John Locke
Life and works.

John Locke
An extensive and expert summary by William Uzgalis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Use this selectively.

John Locke:
His American and Carolinian Legacy
George M. Stephens on the impact that Locke had on political theory and reality.



John Locke

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? .... To this I answer in one word, from experience. [Essay on Human Understanding, II:i:2]

Locke (1632-1704) is one of the great British Empiricists.  Empiricism is generally the view that all knowledge and thought has its source in sensory experience.  Other British philosophers in the empiricist tradition include George Berkeley, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill.  Empiricists are typically opposed by philosophers who hold that some aspects of the human mind are built-in and not acquired by sensory experience.  Rene Descartes is a great Rationalist philosopher who explicitly refutes the general empiricist claim Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu which is Latin for "There is nothing in the understanding that was not earlier in the senses."  The practical significance of this debate is great; for instance on education, politics, psychology, and law.  If humans come with pre-wired (innate) concepts, perhaps their character and personality is present.  If all of the contents of the individual mental system is produced by experience, however, then we must take the social and physical environment of the child as the primary factor in who they are to become.  This nature/nurture debate is a live and well today.  We fight political battles over the policies that are based on these different viewpoints.  Locke gives the first clear and extensive presentation of the empiricist view in modern thought.

Locke describes the individual human mind at birth as a white page or a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which experience writes all of its contents.  The contents of a mind are thoughts, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, concepts, etc.  As we learn and grow, our minds fill up with these contents.

Experience comes to us from two kinds of sources, outer experience and inner experience.   Outer experience comes through the senses and provides sensory qualities, e.g., color, heat, hardness, sweetness, etc.  Inner experience comes through reflection (being aware of oneself) and provides ideas of non-tangible and non-sensory things such as beliefs, ideas, thoughts, doubts, etc. 

Qualities such as a certain color, a certain sound, the sensation of heat, and so on "enter by the senses simple and unmixed."  In the mind these basic qualities are "united and blended" into complex ideas such as objects, classes of objects, classes of qualities, and so on. 

Locke's most lasting impact is on the development of political theory.  In this regard he has a direct and real effect on us today.  Locke produced theories of government that sought to determine by what right a government may hold power over the people.  One of the lasting contributions Locke gave us was his emphasis on government by popular consent.  This is not democracy, for he was writing in the context of a monarchy.  Yet, Locke recognized (as did Hobbes before him) that the foundation of state authority rests upon the benefit that authority has for the people and the consent of the people to accept that benefit. 

From the roots of consensual governance in Locke, later philosophers built actual systems of government.  Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, for example, took Locke as their philosophical starting point ion drafting the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence.  The constitutional republic is a legacy of Locke's political philosophy. 





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