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Locke 1

Locke, science and the origins of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In the Epistle to the Reader at the beginning of the Essay Locke remarks:

"The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge ..."
Locke knew all of these men and their work. Locke, Boyle and Newton were all founding members of the English Royal Society. It is from Boyle that Locke learned about atomism (or the corpuscular hypothesis) and it is from Boyle's book The Origin of Forms and Qualities that Locke took the language of primary and secondary qualities. Sydenham was one of the most famous English physicians of the 17th century and Locke did medical research with him. Locke read Newton's Principia Mathematica Philsophiae Naturalis in exile in Holland, and consulted Huyygens as to the soundness of its mathematics. Locke and Newton became friends after Locke's return from Holland in 1688.

Locke's own active invovlement with the scientific movement was largely through his informal studies of medecine. Dr. David Thomas was his friend and collaborator. Locke and Thomas had a labratory in Oxford which was very likely, in effect, a pharmacy. In 1666 Locke had a fateful meeting with Lord Ashley as a result of his friendship with Thomas. Ashley, one of the richest men in England, came to Oxford. He proposed to drink some medicinal waters there. He had asked Dr. Thomas to provide them. Thomas had to be out of town and asked Locke to see that the water was delivered. As a result Locke met Ashley and they liked one another. In the following year Ashley asked Locke to move to Exeter House in London to become his personal physician. This was to start a whole new and astonishing chapter in Locke's life.

While living in London at Lord Ashley's residence at Exeter House, Locke continued to be involved in philosophical discussions. He tells us that:

Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had awhile puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed that this should be our first inquiry. Some hasty and undigested thoughts, on a subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next meeting, gave the first entrance into this Discourse; which having been thus begun by chance, was continued by intreaty; written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted; and at last, in a retirement where an attendance on my health gave me leisure, it was brought into that order thou now seest it.
Thus the Oxford scholar and medical researcher came to begin the work which was to make him one of the greatest philosophers in an era filled with philosophical stars.


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