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always unavoidably follow, that the complex ideas of substances, in men ufing the fame name for them, will be very various; and fo the fignifications of those names very uncertain.
3. To co-exifting quali
are known but imper
With this imperfection they may ferve for civil, but not well for philofophical
§. 14. Besides, there is scarce any particular thing existing, which, in fome of its fimple ideas, does not communicate with a greater, and in others a lefs number of particular beings: who fhall determine in this cafe which are thofe that are to make up the precife collection that is to be fignified by the fpecifick name; or can with any juft authority prescribe, which obvious or common qualities are to be left out; or which more fecret, or more particular, are to be put into the fignification of the name of any fubftance? All which together seldom or never fail to produce that various and doubtful fignification in the names of substances, which caufes fuch uncertainty, difputes, or miftakes, when we come to a philofophical ufe of them. §. 15. It is true, as to civil and common conversation, the general names of substances, regulated in their ordinary fignification by fome obvious qualities, (as by the hape and figuré in things of known feminal propagation, and in other fubftances, for the most part by colour, joined with fome other fenfible qualitics) do well enough to defign the things men would be understood to speak of: and so they usually conceive well enough the substances meant by the word gold, or apple, to distinguish the one from the other. But in philofophical inquiries and debates, where general truths are to be established, and confequences drawn from pofitions laid down; there the precife fignification of the names of fubftances will be found, not only not to be well established, but also very hard to be fo. For example, he that fhall make malleableness, or a certain degree of fixednefs, a part of his complex idea of gold, may make propofitions concerning gold, and draw confequences from them, that will truly and clearly follow from gold, taken in fuch a fignification: but yet fuch as another man can never be
forced to admis, nor be convinced of their truth, who makes not malleableness, or the fame degree of fixedness, part of that complex idea, that the name gold, in his use of it, ftands for.
§. 16. This is a natural, and almost unavoidable imperfection in almost all the names of substances, in all languages whatfoever which men will eafily find, when once paffing from confufed or loofe notions, they come to more ftrict and clofe inquiries. For then they will be convinced how doubtful and obfcure those words are in their fignification, which in ordinary ufe appeared very clear and determined. I was once in a meeting of very learned and ingenious physicians, where by chance there arose a question, whether any liquor paffed through the filaments of the nerves. The debate having been managed a good while, by variety of arguments on both fides, I (who had been used to fufpect, that the greatest part of difputes were more about the fignification of words than a real difference in the conception of things) defired, that before they went any farther on in this difpute, they would firft examine, and establish amongst them, what the word liquor fignified. They at firft were a little furprised at the propofal; and had they been perfons lefs ingenious, they might perhaps have taken it for a very frivolous or extravagant one: fince there was no one there that thought not himself to underftand very perfectly what the word liquor ftood for; which I think too none of the moft perplexed names of fubftances. However, they were pleafed to comply with my motion, and upon examination found, that the fignification of that word was not fo fettled and certain as they had all imagined; but that each of them made it a fign of a different complex idea. This made them perceive that the main of their difpute was about the fignification of that term; and that they differed very little in their opinions, concerning fome fluid and fubtile matter, paffing through the conduits of the nerves; though it was not fo eafy to agree whether it was to be called liquor or no, a thing which, when confidered, they thought it not worth the contending about.
S. 17. How much this is the cafe, in the greatest part of difputes that men are en- gold. gaged fo hotly in, I fhall perhaps have an
occafion in another place to take notice. Let us only here confider a little more exactly the fore-mentioned inftance of the word gold, and we fhall fee how hard it is precisely to determine its fignification. I think all agree to make it stand for a body of a certain yellow fhining colour; which being the idea to which children have annexed that name, the fhining yellow part of a peacock's tail is properly to them gold. Others finding fufibility joined with that yellow colour in certain parcels of matter, make of that combination a complex idea, to which they give the name gold to denote a fort of substances; and fo exclude from being gold all fuch yellow fhining bodies, as by fire will be reduced to afhes; and admit to be of that fpecies, or to be comprehended under that name gold, only fuch fubftances as having that shining yellow colour will by fire be reduced to fufion, and not to ashes. Another by the same reafon adds the weight, which being a quality, as ftraitly joined with that colour, as its fufibility, he thinks has the fame reason to be joined in its idea, and to be fignified by its name: and therefore the other made up of body, of fuch a colour and fufibility, to be imperfect; and fo on of all the reft: wherein no one can fhow a reason why some of the infeparable qualities, that are always united in nature, fhould be put into the nominal effence, and others left out: or why the word 'gold, fignifying that fort of body the ring on his finger is made of, fhould determine that "fort rather by its colour, weight, and fufibility, than by its colour, weight, and folubility in aq. regia: fince the diffolving it by that liquor is as infeparable from it as the fufion by fire; and they are both of them nothing but the relation which that fubftance has to two other bodies, which have a power to operate differently upon it. For by what right is it that fufibility comes to be a part of the effence fignified by the word gold, and folubility but a property of it? or why is its colour part of the effence, and its malleableness but a property? That which I mean is VOL. II. C
this, That these being all but properties depending on its real conftitution, and nothing but powers, either active or pallive, in reference to other bodies: no one has authority to determine the fignification of the word gold (as referred to fuch a body exifting in nature) more to one collection of ideas to be found in that body than to another: whereby the fignification of that name muft unavoidably be very uncertain; fince, as has been faid, feveral people observe several properties in the fame fubftance; and, I think, I may fay no-body at all. And therefore we have but very imperfect descriptions of things, and words have very uncertain fignifications.
The names of fimple ideas the leaft
S. 18. From what has been faid, it is eafy to obferve what has been before remarked, viz. That the names of fimple ideas are, of all others, the leaft liable to mistakes, and that for these reasons. First, because the ideas they stand for, being each but one fingle perception, are much eafier got, and more clearly retained, than the more complex ones, and therefore are not liable to the uncertainty which ufually attends thofe compounded ones of fubftances and mixed modes, in which the precife number of fimple ideas, that make them up, are not easily agreed, and so readily kept in the mind. And fecondly, because they are never referred to any other effence, but barely that perception they immediately fignify which reference is that which renders the fignification of the names of fubftances naturally so perplexed, and gives occafion to fo many difputes. Men that do not perverfely use their words, or on purpose fet themselves to cavil, feldom miftake in any language, which they are acquainted with, the ufe and fignification of the names of fimple ideas: white and fweet, yellow and bitter, carry a very obvious meaning with them, which every one precifely comprehends, or cafily perceives he is ignorant of, and feeks to be informed. But what precife collection of fimple ideas modefty or frugality ftand for in another's ufe, is not fo certainly known. And however we are apt to think we well enough know what is meant by gold or iron; yet the precife complex idea, others make them the figns of,
And next to
is not fo certain: and I believe it is very seldom that, in fpeaker and hearer, they ftand for exactly the fame collection. Which must needs produce mistakes and difputes, when they are made ufe of in discourses, wherein men have to do with univerfal propofitions, and would fettle in their minds univerfal truths, and confider the confequences that follow from them. §. 19. By the fame rule, the names of fimple modes are, next to thofe of fimple ideas, least liable to doubt and uncertainty, especially those of figure and number, of which men have fo clear and diftinct ideas. that had a mind to understand them, miftook the ordinary meaning of feven, or a triangle? And in general the leaft compounded ideas in every kind have the least dubious names.
them, fimple modes.
the names of
very compounded mixed modes
§. 20. Mixed modes therefore, that are made up but of a few and obvious fimple ideas, have usually names of no very uncertain fignification. But the names of mixed modes, which comprehend a great number of fimple ideas, are commonly of a very doubtful and undetermined meaning, as has been shown. The names of fubftances, being annexed to ideas that are neither the real effences nor exact representations of the patterns they are referred to, are liable yet to greater imperfection and uncertainty, efpecially when we come to a philofophical use of them. §. 21. The great diforder that happens in our names of fubftances, proceeding for the moft part from our want of knowledge, and inability to penetrate into their real conftitutions, it may probably be wondered, why I charge this as an imperfection rather upon our words than understandings. This exception has fo much appearance of justice, that I think myself obliged to give a reason why I have followed this method. I must confess then, that when I first began this discourse of the understanding, and a good while after, I had not the leaft thought that any confideration of words was at all neceffary to it. But when having paffed over the original and compofi
Why this imperfection charged upon words.