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John Locke

12 May 2017Essay Samples


John Locke was an Oxford scholar, a medical researcher and physician, a political functionary, economist and ideologue for a radical movement, and one of the exalted philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. His historic Essay Concerning Human Understanding aspires to find out the confines of human understanding. Previously, Chillingworth had argued that human understanding was restricted, where as Locke tries to determine what that confines are. He thinks that we can know with confidence that God exists and that with the same precision we know about mathematics, as we are ourselves the originators of moral and political thoughts. With respect to natural matters, we can identify only the exteriors and not the internal actualities, which create those exteriors. And the atomic hypothesis is the most credible available hypothesis.

Locke’s other renowned writings

Two Treatises of Civil Government was published after the Revolution of 1688 that brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, though they were overthrown in the Whig revolutionary plots against Charles II in the early 1680s. In this work Locke gives us a theory of natural law and natural rights that he employs to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate civil governments, and disagree for the legitimacy of revolt against tyrannical governments.

Another important piece of writings of Locke is toleration. The political scenario is that the Henry VIII had created a Church of England when he broke with Rome and declared the Church as the official religion of England. In the course of events, Catholics and rebel Protestants, e.g Quakers, Unitarians, were subjected to legal prosecution. In that time there were debates, negotiations and scheming to include dissenting Protestants within the Church of England. Locke’s "Letter Concerning Toleration" argues for a severance between church and state.

Events during Locke’s time (1632-1704)

John Locke was born in 1632 on 29th of August. In 1642 the English Civil War begun and in 1649 January 30, King Charles I was executed, the House of Lords abolished and England was declared a Commonwealth. In 1959 Locke wrote his first dissertation on the Civil Magistrate. In 1660 Charles II returned to England and was restored to the throne. (Richard Ashcraft,) In 1664 Locke wrote "Censor of Moral Philosophy" at Christ Church and the Essays on the Law of Nature. In 1665 Locke read Descartes and found in him the first practical alternative to Scholasticism that he had came across. In 1667 Locke joined Ashley’s, who later became Shaftsbury, home in London as Lord Ashley's personal physician. From this time until 1675 Locke lived regularly in London and wrote an Essay concerning Toleration.

In 1670 Locke wrote the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina and in 1671 the first draft of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1678 he went to France and remained there until 1678. In the same year Titus Oates charges that there was a Popish plot to kill King Charles II and put his Catholic brother James on the throne. Following year Shaftsbury becomes Lord President of the King's Council and Locke returned to England. A bill to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the Throne was passed by the House of Commons but failed in the House of Lords. In 1682 Shaftsbury fled to Holland where he died on 21 January 1683. In the same year, the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II was exposed, following the consequences, Locke fled to Holland and Essex, Russell and Algernon Sydney, leaders of the Whig party, got arrested.

In the subsequent year Locke was expelled from his studentship at Christ Church College, Oxford, by Royal command. In 1685 Charles II died and the Catholic Duke of York ascended the throne as James II. In 1685 Lord Monmouth, who was one of Charles II's illegitimate sons, started rebellion. Monmouth invaded England from Holland and Argyle raised a rebellion in Scotland, but both were defeated. In 1688, the Bibliotheque Universelle published a fifty page abstract of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and in the same year William of Orange invaded England and accomplished the "Glorious Revolution of 1688”, and James II fled to France.

In the next year Locke returned to England accompanying the princess of Orange, who later became Queen Mary. In the same year he met Sir Isaac Newton and became friends. In the same year The Epistolia de Tolerentia was published, and translated by William Popple as A Letter Concerning Toleration and also the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1690 The Two Treatises of Civil Government were published in concurrence with The Argument of the 'Letter of Toleration' Briefly Considered and Answered. In 1691 Locke makes Oates, the residence of Sir Francis and Lady Masham, his permanent home. Two years after, Some Thoughts Concerning Education was published.

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In 1694 the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published following the Reasonableness of Christianity along with the answering of criticisms by Reasonableness in A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. During 1697-99 Locke got in to an extensive controversy with Edward Stilling fleet, Bishop of Worcester. From 1700-1704 Locke remained at Oates until his death on 28 October 1704 (On Line Biographies)

John Locke’s philosophy in the Essay Concerning Homan Understanding An Essay Concerning Homan Understanding was first published in December of 1689 and from then on went through four editions in Locke's lifetime. Only few books have had as great an effect on the history of thought and the nature of human consciousness as John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (On Line Biographies)

The Essay is a complete and detailed analysis of the mechanisms of human thought, which Locke thought had the prospective to cast new light on social and religious thoughts. Locke himself tries to use his model to elucidate many philosophical quandaries, such as the associations between the material world, subjectivity and the celestial. The Essay’s most sustained impact on British thought was, though, not a result of his philosophizing about these relationships and associations, but somewhat of his early momentum to classify and explain the relationship between diverse types of human thoughts. It is the character of the model of cognition that Locke developed that directed John Stuart Mill to name him the "unquestioned founder of the analytic philosophy of mind." However, many afterward-British thinkers would argue with Locke, but many would be able to abstain from making their own cognitive models as rationalizations for their social, aesthetic, or religious philosophies in the countenance of the impact of Locke's Essay. (John Mackie, 1976)

The basis of Locke's cognitive model is his division of human thinking into a progression of unified but separate processes, where each is within its own strictures and functions. Locke opinions that, all thinking can be tacit to fall in either of two broad categories: “Selection” or “Reflection”.

Sensation is the way in which "our senses, conversant bout particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein those objects do affect them", and Reflection is the "perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got". Considering that the mind is, at birth, an “empty cabinet” or a sheet of "white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas", he maintains that these two forms of thinking are "the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings”. However, reflection cannot take place except for, as there are thoughts present to reflect upon. Thus, all thinking starts with Sensation, that is the "perception is the first operation of all our intellectual faculties, and the inlet of all our knowledge". (Nathan Tarcov, 1984)

Locke explains the process by which the senses provide the mind with its first thoughts as a function of arbitration. Locke asserts that "the ideas of primary (material) qualities of bodies are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves, but the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance of them at all". According to Locke the material world does exist, but we only have entrée through the mediation of particular secondary material qualities, like motion, refraction, heat, etc. and consequently have an 'idea' of its materiality but no real information of it. It is these "ideas" that are, in Locke’s opinion, the primary building blocks of all human thought. Thus, Locke strictly speaks neither a pure skeptic nor materialistic, but supports a place which arbitrates between the two.

Locke comments that while sensation is at its origin a passive process, i.e., a sound wave hits the eardrum and produces an automatic response, reflection can be active or passive and can in fact interfere into the function of Sensation. Further, Locke goes on to look at and identify numerous sub-classes of thought, which exist under the class of reflection. According to Locke, all ideas fall into one of the two general categories of simple or complex ideas. The simple ideas being those that are "not distinguishable into different ideas", such as hot, cold, white, etc., and complex ideas are those that are shaped by the comprehension of "repeat [-ing], compare [-ing], and unit [-ing] "simple ideas. Further, Locke divides complex ideas into the sub-categories of modes, substances and relations. Modes are what we today would think of as qualities, as power, identity, etc. Substances are things, such as the idea of a Man, and relations are terms of mathematical relational properties such as squared, triangular, etc.

Locke in addition describes the numerous ways in which the mind goes about creating and influencing these ideas. Further Locke defines several sub categories of thought, which come beneath the category of reflection, each with its individual exclusive characteristic. As maintained by to Locke, all reflective thought falls into one of the sub-categories, that are: Memory, which is the ability to recall an absent idea back into consciousness; Retention that is the ability to hold a thought in the consciousness; Discerning is the ability to recognize the differences between things; Comparing is the ability to recognize the similarities between things; Composition that is the ability to construct new ideas from the building blocks of other ideas; Abstraction which is the ability to discern abstract relational principles, such as mathematical proofs, which lie behindhand other ideas and then create an idea of the general. Human thought is explained by these divisions according to Locke (On Line Biographies)

Locke’ philosophy also deals with the Will. Locke demonstrates for the existence of the human will by declaring that humans are on the whole “hardwired” to knowledge the sensations of pain and pleasure and that all action is the outcome of a sketch towards the one or moving away from the other. "Pain has the same efficacy and use to set us on work that pleasure has, we being as ready to employ our faculties to avoid that, as to pursue this". Afterwards in the work, though, the creator inexplicably drops out of the scene and man turn out to be capable of deciding for himself what is enjoyable or sorrowful, and only the methods that forces man towards pleasure and a way from pain remains a product of the Creator. Regrettably, Locke never sufficiently explains where precisely the force to will such an alteration initiates. (James Tully, 1980)

Critical aspects and philosophical impact

Alexander Fraser has pointed out that "The art of education, political thought, theology and philosophy, especially in Britain, France, and America, long bore the stamp of the Essay, or of reaction against it, to an extent that is not explained by the comprehensiveness of Locke's thought, or by the force of his genius". Further he points out that Locke's thinking is remarkable, but not adequately so to account for his popularity as an influence. However, there is something exceptional about Locke's tactic which is structurally echoed in his philosophical supporters and which could report for his fame.

Hobbes was the first to propose that the laws of politics and religion could be put in plain words by the same logic that was used to discover mathematical truths, but Locke was the first to use this logic absolutely to the study of human subjectivity. Locke often initiates questions of subjectivity with debates of mathematical proof. Like, in his discussion of the question of the existence of inborn moral principles Locke narrates, "But this is no derogation to their truth and certainty; no more than it is to the truth or certainty of the tree angles of a triangle being equal to two right ones because it is not so evident as the 'whole is bigger than a part; nor so apt to be assented to at first hearing. It may suffice that these moral rules are capable of demonstration". (John Yolton, 1969)

Indeed, Locke's whole technique is one of introducing the rules of geometric 'demonstration' to the dominion of social psychology. Locke's complete dissertation is in truth nothing terse of a geometric 'proof' in which a series of theorems are proved using a series of inferences founded upon rational maxims or theorems, which have formerly in the book been verified to be true. (On Line Biographies)

It is for this reason alone, that we consider Locke as the father of empirical psychology. Any person after him who desired to go into the field of conventional philosophical thought would have to deal with the emblematic influence of this methodology either by encountering Locke on his conditions or by plainly declining to contribute.

Works Cited

  • On Line Biographies, See The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Time Line. See,
  • Mackie, John, “Problems from Locke”, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976
  • Ashcraft, Richard, “Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government”
  • Tarcov, Nathan, “Locke's Education for Liberty”, The University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Tully, James, “A Discourse on Property”, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Yolton, John, “John Locke: Problems and Perspectives”, Cambridge University Press, 1969

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