John Locke

John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an English political philosopher and physician, who believed human knowledge is ultimately gained from experience.

Locke was born in Somerset, south-west England, the son of a country lawyer. He gained a place at Oxford University studying philosophy but also became interested in medicine and science. He became the personal physician 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a leading political figure of the time, who helped found the Whig party.

Locke, himself, became interested in politics and developed ideas about natural rights and government, which were quite revolutionary for this period in English history.

“All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

John Locke


Locke argued that all of our ideas are ultimately derived from experience, and the knowledge of which we are capable is therefore severely limited in its scope and certainty.

This type of philosophical thought became known as Empiricism. This is the theory that the origin of all knowledge is gained through the senses alone.

Empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas. Empiricism argues that the only knowledge humans can have is a ‘posteriori’ (i.e. based on experience).

Locke’s 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

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding 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. 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 Locke calls Reflection.

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? 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 explored moral freedom, responsibility and the dangers of religious fundamentalism. With his Two Treatises of Civil Government, published anonymously in 1690 in order to avoid controversy, Locke established himself as a political theorist. 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 human rights begin within the individual by an investment of labor and ownership of property.

The social structure depends for its formation and maintenance on the express consent of those governed by its political powers (known as Contractarianism). Locke believed that majority rule thus becomes the cornerstone of all political order, although dissatisfied citizens reserve a lasting right to revolution.

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”

John Locke

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 as 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 American Declaration of Independence, then that is no coincidence as the American founding fathers freely admitted their debt to Locke’s philosophy.

During Locke’s final years, he became something of an intellectual hero of the Whigs, and he discussed matters with such figures as John Dryden and Sir Isaac Newton. However, his health deteriorated, marked by regular asthma attacks, and he died in 1704 – never being married or having any children.

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