A study of reading habits essay
It will possibly be censured as a great piece of vanity or insolence in me, to pretend to instruct this our knowing age; it amounting to little less, when I own, that I publish this Essay with hopes it may be useful to others. But if it may be permitted to speak freely of those, who with a feigned modesty condemn as useless, what they themselves write, methinks it savours much more of vanity or insolence, to publish a book for any other end; and he fails very much of that respect he owes the public, who prints, and consequently expects men should read that, wherein he intends not they should meet with any thing of use to themselves or others: and should nothing else be found allowable in this treatise, yet my design will not cease to be so; and the goodness of my intention ought to be some excuse for the worthlessness of my present. It is that chiefly which secures me from the fear of censure, which I expect not to escape more than better writers. Men’s principles, notions, and relishes are so different, that it is hard to find a book which pleases or displeases all men. I acknowledge the age we live in is not the least knowing, and therefore not the most easy to be satisfied. If I have not the good luck to please, yet nobody ought to be offended with me. I plainly tell all my readers, except half a dozen, this treatise was not at first intended for them; and therefore they need not be at the trouble to be of that number. But yet if any one thinks fit to be angry, and rail at it, he may do it securely: for I shall find some better way of spending my time, than in such kind of conversation. I shall always have the satisfaction to have aimed sincerely at truth and usefulness, though in one of the meanest ways. The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity; but every one must not hope to be a Boyle, or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters, as the great — Huygenius, and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain; it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge; which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree, that philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit, or uncapable to be brought into well-bred company, and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning, and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade, either those who speak, or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance, will be, I suppose, some service to human understanding: though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or that the language of the sect they are of, has any faults in it which ought to be examined or corrected; that I hope I shall be pardoned, if I have in the third book dwelt long on this subject, and endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalence of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those, who will not take care about the meaning of their own words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into.
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Treatise, which is grown up under your lordship’s eye, and has ventured into the world by your order, does now, by a natural kind of right, come to your lordship for that protection, which you several years since promised it. It is not that I think any name, how great soever, set at the beginning of a book, will be able to cover the faults that are to be found in it. Things in print must stand and fall by their own worth, or the Reader’s fancy. But there being nothing more to be desired for truth, than a fair unprejudiced hearing, nobody is more likely to procure me that than your lordship, who are allowed to have got so intimate an acquaintance with her, in her more retired recesses. Your lordship is known to have so far advanced your speculations in the most abstract and general knowledge of things, beyond the ordinary reach, or common methods, that your allowance and approbation of the design of this treatise, will at least preserve it from being condemned without reading; and will prevail to have those parts a little weighed, which might otherwise, perhaps, be thought to deserve no consideration, for being somewhat out of the common road. The imputation of novelty is a terrible charge amongst those who judge of men’s heads, as they do of their perukes, by the fashion; and can allow none to be right, but the received doctrines. Truth scarce ever yet carried it by vote any where at its first appearance: new opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason, but because they are not already common. But truth, like gold, is not the less so for being newly brought out of the mine. It is trial and examination must give it price, and not an antique fashion: and though it be not yet current by the public stamp; yet it may, for all that, be as old as nature, and is certainly not the less genuine. Your lordship can give great and convincing instances of this, whenever you please to oblige the public with some of those large and comprehensive discoveries you have made of truths hitherto unknown, unless to some few, from whom your lordship has been pleased not wholly to conceal them. This alone were a sufficient reason, were there no other, why I should dedicate this Essay to your lordship; and its having some little correspondence with some parts of that nobler and vast system of the sciences your lordship has made so new, exact, and instructive a draught of, I think it glory enough, if your lordship permit me to boast, that here and there I have fallen into some thoughts not wholly different from yours. If your lordship think fit, that, by your encouragement, this should appear in the world, I hope it may be a reason, some time or other, to lead your lordship farther; and you will allow me to say, that you here give the world an earnest of something, that, if they can bear with this, will be truly worth their expectation. This, my lord, shows what a present I here make to your lordship; just such as the poor man does to his rich and great neighbour, by whom the basket of flowers or fruit is not ill taken, though he has more plenty of his own growth, and in much greater perfection. Worthless things receive a value, when they are made the offerings of respect, esteem, and gratitude; these you have given me so mighty and peculiar reasons to have, in the highest degree, for your lordship, that if they can add a price to what they go along with, proportionable to their own greatness, I can with confidence brag, I here make your lordship the richest present you ever received. This I am sure, I am under the greatest obligations to seek all occasions to acknowledge a long train of favours I have received from your lordship; favours, though great and important in themselves, yet made much more so by the forwardness, concern, and kindness, and other obliging circumstances, that never failed to accompany them. To all this, you are pleased to add that which gives yet more weight and relish to all the rest: you vouchsafe to continue me in some degree of your esteem, and allow me a place in your good thoughts; I had almost said friendship. This, my lord, your words and actions so constantly show on all occasions, even to others when I am absent, that it is not vanity in me to mention what every body knows: but it would be want of good manners, not to acknowledge what so many are witnesses of, and every day tell me, I am indebted to your lordship for. I wish they could as easily assist my gratitude, as they convince me of the great and growing engagements it has to your lordship. This I am sure, I should write of the understanding without having any, if I were not extremely sensible of them, and did not lay hold on this opportunity to testify to the world, how much I am obliged to be, and how much I am,
The Essay on Human Understanding, that most distinguished of all his works, is to be considered as a system, at its first appearance absolutely new, and directly opposite to the notions and persuasions then established in the world. Now as it seldom happens that the person who first suggests a discovery in any science is at the same time solicitous, or perhaps qualified to lay open all the consequences that follow from it; in such a work much of course is left to the reader, who must carefully apply the leading principles to many cases and conclusions not there specified. To what else but a neglect of this application shall we impute it that there are still numbers amongst us who profess to pay the greatest deference to Mr. Locke, and to be well acquainted with his writings, and would perhaps take it ill to have this pretension questioned; yet appear either wholly unable, or unaccustomed, to draw the natural consequence from any one of his principal positions? Why, for instance, do we still continue so unsettled in the first principles and foundation of morals? How came we not to perceive that by the very same arguments which that great author used with so much success in extirpating innate ideas, he most effectually eradicated all innate or connate senses, instincts, &c. by not only leading us to conclude that every such sense must, in the very nature of it, imply an object correspondent to and of the same standing with itself, to which it refers [as each relative implies its correlate], the real existence of which object he has confuted in every shape; but also by showing that for each moral proposition men actually want and may demand a reason or proof deduced from another science, and founded on natural good and evil: and consequently where no such reason can be assigned, these same senses or instincts, with whatever titles decorated, whether styled sympathetic or sentimental, common or intuitive,—ought to be looked upon as no more than mere habits; under which familiar name their authority is soon discovered, and their effects accounted for.