John Locke


John Locke was an English philosopher who ideas have exerted a profound influence on his own times and all times that have followed. He was the founder of British empiricism and promoted experimental studies in medicine and science. His ideas were fundamental to the enlightenment of the 18th century, and provided a foundation for a new science.

Locke was also known for his political writings. He favored a liberal democracy, arguing against the Divine Right of monarchs to absolute rule.

In his famous philosophical work Essay on human understanding (1690), Locke investigated the nature and scope of human reason. He argued against innate ideas and in favor of the theory that all knowledge derives from the five senses. Locke believed that the child is born with a blank mind (tabula rasa or blank slate), that he gains knowledge through his sense experiences, and that he improves upon that knowledge through reflection. The reflection, based on sensory knowledge allows advanced thinkers to understand abstract ideas such as time, space, and infinity and operations of the mind.

A central component of Locke’s philosophy is his conception of ideas. He uses ideas to refer to sensations, memories, and concepts. Ideas can be simple or complex, they may be images or not. The term idea, Locke says, refers to “whatsoever is the object of understanding when a man thinks” or “whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking. (1690, Essay, I, I, 8).

Locke proposed two sources for ideas: sensation and reflection. Ideas of sensation occur when observing external objects (yellow, sweet, cold); ideas of reflection when we observe the operation of the mind (perceiving, believing, remembering).

Locke’s political works included Two treatises of government (1690), in which he argued against the patriarchal Divine Right theory underpinning the right for the monarchs to rule. He substitutes, instead a theory defending the natural rights of the individual and rule of the majority. This book had a strong influence on the American and French revolutions.

Locke was educated at Christ Church College, in Oxford England, where he took courses in logic, metaphysics and classical languages. He also studied medicine. Upon graduation, he became a lecturer at Oxford (1660), specializing in Greek, rhetoric, and philosophy.

In 1666, Locke became the personal physician to Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, a physician and 1st early of Shaftesbury. Cooper introduced Locke to important people in politics, a network that led to his holding minor diplomatic and civil positions. His ideas, favoring democratic principles placed him in danger. He left England in 1675 and spent four years in France. Returning to Oxford in 1679, he again was suspected of political radicalism and forced to leave for Holland, where he spent his next four years (1684-1689). In 1689, he returned to London. He was appointed a commissioner of appeals by William III. While in London he met Sir Isaac Newton, and they developed a close friendship that lasted for the rest of his life.

Locke had long suffered from asthma and left London to live in the countryside. He lived and wrote there from 1700 until his death in 1704.

Writings by John Locke, arranged chronologically

Locke, John (1690). Two treatises of government

Locke, John (1690). Essay on human understanding.

Locke, John (1689). A letter concerning toleration

Locke, John (1693). Some thoughts concerning education.

Locke, John (1695). The reasonableness of Christianity.

A small sampling of the many writings about John Locke, arranged alphabetically:

Aaron, R. (1971. John Locke (3rd edition). Oxford.

Gibson, J. (1917). Locke’s theory of knowledge. Cambridge.

Tipton, I. (Ed.). (1977). Locke on human understanding. Oxford