Lesson I. Of Notions

Lesson I. Of Notions, or the very First Ground on which all Science is built.

  1. We experience, that Impressions are made upon our Senses, and that those Impressions are Different, according to the different Nature of the Objects that imprint them.
  2. We experience also, that those Impressions do not stay in the Outward Senses, but reach the Soul, and effect it.
  3. Every thing being received according to the nature of the Subject that receives it, and the nature of the Soul being a Capacity of Knowledge; hence, those Impressions must affect the Soul, as to cause some kind of Knowledge in her, how rude and Imperfect soever it may yet be.
  4. The Impressions from the Objects that affect the Senses, and by them the Soul, do carry the very Nature of those Objects along with them, and imprint them on the Soul: which Prints, or, as it were, Stamps, as received in the Understanding, we call Notions.
  5. Wherefore Notions are the First and Rudest Draughts of Knowledge; being most Simple, and Naturally wrought in the Soul by the strokes of occurring Objects, without any Industry or Active Concurrence on our part.
  6. That these Notions are the very Natures of the Thing, or the Thing it self existing in us intellectually, and not a bare Idea or Similitude of it, appears hence evidently, that when we say interiourly, or judge A Stone is hard, we do not intend to affirm, That the Likeness or Idea of a Stone is hard, but the very Stone it self. And were it not so, the Proposition would be false; (for the Similitude of a Stone in our Mind is not Hard:) whereas yet we are assur’d that Proposition is True.
  7. Again, we experience, that we consider, judge, and discourse of the very Thing it self, and of its very Nature; which (these being Interiour or Immanent Acts, bred and perfected within our Soul) we could not do, unless the Objects of those Acts, or the very Things themselves were there.
  8. Lastly, It cannot be deny’d, but that we have in our Soul the full and compleat Sense of this Proposition, and Notions of every distinct part of it, viz.[There is in me the Idea or Likeness of a Stone.] Therefore there is in me something signified by the word [Stone] not only distinct from Idea and Likeness, but moreover Relatively Opposite to it; which can be nothing but the very Stone it self.
  9. Nor need it cause and Wonder, that the same Ens or Thing may have diverse Manners of Existing; one Corporeal, the other Intellectual or Spiritual; since the Thing (v.g. Peter) * [B.3.? S…?] abstracts even from Existence it self; for ‘tis not found in the Notion or Meaning of that word, that the Thing signified by it Exists, or not Exists; much more than does the Notion of Thing abstract from (that is, is Indifferent to) all Manners of Existing.
  10. The words Notion, Simple Apprehension, Conception, and Meaning, are all synonymous terms. They are called Notions, because they are the Parts or Elements of Knowledge; which, put and consider’d together, make Cognition, which is Proper and Compleat Knowledge. They are call’d Simple Apprehension, to distinguish them from Judgment, which are compounded of more Notions, and belong to the Second Operation of our Understanding. Or rather, because by them we simple or barely Apprehend, that is, lay hold of, or take into us the thing, about which we afterwards Judge or Discourse. They are call’d Meanings, because they affect the Mind, which only can mean or intend; or else, in relation to the Words whose Meanings they are. They are called Conceptions, in order to the Power, which, impregnated by the Objection, conceives or (as it were) breeds them as the Embryo’s of Knowledge. Lastly, they are said to be the Natures of the Things, because (as was shewn) they are such essentially and formally; in nothing differing from them, but only that they connotate a new Manner of Existing, which [* B.3 L.7, S.4,6.] is Extrinsical to the Thing, and to the Nature or Essence of it.
    The word [Idea] is the least proper, because it seems to signifie a bare Similitude; unless the Users of it would express themselves to take it in the sence in which we take the word [Notion] here; or, as we use to understand it when we say, that the Idea’s of all things were in the Divine Intellect before they were created; that is, their very Essences.
  11. Notions are called Simple Apprehensions, not from their Fewness of the words that express them, nor from their not having any Grammatical Composition or Syntax in them: but, from the nature or manner of this Operation of our Understanding. For, since (as was said) they are called Simple Apprehensions, because by them we simply or barely apprehend or lay ahld of the Nature of the Thing intellectually; it matters not how many or how few the words are, so we do no more than merely Apprehend or Take the Meaning of the Words, or the Notions, into our minds, without Judging or Discoursing of them. Whence, we may have a simple Apprehension of a long Sentence, nay, of a whole Sermon or a great Book as long as we do not set our selves to judge or Discourse of the Truth or Falsehood of what’s said or writ; but purely to Apprehend the Sence or Meaning of the Speaker or Writer.
  12. Notions being the Natures of the Things in us, have neither Truth nor Falsehood in them formally; since they do neither affirm or deny (only with Speeches are capable of Formal Verity or Falsity) any more than does the Thing it self as it stands in Nature, or out of the Understanding.
  13. All the Verity they have is in their Metaphysical Verity, or their being truly what they are. And they partake this from the Idea’s in the Divine Understanding, from which they unerringly flow, and which are essentially Unchangeable. By which we see how the God of Truth is the sole Author of all the Truth that is in us, and how he does (ordinarily) communicate it to us, viz. by Fixing unalterably the Natures or Essences of Things; from which, being thus Establish’d and imprinted on our Minds by our Senses, all Science and Truth in us have their Certainty originally.
  14. All true Science being thus built on the Immovable Stability of the Essences or Natures of Created Beings, it follows necessarily, that all Discourses that are not Agreeable to the Natures of Things, and Grounded on them, are Frothy, Incoherent, and False, and if pursued home, must be found to have a Contradiction for their First Principle, in regard they make the Natures of the Things to be what they are not.
  15. Wherefore Notions being the Natures of the Things in our Understanding, the Method to pursue True Science is, to attend and hold heedfully and steadily to those Notions which the Things without us have imprinted or stamp’d in our Minds; and to be very careful lest Imaginations (which are the Offsprings of Fancy, and do oft misrepresent the Thing) do delude us, or the Equivocation of Words draw us aside, and make us deviate from those Genuine and Nature instill’d Notions.


Corol. I. Hence is seen how Unreasonable the Scepticks are who endeavour to undermine all Science, by pretending that all our Notions are Uncertain. For they being caus’d by Natural Impressions on our Senses, those Men may as well pretend, that Water does not wet, or Fire burn, as that the Objects work not their several Effects upon our Senses. If they contend, that, every Man’s individual Temper being different, our Notions must therefore differ to some Degree in every Man, they oppose not us, who say the same; nor will this break any square, in our Discoursing and our Understanding one another; for few Men (perhaps none) can reach these Individual Differences, nor consequently mean them or intend to speak of them when they discourse. But, if they say they are not the same in all Men (whose Senses of imagination are not disordered by some Accidental Disease) substantially and in the main; then, besides what has been now alledged, they are confuted by this, that Mankind has now for some thousands of Years held Conversation with one another, yet it was never observ’d that they could not understand one anothers Meaning in Discourse about Natural Objects; or if any hap’d to occurr which was Ambiguous, that they could not make their Notions known by Explications; or if there had been some notable variation in their Notions, (as when to Icterical persons, all things seem yellow, or sweet things bitter to depraved Tasts) the Mistake can easily be made manifest and corrected by the Standard of the Generality of Mankind, who assure them of their Misapprehension; and of Learned Men particularly, who find the Cause of their Mistake to proceed from some Disease perverting Nature, or some Circumstances of the unduly-proposed Object, or of the Medium; or from our Inability to reach to some minute Considerations belonging to its Composition, Figure. &c. which hinder not our having Science of it in other Cases.

Corol. II. Hence also is shewn the Vanity of that Tenet that maintains the Pre-existence of Souls, as far as it depends on this Ground, That Knowledges are only Excited or Awaken’d (as it were) by the Objects working on the Senses, and not Imprinted there by them. For, this Ground shakes, by manifesting the Ways and Means laid by Nature to beget those Knowledges in the Soul, and convey them thither from the Objects. Besides, (which overthrows all their Hypothesis) the Knowledge that I am hic & nunc thus affected, cannot with any sence be pretended to have been Pre-existent to the Time and Place in which that Particular Knowledge was made; since neither ehat [sic. what] Time nor (perhaps) Place was then in Being. Whence it follows, that the Soul can gain some new Knowledges, and this by the Senses; and if any or some, why not, with equal reason, all that the same Senses can receive from Objects imprinted in her; which (as far as it depends on this way of instilling Knowledge) may reach in a manner all Nature, and by the assistance of Reflexion, Discourse and Art improving it, may stretch it self much farther.

Corol. III. From this whole Discourse it appears, that whatever other Method of attaining Science some may propose, however it may seem witty, and one piece of their Doctrine be consonant to the other, and all of them consequent to the Principles they lay; yet it will, I say, evidently appear, that the way they take can never be that which GOD and Nature have laid to ingraft Knowledge in us. Whence, tho’ such Discoursers may shew much Art, yet, in reality, and if it be examin’d to the bottom, all their Plausible Contexture and Explication of their own Scheme, will be found no better than the running pretty strains of Division upon no Ground; since their pretended Knowledges do not begin with, nor grow up orderly from the Natures of the Things themselves, or from our Natural Notions, which are the Seeds of Science.

Corol. IV. Our Discourse here abstracts from that Question, Whether sensible Qualities are Inherent in the Object or in the Sentient? It is enough for my purpose that the Objects work upon the Senses, so as to imprint by their means several Notions in the Mind. Yet, I do not see how Mr. Hobbs proves (for he does not so much as attempt it) that Light coming from the Object does not carry away with it some Particles of it; since we experience, that the Sun beams dry up great Ponds, which they could not do, unless they did, when reflected, dip their dry Wings in that moist Element, and return with some Particles of Water into the Air; which, when multiply’d, are condensed afterwards into Clouds: And I believe it will be granted, that the Sun-beams reflected from the Moon bring along with them moist Vapours. Much less is it conceivable, that in Smells and Tasts nothing at all of the Nature of those Objects should be convey’d by the Nerves to the Brain, but only a certain kind of Motion. ‘Tis not my task to defend the Opinions of Schoolmen, nor those of vulgar Philosophers, which he impugns, but to mind my own business. Tho’ had I a mind to lose a little time, it were easie to shew, that he seems to mistake all-along our Perceptions for what is perceiv’d of the Object: And I might as easily deny, that Colour (for example) is nothing but Light; and affirm that ‘tis such a disposition in the surface of a Body, Figur’d thus or thus with Parts and Pores, as is apt to reflect more or less of the Light, and then to assert, that that Disposition of the Surface is truly and really Inherent in the Object or Body it self, —sed haec obiter.

Edited by Jonathan Vajda, 2020 (c)