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John Locke
John Locke
(Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697)

John Locke (1632 - 1704) was an English philosopher of the Age of Reason and early Age of Enlightenment. His ideas had enormous influence on the development of Epistemology and Political Philosophy, and he is widely regarded as one of the most influential early Enlightenment thinkers.

He is usually considered the first of the British Empiricists, the movement which included George Berkeley and David Hume, and which provided the main opposition to the 17th Century Continental Rationalists. He argued that all of our ideas are ultimately derived from experience, and the knowledge of which we are capable is therefore severely limited in its scope and certainty.

His Philosophy of Mind is often cited as the origin for modern conceptions of identity and "the self". He also postulated, contrary to Cartesian and Christian philosophy, that the mind was a "tabula rasa" (or "blank slate") and that people are born without innate ideas.

Along with Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he was also one of the originators of Contractarianism (or Social Contract Theory), which formed the theoretical groundwork of democracy, republicanism and modern Liberalism and Libertarianism. He is sometimes referred to as the "Philosopher of Freedom", and his political views influenced both the American and French Revolutions.


Locke was born on 29 August 1632 in the small rural village of Wrington, Somerset, England. His father, also named John Locke, was a country lawyer and clerk to the Justices of the Peace in nearby town of Chew Magna, and had served as a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early part of the English Civil War. His mother, Agnes Keene, was a tanner's daughter and reputed to be very beautiful. Both parents were Puritans, and the family moved soon after Locke's birth to the small market town of Pensford, near Bristol.

In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London (sponsored by the local MP Alexander Popham) as a King's Scholar. After completing his studies there, he was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford. Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the largely classical (Aristotelian) undergraduate curriculum of the time, and found more interest in the works of modern philosophers such as René Descartes, and the more experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and within the embryonic Royal Society.

Locke was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1656, and a master's degree in 1658. He was elected lecturer in Greek in 1660 and then in Rhetoric in 1663, but he declined the offer of a permanent academic position in order to avoid committing himself to a religious order. During his time at Oxford, he also studied medicine extensively, and worked with such noted scientists and thinkers as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke and his friend from Westminster School, Richard Lower. He later obtained a bachelor of medicine qualification in 1674.

It was through his medical knowledge that he obtained the patronage of the controversial political figure, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper (the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury), and in 1667 he moved to Shaftesbury's London home to serve as his personal physician. He was credited with saving Shaftesbury's life afer a liver infection became life-threatening. In London, Locke continued his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham, who also had a major influence on Locke's natural philosophical thinking.

During the 1670s, Locke served as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords and Proprietors of the Carolinas, helping to shape his ideas on international trade and economics. Locke became more involved in politics (and further developed his political ideas) when Shaftesbury, a founder of the Whig movement in British politics, became Lord Chancellor in 1672. It was also during this time in London that he worked on early drafts of his "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", eventually published in 1690 and considered one of the principal sources of Empiricism in modern philosophy.

After some time travelling across France following Shaftesbury's fall from favour in 1675, he returned to England in 1679 (when Shaftesbury's political fortunes took a brief positive turn), and began the composition of his famous work of Political Philosophy, the "Two Treatises of Government", which was published anonymously (in order to avoid controversy) in 1689, and whose ideas about natural rights and government were quite revolutionary for that period in English history.

In 1683, Locke fled to Holland, under strong (but probably unfounded) suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot. He did not return to England until 1688's Glorious Revolution and the overthrow of King James II by the of the Dutchman William of Orange (King William III of England), which Locke saw as the ultimate triumph of his revolutionary cause. The publication of "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", the "Two Treatises of Civil Government" and "A Letter Concerning Toleration" all occurred in quick succession upon his return from exile. His "Essay" in particular brought great fame, and Locke spent much of the rest of his life responding to admirers and critics by making revisions in later editions of the book.

In 1691, he moved to his close friend Lady Masham's country house at Oates, Essex. During this period, he became something of an intellectual hero of the Whigs, and he discussed matters with such figures as John Dryden and Sir Isaac Newton. He continued to work at the Board of Trade from 1696 until his retirement in 1700.

However, his health deteriorated, marked by regular asthma attacks, and he died on 28 October 1704, and was buried in the churchyard of High Laver. He never married, and had no children.

Work Back to Top

Locke wrote on philosophical, scientific and political matters throughout his life, in a voluminous correspondence and ample journals, but the public works for which he is best known were published in a single, sudden burst in 1689 - 1690.

The fundamental principles of Locke's Epistemology are presented in his monumental "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" of 1690, the culmination of twenty years of reflection on the origins of human knowledge. In it he argued the empiricist approach that would be adopted by the British Empiricism movement: that all of our ideas, whether simple or complex, are ultimately derived from experience and sensory input. The knowledge of which we are capable is therefore severely limited in its scope and certainty, in that we can never know the inner nature of the things around us, only their behaviour and the way in which they affect us and other things (a kind of modified Skepticism). One of the ways in which they affect us is through our senses, giving us experiences (or representations or images) of their properties or qualities.

Locke saw the properties of things as being of two distinct kinds. Their real inner natures derive from the primary qualities, which we can never experience and so never know. Our knowledge of material substances, therefore, depends heavily on their secondary qualities (by reference to which we also name them), which are mind-dependent and of a sensory or qualitative nature. He therefore believed in a type of Representationalism, that these primary qualities are "explanatorily basic" in that they can be referred to as the explanation for other qualities or phenomena without requiring explanation themselves, and that these qualities are distinct in that our sensory experience of them resembles them in reality.

He claimed that "the mind is furnished with ideas by experience alone" (an idea being something within the mind that represents things outside the mind). However, he also argued that a proper application of our cognitive capacities is enough to guide our action in the practical conduct of life, and that it is in the process of reasoning that the mind confronts the raw ideas it has received (an approach not dissimilar to the Dualism of Descartes). His definition of knowledge might be stated, then, as the perception of the relationship between ideas.

Where Locke differed markedly from Descartes and other predecessors, though, was in the status he granted to the senses. Descartes held that the senses incline us to have certain beliefs, but that this alone does not amount to actual knowledge (which requires interpretation and explanation by reason and the intellect). For Locke, however, the senses themselves are a basic and fundamental faculty which deliver knowledge in their own right. Indeed, his whole conception of an idea differed from that of Descartes: for Descartes, an idea was fundamentally intellectual; for Locke it was fundamentally sensory, and all thought involved images of a sensory nature.

In later editions of the treatise, he also included detailed accounts of human volition and moral freedom, the personal identity on which our responsibility as moral agents depends, and the dangers of religious enthusiasm.

With his "Two Treatises of Civil Government", published anonymously in 1690 in order to avoid controversy, Locke established himself as a political theorist of the highest order. The "First Treatise" was intended merely to refute Sir Robert Filmer's support of the Divine Right of Kings, arguing that neither scripture nor reason supports Filmer's contentions. The "Second Treatise", however, offered a systematic account of the foundations of political obligation. In Locke's view, all rights begin in the individual property interest created by an investment of labour. The social structure (or "commonwealth") depends for its formation and maintenance on the express consent of those governed by its political powers (the so-called Social Contract or Contractarianism). He believed that majority rule thus becomes the cornerstone of all political order, although dissatisfied citizens reserve a lasting right to revolution.

Like Thomas Hobbes before him, Locke started from a belief that humans have absolute natural rights, in the sense of universal rights that are inherent in the nature of Ethics, and not contingent on human actions or beliefs (a kind of Deontology). However, much of his political work is characterized by his opposition to authoritarianism, and particularly to the tendency towards Totalitarianism advocated by Hobbes. Locke believed that no one should be allowed absolute power, and introduced the idea of the separation of powers, whereby the Church and the judicial system operate independently of the ruling class. In particular, he defined our civil interests (those which the State can and should legitimately protect) as life, liberty, health and property, specifically excluding religious concerns, which he saw as outside the legitimate concern of civil government. If much of this seems familiar from the American Declaration of Independence, that is no coincidence as the American founding fathers freely admitted their debt to Locke's Political Philosophy.

His "Letter Concerning Toleration" of 1689 came in the wake of King Louis XIV of France's revocation of the Edict of Nantes (and the religious persecution which followed it). It argued for a broad (though not limitless) acceptance of alternative religious convictions, as well as a strict separation betwen Church and State. In his 1695 "The Reasonableness of Christianity", he argued that the basic doctrines of Christianity are relatively few and entirely compatible with reason.

In 1693, Locke produced his contribution to the Philosophy of Education, his influential "Some Thoughts Concerning Education". In it, he claimed (influenced by Avicenna and the Medieval Avicennist movement) that a child's mind is a tabula rasa (or blank slate) and does not contain any innate ideas, nor anything that might be described as human nature. Thus, all men are created equal, and each of us can be said to be the author of our own character. These ideas flowed logically and seamlessly from Locke's underlying belief in Empiricism, that all human knowledge derives from the senses and that therefore there can be no knowledge that precedes observation.

According to Locke, the mind was to be educated by a three-pronged approach: the development of a healthy body; the formation of a virtuous character; and the choice of an appropriate academic curriculum. He maintained that a person is to a large extent a product of his education, and also pointed out that knowledge and attitudes acquired in a child's early formative years are disproportionately influential and have important and lasting consequences.

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