Simple and Complex Ideas


  • Terry Riordan


Introduction:  In "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", John Locke defines ideas as, "whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought or understanding."  A particular subject has a quality for Locke when it possesses the ability to "produce any idea in our minds."  Locke explains that a snowball has quality when it produces for us the ideas of coldness and roundness, whereas it is an idea when we comprehend it through the senses and perceive its aspects.  All ideas, according to Locke, are arrived at through experience involving sensation and reflection.  Simple ideas are those ideas which first enter the mind through the senses, pure and uncomplicated.  Locke claims that simple ideas are also capable of reflecting about other ideas which enter its realm.  He refers to these simple ideas as "the operation of the mind about its other ideas."  Simple ideas, when compared, united, and extenuated through the process of reflection, become for Locke complex ideas.  The mind has the power of linking and uniting several simple ideas so as to produce one idea.  This idea is a complex idea for Locke.  Gratitude, for example, can consist of united simple ideas or even complex ideas, yet can be conceived as a singular idea, and so, while Locke explains that simple ideas can unite to form complex ideas, the mind can attribute a name to an idea in its completeness.


How to Cite

Riordan, T. (2014). Simple and Complex Ideas. Analytic Teaching, 6(2). Retrieved from