Part 1 Sec 1: The Origin of our Ideas



  • All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into:
    1. impressions
    2. ideas
  • The difference between these is in the degrees of force and liveliness they:
    • strike the mind, and
    • enter into our consciousness
  • ‘Impressions’ are perceptions which enter with most force and violence.
    • This includes all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they first appear to the soul.
  • ‘Ideas’ are the faint images of impressions, in thinking and reasoning.
    • Examples are all the perceptions except:
      • those from the sight and touch, and
      • the immediate pleasure or uneasiness caused by perceptions from sight and touch.
  • Everyone will readily perceive the difference between feeling and thinking.
    • Sometimes, they may very nearly approach to each other.
    • In sleep, fever, madness, or in any very violent emotions of the soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions.
    • Sometimes, our impressions are so faint and low that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas.
  • Despite their near resemblance, they are generally very different.
    • No one can make a scruple to:
      • rank them under distinct heads
      • assign a name to each to mark the difference [Footnote 1].

Footnote 1:

  • Here, I use ‘impression’ and ‘idea’ in a different sense from the usual.
  • I am restoring the word ‘idea’ to its original sense from which Mr. Locke had perverted it.
    • He made it stand for all our perceptions.
  • ‘Impression’ does not mean how our lively perceptions are produced in the soul.
    • It merely means the perceptions themselves.


  • Our perceptions are also divided into simple and complex.
    • Simple perceptions are impressions and ideas that admit of no distinction nor separation.
    • Complex ones, on the contrary, may be distinguished into parts.
      • A particular colour, taste, and smell, are qualities all united together in this apple.
        • But it is easy to perceive that they are:
          • not the same, and
          • at least distinguishable from each other.


  • These divisions give an order to our objects so that we may consider their qualities and relations more accurately.
  • The first circumstance that strikes my eye, is the great resemblance between our impressions and ideas, except in their degree of force and vivacity.
    • The one seems as the reflection of the other in a way, so that all the perceptions of the mind:
      • are double
      • appear as impressions and ideas.
  • When I shut my eyes and think of my room, the ideas I form are exact representations of the impressions I felt.
    • There is no circumstance of the one, which is not found in the other.
  • In running over my other perceptions, I still find the same resemblance and representation.
    • Ideas and impressions always appear to correspond to each other.
      • To me, this seems remarkable.
      • It engages my attention for a moment.


  • After a more accurate survey, I find that:
    • I have been carried away too far by the first appearance.
    • I must distinguish simple and complex perceptions to limit the general decision, that all our ideas and impressions resemble.
  • Many of our complex ideas never had impressions that corresponded to them.
  • Many of our complex impressions never are exactly copied in ideas.
    • I can imagine a city called New Jerusalem, whose pavement is gold and walls are rubies, though I never saw any such.
    • I have seen Paris.
      • But can I form an idea of Paris that will perfectly represent all its streets and houses in their real proportions?


  • Generally, our complex impressions and ideas resemble greatly.
    • But the rule is not universally true, that they are exact copies of each other.
  • The rule on simple perceptions holds has no exception.
    • Every simple idea has a resembling simple impression.
    • Every simple impression has a correspondent idea.
  • Our idea of red, which we form in the dark, and the red which strikes our eyes in sunshine, differ only in degree, not in nature.


  • It is impossible to prove that the case is the same with all our simple impressions and ideas by enumerating them.
    • Everyone may satisfy himself by running over as many as he pleases.
    • But if anyone denies this universal resemblance, I do not know how to convince him, but by asking him to show:
      • a simple impression that has no correspondent idea, or
      • a simple idea, that has no correspondent impression.
    • He cannot answer this.
      • We may establish our conclusion from his silence and our own observation.


  • Thus, we find that all simple ideas and impressions resemble each other.
    • Generally, simple ideas and impressions are exactly correspondent, as the complex are formed from them.
  • How do simple ideas and impressions exist?
  • Which of the impressions and ideas are causes and effects?


  • The full examination of this question is the subject of the present treatise.
  • We shall here content ourselves with establishing one general proposition, that:
    • in their first appearance, all our simple ideas are derived from simple impressions which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.


  • I only find two kinds of phenomena to prove this proposition.
  • I first review what I have already asserted, that:
    • every simple impression is attended with a correspondent idea
    • every simple idea with a correspondent impression
  • From this constant conjunction of resembling perceptions, I immediately conclude that:
    • there is a great connection between our correspondent impressions and ideas
    • the existence of the one has a considerable influence on that of the other.
  • Such a constant conjunction, in such an infinite number of instances, can never arise from chance.
    • It clearly proves a dependence of:
      • the impressions on the ideas, or
      • the ideas on the impressions.
  • I consider the order of their first appearance to know on which side this dependence lies.
    • By constant experience, I find that the simple impressions always precede their correspondent ideas, but never appear in the contrary order.
  • To give a child an idea of scarlet or orange, of sweet or bitter, I present the objects.
    • I convey to him these impressions.
    • I do not so absurdly try to produce the impressions by exciting the ideas.
  • Our ideas on their appearance do not produce their correspondent impressions.
    • We do not perceive any colour or feel any sensation merely on thinking of them.
  • On the other hand, we find that any impression of the mind or body is constantly followed by an idea which resembles it.
    • It is only different in the degrees of force and liveliness.
  • The constant conjunction of our resembling perceptions is a convincing proof that the one are the causes of the other.
    • This priority of the impressions is an equal proof that our impressions are the causes of our ideas, not our ideas of our impressions.


  • If the senses are faulty, as when one is born blind or deaf, the impressions and their correspondent ideas are lost.
    • Their smallest traces never appear in the mind.
    • This is true where the senses are:
      • entirely destroyed, and
      • never used.
  • We cannot form an idea of a pineapple’s taste, without having actually tasted it.


  • However, there is one contradictory phenomenon which may prove that it is not absolutely impossible for ideas to go before their impressions.
    • The distinct ideas of colours or sounds conveyed by the senses, are really different from each other, though resembling at the same time.
  • If this is true of different colours, then it must be also true of the different shades of the same colour.
    • Each of them produces a distinct idea independent of the rest.
    • If this is denied, then it is possible to run a colour insensibly into a colour most remote from it, by the continual gradation of shades.
    • If you will not allow any of the means to be different, you cannot deny the extremes to be the same.


  • Suppose a person enjoyed his sight for 30 years.
    • He has become perfectly acquainted with all colours, except one shade of blue which he never seen.
    • Place all the shades of blue before him, except that one, descending from the deepest to the lightest.
      • He will perceive a blank where that shade is missing.
      • He will be sensible that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours, than in any other.
  • Is it possible for him, from his own imagination, to:
    • supply this deficiency
    • raise by himself the idea of that shade never conveyed to him by his senses?
  • I believe a few will think that he can.
    • This may serve as a proof that the simple ideas are not always derived from the correspondent impressions.
    • Though the instance is so particular and singular, it:
      • is not worth our observing
      • does not merit altering our general maxim.


  • Besides this exception, the principle of the priority of impressions to ideas has another limitation:
    • Our ideas are images of our impressions.
    • We can form secondary ideas, which are images of the primary ideas.
  • This is not an exception to the rule so much as an explanation of it.
  • Ideas produce the images of themselves in new ideas.
    • The first ideas are supposed to be derived from impressions.
    • All our simple ideas proceed from their correspondent impressions.


  • This is the first principle I establish in the science of human nature.
    • We should not despise it because of its simple appearance.
    • For it is remarkable, that the present question on the precedence of our impressions or ideas, is the same with what has made so much noise in other terms, when it has been disputed whether:
      • there are any innate ideas, or
      • all ideas are derived from sensation and reflection.
  • Philosophers only show that ideas are conveyed by our senses, to prove that the ideas of extension and colour are not innate.
    • To prove that the ideas of passion and desire not to be innate, they observe that we have a preceding experience of these emotions in ourselves.
  • These arguments only prove that ideas are preceded by other more lively perceptions:
    • from which they are derived
    • which they represent.
  • I hope this clear stating of the question will:
    • remove all disputes concerning it
    • render this principle more useful in our reasonings.

Words: 1670

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