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John Locke

John Locke
John Locke

John Locke (August 29 1632October 28 1704) was a 17th century philosopher concerned primarily with society and epistemology. An Englishman, Locke's notions of a "government with the consent of the governed" and man's natural rightslife, liberty, and estate (property)—had an enormous influence on the development of political philosophy. His ideas formed the basis for the concepts used in American law and government, allowing the colonists to justify revolution. Locke's epistemology and philosophy of mind also had a great deal of significant influence well into the Enlightenment period. Locke has been placed in a group called the British Empiricists, which includes David Hume and George Berkeley. Locke is perhaps most often contrasted with Thomas Hobbes.


Short biography

Locke was born in Somerset, about ten miles from Bristol, England, in 1632. He studied medicine under Thomas Sydenham. When he was in his mid-thirties, he joined the household of Lord Shaftesbury in London and Oxford. Later he was to spend time in France and the Netherlands when England would not tolerate his liberal views. Some of his friends ended up in The Tower of London. He died in 1704 after a long slow decline in health.

Events that happened during Locke's lifetime include the English Restoration and the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act of Union of 1707, though the office of King of England and King of Scotland had been held by the same person for some time. Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were in their infancy during Locke's time.

Locke's work

Locke's two main works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Second Treatise on Civil Government were written more or less concurrently at the end of the seventeenth century.

In the Essay, Locke critiques the philosophy of innate ideas and builds a theory of the mind and knowledge that gives priority to the senses and experience. His adherence to this doctrine is what has led to him sometimes being called an empiricist rather than a rationalist such as his critic Leibniz, who wrote the New Essays on Human Understanding. Book II of the Essay sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the secondary qualities that are "powers to produce various sensations in us" (Essay, II.viii.10) such as "red" and "sweet." These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities. In Chapter xxvii of book II Locke discusses personal identity, and the idea of a person. What he says here has shaped our thought and provoked debate ever since. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith and opinion.

The Second Treatise on Civil Government were highly subversive texts when they were written, and Locke was for a long time reluctant to admit authorship of them. They have now become cornerstones to political liberalism.

Locke's work, particularly the concepts of liberty, later influenced the written works of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In particular, the Declaration of Independence drew upon many 18th century political ideas, derived from the works of both Locke and Montesquieu.

Locke's epitaph

(translated from the Latin) "Stop Traveler! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspected praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee,) thou hast one here and everywhere."

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about John Locke
  • Wikisource
  • Free, full-text works by John Locke
  • John Locke at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by Locke on the Web
  • John Locke Online Bibliography

Secondary literature

  • Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknapp/Harvard University Press, 1967. Enlarged Edition, 1992. Discusses influence of Locke and other thinkers upon American political thought.
  • John Dunn, Locke Oxford University Press, 1984. A succinct introduction.
  • John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Introduced the interpretation which emphasizes the theological element in Locke's political thought.
  • Roland Hall (ed.) `Locke Studies' is an annual journal of research on John Locke (obtainable from the editor for 12; the current volume is 300 pages).
  • John W. Yolton (ed.), John Locke: Problems and Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Reassesses Locke's political philosophy from different points of view.

John Locke is also a musician and a former member of the jazz-hard rock band, Spirit.
Locke (a conscious nod to John Locke) was used as an online pseudonym by Peter Wiggin and Valentine Wiggin in the Ender's Game series of books by Orson Scott Card. (see Demosthenes)

See also

Last updated: 02-07-2005 00:51:54
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12