John Locke on reading

Readings: John Locke (1632-1704), ‘Reading’

Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment…The memory may be stored, but the judgement is little better, and the stock of knowledge not increased, by being able to repeat what others have said or produce the arguments we have found in them. Such a knowledge as this is but knowledge by hearsay, and the ostentation of it is at best but talking by rote, and very often upon weak and wrong principles.

From Of the Conduct of Understanding, in William Peacock, ed., English Prose, vol. 2 (OWP, 1949; 1st edn 1921), pp. 183-84

Locke portrait

Kit-cat portrait of Locke by Godrey Kneller, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Salutary thoughts.

I hope from time to time to introduce short ‘readings’ of this kind to supplement the usual reviews, Asides, etc. I hope it might prove of interest.

This particular example reminds us that simply cramming our heads with more and more, well, ‘words, words, words’, we aren’t necessarily making ourselves more knowledgeable, intelligent or judicious. If we don’t ‘ruminate’ on what we read, we simply risk becoming pedants and parrots.

Here’s to more rumination, and less parroting.

Portrait of Locke attribution: By Stephencdickson – Own work, Public Domain

I didn’t know what a ‘Kit-cat portrait’ was, so here’s the (edited) Wikipedia entry on it:

A kit-cat portrait or kit-kat portrait is a particular size of portrait, less than half-length, but including the hands. The name originates from a famous series of portraits which were commissioned from Godfrey Kneller for members of the Kit-Cat Club, a Whig dining club, to be hung in their meeting place at Barn Elms. They are now mostly in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London…Each canvas is thirty-six inches long, and twenty-eight wide. The special Kit-cat portrait size is said to have been determined because the dining-room ceiling of the Kit-cat Club was too low for half-length portraits of the members.

And this explains the name of the club (same source):

The first meetings were held at a tavern in Shire Lane (parallel with Bell Yard and now covered by the Royal Courts of Justice) run by an innkeeper called Christopher Catt. He gave his name to the mutton pies known as “Kit Cats” from which the name of the club is derived.