John Locke  

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"He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke."--Charles Darwin, notebooks

"Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:— How comes it to be furnished?" --John Locke; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

John Locke (29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as David Hume, Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception. This is now known as empiricism. An example of Locke's belief in empiricism can be seen in his quote, "whatever I write, as soon as I discover it not to be true, my hand shall be the forwardest to throw it into the fire." This shows the ideology of science in his observations in that something must be capable of being tested repeatedly and that nothing is exempt from being disproven. Challenging the work of others, Locke is said to have established the method of introspection, or observing the emotions and behaviours of one's self.


Political theory

Locke's political theory was founded upon that of social contract. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature allowed people to be selfish. This is apparent with the introduction of currency. In a natural state, all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his "life, health, liberty, or possessions." Most scholars trace the phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," in the American Declaration of Independence, to Locke's theory of rights, though other origins have been suggested.

Like Hobbes, Locke assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. However, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day. Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Limits to accumulation

According to Locke, unused property is wasteful and an offence against nature, but, with the introduction of "durable" goods, men could exchange their excessive perishable goods for those which would last longer and thus not offend the natural law. In his view, the introduction of money marked the culmination of this process, making possible the unlimited accumulation of property without causing waste through spoilage. He also includes gold or silver as money because they may be "hoarded up without injury to anyone," as they do not spoil or decay in the hands of the possessor. In his view, the introduction of money eliminates the limits of accumulation. Locke stresses that inequality has come about by tacit agreement on the use of money, not by the social contract establishing civil society or the law of land regulating property. Locke is aware of a problem posed by unlimited accumulation but does not consider it his task. He just implies that government would function to moderate the conflict between the unlimited accumulation of property and a more nearly equal distribution of wealth; he does not identify which principles that government should apply to solve this problem. However, not all elements of his thought form a consistent whole. For example, the labour theory of value in the Two Treatises of Government stands side by side with the demand-and-supply theory of value developed in a letter he wrote titled Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising of the Value of Money. Moreover, Locke anchors property in labour but in the end, upholds the unlimited accumulation of wealth.

See also

List of major works

Major posthumous manuscripts

  • (1660) First Tract of Government (or the English Tract)
  • (c.1662) Second Tract of Government (or the Latin Tract)
  • (1664) Questions Concerning the Law of Nature (definitive Latin text, with facing accurate English trans. in Robert Horwitz et al., eds., John Locke, Questions Concerning the Law of Nature, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  • (1667) Essay Concerning Toleration
  • (1706) Of the Conduct of the Understanding
  • (1707) A paraphrase and notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians

See also

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