Roger Williams Institute

John Locke

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy

John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and
medical researcher, whose association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the
First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official
charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer,
opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause
ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Much of Locke's work is
characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This opposition is both on the
level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as
government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason
to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be
subject to superstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to the
evidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes important to
distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and
to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these
institutions. The positive side of Locke's anti-authoritarianism is that he
believes that using reason to try to grasp the truth, and determining the
legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the
individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare.
This in turn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of the divine
purpose for humanity. Locke's monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to
God, the self, natural kinds and artifacts, as well as a variety of different
kinds of ideas. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim
to know and what one cannot. Locke also wrote a variety of important political,
religious and educational works including the Two Treatises of Civil Government,
the Letters Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some
Thoughts Concerning Education.

1. Historical Background and Locke's Life
1.1 Locke's Life up to His Meeting with Lord Ashley in 1666
1.2 Locke and Lord Shaftesbury 1666 to 1688
1.3 The End of Locke's Life 1689-1704
2. The Limits of Human Understanding
2.1 Book I
2.2 Book II
2.3 Book III
2.4 Book IV
2.5 Knowledge and Probability
2.6 Reason, Faith and Enthusiasm
3. The Two Treatises of Civil Government
3.1 The Second Treatise of Civil Government
3.2 Human Nature and God's Purposes
3.3 The Social Contract Theory
3.4 The Function Of Civil Government
3.5 Rebellion and Regicide
4. Locke and Religious Toleration
Other Internet Resources

Related Entries

1. Historical Background and Locke's Life

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 war in
the 1640s. With the defeat and death of Charles I, 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.
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.

1.1 Locke's Life up to His Meeting with Lord Ashley in 1666

Locke was born in Wrington 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 local 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. The importance of Westminster school in the intellectual life of the
seventeenth century can scarcely be exaggerated. Locke was a King's Scholar. The
King's Scholars were a small group of special boys who had the privilege of
living in the school and who received a stipend for two or three years before
standing for election for either Christ Church, Oxford or Trinity College
Cambridge. While the "major elections" 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, Oxford, in the autumn of 1652
at the age of twenty. As Westminster school was the most important English
school, so Christ Church was the most important Oxford college. 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 were in Latin. Locke, like Hobbes before him, found
the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of little use. There was,
however, more at Oxford than Aristotle. The new experimental philosophy 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. The Society grew out of informal meetings and discussion
groups and moved to London after the Restoration and became a formal institution
in the 1660s with charters from Charles II. The Society saw its aims in contrast
with the Scholastic/Aristotelian traditions that dominated the universities. The
program was to study nature rather than books.[1] Many of Wilkins associates
were people interested in pursuing medicine by observation rather than the
reading of classic texts. Bacon's interest in careful experimentation and the
systematic collection of facts from which generalizations could be made was
characteristic of this group. One of Locke's friends from Westminster school,
Richard Lower, introduced Locke to medicine and the experimental philosophy
being pursued 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. 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 medicine, two in law and one in moral
philosophy. Thus, there was good reason for Locke to become a clergyman. Locke
decided to become a doctor.

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, however, 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. In writing An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding Locke adopted Descartes' way of ideas; though it is
transformed so as to become an organic part of Locke's philosophy. Still, while
admiring Descartes, Locke's involvement with the Oxford scientists gave him a
perspective which made him critical of the rationalist elements in Descartes'

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 ... (pp.
9-10. All quotations are from the Nidditch edition of An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding.)

Locke knew all of these men and their work. Locke, Boyle and Newton were all
founding or early 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 Philosophiae Naturalis while in exile in
Holland, and consulted Huygens as to the soundness of its mathematics. Locke and
Newton became friends after Locke's return from Holland in 1688. It may be that
in referring to himself as an under-labourer, Locke is not only displaying a
certain literary modesty, he is contrasting the positive discoveries of these
men, with his own attempt to show the inadequacies of the Aristotelian and
Scholastic and to some degree the Cartesian philosophies. There are, however,
many aspects of Locke's project to which this image of an under-labourer does
not do justice. (See Jolley 1999, pp. 15-17) While the corpuscular philosophy
and Newton's discoveries clearly influenced Locke, it is the Baconian program of
producing natural histories that Locke makes reference to when he talks about
the Essay in the Introduction. He writes:

It shall suffice to my present Purpose, to consider the discerning Faculties
of a Man, as they are employ'd about the Objects, which they have to do with:
and I shall imagine that I have not wholly misimploy'd my self in the Thoughts
I shall have on this Occasion, if in this Historical, Plain Method, I can give
any Account of the Ways, whereby our Understanding comes to attain those
Notions of Things, and can set down any Measure of the Certainty of our
Knowledge... (I. 1. 2., pp. 43-4 -- the three numbers, are book, chapter and
section numbers respectively, followed by the page number in the Nidditch

The Historical, Plain Method is apparently to give a genetic account of how we
come by our ideas. Presumably this will reveal the degree of certainty of the
knowledge based on such ideas. Locke's own active involvement with the
scientific movement was largely through his informal studies of medicine. Dr.
David Thomas was his friend and collaborator. Locke and Thomas had a laboratory
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. Locke met
Ashley and they liked one another. As a result of this encounter, Ashley invited
Locke to come to London as his personal physician. In 1667 Locke did move to
London becoming not only Lord Ashley's personal physician, but secretary,
researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself
at the very heart of English politics in the 1670s and 1680s.

1.2 Locke and Lord Shaftesbury 1666 to 1688

Locke's chief work while living at Lord Ashley's residence, Exeter House, in
1668 was his work as secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and
Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. Lord Ashley was one of the
advocates of the view that England would prosper through trade and that colonies
could play an important role in promoting trade. Ashley persuaded Charles II to
create a Board of Trade and Plantations to collect information about trade and
colonies, and Locke became its secretary. In his capacity as the secretary of
the Board of Trade Locke was the collection point for information from around
the globe about trade and colonies for the English government. Among Ashley's
commercial projects was an effort to found colonies in the Carolinas. In his
capacity as the secretary to the Lords Proprietors, Locke was involved in the
writing of the fundamental constitution of the Carolinas. There is some
controversy about the extent of Locke's role in writing the constitution.[2] In
addition to issues about trade and colonies, Locke was involved through
Shaftesbury in other controversies about public policy. There was a monetary
crisis in England involving the value of money, and the clipping of coins. Locke
wrote papers for Lord Ashley on economic matters, including the coinage crisis.
While living in London 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. (Epistle to the Reader, p. 7)

James Tyrrell, one of Locke's friends was at that meeting. He recalls the
discussion being about the principles of morality and revealed religion.
(Cranston, 1957, pp. 140-1) Thus the Oxford scholar and medical researcher came
to begin the work which was to occupy him off and on over the next twenty years.

In 1674 after Shaftesbury had left the government, Locke went back to Oxford,
where he acquired the degree Bachelor of medicine, and a license to practice
medicine, and then went to France. (Cranston, 1957. p. 160) In France Locke went
from Calais to Paris, Lyons and on to Montpellier, where he spent the next
fifteen months. Much of Locke's time was spent learning about Protestantism in
France. The Edict of Nantes was in force, and so there was a degree of religious
toleration in France. Louis XIV was to revoke the edict in 1685 and French
Protestants were then killed or forced into exile.

While Locke was in France, Shaftesbury's fortunes fluctuated. In 1676
Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the tower. His imprisonment lasted for a year. In
1678, after the mysterious murder of a London judge, informers (most notably
Titus Oates) started coming forward to reveal a supposed Catholic conspiracy to
assassinate the King and put his brother on the throne. This whipped up public
anti-Catholic frenzy and gave Shaftesbury a wide base of public support for
excluding James, Duke of York from the throne. Though Shaftesbury had not
fabricated the conspiracy story, nor did he prompt Oates to come forward, he did
exploit the situation to the advantage of his party. In the public chaos
surrounding the sensational revelations, Shaftesbury organized an extensive
party network, exercised great control over elections, and built up a large
parliamentary majority. His strategy was to secure the passage of an Exclusion
bill that would prevent Charles II's Catholic brother from becoming King.
Although the Exclusion bill passed in the Commons it was rejected in the House
of Lords because of the King's strong opposition to it. As the panic over the
Popish plot receded, Shaftesbury was left without a following or a cause.
Shaftesbury was seized on July 21, 1681 and again put in the tower. He was tried
on trumped-up charges of treason but acquitted by a London grand jury (filled
with his supporters) in November.

At this point some of the Country Party leaders began plotting an armed
insurrection which, had it come off, would have begun with the assassination of
Charles and his brother on their way back to London from the races at Newmarket.
The chances of such a rising occurring were not as good as the plotters
supposed. Memories of the turmoil of the civil war were still relatively fresh.
Eventually Shaftesbury, who was moving from safe house to safe house, gave up
and fled to Holland in November 1682. He died there in January 1683. Locke
stayed in England until the Rye House Plot (named after the house from which the
plotters were to fire upon the King and his brother) was discovered. He took
ship for Holland that very week.

While in exile Locke finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and
published a fifty page advanced notice of it in French. (This was to provide the
intellectual world on the continent with most of their information about the
Essay until Pierre Coste's French translation appeared.) He also wrote and
published his Epistola de Tolerentia in Latin. Recent scholarship suggests that
while in Holland Locke was not only finishing An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding and nursing his health, he was closely associated with the English
revolutionaries in exile. The English government was much concerned with this
group. They tried to get a number of them, including Locke, extradited to
England. Locke's studentship at Oxford was taken away from him. In the
meanwhile, the English intelligence service infiltrated the rebel group in
Holland and effectively thwarted their efforts -- at least for a while. While
Locke was living in exile in Holland, Charles II died on Feb. 6, 1685 and was
succeeded by his brother -- who became James II of England. Soon after this the
rebels in Holland sent a force of soldiers under the Duke of Monmouth to England
to try to overthrow James II. Because of the excellent work of the Stuart spies,
the government knew where the force was going to land before the troops on the
ships did. The revolt was crushed, Monmouth captured and executed (Ashcraft,

Ultimately, however, the rebels were successful. James II alienated most of his
supporters and William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England.
After William's army landed, James II realizing that he could not mount an
effective resistance, fled the country to exile in France. This became known as
the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is an watershed in English history. For it
marks the point at which the balance of power in the English government passed
from the King to the Parliament. Locke returned to England in 1688 on board the
royal yacht, accompanying Princess Mary on her voyage to join her husband.
1.3 The End of Locke's Life 1689-1704

After his return from exile, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding and The Two Treatises of Government. In addition, Popple's
translation of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration was also published. It is
worth noting that the Two Treatises and the Letter Concerning Toleration were
published anonymously. Locke took up residence in the country at Oates in Essex,
the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham (Damaris Cudworth). Locke had met
Damaris Cudworth in 1682 and became involved intellectually and romantically
with her. She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist, and a
philosopher in her own right. After Locke went into exile in Holland in 1683,
she married Sir Francis Masham. Locke and Lady Masham remained good friends and
intellectual companions to the end of Locke's life. During the remaining years
of his life Locke oversaw four more editions of the Essay and engaged in
controversies over the Essay most notably in a series of published letters with
Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. In a similar way, Locke defended the
Letter Concerning Toleration against a series of attacks. He wrote The
Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts on Education during this period
as well.

Nor was Locke finished with public affairs. In 1696 the Board of Trade was
revived. Locke played an important part in its revival and served as the most
influential member on it until 1700. The Board of Trade was, in Peter Laslett's
phrase "... the body which administered the United States before the American
revolution." (Laslett in Yolton 1990 p. 127) The board was, in fact, concerned
with a wide range of issues, from the Irish wool trade and the suppression of
piracy, to the governance of the colonies and the treatment of the poor in
England. During these last eight years of his life, Locke was asthmatic, and he
suffered so much from it that he could only bear the smoke of London during the
four warmer months of the year. Locke plainly engaged in the activities of the
Board out of a strong sense of patriotic duty. After his retirement from the
Board of Trade in 1700, Locke remained in retirement at Oates until his death on
Sunday 28 October 1704.

2. The Limits of Human Understanding

Locke is often classified as the first of the great English empiricists
(ignoring the claims of Bacon and Hobbes). This reputation rests on Locke's
greatest work, the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke
explains his project in several places. Perhaps the most important of his goals
is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke writes:
For I thought that the first Step towards satisfying the several Enquiries,
the Mind of Man was apt to run into, was, to take a Survey of our own
Understandings, examine our own Powers, and see to what Things they were
adapted. Till that was done, I suspected that we began at the wrong end, and
in vain sought for Satisfaction in a quiet and secure Possession of Truths,
that most concern'd us whilst we let loose our Thoughts into the vast Ocean of
Being,as if all the boundless Extent, were the natural and undoubted
Possessions of our Understandings, wherein there was nothing that escaped its
Decisions, or that escaped its Comprehension. Thus Men, extending their
Enquiries beyond their Capacities, and letting their Thoughts wander into
those depths where they can find no sure Footing; tis no Wonder, that they
raise Questions and multiply Disputes, which never coming to any clear
Resolution, are proper to only continue and increase their Doubts, and to
confirm them at last in a perfect Skepticism. Wheras were the Capacities of
our Understanding well considered, the Extent of our Knowledge once
discovered, and the Horizon found, which sets the boundary between the
enlightened and the dark Parts of Things; between what is and what is not
comprehensible by us, Men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the
avow'd Ignorance of the one; and employ their Thoughts and Discourse, with
more Advantage and Satisfaction in the other. (I.1.7., p. 47)

Some philosophers before Locke had suggested that it would be good to find the
limits of the Understanding, but what Locke does is to carry out this project in
detail. In the four books of the Essay Locke considers the sources and nature of
human knowledge. Book I argues that we have no innate knowledge. (In this he
resembles Berkeley and Hume, and differs from Descartes and Leibniz.) So, at
birth, the human mind is a sort of blank slate on which experience writes. In
Book II Locke claims that ideas are the materials of knowledge and all ideas
come from experience. The term idea, Locke tells us "...stands for whatsoever
is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks." (Essay I, 1, 8, p. 47)
Experience is of two kinds, sensation and reflection. One of these -- sensation
-- tells us about things and processes in the external world. The other --
reflection -- tells us about the operations of our own minds. Reflection is a
sort of internal sense that makes us conscious of the mental processes we are
engaged in. Some ideas we get only from sensation, some only from reflection and
some from both.

Locke has an atomic or perhaps more accurately a corpuscular theory of ideas.[3]
There is, that is to say, an analogy between the way atoms or corpuscles combine
into complexes to form physical objects and the way ideas combine. Ideas are
either simple or complex. We cannot create simple ideas, we can only get them
from experience. In this respect the mind is passive. Once the mind has a store
of simple ideas, it can combine them into complex ideas of a variety of kinds.
In this respect the mind is active. Thus, Locke subscribes to a version of the
empiricist axiom that there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously
in the senses -- where the senses are broadened to include reflection. Book III
deals with the nature of language, its connections with ideas and its role in
knowledge. Book IV, the culmination of the previous reflections, explains the
nature and limits of knowledge, probability, and the relation of reason and
faith. Let us now consider the Essay in some detail.

2.1 Book I

At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says that
since his purpose is "to enquire into the Original, Certainty and Extant of
human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and
Assent" he is going to begin with ideas -- the materials out of which knowledge
is constructed. His first task is to "enquire into the Original of these
Ideas...and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to be furnished with them."
(I. 1. 3. p. 44) The role of Book I of the Essay is to make the case that being
innate is not a way in which the understanding is furnished with principles and
ideas. Locke treats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there
is no good evidence to support it.

Locke describes innate ideas as "some primary notions...Characters as it were
stamped upon the Mind of Man, which the Soul receives in its very first Being;
and brings into the world with it." (I. 2. 1. p. 48) In pursuing this enquiry,
Locke rejects the claim that there are speculative innate principles (I. Chapter
2), practical innate moral principles (I. Chapter 3) or that we have innate
ideas of God, identity or impossibility (I. Chapter 4). Locke rejects arguments
from universal assent and attacks dispositional accounts of innate principles.
Thus, in considering what would count as evidence from universal assent to such
propositions as "What is, is" or "It is impossible for the same thing to be and
not to be" he holds that children and idiots should be aware of such truths if
they were innate but that they "have not the least apprehension or thought of
them." Why should children and idiots be aware of and able to articulate such
propositions? Locke says: "It seems to me a near Contradiction to say that there
are truths imprinted on the Soul, which it perceives or understands not;
imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain
Truths to be perceived." (I. 2. 5., p. 49). So, Locke's first point is that if
propositions were innate they should be immediately perceived -- by infants and
idiots (and indeed everyone else) -- but there is no evidence that they are.
Locke then proceeds to attack dispositional accounts that say, roughly, that
innate propositions are capable of being perceived under certain circumstances.
Until these circumstances come about the propositions remain unperceived in the
mind. With the advent of these conditions, the propositions are then perceived.
Locke gives the following argument against innate propositions being

For if any one [proposition] may [be in the mind but not be known]; then, by
the same Reason, all Propositions that are true, and the Mind is ever capable
of assenting to, may be said to be in the Mind, and to be imprinted: since if
any one can be said to be in the Mind, which it never yet knew, it must be
only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the Mind is of all Truths it
ever shall know. (I. 2. 5., p. 50)

The essence of this argument and many of Locke's other arguments against
dispositional accounts of innate propositions is that such dispositional
accounts do not provide an adequate criterion for distinguishing innate
propositions from other propositions that the mind may come to discover. Thus,
even if some criterion is proposed, it will turn out not to do the work it is
supposed to do. For example Locke considers the claim that innate propositions
are discovered and assented to when people "come to the use of Reason. (I. 2.
6., p. 51) Locke considers two possible meanings of this phrase. One is that we
use reason to discover these innate propositions. Here he argues that the
criterion is inadequate because it would not distinguish axioms from theorems in
mathematics. Presumably the theorems are not innate while the axioms should be.
But if both need to be discovered by reason, then there is no distinction
between them. Nor will it do to say that one class (the axioms) are assented to
as soon as perceived while the others are not. To be assented to as soon as
perceived is a mark of certainty, but not of innateness. Locke also objects that
truths that need to be discovered by reason could never be thought to be innate.
The second possible meaning of "come to the use of reason" is that we discover
these ideas at the time we come to use reason, but that we do not use reason to
do so. He argues that this claim simply is not true. We know that children
acquire such propositions before they acquire the use of reason, while others
who are reasonable never acquire them.

When Locke turns from speculative principles to the question of whether there
are innate practical moral principles, many of the arguments against innate
speculative principles continue to apply, but there are some additional
considerations. Practical principles, such as the Golden Rule, are not
self-evident in the way such speculative principles as "What is, is" are. Thus,
one can clearly and sensibly ask reasons for why one should hold the Golden Rule
true or obey it. (I, 3. 4. p. 68) There are substantial differences between
people over the content of practical principles. Thus, they are even less likely
candidates to be innate propositions or to meet the criterion of universal
assent. In the fourth chapter of Book I, Locke raises similar points about the
ideas which compose both speculative and practical principles. The point is that
if the ideas that are constitutive of the principles are not innate, this gives
us even more reason to hold that the principles are not innate. He examines the
ideas of identity, impossibility and God to make these points.
John Yolton has persuasively argued (Yolton, 1956) that the view that innate
ideas and principles were necessary for the stability of religion, morality and
natural law was widespread in England in the seventeenth century, and that in
attacking both the naive account of innate ideas, Locke is attacking positions
which were widely held and continued to be held after the publication of the
Essay. Thus, the charge that Locke's account of innate ideas is made of straw,
is not a just criticism. Whether the views of more important philosophers,
Descartes before Locke or Leibniz after him escape the criticisms of innate
ideas that Locke proposes lies beyond the scope of this article.

2.2 Book II

In Book II of the Essay, Locke gives his positive account of how we acquire the
materials of knowledge. Locke distinguishes a variety of different kinds of
ideas in Book II. Locke holds that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank sheet
until experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic
materials -- simple ideas -- out of which most of our more complex knowledge is
constructed. While the mind may be a blank slate in regard to content, it is
plain that Locke thinks we are born with a variety of faculties to receive and
abilities to manipulate or process the content once we acquire it. Thus, for
example, the mind can engage in three different types of action in putting
simple ideas together. The first of these kinds of action is to combine them
into complex ideas. Complex ideas are of two kinds, ideas of substances and
ideas of modes. Substances are independent existences. Beings that count as
substances include God, angels, humans, animals, plants and a variety of
constructed things. Modes, are dependent existences. These include mathematical
and moral ideas, and all the conventional language of religion, politics and
culture. The second action which the mind performs is the bringing of two ideas,
whether simple or complex, by one another so as to take a view of them at once,
without uniting them This gives us our ideas of relations. (II. xii. 1., p. 163
) The third act of the mind is the production of our general ideas by
abstraction from particulars, leaving out the particular circumstances of time
and place, which would limit the application of an idea to a particular
individual. In addition to these abilities, there are such faculties as memory
which allow for the storing of ideas.

Having set forth the general machinery of how simple and complex ideas of
substances, modes, relations and so forth are derived from sensation and
reflection Locke also explains how a variety of particular kinds of ideas, such
as the ideas of solidity, number, space, time, power, identity, and moral
relations arise from sensation and reflection. Several of these are of
particular interest. Locke's chapter on power giving rise to a discussion of
free will, voluntary action, and so forth, is of considerable interest. Some of
these topics will be discussed in separate Encyclopedia entries. I have provided
an account of Locke's views on personal identity and the immateriality of the
soul in supplementary document:

[Supplementary Document: The Immateriality of the Soul and Personal Identity]
In what follows, I focus on some central issues in Locke's account of physical

Locke offers an account of physical objects based in the mechanical philosophy
and the corpuscular hypothesis. The adherents of the mechanical philosophy held
that all material phenomena can be explained by matter in motion and the impact
of one body on another. They viewed matter as passive. They rejected the "occult
qualities" and "causation at a distance" of the Aristotelian and Scholastic
philosophy. The corpuscular hypothesis is that all matter is composed of
particles. In the material world, all that exists are particles and the void or
empty space in which the particles move. Some corupscularians held that
corpuscles could be further divided. Atomists, on the other hand, held that
there were indivisible or atomic particles.

Atoms have properties. They are extended, they are solid, they have a particular
shape and they are in motion or rest. They combine together to produce the
familiar stuff and physical objects, the gold and the wood, the horses and
violets, the tables and chairs of our world. These familiar things also have
properties. They are extended, solid, have a particular shape and are in motion
and at rest. In addition to these properties that they share with the atoms that
compose them, they have other properties such as colors, smells, tastes that
they get by standing in relation to perceivers. The distinction between these
two kinds of properties goes back to the Greek atomists. It is articulated by
Galileo and Descartes as well as Locke's mentor Robert Boyle.

Locke makes this distinction early in Book II of the Essay and using Boyle's
terminology calls the two different classes of properties the primary and
secondary qualities of an object. This distinction is made by both of the main
branches of the mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth
century. Both the Cartesian plenum theorists, who held that the world was full
of matter and that there was no void space, and the atomists such as Gassendi,
who held that there were atoms and void space in which the atoms move, made the
distinction between these two classes of properties. Locke accepted the
corpuscular hypothesis as the most likely hypothesis. Thus, in the Chapter on
Solidity Locke rejects the Cartesian definition of body as simply extended and
argues that bodies are both extended and impenetrable or solid. The primary
qualities of an object are properties which the object possesses independent of
us -- such as occupying space, being either in motion or at rest, having
texture. The secondary qualities are powers in bodies to produce in us ideas
like color, taste, smell and so on that are caused by the interaction of our
particular perceptual apparatus with these powers of the primary qualities of
the object. Our ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities in the object,
while our ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble the powers that cause
them. Locke also distinguishes tertiary properties that are the powers that one
substance has to effect another, e.g. the power of a fire to melt a piece of

There has been considerable scholarly debate concerning the details of Locke's
account of the distinction. Among the issues are which qualities Locke assigns
to each of the two categories. Locke gives several lists. Another issue is what
the criterion is for putting a quality in one list rather than another. Does
Locke hold that all the ideas of secondary qualities come to us by one sense
while the ideas of primary qualities come to us through two or is Locke not
making the distinction in this way? Another issue is whether on Locke's view
primary qualities are perceptible at all. And while Locke claims our ideas of
primary qualities resemble the primary qualities in objects, while the ideas of
secondary qualities do not resemble their causes in the object, what does
resemble mean in this context? Related to this issue is how we are supposed to
know about particles that we cannot sense. Maurice Mandelbaum called this
process transdiction. It seems clear that Locke holds that there are certain
analogies between the middle sized macroscopic objects we encounter in the
world, e.g. porphyry and manna for example, and the particles that compose these
things. These analogies allow us to say certain things about the nature of
particles and primary qualities, but may not get us very far in grasping the
necessary connections between qualities in nature. Yet another issue is whether
Locke sees the distinction as reductionistic -- that is whether only the primary
qualities are real.

Locke probably holds some version of the representational theory of perception,
though some scholars dispute even this. On such a theory what the mind
immediately perceives are ideas, and the ideas are caused by and represent the
objects which cause them. Thus perception is a triadic relation, rather than
simply being a dyadic relation between an object and a perceiver. Such a dyadic
relational theory is often called naive realism because it suggests that the
perceiver is directly perceiving the object, and naive because this view is open
to a variety of serious objections. Some versions of the representational theory
are open to serious objections as well. If, for example, one makes ideas into
things, then one can imagine that because one sees ideas, the ideas actually
block one from seeing things in the external world. The idea would be like a
picture or painting. The picture would copy the original object in the external
world, but because our immediate object of perception is the picture we would be
prevented from seeing the original just as standing in front of a painting on an
easel might prevent us from seeing the person being painted. Thus, this is
sometimes called the picture/original theory of perception. Alternatively,
Jonathan Bennett called it "the veil of perception". to emphasize that seeing
the ideas prevents us from seeing the external world. One philosopher who
arguably held such a view was Nicholas Malebranche, a follower of Descartes.
Antoine Arnauld, by contrast, while believing in the representative character of
ideas, is a direct realist about perception. Arnauld engaged in a lengthy
controversy with Malebranche, and criticized Malebranche's account of ideas.
Locke follows Arnauld in his criticism of Malebranche on this point. Yet
Berkeley attributed the veil of perception interpretation of the
representational theory of perception to Locke as have many later commentators
including Bennett. A.D. Woozley puts the difficulty of doing this succinctly:
" is scarcely credible both that Locke should be able to see and state so
clearly the fundamental objection to the picture-original theory of sense
perception, and that he should have held the same theory himself." Just what
Locke's account of perception involves, is still a matter of scholarly debate.
Another issue that has been a matter of controversy since the first publication
of the Essay is what Locke means by the term substance. The primary/secondary
quality distinction gets us a certain ways in understanding physical objects,
but Locke is puzzled about what underlies or supports the primary qualities
themselves. He is also puzzled about what material and immaterial substances
might have in common that would lead us to apply the same word to both. These
kinds of reflections led him to the relative and obscure idea of substance in
general. This is that "I know not what" which is the support of qualities which
cannot subsist by themselves. We experience properties appearing in regular
clumps, but we must infer that there is something that supports or perhaps
holds together those qualities. For we have no experience of that supporting
substance. I think it is clear that Locke sees no alternative to the claim that
there are substances supporting qualities. He does not, for example, have a
theory of tropes (tropes are properties that can exist independently of
substances) which he might use to dispense with the notion of substance. (In
fact, he may be rejecting something like a theory of tropes when he rejects the
Aristotelian doctrine of real qualities and insists on the need for substances.)
He is thus not at all a skeptic about substance in the way that Hume is. But,
it is also quite clear that he is regularly insistent about the limitations of
our ideas of substances. Bishop Stillingfleet accused Locke of putting substance
out of the reasonable part of the world. But Locke is not doing that.
Since Berkeley, Locke's doctrine of the substratum or substance in general has
been attacked as incoherent. It seems to imply that we have a particular without
any properties, and this seems like a notion that is inconsistent with
empiricism. In order to avoid this problem, Michael Ayers has proposed that we
must understand the notions of substratum and substance in general in terms
of Locke's doctrine of real essences developed in Book III of the Essay rather
than as a separate problem from that of knowing real essences. The real essence
of a material thing is its atomic constitution. This atomic constitution is the
causal basis of all the observable properties of the thing. Were the real
essence known, all the observable properties could be deduced from it. Locke
claims that the real essences of material things are quite unknown to us.
Locke's concept of substance in general is also a something I know not what.
Thus, on Ayers' interpretation substance in general means something like
whatever it is that supports qualities while the real essence means this
particular atomic constitution that explains this set of observable qualities.
Thus, Ayers wants to treat the unknown substratum as picking out the same thing
as the real essence -- thus eliminating the need for particulars without
properties. This proposed way of interpreting Locke has been criticized by
scholars both because of a lack of textural support, and on the stronger grounds
that it conflicts with some things that Locke does say. (See Jolley 1999 pp.
71-3) As we have reached one of the important concepts in Book III, let us turn
to that Book and Locke's discussion of language.

2.3 Book III

Locke devotes Book III of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to language.
This is a strong indication that Locke thinks issues about language were of
considerable importance in attaining knowledge. At the beginning of the Book he
notes the importance of abstract general ideas to knowledge. These serve as
sorts under which we rank all the vast multitude of particular existences. Thus,
abstract ideas and classification are of central importance in Locke's
discussion of language.

There is a clear connection between Book II and III in that Locke claims that
words stand for ideas. In his discussion of language Locke distinguishes words
according to the categories of ideas established in Book II of the Essay. So
there are ideas of substances, simple modes, mixed modes, relations and so on.
It is in this context that Locke makes the distinction between real and nominal
essences noted above. Perhaps because of his focus on the role that kind terms
play in classification, Locke pays vastly more attention to nouns than to verbs.
Locke recognizes that not all words relate to ideas. There are the many
particles, words that "...signify the connexion that the Mind gives to Ideas, or
Propositions, one with another. (II., 7. 1. p. 471) Still, it is the relation of
words and ideas that gets most of Locke's attention in Book III.
Norman Kretzmann calls the claim that words in their primary or immediate
signification signify nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them
Locke's main semantic thesis. (See Norman Kretzmann, ""The Main Thesis of
Locke's Semantic Theory" in Tipton, 1977. pp. 123-140) This thesis has often
been criticized as a classic blunder in semantic theory. Thus Mill, for example,
wrote, "When I say, "the sun is the cause of the day," I do not mean that my
idea of the sun causes or excites in me the idea of day." This criticism of
Locke's account of language parallels the "veil of perception" critique of his
account of perception and suggests that Locke is not distinguishing the meaning
of a word from its reference. Kretzmann, however, argues persuasively that Locke
distinguishes between meaning and reference and that ideas provide the meaning
but not the reference of words. Thus, the line of criticism represented by the
quotation from Mill is ill founded.

In addition to the kinds of ideas noted above, there are also particular and
abstract ideas. Particular ideas have in them the ideas of particular places and
times which limit the application of the idea to a single individual, while
abstract general ideas leave out the ideas of particular times and places in
order to allow the idea to apply to other similar qualities or things. There has
been considerable philosophical and scholarly debate about the nature of the
process of abstraction and Locke's account of it. Berkeley argued that the
process as Locke conceives it is incoherent. In part this is because Berkeley is
an imagist -- that is he believes that all ideas are images. If one is an
imagist it becomes impossible to imagine what idea could include both the ideas
of a right and equilateral triangle. Michael Ayers has recently argued that
Locke too was an imagist. This would make Berkeley's criticism of Locke very
much to the point. Ayers' claim, however, has been disputed. The process of
abstraction is of considerable importance to human knowledge. Locke thinks most
words we use are general. (III, I. 1. p., 409) Clearly, it is only general or
sortal ideas that can serve in a classificatory scheme.

In his discussion of names of substances and in the contrast between names of
substances and names of modes, a number of interesting features of Locke's views
about language and knowledge emerge. Physical substances are atoms and things
made up of atoms. But we have no experience of the atomic structure of horses
and tables. We know horses and tables mainly by secondary qualities such as
color, taste and smell and so on and primary qualities such as shape and
extension. So, since the real essence (the atomic constitution) of a horse is
unknown to us, our word horse cannot get its meaning from that real essence.
What the general word signifies is the complex of ideas we have decided are
parts of the idea of that sort of thing. These ideas we get from experience.
Locke calls such a general idea that picks out a sort, the nominal essence of
that sort.

One of the central issues in Book III has to do with classification. On what
basis do we divide things into kinds and organize those kinds into a system of
species and genera? In the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition that Locke
rejects, necessary properties are those that an individual must have in order to
exist and continue to exist. These contrast with accidental properties.
Accidental properties are those that an individual can gain and lose and yet
continue in existence. If a set of necessary properties is shared by a number of
individuals, that set of properties constitutes the essence of a natural kind.
The aim of Aristotelian science is to discover the essences of natural kinds.
Kinds can then be organized hierarchically into a classificatory system of
species and genera. This classification of the world by natural kinds will be
unique and privileged because it alone corresponds to the structure of the
world. This doctrine of essences and kinds is often called Aristotelian
essentialism. Locke rejects a variety of aspects of this doctrine. He rejects
the notion that an individual has an essence apart from being treated as
belonging to a kind. He also rejects the claim that there is a single
classification of things in nature that the natural philosopher should seek to
discover. He holds that there are many possible ways to classify the world each
of which might be particularly useful depending on one's purposes.

Locke's pragmatic account of language and the distinction between nominal and
real essences constitute an anti-essentialist alternative to this Aristotelian
essentialism and its correlative account of the classification of natural kinds.
He claims that there are no fixed boundaries in nature to be discovered -- that
is there are no clear demarcation points between species. There are always
borderline cases. There is scholarly debate over whether Locke's view is that
this lack of fixed boundaries is true on both the level of appearances and
nominal essences, and atomic constitutions and real essences, or on the level of
nominal essences alone. The first view is that Locke holds that there are no
natural kinds on either the level of appearance or atomic reality while the
second view holds that Locke thinks there are real natural kinds on the atomic
level, it is simply that we cannot get at them or know what they are. On either
of these interpretations, the real essence cannot provide the meaning to names
of substances.

By contrast, the ideas that we use to make up our nominal essences come to us
from experience. Locke claims that the mind is active in making our ideas of
sorts and that there are so many properties to choose among that it is possible
for different people to make quite different ideas of the essence of a certain
substance. This has given some commentators the impression that the making of
sorts is utterly arbitrary and conventional for Locke and that there is no basis
for criticizing a particular nominal essence. Sometimes Locke says things that
might suggest this. But he also points out that the making of nominal essences
is constrained both by usage (where words standing for ideas that are already in
use) and by the fact that substance words are supposed to copy the properties of
the substances they refer to.

Let us begin with the usage of words first. It is important that in a community
of language users that words be used with the same meaning. If this condition is
met it facilitates the chief end of language which is communication. If one
fails to use words with the meaning that most people attach to them, one will
fail to communicate effectively with others. Thus one would defeat the main
purpose of language. It should also be noted that traditions of usage for Locke
can be modified. Otherwise we would not be able to improve our knowledge and
understanding by getting more clear and determinate ideas.
In the making of the names of substances there is a period of discovery as the
abstract general idea is put together (e.g. the discovery of violets or gold)
and then the naming of that idea and then its introduction into language.
Language itself is viewed as an instrument for carrying out the mainly prosaic
purposes and practices of every day life. Ordinary people are the chief makers
of language.

Vulgar Notions suit vulgar Discourses; and both though confused enough, yet
serve pretty well for the Market and the Wake. Merchants and Lovers, Cooks and
Taylors, have Words wherewith to dispatch their ordinary affairs; and so, I
think, might Philosophers and Disputants too, if they had a mind to understand
and to be clearly understood. (III. Xi. 10. p. 514)

These ordinary people use a few apparent qualities, mainly ideas of secondary
qualities to make ideas and words that will serve their purposes.

Scientists come along later to try to determine if the connections between
properties which the ordinary folk have put together in a particular idea in
fact holds in nature. Scientists are seeking to find the necessary connections
between properties. Still, even scientists, in Locke's view, are restricted to
using observable (and mainly secondary) qualities to categorize things in
nature. Sometimes, the scientists may find that the ordinary folk have erred, as
when they called whales fish. A whale is not a fish, as it turns out, but a
mammal. There is a characteristic group of qualities which fish have which
whales do not have. There is a characteristic group of qualities which mammals
have which whales also have. To classify a whale as a fish therefore is a
mistake. Similarly, we might make an idea of gold that only included being a
soft metal and gold color. If so, we would be unable to distinguish between gold
and fool's gold. Thus, since it is the mind that makes complex ideas (they are
the workmanship of the understanding), one is free to put together any
combination of ideas one wishes and call it what one will. But the product of
such work is open to criticism, either on the grounds that it does not conform
to already current usage, or that it inadequately represents the archetypes that
it is supposed to copy in the world. We engage in such criticism in order to
improve human understanding of the material world and thus the human condition.
The distinction between modes and substances is surely one of the most important
in Locke's philosophy. In contrast with substances modes are dependent
existences -- they can be thought of as the ordering of substances. These are
technical terms for Locke, so we should see how they are defined. Locke writes:

"First, Modes I call such complex Ideas, which however compounded, contain not
in themselves the supposition of subsisting by themselves; such are the words
signified by the Words Triangle, Gratitude, Murther, etc." (II. xii.4, p. 165)
Locke goes on to distinguish between simple and mixed modes. He writes:
Of these Modes, there are two sorts, which deserve distinct consideration.
First, there are some that are only variations, or different combinations of
the same simple Idea, without the mixture of any other, as a dozen or score;
which are nothing but the ideas of so many distinct unities being added
together, and these I call simple Modes, as being contained within the bounds
of one simple Idea. Secondly, There are others, compounded of Ideas of several
kinds, put together to make one complex one; v.g. Beauty, consisting of a
certain combination of Colour and Figure, causing Delight to the Beholder;
Theft, which being the concealed change of the Possession of any thing,
without the consent of the Proprietor, contains, as is visible, a combination
of several Ideas of several kinds; and these I call Mixed Modes. (II, xii. 5.,
p. 165)

When we make ideas of modes, the mind is again active, but the archetype is in
our mind. The question becomes whether things in the world fit our ideas, and
not whether our ideas correspond to the nature of things in the world. Our ideas
are adequate. Thus we define bachelor as an unmarried, adult, male human
being. If we find that someone does not fit this definition, this does not
reflect badly on our definition, it simply means that that individual does not
belong to the class of bachelors. Modes give us the ideas of mathematics, of
morality, of religion and politics and indeed of human conventions in general.
Since these modal ideas are not only made by us but serve as standards that
things in the world either fit or do not fit and thus belong or do not belong to
that sort, ideas of modes are clear and distinct, adequate and complete. Thus in
modes, we get the real and nominal essences combined. One can give precise
definitions of mathematical terms (that is, give necessary and sufficient
conditions) and one can give deductive demonstrations of mathematical truths.
Locke sometimes says that morality too is capable of deductive demonstration.
Though pressed by his friend William Molyneux to produce such a demonstrative
morality, Locke never did so. The terms of political discourse have some of the
same features for Locke. When Locke defines the states of nature, slavery and
war in the Second Treatise of Government, for example, we are presumably getting
precise modal definitions from which one can deduce consequences. It is
possible, however, that with politics we are getting a study which requires both
experience as well as the deductive modal aspect.

The extant of the influence that Locke account of language has had over the
centuries is a matter of scholarly debate. Norman Kretzmann holds that Locke's
views, while not original had a powerful influence on the Enlightenment view of
the connection of words and ideas. Noam Chomsky in Cartesian Linguistics traces
the important ideas in linguistics back to Descartes and the school at Port
Royal rather than Locke. This is largely a matter of the importance of the
innate in Chomsky's thought. Hans Aarsleff, on the other hand, believes that
Locke stands at the beginning of the developments that produced contemporary
linguistics and Aarsleff argues that Chomsky's account is more polemical than

2.4 Book IV

In the fourth book of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke tells us
what knowledge is and what humans can know and what they cannot (not simply what
they do and do not happen to know). Locke defines knowledge as "the perception
of the connexion and agreement or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our
Ideas" (IV. I. 1. p. 525). This definition of knowledge contrasts with the
Cartesian definition of knowledge as any ideas that are clear and distinct.
Locke's account of knowledge allows him to say that we can know substances in
spite of the fact that our ideas of them always include the obscure and relative
idea of substance in general. Still, Locke's definition of knowledge raises in
this domain a problem analogous to those we have seen with perception and
language. If knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of any
of our Ideas" -- are we not trapped in the circle of our own ideas? what about
knowing the real existence of things? Locke is plainly aware of this problem,
but how adequate his solution to it is is more doubtful.

What then can we know and with what degree of certainty? We can know that God
exists with the second highest degree of assurance, that of demonstration. We
also know that we exist with the highest degree of certainty. The truths of
morality and mathematics we can know with certainty as well, because these are
modal ideas whose adequacy is guaranteed by the fact that we make such ideas as
ideal models which other things must fit, rather than trying to copy some
external archetype which we can only grasp inadequately. On the other hand, our
efforts to grasp the nature of external objects is limited largely to the
connection between their apparent qualities. The real essence of elephants and
gold is hidden from us: though in general we suppose them to be some distinct
combination of atoms which cause the grouping of apparent qualities which leads
us to see elephants and violets, gold and lead as distinct kinds. Our knowledge
of material things is probabilistic and thus opinion rather than knowledge. Thus
our "knowledge" of external objects is inferior to our knowledge of mathematics
and morality, of ourselves, and of God. While Locke holds that we only have
knowledge of a limited number of things, he thinks we can judge the truth or
falsity of many propositions in addition to those we can legitimately claim to
know. This brings us to a discussion of probability.

2.5 Knowledge and Probability

Knowledge involves the seeing of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.
What then is probability and how does it relate to knowledge? Locke writes:
The Understanding Faculties being given to Man, not barely for Speculation,
but also for the Conduct of his Life, Man would be at a great loss, if he had
nothing to direct him, but what has the Certainty of true Knowledge...
Therefore, as God has set some Things in broad day-light; as he has given us
some certain Knowledge...So in the greater part of our Concernment, he has
afforded us only the twilight, as I may say so, of Probability, suitable, I
presume, to that State of Mediocrity and Probationership, he has been pleased
to place us in here, wherein to check our over-confidence and presumption, we
might by every day's Experience be made sensible of our short sightedness and
liableness to Error...(IV, xiv, 1-2., p. 652)

So, apart from the few important things that we can know for certain, e.g. the
existence of ourselves and God, the nature of mathematics and morality broadly
construed, for the most part we must lead our lives without knowledge. What then
is probability? Locke writes:

As Demonstration is the shewing of the agreement or disagreement of two Ideas,
by the intervention of one or more Proofs, which have a constant, immutable,
and visible connexion one with another: so Probability is nothing but the
appearance of such an Agreement or Disagreement, by the intervention of
Proofs, whose connection is not constant and immutable, or at least is not
perceived to be so, but is or appears, for the most part to be so, and is
enough to induce the Mind to judge the Proposition to be true, or false,
rather than the contrary. (IV., xv, 1., p. 654)

Probable reasoning, on this account, is an argument, similar in certain ways to
the demonstrative reasoning that produces knowledge but different also in
certain crucial respects. It is an argument that provides evidence that leads
the mind to judge a proposition true or false but without a guarantee that the
judgment is correct. This kind of probable judgment comes in degrees, ranging
from near demonstrations and certainty to unlikeliness and improbability to near
the vicinity of impossibility. It is correlated with degrees of assent ranging
from full assurance down to conjecture, doubt and distrust.

The new science of mathematical probability had come into being on the continent
just around the time that Locke was writing the Essay. His account of
probability, however, shows little or no awareness of mathematical probability.
Rather it reflects an older tradition that treated testimony as probable
reasoning. Given that Locke's aim, above all, is to discuss what degree of
assent we should give to various religious propositions, the older conception of
probability very likely serves his purposes best. Thus, when Locke comes to
describe the grounds for probability he cites the conformity of the proposition
to our knowledge, observation and experience, and the testimony of others who
are reporting their observation and experience. Concerning the latter we must
consider the number of witnesses, their integrity, their skill in observation,
counter testimony and so on. In judging rationally how much to assent to a
probable proposition, these are the relevant considerations that the mind should
review. We should, Locke also suggests, be tolerant of differing opinions as we
have more reason to retain the opinions we have than to give them up to
strangers or adversaries who may well have some interest in our doing so.
Locke distinguishes two sorts of probable propositions. The first of these have
to do with particular existences or matters of fact, and the second that are
beyond the testimony of the senses. Matters of fact are open to observation and
experience, and so all of the tests noted above for determining rational assent
to propositions about them are available to us. Things are quite otherwise with
matters that are beyond the testimony of the senses. These include the knowledge
of finite immaterial spirits such as angels or things such as atoms that are too
small to be sensed, or the plants, animals or inhabitants of other planets that
are beyond our range of sensation because of their distance from us. Concerning
this latter category, Locke says we must depend on analogy as the only help for
our reasoning. He writes: "Thus the observing that the bare rubbing of two
bodies violently one upon the other, produce heat, and very often fire it self,
we have reason to think, that what we call Heat and Fire consist of the violent
agitation of the imperceptible minute parts of the burning matter..." (IV. xvi.
12. Pp 665-6) We reason about angels by considering the Great Chain of Being;
figuring that while we have no experience of angels, the ranks of species above
us is likely as numerous as that below of which we do have experience. This
reasoning is, however, only probable.

2.6 Reason, Faith and Enthusiasm

The relative merits of the senses, reason and faith for attaining truth and the
guidance of life were a significant issue during this period. As noted above
James Tyrrell recalled that the original impetus for the writing of An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding was a discussion about the principles of morality
and revealed religion. In Book IV Chapters XVII, XVIII and XIX Locke deals with
the nature of reason, the relation of reason to faith and the nature of
enthusiasm. Locke remarks that all sects make use of reason as far as they can.
It is only when this fails them that they have recourse to faith and claim that
what is revealed is above reason. But he adds: "And I do not see how they can
argue with anyone or even convince a gainsayer who uses the same plea, without
setting down strict boundaries between faith and reason." (IV. xviii. 2. p. 689)
Locke then defines reason as "the discovery of the certainty or probability of
such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction made from
such ideas, as it has got by the use of its natural faculties; viz, by the use
of sensation or reflection." (IV. xviii. ii. p. 689) Faith, on the other hand,
is assent to any proposition "...upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from
God, in some extraordinary way of communication." That is we have faith in what
is disclosed by revelation and which cannot be discovered by reason. Locke also
distinguishes between the original revelation by God to some person, and
traditional revelation which is the original revelation "...delivered over to
others in Words, and the ordinary ways of our conveying our Conceptions one to
another. (IV. xviii, 3 p. 690)

Locke makes the point that some things could be discovered both by reason and by
revelation -- God could reveal the propositions of Euclid's geometry, or they
could be discovered by reason. In such cases there would be little use for
faith. Traditional revelation can never produce as much certainty as the
contemplation of the agreement or disagreement of our own ideas. Similarly
revelations about matters of fact do not produce as much certainty as having the
experience one self. Revelation, then cannot contradict what we know to be true.
If it could, it would undermine the trustworthiness of all of our faculties.
This would be a disastrous result. Where revelation comes into its own is where
reason cannot reach. Where we have few or no ideas for reason to contradict or
confirm, this is the proper matters for faith. "...that Part of the Angels
rebelled against GOD, and thereby lost their first happy state: and that the
dead shall rise, and live again: These and the like, being Beyond the Discovery
of Reason, are purely matters of Faith; with which Reason has nothing to do."
(IV. xviii. 8. p. 694) Still, reason does have a crucial role to play in respect
to revelation. Locke writes:

Because the Mind, not being certain of the Truth of that it evidently does not
know, but only yielding to the Probability that appears to it, is bound to
give up its assent to such Testimony, which, it is satisfied, comes from one
who cannot err, and will not deceive. But yet, it still belongs to Reason, to
judge of the truth of its being a Revelation, and of the significance of the
Words, wherein it is delivered. (IV. 18. 8., p. 694)

So, in respect to the crucial question of how we are to know whether a
revelation is genuine, we are supposed to use reason and the canons of
probability to judge. Locke claims that if the boundaries between faith and
reason are not clearly marked, then there will be no place for reason in
religion and one then gets all the "extravagant Opinions and Ceremonies, that
are to be found in the religions of the world..." (IV. 18. 11. p. 696)

Should one accept revelation without using reason to judge whether it is genuine
revelation or not, one gets what Locke calls a third principle of assent besides
reason and revelation, namely enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a vain or unfounded
confidence in divine favor or communication. It implies that there is no need to
use reason to judge whether such favor or communication is genuine or not.
Clearly when such communications are not genuine they are the ungrounded
Fancies of a Man's own Brain.(IV. xix. 2. p. 698) This kind of enthusiasm was
characteristic of Protestant extremists going back to the era of the Civil War.
Locke was not alone in rejecting enthusiasm, but he rejects it in the strongest
terms. Enthusiasm violates the fundamental principle by which the understanding
operates -- that assent be proportioned to the evidence. To abandon that
fundamental principle would be catastrophic. This is a point that Locke also
makes in The Conduct of the Understanding,and The Reasonableness of
Christianity. Locke wants each of us to use our understanding to search after
truth. Of enthusiasts, those who would abandon reason and claim to know on the
basis of faith alone, Locke writes: "...he that takes away Reason to make way
for Revelation, puts out the Light of both, and does much what the same, as if
he would perswade a Man to put out his eyes, the better to receive the remote
Light of an invisible Star by a Telescope." (IV. xix. 4. p. 698) Rather than
engage in the tedious labor required to reason correctly, enthusiasts persuade
themselves that they are possessed of immediate revelation, without having to
use reason to judge of the genuineness of their revelation. This leads to "odd
Opinions and extravagant actions" that are characteristic of enthusiasm and
which should warn that this is a wrong principle. Thus, Locke strongly rejects
any attempt to make inward persuasion not judged by reason a legitimate

I turn now to a consideration of Locke's political works.

3. The Two Treatises Of Government

The introduction of the work was written latter than the main text, and gave
people the impression that the book was written in 1688 to justify the Glorious
Revolution. We now know that the Two Treatises of Government were written during
the Exclusion crisis and were probably intended to justify the general armed
rising which the Country Party leaders were planning. It was a truly
revolutionary work. Supposing that the Two Treatises may have been intended to
explain and defend the revolutionary plot against Charles II and his brother,
how does it do this?

The First Treatise of Government is a polemical work aimed at refuting the
patriarchal version of the Divine Right of Kings doctrine put forth by Sir
Robert Filmer. Locke singles out Filmer's contention that men are not "naturally
free" as the key issue, for that is the "ground" or premise on which Filmer
erects his argument for the claim that all "legitimate" government is "absolute
monarchy." -- kings being descended from the first man, Adam. Early in the First
Treatise Locke denies that either scripture or reason supports Filmer's premise
or arguments. In what follows, Locke minutely examines key Biblical passages.
The Second Treatise of Government provides Locke's positive theory of government
- he explicitly says that he must do this "lest men fall into the dangerous
belief that all government in the world is merely the product of force and
violence." Locke's account involves several devices which were common in
seventeenth and eighteenth century political philosophy -- natural rights theory
and the social contract. Natural rights are those rights which we are supposed
to have as human beings before ever government comes into being. We might
suppose, that like other animals, we have a natural right to struggle for our
survival. Locke will argue that we have a right to the means to survive. When
Locke comes to explain how government comes into being, he uses the idea that
people agree that their condition in the state of nature is unsatisfactory, and
so agree to transfer some of their rights to a central government, while
retaining others. This is the theory of the social contract. There are many
versions of natural rights theory and the social contract in seventeenth and
eighteenth century European political philosophy, some conservative and some
radical. Locke's version belongs on the radical side of the spectrum. These
radical natural right theories influenced the ideologies of the American and
French revolutions.

3.1 The Second Treatise of Government

Here is the subject matter of the various chapters of the Second Treatise:

Chapter 1 Book I: the definition of Political power
Chapter II-VII: the bases of government, states of nature, war, slavery, the
nature of property
Chapters VIII-XIV: the nature of political power and legitimate civil
Chapter XV: recapitulates the fundamental distinctions between paternal.
political and despotic power.
Chapter XVI-XVIII: elaborates the nature of illegitimate civil government. It
specifies three forms of such illegitimacy: 1. an unjust foreign conquest, 2.
internal usurpation of political rule and 3. tyrannical extension of power by
those who were originally legitimately in power.
Chapter XIX: gives the conditions under which legitimate revolution may occur.

Figuring out what the proper or legitimate role of civil government is would be
a difficult task indeed if one were to examine the vast complexity of existing
civil governments. How should one proceed? One strategy is to consider what life
is like in the absence of civil government. Presumably this is a simpler state,
one which may be easier to understand. Then one might see what role civil
government ought to play. This is the strategy which Locke pursues, following
Hobbes and others. So, in the first chapter of the Second Treatise Locke defines
political power.

Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of
death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving
of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of
such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and
all this only for the public good

In the second chapter of The Second Treatise Locke describes the state in which
there is no government with real political power. This is the state of nature.
It is sometimes assumed that the state of nature is a state in which there is no
government at all. This is only partially true. It is possible to have in the
state of nature either no government, illegitimate government, or legitimate
government with less than full political power.

If we consider the state of nature before there was government, it is a state of
political equality in which there is no natural superior or inferior. From this
equality flows the obligation to mutual love and the duties that people owe one
another, and the great maxims of justice and charity. Was there ever such a
state? There has been considerable debate about this. Still, it is plain that
both Hobbes and Locke would answer this question affirmatively. Whenever people
have not agreed to establish a common political authority, they remain in the
state of nature. It's like saying that people are in the state of being
naturally single until they are married. Locke clearly thinks one can find the
state of nature in his time at least in the inland vacant parts of America and
in the relations between different peoples. Perhaps the historical development
of states also went though the stages of a state of nature. An alternative
possibility is that the state of nature is not a real historical state, but
rather a theoretical construct, intended to help determine the proper function
of government. If one rejects the historicity of states of nature, one may still
find them a useful analytical device. For Locke, it is very likely both.
3.2 Human Nature and God's Purposes

According to Locke, God created man and we are, in effect, God's property. The
chief end set us by our creator as a species and as individuals is survival. A
wise and omnipotent God, having made people and sent them into this world: his order and about his business, they are his property whose
workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and
being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature,
there cannot be supposed any subordination among us, that may authorize us to
destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the
inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.

It follows immediately that "he has no liberty to destroy himself, or so much as
any creature in his possession, yet when some nobler use than its bare
possession calls for it." (II. ii. 5) So, murder and suicide violate the divine

If one takes survival as the end, then we may ask what are the means necessary
to that end. On Locke's account, these turn out to be life, liberty, health and
property. Since the end is set by God, on Locke's view we have a right to the
means to that end. So we have rights to life, liberty, health and property.
These are natural rights, that is they are rights that we have in a state of
nature before the introduction of civil government, and all people have these
rights equally.

If God's purpose for me on earth is my survival and that of my species, and the
means to that survival are my life, health, liberty and property -- then clearly
I don't want anyone to violate my rights to these things. Equally, considering
other people, who are my natural equals, I should conclude that I should not
violate their rights to life, liberty, health and property. This is the law of
nature. It is the Golden Rule, interpreted in terms of natural rights. Thus
Locke writes: "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which
obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but
consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another
in his life, health, liberty or possessions..." (II, 6) Locke tells us that the
law of nature is revealed by reason. Locke makes the point about the law that it
commands what is best for us. If it did not, he says, the law would vanish for
it would not be obeyed. It is in this sense, I think, that Locke means that
reason reveals the law. If you reflect on what is best for yourself and others,
given the goal of survival and our natural equality, you will come to this

Locke does not intend his account of the state of nature as a sort of utopia.
Rather it serves as an analytical device that explains why it becomes necessary
to introduce civil government and what the legitimate function of civil
government is. Thus, as Locke conceives it, there are problems with life in the
state of nature. The law of nature, like civil laws can be violated. There are
no police, prosecutors or judges in the state of nature as these are all
representatives of a government with full political power. The victims, then,
must enforce the law of nature in the state of nature. In addition to our other
rights in the state of nature, we have the rights to enforce the law and to
judge on our own behalf. We may, Locke tells us, help one another. We may
intervene in cases where our own interests are not directly under threat to help
enforce the law of nature. Still, the person who is most likely to enforce the
law under these circumstances is the person who has been wronged. The basic
principle of justice is that the punishment should be proportionate to the
crime. But when the victims are judging the seriousness of the crime, they are
more likely to judge it of greater severity than might an impartial judge. As a
result, there will be regular miscarriages of justice. This is perhaps the most
important problem with the state of nature.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Locke defines the states of war and slavery. The state of
war is a state in which someone has a sedate and settled intention of violating
someone's right to life. Such a person puts themselves into a state of war with
the person whose life they intend to take. In such a war the person who intends
to violate someone's right to life is an unjust aggressor. This is not the
normal relationship between people enjoined by the law of nature in the state of
nature. Locke is distancing himself from Hobbes who had made the state of nature
and the state of war equivalent terms. For Locke, the state of nature is
ordinarily one in which we follow the Golden Rule interpreted in terms of
natural rights, and thus love our fellow human creatures. The state of war only
comes about when someone proposes to violate someone else's rights. Thus, on
Locke's theory of war, there will always be an innocent victim on on side and an
unjust aggressor on the other.

Slavery is the state of being in the absolute or arbitrary power of another. On
Locke's definition of slavery there is only one rather remarkable way to become
a legitimate slave. In order to do so one must be an unjust aggressor defeated
in war. The just victor then has the option to either kill the aggressor or
enslave them. Locke tells us that the state of slavery is the continuation of
the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive, in which the
conqueror delays to take the life of the captive, and instead makes use of him.
This is a continued war because if conqueror and captive make some compact for
obedience on the one side and limited power on the other, the state of slavery
ceases. The reason that slavery ceases with the compact is that "no man, can, by
agreement pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over
his own life." (II. 4, 24) Legitimate slavery is an important concept in Locke's
political philosophy largely because it tells us what the legitimate extant of
despotic power is and defines and illuminates by contrast the nature of
illegitimate slavery. Illegitimate slavery is that state in which someone
possesses absolute or despotic power over someone else without just cause. Locke
holds that it is this illegitimate state of slavery which absolute monarchs wish
to impose upon their subjects. It is very likely for this reason that legitimate
slavery is so narrowly defined.

There have been a steady stream of articles over the last forty years arguing
that given Locke's involvement with trade and colonial government, the theory of
slavery in the Second Treatise was intended to justify the institutions and
practices of Afro-American slavery. This seems quite unlikely. Had he intended
to do so, Locke would have done much better with a vastly more inclusive
definition of legitimate slavery than the one he gives. It is sometimes
suggested that Locke's account of "just war" is so vague that it could easily be
twisted to justify the institutions and practices of Afro-American slavery.
This, however, is also not the case. In the Chapter "Of Conquest" Locke
explicitly lists the limits of the legitimate power of conquerors. These limits
on who can become a legitimate slave and what the powers of a just conqueror are
ensure that this theory of conquest and slavery would condemn the institutions
and practices of Afro-American slavery in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
"Of Property" is one of the most famous, influential and important chapters in
the Second Treatise of Government. Indeed, some of the most controversial issues
about the Second Treatise come from varying interpretations of it. In this
chapter Locke, in effect, describes the evolution of the state of nature to the
point where it becomes expedient for those in it to found a civil government.
So, it is not only an account of the nature and origin of private property, but
leads up to the explanation of why civil government replaces the state of

In discussing the origin of private property Locke begins by noting that God
gave the earth to all men in common. Thus there is a question about how private
property comes to be. Locke finds it a serious difficulty. He points out,
however, that we are supposed to make use of the earth "for the best advantage
of life and convenience." (II. 5, 25) What then is the means to appropriate
property from the common store? Locke argues that private property does not come
about by universal consent. If one had to go about and ask everyone if one could
eat these berries, one would starve to death before getting everyone's
agreement. Locke holds that we have a property in our own person. And the labor
of our body and the work of our hands properly belong to us. So, when one picks
up acorns or berries, they thereby belong to the person who picked them up.
One might think that one could then acquire as much as one wished, but this is
not the case. Locke introduces at least two important qualifications on how much
property can be acquired. The first qualification has to do with waste. Locke
writes: "As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it
spoils, so much by his labor he may fix a property in; whatever is beyond this,
is more than his share, and belongs to others." (II. v. 31) Since originally,
populations were small and resources great, living within the bounds set by
reason, there would be little quarrel or contention over property, for a single
man could make use of only a very small part of what was available.
Note that Locke has, thus far, been talking about hunting and gathering, and the
kinds of limitations which reason imposes on the kind of property that hunters
and gatherers hold. In the next section he turns to agriculture and the
ownership of land and the kinds of limitations there are on that kind of
property. In effect, we see the evolution of the state of nature from a
hunter/gatherer kind of society to that of a farming and agricultural society.
Once again it is labor which imposes limitations upon how much land can be
enclosed. It is only as much as one can work. But there is an additional
qualification. Locke says:

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any
prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left;
and more than the as yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was
never the less for others because of his inclosure for himself: for he that
leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at
all. No body could consider himself injured by the drinking of another man,
though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left to
quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough, is
perfectly the same. (II. v. 33)

The next stage in the evolution of the state of nature involves the introduction
of money. Locke remarks that:

. ... before the desire of having more than one needed had altered the
intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life
of man; or had agreed, that a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep
without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole
heap of corn; though men had a right to appropriate by their labor, each one
of himself, as much of the things of nature, as he could use; yet this could
not be much, nor to the prejudice of others, where the same plenty was left to
those who would use the same industry. (II. 5. 37.)

So, before the introduction of money, there was a degree of economic equality
imposed on mankind both by reason and the barter system. And men were largely
confined to the satisfaction of their needs and conveniences. Most of the
necessities of life are relatively short lived -- berries, plums, venison and so
forth. One could reasonably barter one's berries for nuts which would last not
weeks but perhaps a whole year. And says Locke:

...if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its color, or
exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or diamond, and
keep those by him all his life, he invaded not the right of others, he might
heap up as much of these durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the
bounds of his property not lying in the largeness of his possessions, but the
perishing of anything uselessly in it. (II. 5. 146.)

The introduction of money is necessary for the differential increase in
property, with resulting economic inequality. Without money there would be no
point in going beyond the economic equality of the earlier stage. In a money
economy, different degrees of industry could give men vastly different
proportions. "This partage of things in an inequality of private possessions,
men have made practicable out of the bounds of society, and without compact,
only by putting a value on gold and silver, and tacitly agreeing to the use of
money: for in governments, the laws regulate the rights of property, and the
possession of land is determined by positive constitutions." (II. 5. 50) The
implication is that it is the introduction of money, which causes inequality,
which in turn causes quarrels and contentions and increased numbers of
violations of the law of nature. This leads to the decision to create a civil
government. Before turning to the institution of civil government, however, we
should ask what happens to the qualifications on the acquisition of property
after the advent of money? One answer proposed by C. B. Macpherson is that the
qualifications are completely set aside, and we now have a system for the
unlimited acquisition of private property. This does not seem to be correct. It
seems plain, rather, that at least the non-spoilage qualification is satisfied,
because money does not spoil. The other qualifications may be rendered somewhat
irrelevant by the advent of the conventions about property adopted in civil
society. This leaves open the question of whether Locke approved of these
changes. Macpherson, who takes Locke to be a spokesman for a proto-capitalist
system, sees Locke as advocating the unlimited acquisition of wealth. According
to James Tully, on the other side, Locke sees the new conditions, the change in
values and the economic inequality which arise as a result of the advent of
money, as the fall of man. Tully sees Locke as a persistent and powerful critic
of self-interest. This remarkable difference in interpretation has been a
significant topic for debates among scholars over the last forty years. Let us
then, turn to the institution of civil government.

The institution of civil government comes about because of the difficulties in
the state of nature. Rather clearly, on Locke's view, these difficulties
increase with the increase in population, the decrease in available resources,
and the advent of economic inequality which results from the introduction of
money. These conditions lead to an increase in the number of violations of the
natural law. Thus, the inconvenience of having to redress such grievances on
one's own behalf become much more acute, since there are significantly more of
them. These lead to the introduction of civil government.

3.3 The Social Contract Theory

Just as natural rights and natural law theory had a florescence in the 17th and
18th century, so did the social contract theory. Why is Locke a social contract
theorist? Is it merely that this was one prevailing way of thinking about
government at the time which Locke blindly adopted? I think the answer is that
there is something about Locke's project which pushes him strongly in the
direction of the social contract. One might hold that governments were
originally instituted by force, and that no agreement was involved. Were Locke
to adopt this view, he would be forced to go back on many of the things which
are at the heart of his project in the Second Treatise. Remember that The Second
Treatise provides Locke's positive theory of government, and that he explicitly
says that he must do this "lest men fall into the dangerous belief that "all
government in the world is merely the product of force and violence." So, while
Locke might admit that some governments come about through force or violence, he
would be destroying the most central and vital distinction, that between
legitimate and illegitimate civil government, if he admitted that legitimate
civil government can come about in this way. So, for Locke, legitimate civil
government is instituted by the explicit consent of those governed. Those who
make this agreement transfer to the civil government their right of executing
the law of nature and judging their own case. These are the powers which they
give to the central government, and this is what makes the justice system of
civil governments a legitimate function of such governments.

Ruth Grant has persuasively argued that the establishment of civil government is
in effect a two step process. Universal consent is necessary to form a political
community. Consent to join a community once given is binding and cannot be
withdrawn. This makes political communities stable. Grant writes: "Having
established that the membership in a community entails the obligation to abide
by the will of the community, the question remains: Who rules?" (Grant, 1987 p.
115) The answer to this question is determined by majority rule. The point is
that universal consent is necessary to establish a political community, majority
consent to answer the question who is to rule such a community. Universal
consent and majority consent are thus different in kind, not just in degree.

Grant writes:

Locke's argument for the right of the majority is the theoretical ground for
the distinction between duty to society and duty to government, the
distinction that permits an argument for resistance without anarchy. When the
designated government dissolves, men remain obligated to society acting
through majority rule.

It is entirely possible for the majority to confer the rule of the community on
a king and his heirs, or a group of oligarchs or on a democratic assembly. Thus,
the social contract is not inextricably linked to democracy. Still, a government
of any kind must perform the legitimate function of a civil government.

3.4 The Function Of Civil Government

Locke is now in a position to explain the function of a legitimate civil
government and distinguish it from illegitimate civil government. The aim of
such a legitimate civil government is to preserve, so far as possible, the
rights to life, liberty, health and property of its citizens, and to prosecute
and punish those of its citizens who violate the rights of others others and to
pursue the public good even where this may conflict with the rights of
individuals. In doing this it provides something unavailable in the state of
nature, an impartial judge to determine the severity of the crime, and to set a
punishment proportionate to the crime. This is one of the main reasons why civil
society is an improvement on the state of nature. An illegitimate civil
government will fail to protect the rights to life, liberty, health and property
of its subjects, and in the worst cases, such an illegitimate government will
claim to be able to violate the rights of its subjects, that is it will claim to
have despotic power over its subjects. Since Locke is arguing against the
position of Sir Robert Filmer who held that patriarchal power and political
power are the same, and that in effect these amount to despotic power, Locke is
at pains to distinguish these three forms of power, and to show that they are
not equivalent. Thus at the beginning of Chapter XV Of Paternal, Political and
Despotic power considered together he writes: "THOUGH I have had occasion to
speak of these before, yet the great mistakes of late about government, having
as I suppose arisen from confounding these distinct powers one with another, it
may not be amiss, to consider them together." Chapters VI and VII give Locke's
account of paternal and political power respectively. Paternal power is limited.
It lasts only through the minority of children, and has other limitations.
Political power, derived as it is from the transfer of the power of individuals
to enforce the law of nature, has with it the right to kill in the interest of
preserving the rights of the citizens or otherwise supporting the public good.
Despotic power, by contrast, implies the right to take the life, liberty, health
and at least some of the property of any person subject to such a power.
3.5 Rebellion and Regicide

At the end of the Second Treatise we learn about the nature of illegitimate
civil governments and the conditions under which rebellion and regicide are
legitimate and appropriate. As noted above, scholars now hold that the book was
written during the Exclusion crisis, and may have been written to justify a
general insurrection and the assassination of the king of England and his
brother. The argument for legitimate revolution follows from making the
distinction between legitimate and illegitimate civil government. A legitimate
civil government seeks to preserve the life, health, liberty and property of its
subjects, insofar as this is compatible with the public good. Because it does
this it deserves obedience. An illegitimate civil government seeks to
systematically violate the natural rights of its subjects. It seeks to make them
illegitimate slaves. Because an illegitimate civil government does this, it puts
itself in a state of nature and a state of war with its subjects. The magistrate
or king of such a state violates the law of nature and so makes himself into a
dangerous beast of prey who operates on the principle that might makes right, or
that the strongest carries it. In such circumstances, rebellion is legitimate as
is the killing of such a dangerous beast of prey. Thus Locke justifies rebellion
and regicide (regarded by many during this period as the most heinous of crimes)
under certain circumstances. Presumably this was the justification that was
going to be offered for the killing of the King of England and his brother had
the Rye House Plot succeeded.

4. Locke and Religious Toleration

The issue of religious toleration was of widespread interest in Europe in the
17th century. The Reformation had split Europe into competing religious camps,
and this provoked civil wars and massive religious persecutions. The Dutch
Republic, where Locke spent time, had been founded as a secular state which
would allow religious differences. This was a reaction to Catholic persecution
of Protestants. Once the Calvinist Church gained power, however, they began
persecuting other sects, such as the Remonstrants who disagreed with them. In
France, religious conflict had been temporarily quieted by the edict of Nantes.
But in 1685, the year in which Locke wrote the First Letter concerning religious
toleration, Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, and the Huguenots were
being persecuted and forced to emigrate on mass. People in England were keenly
aware of the events taking place in France.

In England itself, religious conflict dominated the 17th century, contributing
in important respects to the coming of the English civil war, and the abolishing
of the Anglican Church during the Protectorate. After the Restoration of Charles
II, Anglicans in parliament passed laws which repressed both Catholics and
Protestant sects such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Unitarians who did
not agree with the doctrines or practices of the state Church. Of these various
dissenting sects, some were closer to the Anglicans, others more remote. One
reason among others why King Charles may have found Shaftesbury useful was that
they were both concerned about religious toleration. They parted when it became
clear that the King was mainly interested in toleration for Catholics, and
Shaftesbury of Protestant dissenters.

One widely discussed strategy for reducing religious conflict in England was
called comprehension. The idea was to reduce the doctrines and practices of the
Anglican church to a minimum so that most, if not all, of the dissenting sects
would be included in the state church. For those which even this measure would
not serve, there was to be toleration. Toleration we may define as a lack of
state persecution. Neither of these strategies made much progress during the
course of the Restoration.

What were Locke's religious views and where did he fit into the debates about
religious toleration? This is a quite difficult question to answer. Religious
persecution creates a situation where it might well be wise to conceal one's
actual views. It is clear that Newton did this and did it in collaboration with
Locke (McLachlan, 1941). Given this, what can we say about Locke? Religion and
Christianity in particular is perhaps the most important influence on the shape
of Locke's philosophy. But what kind of Christian was Locke? Locke's family were
Puritans. At Oxford, Locke avoided becoming an Anglican priest. Still, Locke's
nineteenth century biographer Fox Bourne thought that Locke was an Anglican.
Others have identified him with the Latitudinarians -- a movement among
Anglicans to argue for a reasonable Christianity that dissenters ought to
accept. This would seem to comport well with Locke's attempt in the The
Reasonableness of Christianity to reduce the doctrines and practices required to
be a Christian to a bare minimum. Still, there are some reasons to think that
Locke was neither an Anglican or a Latitudinarian. Locke got Isaac Newton to
write Newton's most powerful anti-Trinitarian tract. Locke arranged to have the
work published anonymously in Holland (though in the end Newton decided not to
publish). This strongly suggests that Locke too was a unitarian. Given that one
main theme of Locke's Letter on Toleration is that there should be a separation
between Church and State, this does not seem like the view of a man devoted to a
state religion. It might appear that Locke's writing The Reasonableness of
Christianity in which he argues that the basic doctrines of Christianity are few
and compatible with reason make him a Latitudinarian. Yet Richard Ashcraft has
argued that that comprehension for the Anglicans meant conforming to the
existing practices of the Anglican Church; that is, the abandonment of religious
dissent. Ashcraft also suggests that Latitudinarians were thus not a moderate
middle ground between contending extremes but part of one of the extremes --
"the acceptable face of the persecution of religious dissent." (Ashcraft in
Kroll, Ashcraft and Zagorin 1992 p. 155) Ashcraft holds that while the
Latitudinarians may have represented the rational theology of the Anglican
church, there was a competing dissenting rational theology Thus, while it is
true that Locke had Latitudinarian friends, given Ashcraft's distinction between
Anglican and dissenting "rational theologies", it is entirely possible that The
Reasonableness of Christianity is a work of dissenting "rational theology."
Locke had been thinking, talking and writing about religious toleration since
1659. He and Shaftesbury had instituted religious toleration in the Fundamental
Constitution of the Carolinas. He wrote the Epistola de Tolerentia in Latin in
1685 while in exile in Holland. He very likely was seeing Protestant refugees
pouring over the borders from France where Louis XIV had just revoked the Edict
of Nantes. Holland itself was a Calvinist theocracy with significant problems
with religious toleration. But Locke's Letter does not confine itself to the
issues of the time. Locke gives a principled account of religious toleration,
though this is mixed in with arguments which apply only to Christians, and
perhaps in some cases only to Protestants. He gives his general defense of
religious toleration while continuing the anti-Papist rhetoric of the Country
party which sought to exclude James II from the throne.

Locke's arguments for religious toleration connect nicely to his account of
civil government. Locke defines life, liberty, health and property as our civil
interests. These are the proper concern of a magistrate or civil government. The
magistrate can use force and violence where this is necessary to preserve civil
interests against attack. This is the central function of the state. One's
religious concerns with salvation, however, are not within the domain of civil
interests, and so lie outside of the legitimate concern of the magistrate or the
civil government. In effect, Locke adds an additional right to the natural
rights of life, liberty, health and property -- the right of freedom to choose
one's own road to salvation.

Locke holds that the use of force by the state to get people to hold certain
beliefs or engage in certain ceremonies or practices is illegitimate. The chief
means which the magistrate has at her disposal is force, but force is not an
effective means for changing or maintaining belief. Suppose then, that the
magistrate uses force so as to make people profess that they believe. Locke

A sweet religion, indeed, that obliges men to dissemble, and tell lies to both
God and man, for the salvation of their souls! If the magistrate thinks to
save men thus, he seems to understand little of the way of salvation; and if
he does it not in order to save them, why is he so solitious of the articles
of faith as to enact them by a law. (Mendus, 1991. p. 41)

So, religious persecution by the state is inappropriate. Locke holds that
"Whatever is lawful in the commonwealth cannot be prohibited by the magistrate
in the church." This means that the use of bread and wine, or even the
sacrificing of a calf could not be prohibited by the magistrate.

If there are competing churches, one might ask which one should have the power?
The answer is clearly that power should go to the true church and not to the
heretical church. But Locke claims, this amounts to saying nothing. For, every
church believes itself to be the true church, and there is no judge but God who
can determine which of these claims is correct. Thus, skepticism about the
possibility of religious knowledge is central to Locke argument for religious

Locke's Works

Oxford University Press is in the process of producing a new edition of all of
Locke's works. This will supersede The Works of John Locke of which the 1823
edition is probably the most standard. The new Clarendon editions began with
Peter Nidditch's edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1975. The
Oxford Clarendon editions contain much of the material of the Lovelace
collection, purchased and donated to Oxford by Paul Mellon. This treasure trove
of Locke's works and letters, which includes early drafts of the Essay and much
other material, comes down from Peter King, Locke's nephew, who inherited
Locke's papers. Access to these papers has given scholars in the twentieth
century a much better view of Locke's philosophical development and provided a
window into the details of his activities which is truly remarkable. Hence the
new edition of Locke's works will very likely be definitive.

In addition to the Oxford Press edition, there are a few editions of some of
Locke's works which are worth noting.

Laslett, Peter Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press.
Richard Aschcraft, The Two Treatises of Civil Government
Abrams, Phillip, John Locke, Two Tracts of Government, Cambridge University
Gough, (1968) J.W, and Klibansky, Epistola de Tolerentia, A Letter on
Toleration, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Aaron, R. and Gibb, J. eds. (1936) An Early Draft of Locke's Essay

King, Peter Lord (1991) The Life of John Locke: with extracts from his
correspondence, journals, and common-place books, Bristol, England, Thoemmes
Fox Bourne, H.R. (1876) Life of John Locke 2 volumes, reprinted Scientia
Aalen, 1969.
Maurice Cranston, (1957) John Locke, A Biography, reprinted Oxford University
Press, 1985.

Hall, Roland, Woolhouse, Roger (1983) 80 years of Locke scholarship: a
bibliographical guide, Edinburgh, University Press.

Locke Studies, edited by Roland Hall, University of York, Heslington, York, UK

Selected Books
Aarsleff, Hans, (1982) From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language
and Intellectual History, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
Alexander, Peter (1985) Ideas Qualities and Corpuscles, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press.
Arneil, Barbara, (1996) John Locke and America, Oxford, Clarendon Press
Aaron, Richard, (1937) John Locke, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Ashcraft, Richard, (1986) Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of
Civil Government, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Ayers, Michael (1991) Locke: Epistemology and Ontology, 2 volumes, London
Bennett, Jonathan, (1971) Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes, Oxford,
Oxford University Press.
Brandt, Reinhard, ed. (1981) John Locke: Symposium Wolfenbuttel 1979, Berlin,
de Gruyter.
Chappell, Vere (1992) Essays on Early Modern Philosophy, John Locke -- Theory
of Knowledge, London, Garland Publishing, Inc.
Chappell, Vere (1994) The Cambridge Companion to Locke, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press.
Dunn, John (1969) The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge University
Fox, Christopher, (1988) Locke and the Scriblerians, Berkeley, University of
California Press.
Gibson, James, (1968) Locke's Theory of Knowledge and its Historical
Relations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Grant, Ruth, (1987) John Locke's Liberalism, Chicago, University of Chicago
Kroll, Peter; Ashcraft, Richard; Zagorin, Peter, (1992) Philosophy, Science
and Religion in England 1640-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Jolley, Nicholas, (1984) Leibniz and Locke, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Jolley, Nicholas, (1999) Locke, His Philosophical Thought, Oxford, Oxford
University Press.
Lott, Tommy, (1998) Subjugation and Bondage: Critical Essays on Slavery and
Social Philosophy, New York, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc..
Lowe, E.J., (1995) Locke on Human Understanding, London, Routledge Publishing
Mackie, J. L. (1976) Problems from Locke, Oxford, Clarendon Press
Macpherson, C.B. (1962) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism,
Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Mandelbaum, Maurice, Philosophy, Science and Sense Perception: Historical and
Critical Studies, Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press.
Martin, C. B. and D. M. Armstrong, eds. (1968) Locke and Berkeley: A
Collection of Critical Essays, New York, Anchor Books.
McLachlan, Hugh, (1941) Religious Opinions of Milton, Locke and Newton,
Manchester, Manchester University Press.
Mendus, Susan, (1991) Locke on Toleration in Focus, London, Routledge.
Schouls, Peter, (1992) Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment,
Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press
Simmons, A. John, (1992) The Lockean Theory of Rights, Princeton, Princeton
University Press.
Tarcov, Nathan, (1984) Locke's Education for Liberty, Chicago, The University
of Chicago Press.
Tipton, I.C., (1977) Locke on Human Understanding: Selected Essays, Oxford,
Oxford University Press
Tully, James, (1980) A Discourse on Property, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Tully, James, (1993) An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Wood, Neal, (1983) The Politics of Locke's Philosophy, Berkeley, University of
California Press.
Woolhouse, R.S., (1971) Locke's Philosophy of Science and Knowledge New York,
Barnes and Noble.
Woolhouse, R.S., (1983) Locke, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Woolhouse, R.S., (1988) The Empiricists, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Yaffe, Gideon, (2000) Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on Free Agency, Princeton,
Princeton University Press.
Yolton, Jean, (1990) A Locke Miscellany, Bristol, Thommes Antiquarian Books.
Yolton, John, (1956) John Locke and the Way of Ideas Oxford, Oxford University
Press, Thoemmes Press reprint 1996.
Yolton, John (1969) John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press.
Yolton, John (1970) John Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Yolton, John (1984) Perceptual Acquaintance: From Descartes to Reid
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
Yolton, John (1984) Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth Century
Britain, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
Other Internet Resources
The Episteme Links Locke page
(Keeps an up-to-date listing of links to Locke sites on the web.)
John Locke
(The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Locke)
The Locke Page
(The Great Voyages web site.)
Images of Locke
(National Portrait Gallery, Great Britain)


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty