Philosophers: John Locke
(1632-1704 CE)

[Life & Work] | [Links]

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.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
Articles & Web pages
* John Locke
Article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
* John Locke
Article by William Uzgalis from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
* John Locke
Another article by William Uzgalis, this time from his pages at Oregon State University.
* John Locke
The article from Wikipedia.
* John Locke
An article, with bibliograpy and links, from Garth Kemerling's Philosophy Pages.
* A Guide to John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding
By Garth Kemerling, again from his Philosophy Pages.
* John Locke
A page of Internet resources from Episteme Links.
* John Locke Bibliography
A cumulative listing of recent publications by and about Locke, maintained by John C. Attig at Pennsylvania State University Library. Huge and very useful.
* Locke
A Hall of Minerva page. A brief introduction, plus a couple of links.
* Locke Studies
An Annual Journal of Locke Research, edited by Roland Hall.
* Locke, Two Treatises
A study guide by John Kilcullen.
* Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
A reading guide by John Kilcullen.
Texts & translations
* Locke's writings on the Internet
Maintained by Daniel McKiernan. Links to on-line texts.
* A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
Translated by William Popple.
* Second Treatise of Government (1690)
Politics Hypertext Library
James A. Donald
Institute for Learning Technologies
* An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
Chad Hansen
R.B. Jones
Ron Bombardi
* Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)
Provided by The History of Education and Childhood (now closed).

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