John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (the end)

Locke apologizes for his text, which some readers may find too long or too short. If it’s too short, he says, I hope it inspires the reader to do some thinking on their own. If it’s too long, it’s because it was composed in fits and starts, so whenever he put pen to paper, he had some new observations to write down, and what he initially thought could be fit on one sheet of paper grew into this long text. He says also modestly that he does not intend to compete with some giants of thought – he name-checks Newton and Boyle, among others – but just to clear the field for them so that science can develop unimpeded by obscure and and out-of-date language. In the last fragment, added to the fourth edition, he explains why he chose to use the word “determined” or “determinate” ideas instead of “clear and distinct”. First of all, everybody uses “clear and distinct” while not knowing really what they mean. Locke chooses to use the word “determinate”/”determined” (he seems to use them interchangeably) to illustrate better what he means: the simple ideas perceived by human minds and connected with the words corresponding to them. As for complex ideas, he defines them as a collection of simple ideas combined together. He is really keen on the thought that language of academic discourse should be clear and I guess he would not take kindly to much of the jargon which plagues postmodern critical theory and philosophy.

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John Locke – “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (fragments)

Today I’ve got some serious philosophy, although the editors of the NAEL picked probably the most literary part of Locke’s Essay, that is “The Epistle to the Readers”. In this introduction Locke notices courteously that he hopes his readers are going to have at least half as much fun in reading it as he had in writing it. It’s not because he is so puffed up about its value, but because he really thinks the hunt for truth is a lot of fun, much more than the real hunting or hawking and much more profitable. He addresses his book to those who like to think for themselves and not to rely on the thoughts of others, but he also notices modestly that this book is not addressed  to those who already mastered the subject. He explains the origins of this project, which was apparently started by a discussion with a few friends on an unrelated subject and which was brought to a standstill. Locke and his nameless friends decide that before they discuss the subject, they have to “examine [their] own abilities, and see what objects [their[ understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” He noted down some hasty thoughts before their next meeting and worked on them on and off for many years before creating the final version of this test.