This article introduced me to the source: Point 6, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Chapter XXXI, Of Adequate and Inadequate Ideas by John Locke.

The particular parcel of matter which makes the ring I have on my finger is forwardly by most men supposed to have a real essence, whereby it is gold; and from whence those qualities flow which I find in it, viz. its peculiar colour, weight, hardness, fusibility, fixedness, and change of colour upon a slight touch of mercury, &c.

This essence, from which all these properties flow, when I inquire into it and search after it, I plainly perceive I cannot discover: the furthest I can go is, only to presume that, it being nothing but body, its real essence or internal constitution, on which these qualities depend, can be nothing but the figure, size, and connexion of its solid parts;
of1 neither of which
having any distinct perception at all2
can I have any idea of its3 essence
: which is the cause that it has that particular shining yellowness; a greater weight than anything I know of the same bulk; and a fitness to have its colour changed by the touch of quicksilver.

1. To what noun does of1 refer?

2. Where does 2 (an absolute clause) belong?

3. Confronted with so many nouns, how do you decide the antecedent of its3?

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1 and 2 require a familiarity with 17th-century syntax.

  1. Of heads a preposition phrase modifying perception. Its object, neither of which, we would today probably phrase as not any of which. The negative feature on neither scopes over the entire clause and its dependent.

  2. Having takes as it implicit subject the subject of the matrix clause, I, just as it does today. Note, too, that that is the only entity in the clause capable of having a perception.

In paraphrase:

Not having any distinct perception at all of any of these, I cannot have any sense of its essence.

  1. The preceding sentence is essential to the sense. The entity defined as having an essence is The particular parcel of matter which makes the ring I have on my finger. Consequently that is the antecedent of this its.
  • I believe he is saying that "having" a perception of the item's physical characteristics still does not allow him to understand its essence. – Phil Esra Sep 15 '15 at 22:00
  • @PhilEsra I think not. Note that he is speaking of the "figure, size and connexion of its solid parts" where it is a "parcel" of gold: that is, an undifferentiated substance which has no parts whose extensive qualities can be discerned: "I have an idea of figure, size, and situation of solid parts in general, though I have none of the particular figure, size, or putting together of parts, whereby the qualities above mentioned are produced; which qualities I find in that particular parcel of matter that is on my finger..." – StoneyB Sep 15 '15 at 22:05
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    @PhilEsra It comes out of a very odd period in the language (not unlike the language today). The transition from Middle to Modern English was almost complete, and Locke was a pioneer in moving philosophy from its old vocabulary and Latinate style into the emergent colloquial style which would dominate the next hundred years or so. But he was also necessarily a student (if not a scholar) of the old writers, and given to occasional reversion to the old style (much as contemporary scientists tend to fall into a fundamentally 19th century style when their thought gets gnarly). – StoneyB Sep 15 '15 at 22:54
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    He was improvising a new way of speaking philosophy, and never quite mastered the new idiom. – StoneyB Sep 15 '15 at 22:56
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    @LePressentiment I have never formally studied older syntax. I've just read a lot of works from many periods -- my doctorate was in the history of British drama. The way to learn how to read texts is to read them. – StoneyB Sep 16 '15 at 15:37

I'm a well educated native speaker, and I freely admit that this is a difficult sentence to parse, but it's also a 330 year old philosophical text, so that's not particularly surprising. It's important to put any sentence in context, so if you read the sentences immediately before this in the text, you'll find that it is referring to the qualities of a golden ring on Locke's finger.

My reading of the passage is that it is a philosophical consideration of the nature of matter. That is, a reasoning about the connection between the true nature of a material and the properties that people ascribe to it. Gold is yellow, dense, and discolors with mercury, but Locke doesn't know why that is, so he proposes some inner workings in the material that cause these properties to exist.

  1. "real essence or internal constitution" Locke goes on to refer to this pair of philosophical qualities in his discussion of the true nature of matter.

  2. This describes the qualities of the items in #1, essentially stating that they are impossible to detect directly.

  3. The antecedent of its is the gold of the ring that the entire sentence is about. You'll only understand that from the context of the previous sentences. Without that context the antecedent is difficult to ascertain.

  1. of1 = figure, size, and connexion

  2. It belongs in the 1600s.

  3. The context makes it clear that this refers to the "it" that is "nothing but body" [whatever that "it" is].

It's fine to try to understand the sentence, but you can't apply the rules of modern English to it. The words (for example, "neither") don't even mean the same thing any more. The phrasing may have been clear in the 1600s, but that construction is not used now.

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