What is known? And how do we come to know it? These are the primary points of focus for metaphysics and epistemology, respectively. Here, in one of the classic works of early-modern empiricist philosophy, John Locke (1632-1704) attempts to answer these basic human questions by moving away from the rationalist notion of innate ideas to establish the concept of the tabula rasa in which the mind is initially impressed with ideas through perception of the external world of substance. The formation of basic ideas through the perception of primary and secondary qualities, and the more sophisticated development of concepts, is discussed as Locke departs from a purely mental view of knowledge to ground what we know in the firmer soil of empirical observation and in the mind's ability to interrelate ideas from perception. The careful reasoning of Locke's Essay has made it an enduring part of the history of of Western philosophy.
About the Author
JOHN LOCKE was born August 29, 1632, in Somerset, England, the son of landed English gentry. He entered Christ Church College of Oxford University in 1652 and passed through the academic ranks quite uneventfully, later assuming a teaching post at the university. To escape ordination in the Church of England—a natural bureaucratic step toward university promotion—Locke took up the study of medicine and was transported into a new world of "natural philosophy" in which he associated with powerful scientific minds like that of Robert Boyle.
It was through his concern for the authority of the state in religious matters and the Natural Law used to support it that Locke became interested in the role of Natural Law in experience—a curiosity that led him to philosophy, and more particularly to epistemology, as an avocation. Add to his interest in Natural Law the sociopolitical climate of seventeenth-century England—steeped in violent civil war, counter-revolution, restoration, deposition of the monarchy and the subsequent Parliamentary rule, and the eventual restoration of the monarchy late in the century—along with an intellectual stage dominated by the authoritarianism of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, and one can begin to sense the pressures at work on Locke.
After accepting a brief diplomatic mission to Madrid in 1665, Locke retreated to his teaching and medical experiments. His real political education was to come quite by accident as a result of an association with the first Earl of Shaftesbury, a wealthy and extremely powerful figure who had survived the vicissitudes of England's political turbulence. Initially employed as the Earl's medical advisor, Locke later became a permanent member of the household. It was here under the skillful tutelage of Shaftesbury that Locke matured as a social philosopher. The political intrigues in which the Earl was engaged caused Locke to be exiled, though he later returned to England after the Glorious Revolution that saw William and Mary placed on the English throne in 1688.
Locke's famous Two Treatises of Government, of which the second is most widely read, are an outgrowth of his original political proclivities, the sociopolitical chaos plaguing England during his lifetime, and his association with the Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke's dedication to individual liberty, government by consent, the social contract, and the right to revolt against governments that endanger the rights of citizens, has made him one of the most important political thinkers of the past four centuries. His legacy will live on as long as there are people fighting for freedom. He died in Oates, England, on October 28, 1704.
Some of John Locke's major works include: A Letter for Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Government (1690), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1693), Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).