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|LIFE & WORK|
John Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset in 1632, the son of a country lawyer who served as a Captain of Horse in the Parliamentary army; both his parents died when he was young. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, and elected to a Studentship in 1659; for three or four years he taught Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy there. He hadn't, however, found the conventional, Aristotelian style of philosophy taught at that time to his taste, and went on to study medicine, finally receiving a degree in 1674, and a year later being elected to a medical Studentship. He wasn't, however, qualified to practise as a doctor, though he did so informally - and this led to an important change in his life, for he operated successfully on Lord Shaftesbury, whose household he joined as advisor, medic, and friend. Shaftesbury, an influential politician, was able to put various government appointments Locke's way. However, Shaftesbury fell from favour, and Locke not only lost a powerful patron, but felt threatened enough to leave England for France. His anti-Royalist views certainly made him unpopular in some quarters, and his prudence was probably well founded.
When Shaftesbury regained his influence briefly, Locke returned to England, but soon felt obliged to leave again, this time for the Netherlands, where he lived for five years, before finally returning to England on the accession of William and Mary. It was during his stay in the Netherlands that he wrote the Letter on Tolerance, and finished his two most important works, both published in 1690 after his return to England: An Essay on Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government.
The new regime in England honoured Locke with various government posts. He settled at Oates in Essex, at the house of Damaris Masham, where he died in 1704 at the age of seventy-two, possibly as the result of a tiring journey made to London at the behest of King William.
Locke's philosophical interests divide roughly into three parts: political, epistemological, and scientific. On the scientific side, he was much influenced by his friend, the Irish scientist Robert Boyle, whom he helped with his experiments, and whose corpuscular theory of matter Locke argued for in the Essay. According to this theory, every physical thing is composed of sub-microscopic, indivisible particles, corpuscles, and all of an object's properties are the result of the arrangement of its corpuscles. There are two main kinds of property or quality: primary and secondary. They're both the powers to produce ideas in us, but whereas the ideas produced by primary qualities resemble the objects, the ideas produced by secondary qualities don't.
Primary qualities are spatiotemporal and quantitative (for example, size and shape), while secondary qualities are non-spatiotemporal and qualitative (for example, colour and taste). The secondary qualities depend upon the primary-quality arrangements of the corpuscles of the object, together with the arrangements of corpuscles in the perceiver, and (in the case of sight and hearing) the corpuscles making up the light or the air. Corpuscles themselves, of course, have primary but not secondary qualities.
This is a more sophisticated version of a distinction to be found in Galileo and Descartes; they considered the secondary qualities to be subjective, simply in the mind of the observer (and therefore of no interest to science), while Locke held all qualities to be objective, genuinely part of the world. The ideas produced by the qualities, on the other hand, do differ in their status: primary-quality ideas are utterly objective, secondary-quality aren't.
All knowledge, argues Locke, comes through the senses. there can be no innate ideas, no knowledge placed in us by god from birth. Rather, each of is born a tabula rasa, a blank slate, upon which experience writes. He accepts that we have innate abilities, such as the ability to reason, but no more. This isn't to say that we can only gain knowledge of what we can actually observe; that would be absurd; we can certainly use our reason to go beyond our experience - such as, for example, our knowledge of corpuscles - but not to replace it. The influence of Pierre Gassendi is clear here, but although he disagrees with Descartes in many respects, Locke is essentially a Cartesian philosopher, doing philosophy in the way that Descartes developed, and taking as his starting point many of Descartes' ideas.
With regard to politics, Locke was very much concerned to oppose the notion of the divine right of kings - the religious defence of absolute monarchy. He set out to show how the political state was established and justified, arguing that in the original, pre-political state of nature, people find that they need to join together in order to protect their natural rights. That is, there's a need for someone to play the part of an impartial adjudicator and defender of rights; that adjudicator must have the consent of the people, and in order to gain such protection they must willingly give up their personal right to punish wrongdoing. Society is thus founded on a contract; if the adjudicator - the sovereign - breaks the terms of the contract, the people have the right to rebel, and to choose another government.