John Locke

Posted on 14th August 2019

John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an English philosopher who believed human ideas are ultimately gained from experience.

This type of philosophical thought became known as Empiricism. This is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience. It emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, and argues that the only knowledge humans can have is a ‘posteriori’ (i.e. based on experience).

His main work was the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In it he tried to clarify two questions. Firstly, where we get our ideas from, and secondly, whether we can rely on what our senses tell us.

Tabular Rasa

Locke believed that all humans are born with a Tabular Rasa, translated from Latin as ‘Blank Slate’. He compared the mind to an unfurnished room from which your senses awaken.

We see the world around us, we smell, taste, feel, and hear. And nobody does this more intensely than infants. In this way what Locke called simple ideas of sense arise. But the mind does not just passively receive information from outside it. Some activity happens in the mind as well.

The single sense ideas are worked on by thinking, reasoning, believing, and doubting, thus giving rise to what he calls reflection. So he distinguished between “sensation” and “reflection.”

For example, imagine being a child and being given an apple to eat for the first time. Picture it in your grubby little hands. Holding it in your hands your single senses of sight and touch give you colour and texture. Is it a green Granny Smith or a red Golden Delicious and is the apple ripened or rotten? Imagine you putting the apple in your infant mouth. Does it taste sweet or sour?

After eating the apple and exposing it to your senses you now have a complex idea or reflection of what an apple is.

The experience of eating an apple has now been written onto your Tabular Rasa.

Empiricism versus Rationalism

Where Locke differed markedly from Descartes and other predecessors, though, was in the status he granted to the senses. Descartes held that the senses incline us to have certain beliefs, but that this alone does not amount to actual knowledge (which requires interpretation and explanation by reason and the intellect). For Locke, however, the senses themselves are a basic and fundamental faculty which deliver knowledge in their own right. Indeed, his whole conception of an idea differed from that of Descartes: for Descartes, an idea was fundamentally intellectual; for Locke it was fundamentally sensory, and all thought involved images of a sensory nature.

Political Philosophy

Locke detailed accounts of human volition and moral freedom, the personal identity on which our responsibility as moral agents depends, and the dangers of religious enthusiasm.

With his Two Treatises of Civil Government, published anonymously in 1690 in order to avoid controversy, Locke established himself as a political theorist of the highest order. The ‘First Treatise’ was intended merely to refute support of the Divine Right of Kings, arguing that neither scripture nor reason could justify a monarchy.

The ‘Second Treatise’, however, offered a systematic account of the foundations of political obligation. In Locke’s view, all rights begin in the individual property interest created by an investment of labor. The social structure (or “commonwealth”) depends for its formation and maintenance on the express consent of those governed by its political powers (the so-called Social Contract or Contractarianism). He believed that majority rule thus becomes the cornerstone of all political order, although dissatisfied citizens reserve a lasting right to revolution.

Like Thomas Hobbes before him, Locke started from a belief that humans have absolute natural rights. This was in the sense of universal rights that are inherent in the nature of ethics, and not contingent on human actions or beliefs. However, much of his political work is characterized by his opposition to authoritarianism, and particularly to the tendency towards Totalitarianism advocated by Hobbes.

Locke believed that no one should be allowed absolute power and introduced the idea of the separation of powers, whereby the Church and the judicial system operate independently of the ruling class. In particular, he defined civil interests (those which the State can and should legitimately protect) as being:

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • Health
  • The ability to own property

If much of this seems familiar from the American Declaration of Independence, that is no coincidence as the American founding fathers freely admitted their debt to Locke’s Political Philosophy.

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