John Locke, born on Aug. 29, 1632, in Somerset, England, was an English philosopher and political theorist. Locke was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he followed the traditional classical curriculum and then turned to the study of medicine and science, receiving a medical degree, but his interest in philosophy was reawakened by the study of Descartes. He then joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the earl of Shaftesbury, as a personal physician at first, becoming a close friend and advisor.
Shaftesbury secured for Locke a series of minor government appointments. In 1669, in one of his official capacities, Locke wrote a constitution for the proprietors of the Carolina Colony in North America, but it was never put into effect. In 1671 Locke began to write his greatest work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which took nearly twenty years to complete since he was deeply engaged in Shaftesbury’s political affairs. In 1675, after the liberal Shaftesbury had fallen from favor, Locke went to France. In 1679 he returned to England, but in view of his opposition to the Roman Catholicism favored by the English monarchy at that time, he soon found it expedient to return to the Continent. From 1683 to 1688 he lived in Holland, and following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the restoration of Protestantism to favor, Locke returned once more to England. The new king, William III, appointed Locke to the Board of Trade in 1696, a position from which he resigned because of ill health in 1700.
He died in Oates on October 28, 1704. Locke’s Essay is one of the classical documents of British empirical philosophy. His official concern is with epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Locke sees the universe as made up of material bodies, which in turn are made of insensible particles, which interact mechanically. There are also immaterial substances associated with human bodies.
These bodies have sense organs, which when stimulated produce ideas of sensation. These ideas are operated on by our minds to produce ideas of reflection. These two types of ideas are the material of our thoughts, perception, and consciousness, which are all derived from experience; we can have no knowledge beyond our ideas. In perception, according to this view, we are not directly aware of physical objects; we are directly aware of the ideas that objects cause in us and that represent the objects in our consciousness. Our ideas of primary qualities of objects, or the mathematically determinable qualities of an object, such as shape, motion, weight, and number, actually exist in the world. Secondary qualities, those which arise from the senses, do not exist in objects as they exist in ideas. According to Locke, secondary qualities, such as taste, are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce ideas in use by their primary qualities.
When an object is perceived, a person’s ideas of its shape and weight represent qualities to be found in the object itself. Color and taste, however, are not copies of anything in the object. Genuine knowledge cannot be found in natural science since the essence of physical objects that science studies cannot be known. Locke is better known for his political thought.
The first of the Two Treatises of Government is a refutation of the political views of Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer had argued that the authority of a king is equivalent to a father’s authority over his children, derived from God’s grant of authority to Adam. Locke argued that the father only has authority until the child becomes an adult, and that the king’s subjects are not analogous to children. He also thought it was impossible to trace the descent of authority from Adam to the current King Charles II. In the second treatise Locke set forth the view that societies emerge from a state of nature as a result of a contract made among individuals to submit themselves to a ruler or rulers.
Against Hobbes, Locke argues that the ruler’s rights as well as those of everyone are restrained by the laws of nature; the right to life, liberty, and property. The ruler’s powers are given to him as a trust for the good of the citizens, and if the trust is broken his powers can be taken away. He believed that a monarchy with an assembly to hold the monarch to his trust was an ideal political arrangement. Unlike Hobbes he believed that principles of conduct were rational and humans could be trusted to follow those principles. Locke’s influence in modern philosophy has been profound and, with his application of empirical analysis to ethics, politics, and religion, he remains one of the most important and controversial philosophers of all time.
Among his other works are Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). Philosophy Essays