Excerpt fromAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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Excerpt from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


Philosophy, The Notion of Infinity, The Limits of the Human Mind


In this passage, John Locke puts forth his ideas on the concept of infinity. He argues that, because we have never seen something truly infinite, we cannot entirely grasp the nature of infinity. This follows from his argument earlier in An Esssay Concerning Human Understanding that the mind is initially a "blank slate" before it is then shaped by one's experiences. Thus, Locke believes that since we only ever perceive the finite world, we will never understand anything infinite.


John Locke


Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” LibertyFund.org, Online Library of Liberty, 2010, oll.libertyfund.org/titles/locke-the-works-vol-1-an-essay-concerning-human-understanding-part-1/simple#lf0128-01_label_339.


Online Library of Liberty




Nick Masterman-Bellflowers




Essay on Philosophy


John Locke's Thoughts on the Notion of Infinity


17th century England

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He that would know what kind of idea it is to which we give the name of infinity, cannot do it better than by considering to what infinity is by the mind more immediately attributed; and then how the mind comes to frame it. Finite and infinite seem to me to be looked upon by the mind as the modes of quantity, and to be attributed primarily in their first designation only to those things which have parts, and are capable of increase or diminution by the addition or subtraction of any the least part: and such are the ideas of space, duration, and number, which we have considered in the foregoing chapters. It is true, that we cannot but be assured, that the great God, of whom and from whom are all things, is incomprehensibly infinite: but yet, when we apply to that first and supreme Being our idea of infinite, in our weak and narrow thoughts, we do it primarily in respect to his duration and ubiquity; and, I think, more figuratively to his power, wisdom, and goodness, and other attributes, which are properly inexhaustible and incomprehensible, etc. For, when we call them infinite, we have no other idea of this infinity but what carries with it some reflection on, and imitation of, that number or extent of the acts or objects of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness, which can never be supposed so great, or so many, which these attributes will not always surmount and exceed, let us multiply them in our thoughts as far as we can, with all the infinity of endless number. I do not pretend to say how these attributes are in God, who is infinitely beyond the reach of our narrow capacities: they do, without doubt, contain in them all possible perfection: but this, I say, is our way of conceiving them, and these our ideas of their infinity.

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John Locke, “Excerpt fromAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Enlightenmens, accessed January 30, 2023, http://enlightenmens.lmc.gatech.edu/items/show/397.

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