John Locke was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher. Locke’s monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is one of the first great defenses of modern empiricism and concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to a wide spectrum of topics. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot. Locke’s association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Among Locke’s political works he is most famous for The Second Treatise of Government in which he argues that sovereignty resides in the people and explains the nature of legitimate government in terms of natural rights and the social contract. He is also famous for calling for the separation of Church and State in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Much of Locke’s work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This is apparent both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church.
John Locke Biography and Profile
John Locke, born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, England, went to Westminster school and then Christ Church, University of Oxford. At Oxford he studied medicine, which would play a central role in his life. He became a highly influential philosopher, writing about such topics as political philosophy, epistemology, and education. Locke’s writings helped found modern Western philosophy.
Influential philosopher and physician John Locke, whose writings had a significant impact on Western philosophy, was born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, a village in the English county of Somerset. His father was a country lawyer and military man who had served as a captain during the English civil war.
Both his parents were Puritans and as such, Locke was raised that way. Because of his father’s connections and allegiance to the English government, Locke received an outstanding education.
In 1647 he enrolled at Westminster School in London, where Locke earned the distinct honor of being named a King’s Scholar, a privilege that went to only select number of boys and paved the way for Locke to attend Christ Church, Oxford in 1652.
At Christ Church, perhaps Oxford’s most prestigious school, Locke immersed himself in logic and metaphysics, as well as the classical languages. After graduating in 1656, he returned to Christ Church two years later for a Master of Arts, which led in just a few short years to Locke taking on tutorial work at the college.
In 1668 Locke was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He graduated with a bachelor’s of medicine in 1674.
Early in his medical studies, Locke met Lord Ashley, who was to become Earl of Shaftsbury. The two grew close and Shaftsbury eventually persuaded Locke to move to London and become his personal physician. As Shaftsbury’s stature grew, so did Locke’s responsibilities. He assisted in his business and political matters, and after Shaftsbury was made chancellor, Locke became his secretary of presentations.
Shaftsbury’s influence on Locke’s professional career and his political thoughts cannot be understated. As one of the founders of the Whig party, which pushed for constitutional monarchism and stood in opposition to the dominant Tories, Shaftsbury imparted an outlook on rule and government that never left Locke.
In Locke’s landmark, Two Treatises of Government, put forth his revolutionary ideas concerning the natural rights of man and the social contract. Both concepts not only stirred waves in England, but also impacted the intellectual underpinnings that formed the later American and French revolutions.
As England fell under a cloud of possible revolution, Locke became a target of the government. While historical research has pointed to his lack of involvement in the incident, Locke was forced to leave in England in 1683 due to a failed assassination attempt of King Charles II and his brother, or what later came to known as the Rye House Plot.
Exiled in Holland, Locke composed “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” another ground breaking work of intellectual might that spanned four books and took on the task of examining the nature of human knowledge.
Just like his Two Treatises, the Essay was published after Locke’s return to England in 1688. His arrival back in his homeland had come in the aftermath of the dramatic departure of King James II, who’d fled the country, allowing the Whigs to rise to power. Later called the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the event forever changed English government, moving the balance of power from the throne to Parliament. It also set Locke up to be a hero to many in his native country.
Later Years and Impact
In addition to his Essay and Two Treatises, Locke’s return to England also saw him publish additional work, including A Letter Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
A hero to the Whig party, Locke remained connected to governmental affairs in his advanced years. He helped steer the resurrection of the Board of Trade, which oversaw England’s new territories in North America. Locke served as one of the body’s key members.
Long afflicted with delicate health, Locke died on October 28, 1704, in Essex, where he’d resided over the last decade of his life.
Years after his death we are still gauging his impact on Western thought. His theories concerning the separation of Church and State, religious freedom, and liberty, not only influenced European thinkers such as the French Enlightenment writer, Voltaire, but shaped the thinking of America’s founders, from Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson.
The Limits of Human Understanding
Locke is often classified as the first of the great English empiricists (ignoring the claims of Bacon and Hobbes). This reputation rests on Locke’s greatest work, the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke explains his project in several places. Perhaps the most important of his goals is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke writes:
For I thought that the first Step towards satisfying the several Enquiries, the Mind of Man was apt to run into, was, to take a Survey of our own Understandings, examine our own Powers, and see to what Things they were adapted. Till that was done, I suspected that we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for Satisfaction in a quiet and secure Possession of Truths, that most concern’d us whilst we let loose our Thoughts into the vast Ocean of Being, as if all the boundless Extent, were the natural and undoubted Possessions of our Understandings, wherein there was nothing that escaped its Decisions, or that escaped its Comprehension. Thus Men, extending their Enquiries beyond their Capacities, and letting their Thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure Footing; “tis no Wonder, that they raise Questions and multiply Disputes, which never coming to any clear Resolution, are proper to only continue and increase their Doubts, and to confirm them at last in a perfect Skepticism. Wheras were the Capacities of our Understanding well considered, the Extent of our Knowledge once discovered, and the Horizon found, which sets the boundary between the enlightened and the dark Parts of Things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, Men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avow”d Ignorance of the one; and employ their Thoughts and Discourse, with more Advantage and Satisfaction in the other. (I.1.7, N: 47)
Some philosophers before Locke had suggested that it would be good to find the limits of the Understanding, but what Locke does is to carry out this project in detail. In the four books of the Essay Locke considers the sources and nature of human knowledge. Book I argues that we have no innate knowledge. (In this he resembles Berkeley and Hume, and differs from Descartes and Leibniz.) So, at birth, the human mind is a sort of blank slate on which experience writes. In Book II Locke claims that ideas are the materials of knowledge and all ideas come from experience. The term ‘idea’, Locke tells us “…stands for whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks” (I.1.8, N: 47). Experience is of two kinds, sensation and reflection. One of these—sensation—tells us about things and processes in the external world. The other—reflection—tells us about the operations of our own minds. Reflection is a sort of internal sense that makes us conscious of the mental processes we are engaged in. Some ideas we get only from sensation, some only from reflection and some from both.
John Locke Biography and Profile (Biography / Plato)