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Born: 1632, Wrington, Somerset, England

Died: 1704, Oates, Essex, England

Major Works: First Letter on Toleration (1689), Second and Third Letters on Toleration (1690 and 1692), Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Treatises on Government (1689)

Major Ideas

There are no innate ideas.

Human knowledge is derived either from sense experience or from introspection (reflection).

Ideas are signs that represent physical and mental things.

Things have primary qualities (solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number) and secondary qualities (all others, including color, sounds, smells, flavors, and so forth).

Bodies actually possess the primary qualities, but the secondary qualities are merely the effects observed by those who perceive them.

Good is whatever produces pleasure and evil whatever produces pain.

Liberty is for the sake of pursuing happiness.

The state of nature, prior to the existence of human government, is subject to the rule of natural or divine laws, which are revealed through the exercise of reason.

The chief reason for establishing governments is the preservation of private property.

Civil government comes about as a result of a social contract.

Although a number of philosophers have been called the founders of modern philosophy, in many important respects John Locke deserves that name above all others. His political theories have had a profound effect upon virtually the entire world, Western and non-Western, through their impact upon the British, the French, and the Americans. The founding fathers of the United States drew directly upon his ideas as they formulated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--especially the provisions concerning the separation of powers, separation of church and state, religious liberty, and the rest of the B ill of Rights. The British Constitution too was based upon his ideas. Through Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, his theories spread through the French intellectual community.

His theories of knowledge and of the nature of matter marked the most radical break with the Aristotelianism that had dominated philosophical thought through the Middle Ages. More importantly, they set the agenda for the empiricism that was to dominate philosophical and scientific thinking from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, at least in the English-speaking world. In a very real sense, one may properly say that most philosophy in North America, Great Britain, and the British Commonwealth has been a commentary on Locke and an elaboration of his theories.

Locke studied medicine and helped Robert Boyle, the discoverer of some of the most important laws of physics, in his laboratory experiments. Through these experiences, he acquired firsthand knowledge of scientific method that was to be of the utmost importance later as he developed his theories on the nature of matter and the sources of human knowledge.

Locke was convinced that one of the chief reasons for the failures of past philosophers was their lack of attention to the real sources of human knowledge. Many of their mistakes arise because of the "rubbish" that led to so many of the dogmas in which they believed.

Locke divided human knowledge into three major parts: natural philosophy (logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences); the practical arts, including morals, politics, and what we would now call the social sciences; and "the doctrine of signs," including ideas and the words we use to communicate about them.

Many philosophers before Locke, including such eminent authorities as Plato in ancient times and Descartes more recently had believed that human beings are endowed with certain innate ideas. These ideas were presumably implanted within the mind at or before birth and needed only to be called forth to do their job Plato's entire philosophical system was based upon this theory. He thought that education consisted essentially in helping people to become aware of the ideas that were already in their minds--much as the experienced birdwatcher helps novices become aware of the sounds they have always heard while walking in the woods but never knew they were hearing. Locke devoted considerable energy to proving that there was no reliable evidence that such innate ideas exist. There is no evidence whatever that there is universal assent to any so-called self-evident idea. In the realm of morals, this would appear to be so obvious as to need no argument. Those who argue for innate ideas usually explain away the fact that there is so much controversy over moral principles by saying that people who differ from them are morally blind, but this is simply begging the question.

As for logical and mathematical truths, Locke pointed to the obvious 'fact that most persons have not the foggiest idea what they might be. It takes long and methodical training to teach the ideas, and children and feeble-minded persons certainly have no grasp of them, as they would if those ideas were "innate."

The Mind as a "Tabula Rasa"

The human mind, according to Locke, is a tabula rasa, a blank slate or sheet of paper, ready from the moment of its creation to receive sensations from the outside world and impressions from within. Such are the materials out of which the only knowledge we are capable of having is formed. Once the mind has received the data of sense experience and reflection, it has the power to analyze and organize them. Through this process, it constructs more complex ideas and discovers relationships among them that the raw data would not necessarily have revealed.

Locke concluded that things cause us to have certain ideas. The ideas thus generated, he said, are the qualities of those things. Thus, he said, "a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold and round, the powers to produce these ideas in us as they are in the snowball I call qualities; and as they are sensations or perceptions in our understandings, I call them ideas."

Primary and Secondary Qualities

He distinguished three kinds of qualities. Primary qualities, he said, are those that are "utterly inseparable" from a thing. The shape, number, solidity, and state of motion or rest are among such qualities. Locke thought that they were inherent in the objects themselves, and that our perceptions of them were somehow like those objects. Secondary qualities are the "powers" of things to produce certain sensations in us. The submicroscopic particles of things interact with our bodies in such a way as to produce sensations of color, sound, taste, smell, and touch. These "qualities" are not inherent in the objects themselves, but are produced within us by them. Finally, tertiary qualities are the powers of things to produce physical changes in other things. For example, fire's capacity to convert lead from a solid to a liquid is a tertiary quality.

Earlier philosophers had supposed that things were substances. The paper on which I am writing is yellow, has a certain size and shape, and has a very faint, musty odor. Once I have described the paper, just what is the paper that I have described? They thought that it was a kind of substrate, a foundation that supported or had the various qualities of yellowness, mustiness, and rectangularity. However, Locke's analysis led him to conclude that empirical evidence (sense evidence) for the substrate could never be found, for the only evidence we could ever have would be for the qualities of things. He concluded that neither material nor spiritual substances were knowable and that the very idea is so obscure as to be incapable of meaningful analysis. He was not ready to go as far as some of his followers did--namely, to give up the idea of substance altogether. He simply concluded that substance is "a supposed I know not what to support those ideas we call accidents" (the qualities we have just been discussing) .

It was even more difficult for Locke to give up the idea of purely spiritual substances, such as the human soul and God, for much of Christian theology rested upon it. His writings are not clear on the point, for he wavered between thinking, like Hobbes, that nothing but matter exists, and supporting traditional religious ideas.

Locke firmly believed that happiness, which he called "the utmost pleasure we are capable of," is the only thing that is capable of moving people to desire anything. We call things good, he said, if they promote pleasure, and evil if they produce pain. Pleasure and pain, incidentally, are not only physical or bodily sensations, but any "delight" or "uneasiness" that a person might experience. Locke cites sorrow, anger, envy, and shame as examples of pain that are not always accompanied by physical manifestations or caused by physical intrusions.

Like many others before him, Locke believed that theoretically, at least, it makes sense to think of a state of nature--a state in which human beings might have lived before organized societies with laws and governments were set up. But unlike his predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, who believed that no law but the law of the jungle--self-preservation--exists in the state of nature, Locke concluded that certain laws govern human behavior at all times, whether or not a human government capable of enforcing them exists. In the state of nature, every person has equal rights relative to every other person. Human beings naturally employ reason, and as reasoning beings they simply would not allow themselves to slip into a Hobbesian state of nature in which every person is at war with every other.

Locke's view of the state of nature was of an Edenlike arrangement in which people lived strictly according to reason, with no need to resort to lawyers, police, or courts because they got along so splendidly with one another. In that state, people would enjoy "perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man."

In addition to enjoying such complete freedom, people living in the state of nature would be absolutely equal, with none having more than any other. However, the liberty each one would have is not license to harm anyone else. The law of nature commands that no one harm any other in his "life, health, liberty, or possessions." Nor, for that matter, may a person arbitrarily and without some good justification destroy himself or his own possessions. This is based upon the law of nature, according to Locke, and this in turn appears to be based upon certain religious doctrines, among them the belief that ultimately everything, including every human being, is the property of God, who has not granted permission for their destruction.

Theory of Property

Locke believed that labor is the justification for the institution of property. In the state of nature, anyone who converts an article from one state to another acquires a right to possession of it. The person who plants a garden and tends it has a right to the crops it produces. So long as a shell rests on the sands of the beach, it belongs to no one; but once someone picks it up and treats it as a thing of beauty, it becomes his property. Thus, unlike Hobbes, who held that property comes into existence only after laws are devised to define its limits, Locke believed that property is a natural right that exists independent of government. Indeed, the principal purpose of government, in Locke's view, is "the preservation of property."

Locke believed that in theory no one should have more property than one can use. This is particularly so with regard to perishable things, like fruits. A person who gathers an enormous quantity of plums cannot decently claim ownership over them because they cannot all be eaten before they rot, and waste is wrong. However, the invention of money, and especially the discovery that certain metals are virtually indestructible, enabled some persons to accumulate vastly unequal portions of the earth's wealth. Although this is theoretically undesirable, Locke concluded, the sanctity of property is such that its unequal distribution has to be tolerated.

The People as Sovereign

Once reason has persuaded people to set up a government by entering into a social contract, as it inevitably will it would not be a Hobbesian government, in which the people are subjects and a single individual is sovereign. On the contrary, since people enter into a social contract and consent to the rule of law, sovereignty rests with the people and not with the king. Since that is the case, it follows that the people Who have placed the sovereign on the throne also retain the right to remove the ruler from it if the sovereign fails to govern in accordance with their wishes.

Locke's doctrine had enormous influence on the founding fathers of the United States of America and contributed significantly to both the American and the French Revolutions. In this revolutionary democratic theory, the legislature rather than the executive is to exercise the supreme power of governing, since it will be more directly answerable to the sovereign people. Moreover, the executive and the legislature are to be separate and distinct, so as to enable each to serve as a balance against the other, preventing either from overwhelming the other or usurping the rights and prerogatives properly belonging to the people by right of nature.

People enter into society to preserve their property, according to Locke, and they submit to the authority of government and laws as a means of safeguarding what is rightfully theirs. Therefore, Locke says, "whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, arid are left to the common refuge which God has provided for all men against force and violence." Thus, if the government breaches the trust placed in it by the people, it forfeits the power the people have entrusted to it, "and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty and, by the establishment of a new legislative, such as they shall think fit, provide for their own safety and security."

In response to the charge that this advocacy of rebellion might lead to constant instability and frequent violent changes of government, Locke responded that "revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs." People are generally quite tolerant of their governors. It takes a long chain of abuses to provoke the people into taking the law into their own hands. Furthermore, Locke argued, knowledge that the people might rebel is the best hedge against an abusive government: If the officials know that their positions are in jeopardy, they will be less likely to abuse their prerogatives.

If the purpose of government is the well-being of humankind, Locke asked, then which is better: that people should always be exposed to limitless tyranny, or that rulers should be subject to removal if they use their power for the destruction rather than the preservation of the people's property? In any event, he said, whether a person be the ruler or an ordinary citizen, if he or she forcefully invades the rights of the people and lays the foundation for the destruction of a lawful government, then such a person "is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly"

If a major controversy arises between the people and the ruler, who is to judge between them? Locke's answer was straightforward and unequivocal: "The proper umpire in such a case should be the body of the people," for they are the source of the trust that was placed in the ruler in the first place. If the ruler refuses to submit to the judgment of the people, then "the appeal lies nowhere but to heaven," and a state of war exists between the ruler and the people, who have the right to recall the power that they entrusted to the ruler and place it in another whom they believe can be relied upon to serve them more faithfully.

Further Reading

Jenkins, John J. Understanding Locke: An Introduction to Philosophy through John Locke's Essay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983. One of the best introductions to Locke's Essay available in English. It was derived from lectures that Jenkins had delivered in a first-level class at the University of Edinburgh, and is therefore reasonably readable and not tiresomely pedantic. It is not purely expository, though, for Jenkins uses Locke as a vehicle for discussing philosophical issues as such.

Martin, C. B., and D. M. Armstrong. Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays. Notre Dame and London: Notre Dame University Press, 1968. A wide-ranging collection of essays by some outstanding philosophers and specialists in the history of ideas, this volume includes essays on virtually every aspect of Locke's philosophy. The essays generally place Locke in historical perspective as well, particularly with respect to his influence on his successors in the British empiricist tradition.

O'Connor, D. J. John Locke. London: 1952. A thorough, well-written introduction to all aspects of Locke's theories, well organized and thoughtful.

Yolton, John W Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding: A Selective Commentary on the "Essay." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. More suited to advanced students, this book is devoted to a careful dissection of some of Locke's principal doctrines and an analysis of their place in his works and the consistency with which Locke adheres to them. It is very scholarly and most useful for those who are already familiar with Locke's philosophy.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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