Locke, Science Morality and Knowledge

Readings for this part of your journey

  1. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
    Book II Chapters 1-12
    Book II. 13--20, 22--23
    Book II. 21;
  2. Woolhouse The Empiricists, Ch. 6 optional


An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In this section of the course we are going to explore some brief sections from Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In this large work (a runs to a bit over 700 pages) Locke tries to determine the limits of human understanding, so as to make it clear what we can know. The Essay is divided into four books. All of the material we are going to look at comes from Book II. Before turning to this material, however, we should consider a bit about Locke and the world in which he grew up.



John Locke (1632-1704) was one of the greatest philosophers in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century. Locke grew up and lived through one of the most extraordinary centuries of English political and intellectual history. It was a century in which conflicts between Crown and Parliament and the overlapping conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics swirled into civil in the 1640s. With the defeat and death of Charles I in the civil war, there began a great experiment in governmental institutions including the abolishment of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican church, and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate in the 1650s. The collapse of the Protectorate after the death of Cromwell was followed by the Restoration of Charles II -- the return of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church. This period lasted from 1660 to 1688. It was marked by continued conflicts between King and Parliament and debates over religious toleration for Protestant dissenters and Catholics. This period ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which James II was driven from England and replaced by William of Orange and his wife Mary. This is one of the most important moments in the history of English government, marking as it does the shift of real power from the Crown to the Parliament. The final period during which Locke lived involved the consolidation of power by William and Mary, and the beginning of William's efforts to oppose the domination of Europe by the France of Louis XIV, which later culminated in the military victories of the John Churchill -- the Duke of Marlborough.

Locke's Life up to his meeting with Lord Ashley in 1666

Locke was born in Wrighton to Puritan parents of modest means. His father was a country lawyer who served in a cavalry company on the Puritan side in the early stages of the English civil war. His father's commander, Alexander Popham, became the loca l MP, and it was his patronage which allowed the young John Locke to gain an excellent education. In 1647 Locke went to Westminster School in London.
Richard Busby
The importance of Westminster school in the intellectual life of the seventeenth century can scarcely be exaggerated. Richard Busby, who taught Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert South, and a host of judges and bishops as well as John Locke, was the Headmaster from 1638 until his death in 1695. Although Busby orignally gained his position because his political and theological beliefs were in accordance with Archbishop Laud (a Royalist and Anglican), Busby continued in his position because of sheer excellence. The King's Scholars were a small group of special boys who had the privledge of living in the school and who received a stipend for two or three years before standing for election for either Christ Church College, Oxford or Trinity College Cambridge. While the "major e lections" were probably political, the "minor elections or "challenges" were among the most genuinely competitive admissions processes in English schools of the period. Locke did not succeed in the challenge until 1650.

From Westminster school he went to Christ Church College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1652 at the age of twenty. (In this respect Locke was unusual -- many students came to the universities at age fourteen.) Oxford had been a Royalist stronghold during the civil war. Christ Church had housed the King's court. In 1646 Oxford fell to the Parliamentary army, and many Puritans wished to abolish the universities. Instead, they were purged. At Christ Church, only thirty five Senior students remained, after seventy resigned rather than take an oath of submission to the new authority. Cromwell's Chaplin, John Owen, became Dean. Many of the dons were replaced by Cromwell's friends and relations, other places being given to curates and poor scholmasters trooping in from the country. As Westminster school was the most important English school, so Christ Church was the most important Oxford college. Planned in 1525 by Cardinal Woolsey to be a far bigger and better college than any that then existed, it was revived by Henry VIII. In Locke's years as an undergraduate, the buildings of Christ Church were unfinished. There was no Peckwater quadrangle or Library, nor was Wren's Tom's Tower put over the gate-house until later in the century. Only the Cathedral, the Hall, the small quadrangles, and three sides of the great quadrangle, were there as they are today. A chapel to rival the great chapel at King's College Cambridge never rose above its foundations.

Education at Oxford was medieval. Reform came, but not in Locke's time there. The three and a half years devoted to getting a B.A. was mainly given to logic and metaphysics and the classical languages. Conversations with tutors, even between undergraduates in the Hall was in Latin. Locke, like Hobbes before him, found the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of litle use.

There was, however, more at Oxford than Aristotle. Science had arrived. John Wilkins, Cromwell's brother in law, had become Warden of Wadham College. The group around Wilkins was the nucleus of what was to become the English Royal Society. Many of Wilkins associates were people interested in pursuing medecine by observation rather than the reading of classic texts. One of Locke's friends from Westminster school, Richard Lower, introduced Locke to medecine and the experimental philosophy being persued by the virtuosi at Wadham.

Locke received his B.A. in February 1656. His career at Oxford, however, continued beyond his undergraduate days. In June of 1658 Locke qualified as a Master of Arts and was elected a Senior Student of Christ Church College. The rank was equivalent to a Fellow at any of the other colleges, but was not permanent. Locke had yet to determine what his career was to be. This was difficult for the following two years were filled with uncertainty. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, and it was not clear until 1660 what was to happen. General Monk decided on the return of the Stuart monarchy. Charles II returned to England in 1660 to a joyful welcome from his subjects, including one John Locke. Locke was elected Lecturer in Greek at Christ Church in December of 1660 and he was elected Lecturer in Rhetoric in 1663. At this point, Locke needed to make a decision. The statutes of Christ Church laid it down that fifty five of the senior studentships should be reserved for men in orders or reading for orders. Only five could be held by others, two in medecine, two in law and one in moral philosophy. Thus, there was good reason for Locke to become a clergyman. The alternative was to be a doctor. Locke was attracted to the medical alternative because he was becomming increasingly interested in science.

John Wilkins had left Oxford with the Restoration of Charles II. The new leader of the Oxford scientific group was Robert Boyle. He was also Locke's scientific mentor. Boyle (with the help of his astonishing assistant Robert Hooke) built an air pump which led to the formulation of Boyle's law and devised a barometer as a weather indicator. Boyle was most influential as a theorist. He was a mechanical philosopher who treated the world as reducible to matter in motion. Locke read Boyle before he read Descartes. When he did read Descartes, he saw the great French philosopher as providing a viable alternative to the sterile Aristotelianism he had been taught at Oxford. But his involvement with the Oxford scientists gave him a perspective which made him critical of the rationalist elements in Descartes' philosophy.

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.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding over a period of twenty years or so, beginning in 1671. Because many of Locke's papers (known as the Lovelace collection) were sold at auction and given to Oxford University in the 1920s, we know much more about the composition of the Essay than was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. We have several preliminary drafts of the Essay and can thus study its development. The book was finally published in December of 1689, and then went through five editions in Locke's lifetime. It is organized into Four Books. The table which follows summarizes the content of the four books:

Book IThis book contains a refutation of the doctrine of innate ideas and principles. It was widely held in seventeenth century England that innate ideas and principles were necessary for the stability of religious truths, morality and natural law. Locke rejects this position. He bases the truths of religion, morality and natural law on reason.
Book IIIdeas are whatever the mind is conscious of. This book introduces the two sources of ideas, reflection and sensation which supply the materials (simple ideas) for the construction of complex ideas. Complex ideas are of two kinds, ideas of substances and ideas of modes. In addition to these ideas we have ideas of free will, and other operations of the mind which are known by reflection; and then ideas of relations of various kinds, including the ideas associated with identity and personal identity and moral relations.
Book IIITitled "Of Language" this is Locke's account of the important role which language plays in relation to our knowledge of the world. He explains the nature of individual and the general terms, the status of universals, and the process of abstraction by which one goes from the particular to the general. He goes on to discuss the way in which language relates to substances and modes, as well as other aspects of language.
Book IVIn this book Locke draws the conclusions about knowledge for which the rest of the book has prepared us. With deductive demonstrative certainty we can know that God exists; with intuitive certainty we can know that we exist (Locke finds Descartes' proof of his own existence quite compelling). With demonstrative certainty we can know the truths of morality and we can have probabilistic opinions about the true nature of material objects (including our bodies), but we can know enough about material objects to conduct our practical affairs. Locke discusses such other matters as the relation of faith to knowledge and the nature of enthusiasm.

Your next task will be to study the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in more detail.