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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



John Locke (1632-1704), born at Wrington, in Somerset, England, the son of a lawyer of no great distinction. He was sent to Westminster School at the age of fourteen, and after staying there a rather unusually long time he secured a place at. Christ Church, Oxford, in 1652. There he was trained in, was influenced by, but heartily disliked, the lifeless and obsolete philosophical orthodoxy of the day. He took the degree of B.A. in 1656, of M.A. in 1658, and in 1659 he was elected to a Senior Stu­dentship in his college – an office supposed to be tenable for life, though Locke was actually dispossessed, on political grounds, in 1684.

In the early years after his election, Locke's main interests appear to have been scientific. Through his friendship with Sir Robert Boyle, who was in Oxford from 1654 to 1668, he was brought into close and practical contact with current work in physics and chemistry, and on his own account he had taken to the study of medicine. In fact he obtained, though with some difficulty, a medical degree from his University, and, in 1674, a faculty to practice medicine. His interest in philosophy, however, was eventually re-awakened by the study of Descartes; and Descartes' influence is clearly discernible, among many others, in the vocabulary and the preoccupations, if not often in the conclusions, of Locke's own philosophical work.

His connection with Lord Ashley, afterwards Earl of Shaftesbury, began in 1666. They first met by chance in Oxford, but by the middle of the following year Locke had become one of Ashley's most esteemed friends and advisers, partly as his physician, but also generally on public affairs. In 1671 Locke composed two short drafts of what was to grow, over the next twenty years, into his Essay concerning Human Understanding; but for the present he was deeply engaged in the private and political affairs of his patron, who became Lord Chancellor in 1672. In 1680, after many vicis­situdes in the scheming Shaftesbury's fortunes, and several journeys abroad for the sake of his own health, Locke was back in Oxford; but in 1683, after his patron's death in extreme political disfavour, Locke judged it prudent to retire to Holland, in the comparatively calm and liberal at­mosphere of which he passed, to the great profit of his writings, the next five years. Henceforward, after the Whig revolution of 1688, he rapidly became a celebrated national figure. His Essay and his Two Treatises of Government both appeared in 1690; and until 1700, when his health became precarious, he both wrote much on current issues of controversy and held various active political appointments. In that year he brought out a fourth edition of his Essay.

John Locke portrait: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Christ Church, Oxford

Locke's Essay, by far his most important work, is a vast, untidy composition, bearing all too clearly in its wanderings and repetitions the signs of having been written piecemeal over a period of many years. Its style is sober and, usually, clear; but Locke was not careful over points of detail, not always consistent with himself, and by no means rigorous in working out the full consequences of his position. Nevertheless, there are many philo­sophical problems on which his remarks continue to provide at least a valuable starting-point; and the great and immediate celebrity of his work is a sign of, at least, the historical appositeness of its appearance, and perhaps also of the general accept-ability of its point of view.

Locke's official concern is with epistemology, the theory of knowledge; his purpose is, as he puts it, "to .inquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent". However, underlying this official "analytic", clarificatory programme, and greatly influ­encing its course, is the unsystematic and indeed almost unconscious statement of what can justly be regarded as a metaphysical doctrine. Locke very properly believed that philosophers ought not to proceed in total disregard of the natural sciences; he believed that they ought to take account of the impact of scientific discoveries upon their own beliefs, and on the ordinary opinions of "common sense". But, half unwittingly, he went in fact much further than this. He evidently believed, or even assumed, that the world is really and fundamen­tally what the physicist says it is, no more and no less – that the answer to questions about the nature of the world, is the answer a physicist would pro-vide. He even adapts to this conviction a fragment of the medieval apparatus which he had reluctantly acquired in his student days: the "nominal essence"`of a substance, he says, consists merely in those observable qualities which determine the ordinary application of its name; its "real essence", on the other hand, consists in the physical structure of its "insensible parts". In this and in many other passages, Locke in effect erects the current phy­sicists' atomic, or "corpuscular", theory of matter into the ultimate metaphysical truth. It was, in­cidentally, this aspect of Locke's position which was regarded by Berkeley as most odious, dangerous, and mistaken; on the other hand, it of course fitted in with, and no doubt also contributed to, that half-unconscious acceptance of the scientific "worldoutlook" which has been, since the seven­teenth century, so marked a feature of European civilization.

The general picture of the world which Locke thus took for granted may be summarized as follows: the physical universe really consists of indefinitely many material bodies, which are composed of corpuscles, or "insensible particles" - these particles in turn being conceived of as very small bodies. This whole system operates mechan­ically; Locke sometimes actually refers to ordinary objects as "machines", and he says also that impact, or "impulse", is "the only way which we can conceive bodies operate in". Now besides this system of mechanically interacting material bodies there exist also, Locke believes, immaterial sub-stances, some at least of which are associated, in a manner not clearly understood, with particular material things, namely human bodies. These bod­ies have certain physical features known as sense-organs ; and it is a fact, and in Locke's view a fact not further explicable, that when these sense-organs are stimulated - mechanically of course - the resultant motion "produces in us those different sensations which we have", or "produces in our minds ... particular ideas". In addition to such "ideas of sensation", we acquire further "ideas of reflection" from "the perception of the operations of our minds within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got". These ideas together, Locke holds, supply the whole of the material of consciousness, experience, perception, and thought; all are derived "from experience" (the vague but fundamental tenet of empiricism) ; and "we can have know-ledge no farther than we have ideas".

Thus the mind, Locke says, "in all its thoughts and reasonings, hath no other immediate object but its own ideas, which it alone does or can con-template". This conviction leads - though Locke does not follow it - to serious difficulties both as to perception and as to knowledge. As to perception, it is of course possible, on Locke's principles, to ask whether the "ideas" of which we are said to be aware in our minds do in fact faithfully represent to us the character of their causes, "external" material things. Locke's own answer to this question is that, in part, they do: our ideas of "primary qualities" - "solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number" - do represent to us qualities that bodies do really possess. Ideas of "secondary" qual­ities, on the other hand - "as colours, sounds, tastes, etc." - are merely modes in which bodies happen to appear to organisms constituted as we are; there is "in truth nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, that is, by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts". In making this distinction Locke gives striking expression to his conviction that the world really is nothing but a physical mechanism; it will be observed that the qualities he asserts to be real­ly "in" bodies are precisely those relevant to their mechanical behaviour. However, he seems not to notice the difficulty that, if we can "contemplate" only our own ideas, it is at least not apparent how we could ever decide what relations hold between these and "external" bodies; how could we tell that our ideas were faithful representatives in any respect, if we can never contemplate that which they represent to us? It was indeed urged by Berkeley that, on Locke's view, we should have no solid ground even for the conviction that any "external" bodies exist; still less, then, is Locke in a position to assert so confidently that those bodies really do have certain qualities, but only appear to have others.

Locke's difficulties as to knowledge are somewhat similar. Defining knowledge as "the percep­tion of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of our ideas", he is first obliged to add the inconsistent rider that our ideas must be perceived also to "agree with the reality of things", and then to evade the resulting question as to how, on his principles, this latter perception can occur. He sometimes appears to hold that knowledge, strictly speaking, can be only of the relations between ideas; but even if so, it is not clear how he could consistently admit that even so much as a well-grounded opinion could be achieved as to the relation between ideas and "the reality of things".

It will be observed that these major difficulties in Locke's position derive alike from his basic principle, that we can be actually - "immediately" - aware only of the contents of our own minds. It is in this way that ideas, in his system, become what has been described as an "iron curtain" between the observer and the world. And it is important to notice that this principle was not, as Locke seems to have supposed, forced on him by his adherence to scientific theory. For the scientific account of perception addresses itself to the question, how perception occurs - the orthodox answer being, in Locke's day, that it occurs by means of the mechani­cal operation of "insensible particles" upon the sense-organs. Now this is not an answer to the question, what it is that is really perceived. It may be that some occurrence "in the mind" is the last item in the causal transaction between the observer and his environment; but it does not follow that what occurs in his mind is all that he really observes. To suppose that this does follow is to fall into one of the classic misunderstandings of scientific theory - one which, to some extent by the force of Locke's example, has constantly recurred in the history of philosophy.

Locke's political writings were for the most part avowedly directed towards supplying a theoretical justification for the political views of those who wished to overthrow the arbitrary government of the Stuarts, and to replace it by a monarchy of strictly limited powers. Of his Two Treatises of Government, the first is a successful refutation of a view that scarcely deserved such extended notice. Locke's target here is the absolutist theory, not, unfortunately, of the powerful Hobbes, but of the zealous Royalist Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer had argued that the authority of a king is identical with that of a father over his children, and is de-rived directly from God's grant of such authority to Adam. Locke gravely points out, first, that a father's authority over his children is not absolute, at least when they become adult; second, that the relation between a king and his subjects is not genuinely analogous with that between a father and his children; and third, that it would in any case be a matter of some difficulty to trace the direct descent of patriarchal authority from Adam to Charles II. It is in the second Treatise that Locke states his own case.

In the exposition of his political principles Locke adopted the pseudo-historical convention of the period. He describes, purporting to trace an actual process, societies as emerging from a pristine "state of nature", as a result of a "contract" made among individuals jointly to submit themselves, for the sake of certain advantages, to a ruler or rulers. Now Hobbes had argued that, in such a case, the designated ruler could only be absolute; if any members of society were to be effectively re-strained, the ruler must have absolute power over all. Locke argues against this, first, that the ruler's rights are limited, as are those of everyone, by the "law of nature"; and second, that in any case his powers are assigned to him as a trust for the good of the members of society, and hence can properly be taken away again if that trust is broken. Though thus opposed to authoritarianism, Locke was of course in no sense a democrat. He had no uncritical faith in elected assemblies, still less in the populace at large; he did not envisage universal suffrage. He believed that monarchy was certainly the best political arrangement possible, provided that some assembly could hold the monarch to the terms of his trust, and itself be in some degree answerable to the people. Unlike Hobbes, he did not think it essential that any person or persons in society should be a centre of final sovereignty, and able in the last resort to settle all disputes. This, no doubt, was because, unlike Hobbes, he believed in the rational basis of the principles of conduct, and believed also that human beings were rational enough to be trusted, with certain safeguards, to follow those principles. This made it possible for him to rely upon some measure of enlightened cooperation in political affairs.

It may perhaps be said, in summary of the above, that Locke's real achievement was to bring togeth­er most of the threads of the "advanced" thinking of his time. In his philosophy he seemed to have escaped from the mazes of minute and insignificant subtlety into which the scholastic tradition had degenerated; to have taken account of the new stirrings of Cartesianism; and above all to have brought philosophy firmly into line with the latest and best in scientific theory. The general picture of the world, against the background of which Locke pursued his epistemological inquiries, was, as has been said, exactly that of the seventeenth - and eighteenth-century physicist; and there is little doubt that Locke's views owed much of their prestige to their declared alliance with the flourish­ing physical sciences. The fact that those views embodied serious misunderstandings was soon observed by philosophical critics, notably by Berkeley and Leibniz; they expressed so exactly, how-ever, the spirit of the age, that they easily survived such criticism. Moreover, there is of course merit enough in Locke's many discussions of particular problems to ensure that he should still be read with close attention, as being at least in the historical mainstream of modern philosophy in the English language.

In his political theory also, unadventurous as it may seem, and artificially presented as it undoubtedly is, Locke was giving clear expression to the enlightened opinion of his day. It is true that his theory is presented as stating the conditions to be satisfied by any good society at any time; but in fact – not surprisingly – its real contribution was to the political thought of his own society and age. The seventeenth century in English politics was a period in which the character and role of kingship, or more generally the character and relations of ruler and subject, were topics of incessant uncer­tainty, conflict, and debate; that age was, even more than most, an age of transition. It can hardly be said that Locke contributed directly to the comparatively enduring settlement of 1688, but he did express the thought of those who worked for that settlement. In this also he was the embodiment of his age, and in his good sense, sobriety and devotion to reason, he remains a justly admired representative of it.

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