You are here

Simple ideas

19 January, 2016 - 12:03

(From II.i.1—Uncompounded Appearances) The better to understand the nature, manner, and extent of our knowledge, one thing is carefully to be observed concerning the ideas we have; and that is, that some of them, are simple and some complex.

Though the qualities that affect our senses are, in the things themselves, so united and blended, that there is no separation, no distance between them; yet it is plain, the ideas they produce in the mind enter by the senses simple; and unmixed. For, though the sight and touch often take in from the same object, at the same time, different ideas;–as a man sees at once motion and colour; the hand feels softness and warmth in the same piece of wax: yet the simple ideas thus united in the same subject, are as perfectly distinct as those that come in by different senses.

(From II.iii.1—Division of simple ideas) The better to conceive the ideas we receive from sensation, it may not be amiss for us to consider them, in reference to the different ways whereby they make their approaches to our minds, and make themselves perceivable by us. First, then, there are some which come into our minds by one sense only. Secondly, there are others that convey themselves into the mind by more senses than one. Thirdly, others that are had from reflection only. Fourthly, there are some that make themselves way, and are suggested to the mind by all the waysof sensation and reflection.

  1. Classify these ideas, according to the above system (II.iii.1):
    1. the idea of blue ___________
    2. the idea of square ___________
    3. the idea of hoping ___________
    4. the idea of straight ___________
Figure 6.1
As we’ll see, some ideas turn out to be ideas of powers rather than of qualities. So we’ll need a story about how we get our idea of power as a building block, before we can move on to the primary/secondary quality distinction.

(From II.xxi.1—This Idea [of power] how got) The mind being every day informed, by the senses, of the alteration of those simple ideas it observes in things without; and taking notice how one comes to an end, and ceases to be, and another begins to exist which was not before; reflecting also on what passes within itself, and observing a constant change of its ideas, sometimes by the impression of outward objects on the senses, and sometimes by the determination of its own choice; and concluding from what it has so constantly observed to have been, that the like changes will for the future be made in the same things, by like agents, and by the like ways, considers in one thing the possibility of having any of its simple ideas changed, and in another the possibility of making that change; and so comes by that idea which we call power. Thus we say, fire has a power to melt gold, i.e., to destroy the consistency of its insensible parts, and consequentlyits hardness, and make it fluid … In which, and the like cases, the power we consider is in reference to the change of perceivable ideas. For we cannot observe any alteration to be made in, or operation upon anything, but bythe observable change of its sensible ideas; nor conceive any alteration to be made, but by conceiving a change of some of its ideas.

(From II.xxi.2—Power, active and passive) Power thus considered is two-fold, viz. As able to make, or able to receive any change. The one may be called active, and the other passive power. Whether matter be not wholly destitute of active power, as its author, God, is truly above all passive power; and whether the intermediate state of created spirits be not that alone which is capable of both active and passive power, may be worth consideration. I shall not now enter into that inquiry, my present business being not to search into the original of power, but how we come by the idea of it. But since active powers make so great a part of our complex ideas of natural substances, (as we shall see hereafter,) and I mention them as such, according to common apprehension; yet they being not, perhaps, so truly active powers as our hasty thoughts are apt to represent them, I judge it not amiss, by this intimation, to direct our minds to the consideration of god and spirits, for the clearest idea of active power.

(From II.xxi.3—Power includes Relation) I confess power includes in it some kind of relation (a relation to action or change,) as indeed which of our ideas of what kind soever, when attentively considered, does not. For, our ideas of extension, duration, and number, do they not all contain in them a secret relation of the parts? figure and motion have something relative in them much more visibly. … Our idea therefore of power, I think, may well have a place amongst other simple ideas, and be considered as one of them; being one of those that make a principal ingredient in our complex ideas of substances, as we shall hereafter have occasion to observe.

(From II.xxi.4—The clearest Idea of active Power had from Spirit) [I]f we will consider it attentively, bodies, by our senses, do not afford us so clear and distinct an idea of active power, as we have from reflection on the operations of our minds. For all power relating to action, and there being but two sorts of action whereof we have an idea, viz. Thinking and motion, let us consider whence we have the clearest ideas of the powers which produce these actions.

  1. Of thinking, body affords us no idea at all; it is only from reflection that we have that.
  2. Neither have we from body any idea of the beginning of motion. A body at rest affords us no idea of any active power to move; and when it is set in motion itself, that motion is rather a passion than an action in it. For, when the ball obeys the motion of a billiard-stick, it is not any action of the ball, but bare passion. Also when by impulse it sets another ball in motion that lay in its way, it only communicates the motion it had received from another, and loses in itself so much as the other received: which gives us but a very obscure idea of an active power of moving in body, whilst we observe it only to transfer, but not produce any motion.
  1. Is the idea of power a simple idea or not? What turns on this?
  2. How does the mind form an idea of power?
  3. Why does sensation not give us an idea of active power?