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What Makes Locke’s Simple Ideas Adequate?
A Response to Bermúdez

Sally Ferguson

In a recent paper, José Luis Bermúdez argues that Locke’s claim that all simple ideas are adequate is inconsistent with other claims he makes in the Essay concerning the nature of such ideas. 1  In particular, Bermúdez argues that Locke is unjustified in claiming that all simple ideas are adequate, because simple ideas of secondary qualities are in fact not. In this paper I argue that Bermúdez has missed an essential aspect of Locke’s distinction and has therefore misconstrued his claims.
    Locke’s statement of the distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas is as follows: 2 

Of our real Ideas some are Adequate, and some are Inadequate. Those I call Adequate, which perfectly represent those Archetypes, which the Mind supposes them taken from; which it intends them to stand for, and to which it refers them. Inadequate Ideas are such, which are but a partial, or incomplete representation of those Archetypes to which they are referred. (II. xxxi. 1)

It is unfortunate that this is Locke’s most explicit statement of the meaning of ‘adequate’. The question, of course, is what Locke means here by the expression ‘perfectly represent’. Most puzzling to Bermúdez is Locke’s claim (II. xxxi. 2) that all simple ideas are adequate, or, which is the same, that they all perfectly represent their archetypes. Bermúdez argues that [31]

It would seem, on Locke’s own theory, however, that there is no such perfect correspondence between simple ideas and their ‘Archetypes’. For simple ideas are divided into ideas of primary qualities and ideas of secondary qualities, and Locke is adamant that only the former can be said perfectly to represent the objects from which they are derived. (p. 41)

    Bermúdez relies for this conclusion on the following section from the Essay, where Locke discusses the different way in which an idea of a primary quality is related to its object from the way an idea of a secondary quality is to its object:

[T]he Ideas of primary Qualities of Bodies, are Resemblances of them, and their Patterns do really exist in the Bodies themselves; but the Ideas, produced in us by these Secondary Qualities, have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our Ideas, existing in the Bodies themselves. They are in the Bodies, we denominate from them, only a Power to produce those Sensations in us . . . . (II. viii.15)

From this passage, Bermúdez concludes that ideas of secondary qualities cannot in fact perfectly represent their objects. Locke is therefore mistaken, he argues, and claiming too much, when he says that all of our simple ideas are adequate. In fact, the most Locke can claim at this point, Bermúdez thinks, is that simple ideas of secondary qualities are real but not adequate, while simple ideas of primary qualities are both real and adequate. On the presumption that it is the adequacy of ideas that provides the basis for his representative realism, Bermúdez argues, Locke must rely only on ideas of primary qualities as the foundation for his theory of meaning and as the source of intersubjectivity. At this point Bermúdez reintroduces Berkeley’s objections to show that Locke cannot appeal to the fact that primary qualities are adequate, either, and so cannot get any adequate ideas at all. (These objections involve Berkeley’s claims to the effect that there is no clear distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and also that there is no resemblance in either case.) [32]
    I will argue that Bermúdez has missed the point of Locke’s distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas, and he has misrepresented Locke’s claims for his theory. That he has misunderstood the distinction is ultimately made clear from his use of the passage found at II. viii. 15, quoted above. In that passage, Locke speaks of ideas of primary qualities as resemblances of their objects and ideas of secondary qualities as having no such resemblance. He does not speak of either as perfectly representing their objects, as he does in the passage explaining the distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas. Bermúdez, however, claims that the passage at II. viii. 15 shows that Locke thought that ideas of secondary qualities do not in fact perfectly represent their objects. The question is, therefore, whether or not there is a difference, for Locke, between resemblance and perfect representation. It is only if these notions are the same that the claim that ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble their objects would contradict Locke’s claim that all simple ideas are adequate.
    Let me make the situation clear. Locke certainly does mean to include simple ideas of secondary qualities in the category of adequate ideas that perfectly represent their objects. This is true because he argues that they are all adequate, and the gloss for ‘adequate’ is ‘perfectly represent’ (II. xxxi.1: ‘Those I call Adequate, which perfectly represent those Archetypes, which the Mind supposes them taken from’). Immediately after making the distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas, moreover, Locke claims that it follows quite obviously that all simple ideas are adequate. The examples he relies upon are in fact simple ideas of secondary qualities, namely the whiteness and sweetness of sugar. Therefore, simple ideas of secondary qualities must, in some sense, perfectly represent their ‘archetypes’. On the other hand, he also clearly wants to exclude these ideas from the class of those that resemble their objects. He stresses that ideas of primary qualities resemble their objects while those [33] of secondary qualities do not, at II. viii. 15: ‘the Ideas of primary Qualities of Bodies, are Resemblances of them, and their Patterns do really exist in the Bodies themselves; but the Ideas, produced in us by these Secondary Qualities, have no resemblance of them at all’. The point of this rehearsal is to show that Locke is quite explicit about both points (that on the one hand simple ideas of secondary qualities are adequate or perfectly represent their objects, but on the other hand they are none the less not resemblances of them). Therefore it seems we need to find some way to explain what he means by ‘perfectly represent’ that does not imply that he means ‘resemble’.
    Of course, the best solution would be to enter into a full discussion of the use of the terms ‘represent’ and ‘representation’ in the Essay, to establish that Locke meant one thing consistently by his use of them, and moreover that that one thing does not include resemblance. I do not think that much is necessary for the present purpose, and in fact it may not be possible. 3  What is necessary is to explain what Locke means by ‘perfectly represent’ in the context of his discussion of adequacy. I argue that it can be made clear that what Locke has in mind here is not resemblance but some notion of completeness. This is pointed to in the explanation of what makes an idea inadequate, rather than adequate. There Locke says that: [34]

Inadequate Ideas are such, which are but a partial, or incomplete representation of those Archetypes to which they are referred. (II. xxxi. 1)

    As contrasted with this, what makes an idea adequate, or such that it perfectly represents its object, ought to be that it is not partial and is complete. Let us explore the possibility. Since we are talking about representations here, we must consider what in general might be said to make a representation complete, rather than incomplete. A representation is typically composed of elements that are thought to correspond, in some sense, to elements in the object it is intended to represent. Consider, for example, representations of car accidents that are used in courtrooms. They contain cut-outs that represent the cars involved. Perhaps they also include cut-outs that represent the bystanders who witnessed the accident, or certain salient features of the landscape. Notice that what is important in a courtroom representation is that certain salient elements (cars, witnesses) are represented, and are in the correct relationship to one another. What is irrelevant is whether or not the elements of the representation in any way resemble the objects they are intended to represent. So, for example, one might use a matchstick to represent one car, a paper-clip to represent another, and jelly beans to represent the witnesses. The fact that paper-clips do not resemble cars and jelly beans do not look much like people is irrelevant. As long as there is a jelly bean for each witness, and a paper-clip or matchstick for each car involved, and they are appropriately related to one another, we might say that the representation is complete. There are no elements missing. Nothing important in the original is going unrepresented.
    This is of course a crude example. I would argue that, nevertheless, something like this crude example is what Locke is getting at when he speaks of ideas as adequate, or of mental representations, i.e. of ideas, as complete or incomplete. What [35] makes a representation complete rather than incomplete, for Locke, is that it contains a representational element for each element of the object it is possible to represent. If we understand Locke to have meant something like complete representation by his term adequate, then a number of things he says about adequacy become clear. It is clear, for example, why Locke would claim that none of our complex ideas of substances are ever adequate, as he does in the following:

Secondly, the complex Ideas of Substances are . . . not adequate: which is very evident to the Mind, in that it plainly perceives, that whatever Collection of simple Ideas it makes of any Substance that exists, it cannot be sure, that it exactly answers all that are in that Substance. Since not having tried all the Operations of all other Substances upon it, and found all the Alterations it would receive from, or cause in other Substances, it cannot have an exact adequate Collection of all its active and passive Capacities; and so not have an adequate complex Idea of the Powers of any Substance, existing, and its Relations, which is that sort of complex Idea of Substances we have. (II xxxi. 13)

An individual substance simply has too many elements for any representation of it to take full account of them all. As Locke points out, even if one were to include a representational element for every primary and immediately perceivable secondary quality, there are the qualities by which a substance operates ‘on other Bodies, so to change their primary Qualities, as to render them capable of producing Ideas in us, different from what before they did’ (II. viii. 26). These Locke calls ‘secondary Qualities, mediately perceivable’ (ibid.). To capture all of these would involve testing the individual substance in question against all other substances, which is just not possible. Locke’s terminology in this passage reinforces the claim that adequacy, or perfect representation, does not involve resemblance, but rather involves completeness—the notion of including all elements of the subject in the representation. He stresses the fact that not all [36] of the things that can be said to be elements of the substance, especially its mediately perceivable secondary qualities, will ever be included in any collection that constitutes the complex idea one has of that substance. It is this fact that renders the idea inadequate.
      A similar emphasis on adequacy as completeness is apparent in the following passage concerning the complex idea of the substance gold:

But, if he leave out of this his complex Idea, that of Fixedness quite, without either actually joining to, or separating of it from the rest in his Mind, it is, I think, to be looked on, as an inadequate and imperfect Idea, rather than a false one: since though it contains not all the simple Ideas, that are united in Nature, yet it puts none together, but what do really exist together. (II. xxxii. 18)

That the idea ‘contains not all the simple Ideas, that are united in Nature’ renders it inadequate. That it ‘puts none together, but what do really exist together’ renders it not false. Using this sense of the term adequate, it is made clear why Locke would say that none of our ideas of substances are ever adequate. It is likewise made clear why our complex ideas of modes, on the other hand, are always adequate. Such ideas are not, as Locke is fond of putting it, ‘referred’ to any real existences, and so cannot fail to represent anything that it is possible to represent in those existences. Complex ideas of modes are therefore adequate in a trivial sense:

Our complex Ideas of Modes, being voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without reference to any real Archetypes, or standing Patterns, existing any where, are, and cannot but be adequate Ideas. Because they not being intended for Copies of Things really existing, but for Archetypes made by the Mind, to rank and denominate Things by, cannot want any thing; they having each of them that combination of Ideas, and thereby that perfection which the Mind intended they [37] should: So that the Mind acquiesces in them, and can find nothing wanting. (II. xxxi. 3)

Complex ideas of modes are adequate because they are always complete in a trivial sense. They ‘cannot want any thing’ that is in what they are intended to represent, because they are not intended to represent anything. Where there is no intended object of a representation, how can anything be left out? The question remains, however, just what underlies the adequacy of simple ideas. Locke claims that it is ‘plain’ that simple ideas are all adequate. One would expect his argument to be just the reverse of the one that shows that our complex ideas of substances are inadequate. That is, one would expect Locke to argue that simple ideas contain all of the elements of the objects they represent, and so are complete and therefore adequate. In fact, what Locke does in the case of simple ideas is to repeat, in effect, his argument that simple ideas are all real. He says that simple ideas are adequate because they are caused and not made by the mind, and because the mind is passive in the reception of those ideas (II. xxxi. 2).
    This is mystifying at first, and appears to leave room for Bermúdez to renew his objections to Locke’s claim that simple ideas are all adequate, along something like the following lines. He might say that, surely, Locke cannot be thinking that in general simple ideas are adequate, in the sense of being complete that we have been using. Simple ideas of secondary qualities answer to powers in the objects that produce them (II. viii. 10). The powers that go to produce such simple ideas as white or sweet are in fact the result of complex qualities of the object that produces them. They are the result of some complex of texture, shape and motion of the insensible parts of the object (II. viii. 10, 13, 14). A simple idea of white (to use the example Locke chooses of an adequate idea) is therefore anything but adequate, if by adequate we mean that the idea includes an element for [38] each element of the object represented. This is because, while the underlying source of the idea in the object may be quite complex and include many elements, the idea itself is simple and without any parts—as Locke would say, it is a uniform and unmixed appearance (II. ii. 1). If simple ideas are to be adequate, therefore, there must be a somewhat different basis for the application of the term adequate to them from the one we saw being used in reference to both complex ideas of substances and of modes.
    An argument along these lines might be made to show that although Bermúdez was wrong about the reasons why simple ideas of secondary qualities are not adequate, he was right in his claim that they are not. However, I maintain that in this context it pays to consider something that is a persistent theme for Locke throughout the Essay, and that is the question of the degree of control the mind has over the content of its ideas. With respect to all complex ideas, you might say that it makes sense to ask whether or not the idea is complete, because, as Locke repeatedly emphasizes, the mind has a choice as to what to include and what to exclude from the idea. In forming the complex idea of a substance, what the mind does is to place a frame around certain of the ideas one has of the qualities of the substance, including some, and excluding others. It is this element of choice, or of the degree of control the mind has over the content of its ideas, that is critical for the question of the adequacy or completeness of such ideas. What Locke is claiming when he says that all of our ideas of substances are inadequate is that, by an act of choosing, we always choose to leave out some features of the original when we frame the reference of our complex idea. Complex ideas of substances are never as complete as they could be. There is always, at the very least, some mediately perceivable secondary quality that is left out of the representation, because we choose not to test out the effects of applying a given substance to another. When it comes [39] to simple ideas, however, you might say that the question of choice or control no longer applies. Locke emphasizes that the mind has no control whatsoever over the content of its simple ideas, because they are passively received from experience. In this process of reception the mind, he insists, is like a mirror:

These simple Ideas, when offered to the mind, the Understanding can no more refuse to have, no more refuse to have, nor alter, when they are imprinted, nor blot them out, and make new ones in it self, than a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate the Images or Ideas, which the Objects set before it, do therein produce. As the Bodies that surround us, do diversly affect our Organs, the mind is forced to receive the Impressions; and cannot avoid the Perception of those Ideas that are annexed to them. (II. i. 25)

Simple ideas are therefore always as complete as they possibly can be, if for no other reason than because they cannot be otherwise than they actually are. Objects simply appear sweet or white, and the mind has no choice or control over the matter. To ask whether an idea to which nothing can be added or taken away by the mind is complete is to miss the point. It is plain that simple ideas are as complete as they possibly can be, and therefore all must be said to be adequate.
    This may be why we find Locke apparently repeating his arguments to the effect that simple ideas are real in the context of the defence of their adequacy. Looked at in this way, Locke’s defence of the adequacy of simple ideas begins to appear less of a repetition of his claim that they are real, than in fact a defence that they are complete, in their own way. To say that an idea is adequate is to say that it is as complete a representation as it is in our power to make it. I think that this way of looking at Locke’s division of ideas into adequate and inadequate helps to answer Bermúdez’s objection, and it does so in a way that highlights a persistent theme of the Essay, that of the degree of control the mind has over the content of its ideas. [40]


The editor wishes to thank the author for agreeing to have this article appear on this site. It should be noted that some of the original formatting features have been lost to the present HTML format. Note also that the original page endings are indicated by lightly printed numerals in square brackets, and also that these endnotes were originally footnotes.

J. L. Bermúdez, ‘The adequacy of simple ideas in Locke—A rehabilitation of Berkeley’s criticisms’, The Locke newsletter 23 (1992), pp. 25–58.

All references to Locke’s Essay are from An essay concerning human understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford 1975).

Locke may not have had a consistent meaning for ‘represent’ and ‘representation’. For example, II. xxx.. 2, since it implies that representations are images, is a recalcitrant passage for anyone who wishes to argue that Locke has a single consistent notion of representation which excludes resemblance. On the other hand, many passages in the Essay appear to rest on a broader interpretation of the term(s). For an interesting discussion of the notion of representation in the Essay, see M. A. Stewart, ‘Abstraction and representation in Locke, Berkeley and Name’, in G. A. J. Rogers and S. Tomaselli (eds), The philosophical canon in the 17th and 18th centuries: Essays in honour of John W. Yolton (Rochester N.Y. 1996), pp. 123–47, esp. pp. 135–7. The point is there made that we cannot in general understand Locke as thinking of representation as resemblance. (Thanks to an anonymous referee for clarifying comments on these points.)

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