Why Are Locke’s ‘Complex Ideas’ Easier to Comprehend than his ‘Simple Ideas’?

Locke’s Complex Ideas

     Most of what we’ve talked about so far (in relation to ideas) concerns ideas, generally considered, and simple ideas.  Recall that all ideas have as their source either perception or reflection on the operations of the mind; and in the case of simple ideas the mind is always passive (II. xii. 1).  In other words, where simple ideas are concerned, the mind cannot create them nor can the mind have any complex idea which is not made up of one or more simple ideas.   Let’s take a more detailed look at what this means and what Locke has to say about complex ideas.
     The general theory is that simple ideas are the material out of which we construct complex ideas.  When we construct complex ideas the mind is active; the mind is active in three main ways: “1. combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made. 2. By  bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together; and setting them by one another, so as to take a view of tehm at once, without uniting them into one; by which way it gets all its ideas of relations.  3. Separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence; this is called abstraction: and thus all general ideas are made” (II. xii. 1).
     Lets break this shit down…wika wika… The first type of activity of the mind that produces complex ideas is compounding, or mixing of 2 or more simple ideas (that we already have stored in our memory).  Example of such ideas are: beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe.  When we contemplate things like beauty or the universe we consider them to be one unified thing but they are made up of many simple ideas.  ‘Beauty’ is made up of all our different ideas of physical qualities along with the idea of perfection; ‘the universe’ is made up of the collection of all the ideas of things that are in the universe.  There are an infinite number of ways and combinations we can unify different our various basic ideas to form new ones, much like there is an infinite number of ways we can combine physical materials to form new objects.   At the end of the day, however, our complex ideas are ultimately comprised of simple ideas, just as the most complex objects are made of their fundamental materials.
      Of the infinite ways simple ideas can be compounded they will all generally fall under 3 headings: Modes, Substances, and Relations.  A mode is like a concept; it doesn’t correspond to anything in the physical world.  Things in this list include, beauty, theft, politics, happiness, triangle.  You may say, “well, triangles exist in the physical world”.  True, but the concept of a triangle (ideas of closed figure, 3 sides, 3 interior that add up to 180 degree) doesn’t require that a physical triangle exist. 
     Substances are combinations of simple ideas that represent distinct and particular things that exist in the physical world.  For example if we affix to the idea of substance the simple ideas of weight, hardness, ductility, and fusibility we have the idea of lead.  If we affix to the idea of substance the simple ideas of a human-like shape, with power of motion, thought, and reasoning, we get the complex ideas of ‘human’.  We can also further combine complex ideas of substance.  If we combine the idea of ‘a soldier’ with the idea of ‘several’ and we get the new substance (i.e. thing) ‘army’.
     Finally, there are complex ideas of relations where we compare one idea (simple or complex) with another to form a new idea.   For example, if I compare the idea of a small box with a big box I can get the new idea of ‘bigger’.
     Despite our capacity to form even “the most abstruse ideas, who remote soever they may seem from sense, or from any operation of our own mind…are derived from sensation or reflection, being no other than what the mind, by ordinary use of its own faculties, employed about ideas, received from objects of sense, or from the operations it observes in itself about them” (II. xii. 8).  In other words, no matter how complicated your ideas and concepts, they are all reducible to their origins as simple irreducible ideas.
    You may have noticed I di’int go into detail about abstraction and are very much irritated at me for not doing so.  I feel your pain.  I’ll talk about that laters…



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