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John Locke

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edit index John Locke
John Locke (29 Aug 1632 - 28 Oct 1704) was an English physician and philosopher and a key Enlightenment influence. After Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Locke developed Empiricism as a strong response to Cartesian Dualism and Rationalism, and a new Contract Theory in response to the Machiavellian Prince and Hobbsian Leviathan. Locke's theory of Mind based on Experience is, with Descartes' focus on Innate Ideas, part of the origin of modern conceptions of Identity and Self, figuring prominently in the work of David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Locke's contributions to classical notions of Republicanism and Liberalism were a strong influence on Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and thus, the French and American Revolutions.

Life and Works

Locke's Father, also John Locke, was a country lawyer and clerk to the Justices of the Peace in Chew Magna, England, serving as a Captain of Cavalry for Parliamentarian Forces during the English Civil War. Locke's Mother, Agnes Keene, was a tanner's daughter and reputed to be very beautiful. Both were Puritan, and Locke was born in a small thatched cottage by the Church in Wrington, Somerset, near Bristol, baptized the same day. Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London, and later admitted to Christ Church, Oxford.

Locke found the works of "modern" philosophers, such as Descartes, more interesting than the Classics taught at University, was introduced to Medicine and was awarded a Bachelor Degree in 1656, a Master's in 1658, a Bachelor of Medicine later, in 1674. In 1666, Locke met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, who was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to move into his home at Exeter House in London, serving as Lord Ashley's personal physician. Shaftesbury survived an operation under Locke's care, and credited Locke with saving his life.

During this time, Locke served as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations, and Secretary to the Lords and Proprietors of the Carolinas, helping shape ideas on International Trade and Economics. Around this time, most likely at Lord Ashley's prompting, Locke composed the bulk of the Two Treatises of Government. Locke wrote the Treatises to defend the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but also to counter the "absolutist" Political Philosophy of Hobbes and others. Though Locke was associated with the influential Whigs, his ideas about Natural Rights and Government are considered nothing short of revolutionary for the period.

The bulk of Locke's publishing took place upon his return from a short period of political exile, his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Two Treatises of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration all appearing in quick succession. Locke became an intellectual hero of the Whigs, and discussed such matters with John Dryden and Isaac Newton. John Locke died on 28 October, 1704, and was buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, having witnessed the English Restoration, the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. His epitaph reads:

Near this place lies JOHN LOCKE. If you are wondering what kind of man he was, he answers that he was contented with his modest lot. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. You will learn this from his writings, which will show you everything about him more truthfully than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, if indeed he had any, were too slight to be lauded by him or to be an example to you. Let his vices be buried with him. Of virtue you have an example in the gospels, should you desire it; of vice would there were none for you; of mortality surely you have one here and everywhere, and may you learn from it.

Lockean Philosophy

Experience and the Self

Locke was the first to define the Self through a continuity of consciousness, and postulated that the Mind was a "blank slate", a tabula rasa. Locke argued persuasively against the Cartesian notion of Innate Ideas, showing that all Knowledge instead arises by Experience, derived from Sense Perception. In Epistemology, Locke redefined Subjectivity as empirical, and thus with Descartes' Mediations on First Philosophy (1641), Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) helps mark the beginning of the our current conceptions of Consciousness, Self, Perception and Subjectivity.

The Self, for Locke, is a conscious "thinking thing" which is aware of pleasure and pain, and thus capable of happiness and misery. The Lockean Subjectivity is a self-aware and self-reflective consciousness fixed in a body, a conscious Mind shaped by its own Experience, rather than being formed from birth as is. Associations of Ideas we make when young are more important than those made later, because they are the very foundation of the Self. This seems to directly allow for individuality and unique life experiences, rather than forcing us all into "innate" categories and types, and thus, Diversity is a part of Locke's Philosophy.

Property and the State

Political Philosophy and Modern Liberalism are rooted in Locke, a rejection of Hobbesian Absolutism with a clear separation of Church and State. His arguments concerning Liberty and the Social Contract were so persuasive that passages taken from Locke's Second Treatise are reproduced verbatim in the United States Declaration of Independence. Locke formulated the classic case for religious tolerance, citing that we cannot dependably evaluate the truth of competing religious standpoints, that enforcing a single "true religion" would be forcing belief by violence, and that coercing religious uniformity leads directly to social disorder.

Detractors note that in 1671, Locke was an investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal Africa Company, as well as being draftsman of the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas while Lord Ashley's Secretary, which established a Feudal Aristocracy based on Slavery. Such apparent hypocrisy is especially pointed against Locke's Philosophy, as based on "property" in both broad and narrow senses, relating to Human interests and aspirations, but also material goods. Property, for Locke, is a Natural Right derived from Labour, and ownership is created by the application of that Labour. However, Locke's Philosophy indicates both that those working on property are individuals, and that they would naturally aquire its ownership, rather than the property being owned by those who "own" those who work on it. Karl Marx later critiqued this use of property as particularly insidious, in his social theory, Dialectical Materialism.

Further Reading

Works by Locke

  • (1689) A Letter Concerning Toleration
    • (1690) A Second Letter Concerning Toleration
    • (1692) A Third Letter for Toleration
  • (1689) Two Treatises of Government
  • (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • (1693) Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  • (1695) The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures
    • (1695) A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity


Posthumous Publications:
  • (1660) First Tract of Government (or the English Tract)
  • (c.1662) Second Tract of Government (or the Latin Tract)
  • (1664) Questions Concerning the Law of Nature (definitive Latin text, with facing accurate English trans. in Robert Horwitz et al., eds., John Locke, Questions Concerning the Law of Nature, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  • (1667) Essay Concerning Toleration
  • (1706) Of the Conduct of the Understanding
  • (1707) A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul


Secondary Literature

  • Ashcraft, Richard, 1986. Revolutionary Politics & Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Discusses the relationship between Locke's philosophy and his political activities.)
  • Ayers, Michael R., 1991. Locke. Epistemology & Ontology Routledge (The standard work on Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.)
  • Bailyn, Bernard, 1992 (1967). The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard Uni. Press. (Discusses the influence of Locke and other thinkers upon the American Revolution and on subsequent American political thought.)
  • G. A. Cohen, 1995. 'Marx and Locke on Land and Labour', in his Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, Oxford University Press.
  • Cox, Richard, Locke on War and Peace, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960. (A discussion of Locke's theory of international relations.)
  • Chappell, Vere, ed., 19nn. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Dunn, John, 1984. Locke. Oxford Uni. Press. (A succinct introduction.)
  • The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the "Two Treatises of Government". Cambridge Uni. Press. (Introduced the interpretation which emphasises the theological element in Locke's political thought.)
  • Macpherson. C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962). (Establishes the deep affinity from Hobbes to Harrington, the Levellers, and Locke through to nineteenth-century utilitarianism).
  • Pangle, Thomas, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988; paperback ed., 1990), 334 pages. (Challenges Dunn's, Tully's, Yolton's, and other conventional readings.)
  • Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History, chap. 5B (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). (Argues from a non-Marxist point of view for a deep affinity between Hobbes and Locke.)
  • Strauss, Leo, "Locke's Doctrine of Natural law," American Political Science Review 52 (1958) 490-501. (A critique of W. von Leyden's edition of Locke's unpublished writings on natural law.)
  • Tully, James, 1980. A Discourse on Property : John Locke and his Adversaries. Cambridge Uni. Press
  • Waldron, Jeremy, 2002. God, Locke and Equality. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Yolton, J. W., ed., 1969. John Locke: Problems and Perspectives. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Zuckert, Michael, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
  • Locke Studies, appearing annually, publishes scholarly work on John Locke.


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Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article John Locke under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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