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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

That Material Existence Is Merely Ideal

By Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

[From “The Mind.” Written while a Youth at College.]

THE WHOLE of what we any way observe, whereby we get the idea of Solidity, or Solid Body, are certain parts of Space, from whence we receive the ideas of light and colors; and certain sensations by the sense of feeling; and we observe that the places, whence we receive these sensations, are not constantly the same, but are successively different, and this light and colors are communicated from one part of space to another. And we observe that these parts of Space, from whence we receive these sensations, resist and stop other bodies, which we observe communicated successively through the parts of Space adjacent; and that those that there were before at rest, or existing constantly in one and the same part of Space, after this exist successively in different parts of Space, and these observations are according to certain stated rules. I appeal to any one that takes notice and asks himself; whether this be not all, that ever he experienced in the world, whereby he got these ideas; and that this is all that we have or can have any idea of in relation to bodies. All that we observe of Solidity is, that certain parts of Space, from whence we receive the ideas of light and colors, and a few other sensations, do likewise resist anything coming within them. It therefore follows, that if we suppose there be anything else than what we thus observe, it is but only by way of Inference.

I know that it is nothing but the Imagination will oppose me in this: I will therefore endeavor to help the Imagination thus. Suppose that we received none of the sensible qualities of light, colors, etc., from the resisting parts of Space (we will suppose it possible for resistance to be without them), and they were, to appearance, clear and pure; and all that we could possibly observe, was only and merely Resistance; we simply observed that Motion was resisted and stopped, here and there, in particular parts of Infinite Space. Should we not then think it less unreasonable to suppose that such effects should be produced by some Agent present in those parts of Space, though Invisible. If we, when walking upon the face of the Earth, were stopped at certain limits, and could not possibly enter into such a part of Space, nor make anybody enter into it; and we could observe no other difference, no way, nor at any time, between that and other parts of clear space; should we not be ready to say, What is it stops us; What is it hinders all entrance into that place?

The reason, why it is so exceedingly natural to men, to suppose that there is some Latent Substance, or Something that is altogether hid, that upholds the properties of bodies, is, because all see at first sight, that the properties of bodies are such as need some Cause, that shall every moment have influence to their continuance, as well as a Cause of their first existence. All therefore agree, that there is Something that is there, and upholds these properties. And it is most true, there undoubtedly is; but men are wont to content themselves in saying merely, that it is Something; but that Something is He, “by whom all things consist.”

The distribution of the objects of our thoughts, into Substances and Modes, may be proper; if, by Substance, we understand, a complexion of such ideas, which we conceive of as subsisting together, and by themselves; and, by Modes, those simple ideas which cannot be by themselves, or subsist in our mind alone.