ideas, always actually be true. For names being supposed to stand perpetually for the same ideas, and the same ideas having immutably the same habitudes one to another, Propositions concerning any abstract Ideas that are once true, must needs be eternal Verities.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 11, Section 14, 638-9.

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The Ideas of primary Qualities of Bodies, are Resemblances of them, and their Patterns do really exist in the Bodies themselves; but the Ideas, produced in us by these Secondary Qualities, have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our Ideas, existing in the Bodies themselves. They are in Bodies, we denominate from them, only a Power to produce those Sensations in us: And what is Sweet, Blue or Warm in Idea, is but the certain Bulk, Figure, and Motion of the insensible parts in the Bodies themselves, which we call so.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 15, 137.

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The Qualities then that are in Bodies rightly considered, are of Three sorts.
First, the Bulk, Figure, Number, Situation, and Motion, or Rest of their solid Parts; those are in them, whether we perceive them or no; and when they are of that size, that we can discover them, we have by these an Idea of the thing, as it is in it self, as is plain in artificial things. These I call primary Qualities.
Secondly, The Power that is in any Body, by Reason of its insensible primary Qualities, to operate after a peculiar manner on any of our Senses, and thereby produce in us the different Ideas of several Colours, Sounds, Smells, Tastes, etc. These are usually called sensible Qualities.
Thirdly, The Power that is in any Body, by Reason of the particular Constitution of its primary Qualities, to make such a change in the Bulk, Figure, Texture, and Motion of another Body, as to make it operate on our Senses, differently from what it did before. Thus the Sun has a Power to make Wax white, and Fire to make Lead fluid. These are usually called Powers.

— John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 23, 140-1.

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For I imagine anyone would easily grant, that it would be impertinent to suppose, the ideas of colors innate in a creature, to whom God had given sight, and a power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths, to the impressions of nature, and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves faculties, fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them, as if they were originally imprinted on the mind.

This statement neatly sums up Locke's entire purpose in the lengthy Book II, though it is made at the very start of Book I. In Book I, immediately following this quotation, he attempts to demolish the position of *innate ideas* and principles on their own terms. In Book II he turns to the more important task of demonstrating how our faculties are, in fact, able to cull from experience all the ideas that fill our head. If he can really account for all of our ideas by tracing them to experience, he will undermine the need for innate ideas and strengthen the empiricist position considerably.

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters.

This is the well-known "tabula rasa" passage. It is probably the most famous statement of the empiricist position. By calling the mind a blank sheet of paper, Locke means to claim that the mind at birth contains no ideas. Experience must then "write" on the mind by furnishing it with ideas.

Pound an almond and the clear white color will be altered to a dirty one and the sweet taste into an oily one. What real alteration can the beating of a pestle make in any body, but an alteration of the texture of it?

This is one of Locke's most famous thought experiments. It is meant to demonstrate that secondary qualities, as we perceive them, are not really in objects themselves. Instead, all that is in objects is primary qualities, such as size, shape, and motion. The secondary qualities that we experience are simply caused by various arrangements of primary qualities. Though an almond tastes sweet to us and looks white to us, there is no taste or color in the almond. His proof? When we alter the taste and color, all we are really doing is pounding the almond into smaller pieces. We are altering the primary qualities of the almond, and yet the change also affects the secondary qualities. Secondary qualities, therefore, exist in objects only as arrangements of primary qualities.

Thus we may conceive how words, which were by nature so well adapted to that purpose, came to be made use of by men, as the signs of their ideas.

This is a concise statement of Locke's theory of meaning. Words, in his view, do not refer to things in the external world, but to the ideas in our head. When you say "dog," for instance, you are not really referring to any dog out in the world, you are referring to an idea you have in your mind of something furry, four legged, loyal, and panting. Even if you say "Lassie" you are not referring directly to that creature you see running around the television screen. You are referring to the idea you have of the dog running around the television screen, in this case the idea that is, or once was, your sensation of that particular dog.

Our knowledge in all these enquiries reaches very little farther than our experience.

This quotation expresses Locke's estimation of the capacity for human knowledge. The "enquiries" to which he is referring include all of natural science. Locke's definition of knowledge is extremely strict; he believes one can only be said to know when one perceives a necessary connection. That is to say, I can only know that A caused B if I can deduce from A that B had to happen. To put it another way, looking simply at A I can predict with absolute certainty that B will happen. Short of this sort of understanding, all one is left with is opinion or belief.

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