John Locke

Locke was an English philosopher and political thinker born in Wrington, England in 1632. He is best known for his beliefs about government and society, found in his Two Treatises on Government, where he explains how man was originally in a “state of nature” but decided freely to set up a government to secure his liberties by entering into a “social contract” with his fellow men. Locke famously puts forth the belief that there should be a separation of church and state, that a government should have checks and balances, and that a legitimate government is one that represents the will of the people. He describes the “inalienable rights” of man, stating ““no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty , or possessions,” which would become the basis of the American Revolution, French Revolution, and the Glorious Revolution in England.

Locke is equally famous for his understanding of ideas and his theory of knowledge, found in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke explains that Locke was an English philosopher born in Wrington, England in 1632. He is best known for his political philosophy as well as his understanding of ideas and his theory of knowledge (i.e. epistemology). In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke puts forth the theory that men originally existed in a state of nature, but decided to enter into a “social contract” in order to set up a government that would protect their “inalienable rights.” Locke famously believed in the separation of church and state, that a government should have checks and balances, and that a government must represent the will of the people. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke takes the position that all knowledge originally comes from the senses (i.e. empiricism). He also wrote about toleration, education and language, and strived to give man rational principles to guide his thought and actions, while at the same time recognizing the importance of compromise and common sense.

Locke lived through one of the most turbulent times in English history. He witnessed Charles I fight with Parliament, his subsequent execution and the rise to power of Cromwell, Charles II and James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke realized that this constant state of unrest was due to the fact that the social and political institutions of England were stuck in a rut. The established authorities were not willing to change, instead maintaining antiquated traditions that dated back to medieval times. Schools still taught Latin and Scholastic philosophy rather than anything of practical value, religious groups claimed absolute authority and persecuted those whose beliefs were different, and the government was divided between the will of the king and the will of the people.

In his Two Treatise of Government, Locke put forth what he believed was a better way to structure a government and the state. Taking over from the English philosopher Hobbes, Locke also maintained that man was originally in a “state of nature.” However, unlike Hobbes, Locke did not believe that the state of nature was inherently bad. Rather, Locke sees the state of nature as being good, where people instinctively follow a moral law, the “law of nature” whereby every person respects the life, liberty and property of his fellow man. Unfortunately, since people have a tendency to want more than they have, individuals committed crimes against their fellow man. Locke explains that instead of taking justice into one’s own hands, men ultimately decided to enter into a “social contract” with each other in order to set up a government which would ensure that the rule of law was followed. In this way, they would be able to live together with greater security.

Based on this theory, Locke wanted to show the English people that the purpose of government is to represent the will of the people. Men having willingly entered into such a social contract with each other, whoever they vote into power only has the right to rule in so far as their job was to protect the rights of the people. Locke writes, “No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This statement would become the “inalienable rights” of the American Declaration of Independence. Locke further explained that if a government was not representing the will of the people, for example when a king decides to use the state to serve his own interests, the people then have the right to rebel. Locke’s political philosophy would inspire revolutions in America, France, and England.

Locke famously put forth the belief that there should be a separation between Church and state. Recognizing that most of the fighting in Europe was due to differences in religious belief, Locke believed that the only way England could move forward as a society would be if religion was separated from the affairs of running the state. Locke explained that while the Church deals with the private affairs of man, namely his soul and the afterlife, the state deals with man’s public affairs. Therefore, the Church and state deal with two completely different sets of concerns.

Himself a believing Christian, Locke was frustrated to see his fellow Christians constantly fighting with each other and bringing England into a constant state of chaos. He believed that all Christians should be able to agree on the fundamentals of their faith, namely the belief in God, Jesus, and the morals found in the Bible. Therefore, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke requests that people put aside their differences and generously tolerate differences in religious belief. Original sin, predestination, eternal punishment in hell, and other such religious controversies need not be an endless source of fighting, since each person can choose to believe as he so desires without negatively affecting his neighbor.

In addition to the separation of Church and state, Locke also put forth the belief that there should be a separation between the legislative and executive branches of government (i.e. that government should have checks and balances). Locke would proclaim many of the things which serve as the basis of the government of the United States, deeply influencing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as the French social activists Rousseau and Voltaire. Based on his belief that the people should be able to rebel against a corrupt government, Locke advocated that they should be armed. He also spoke in defense of the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to private property.

In addition to politics, Locke’s reputation as a philosopher is equally measured by his contribution to our understanding of ideas, knowledge, and the mind. Like many others, Locke had been influenced by the philosophy of Descartes, who saw the world in scientific and rational terms. Locke himself studied medicine, and learned science from the chemist Boyle and the physicist Newton. He therefore embraced this worldview, and sought to understand the process by which we acquire knowledge in the first place. Locke rejected Descartes’ belief that the mind contains “innate principles” which are recognized as being “clearly and distinctly” true (i.e. rationalism). Instead, Locke explains that all knowledge originally comes from sensory experience (i.e. empiricism).

Locke explains that our mind is like a “blank slate” (tabula rasa). As a blank slate, we do not have any “innate ideas,” but rather acquire experiences through our senses. Based on these experiences, we then come up with ideas (i.e. sensation). The mind than takes these simple ideas, and combines them to form more complex ideas (i.e. reflection). Knowledge is therefore when we are able to look at such ideas and understand intuitively that they are true (such as the axioms of Euclidean geometry, ex: “two parallel lines will never touch”) or which can be proven through subsequent demonstration.

Locke then differentiates between the primary and secondary qualities of things. Primary qualities include “solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number,” while secondary qualities are things like color, taste, and smell. Locke explains that our senses only allow us to know the secondary qualities of things. For example, Descartes had discussed the example of wax. When melted or cooled, all the sensible properties of wax change. It changes color, feel, and smell. Locke therefore explains that we don’t have access to the primary qualities of the wax, but simply the ever-changing appearance of the wax i.e. it’s secondary qualities. Fortunately, from these secondary qualities we have enough practical knowledge to be able to make progress in the sciences as well as conduct our daily lives.

In this way, Locke explains that since all knowledge comes from sensory experience, we only have knowledge of the appearance of things, not their true nature. Locke uses this insight to settle a controversy in philosophy going back to the followers of Plato and Aristotle. In medieval times, philosophers such as Augustine and Aquinas believed that there are things, which they called “Ideas,” which exist “somewhere.” These “Ideas” included the idea of Justice, the Good, Beauty, as well as things like the idea of a rock, a tree, or a table. These earlier philosophers believed that just as particular things like rocks and trees exist in the world, likewise these ideas of “Tree” “Rock” must exist somewhere, whether understood as the “Realm of the Forms” or the “Mind of God.”

Locke did not like the Scholastic philosophy which he had been forced to learn during his time in school, and he develops a theory of language to refute this understanding of “Ideas.” Locke explains that as human beings, we have developed language in order to communicate. Because the world is made up of many things (i.e. many rocks, many trees, many instances of justice), we have therefore come up with abstractions for these terms “rock,” “tree,” and “justice” in order to be able to refer to something in general. This allows us to communicate effectively, as well as limit the number of ideas we have to hold in our minds. Locke therefore explains that the belief that the “idea of Justice” exists “somewhere” is simply a misunderstanding of this process of abstraction.

In his writings, Locke sought to bring clarity to the often confused subject: philosophy. Avoiding fancy words and expressions, his Essay Concerning Human Understanding became one of the most widely read books of the day. Locke tempered his rational understanding of knowledge with the occasional with the occasional appeal to common sense. For example, responding to the skeptical challenge of how we can know if external objects exist at all, Locke explains this is easily refuted by sticking one’s hand in a fire. This appeal to common sense would influence Analytic philosophers in the 20th century as well as the pragmatic philosophy of William James, meanwhile his empiricism would continue with the philosophies of Berkeley and Hume, and culminate in Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions at the end of the 18th century. Meanwhile, in political thought and action, Locke had truly set the stage.