'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding'
By John Locke (Author), Peter H. Nidditch (Editor, Introduction)
Published in 1689, John Locke's pioneering investigation into the origins, certainty, and extent of human knowledge set the groundwork for modern philosophy and influenced psychology, literature, political theory, and other areas of human thought and expression.
`has a wonderful tentative quality to it, not trying to press a point but now and again touching on a wisdom of some sort .. very rewarding.'
After Hobbes, Locke, another English philosopher, took up the task of defending the empiricist position and must be considered after Hobbes as the most important empiricist in British philosophy in the tenth/sixteenth and eleventh/seventeenth centuries. He was also a moral philosopher deeply interested in political thought which influenced greatly the founders of the American state and many of the other impor- tant political movements of the twelfth/eighteenth century. In this domain he stood opposed to the views of Hobbes and defended more the rights of the people vis-a-vis those of the sovereign.
Locke, who hailed from a Puritan backgrolJnd, studied at Oxford and later traveled to the Continent. In France he studied the thought of Descartes but he was especially at home in practical politics and political affairs. For that very reason he was exiled to Holland for some time where he began to publish his writings, the most important of which is Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. Later he wrote the Reasonableness of Christianity in which he defended Christianity against criticism. At the end of his life he wrote a commentary upon the Epistles of St. Paul which demonstrates his interest in purely religious subjects.
Locke gave empiricism its strongest foundations within the history of British philosophy, formulating an epistemology based on the denial of the possibility of man's knowledge of the real objective existence of various substances. He emphasized the importance of the "idea" which is whatever happens to be the object of the understanding when man thinks. The Lockean "ideas" all come from experience and for him there are no such things as innate ideas. The mind is what he called the tabula rasa, that is, a clear tablet upon which these ideas coming from the world of the senses are impinged. The world is composed of real objects but made known to us only through experience and all ideas come either from sensation or reflection upon the data derived from sensation.
The most influential aspect of Locke's thought was his idea of the social contract by which man comes out of the state of nature to form a social body. This contract is not between the ruler and the ruled as thought by men like Hobbes but between equally free men. Therefore, the ruler cannot become a tyrant and the people have the right to remove him when he does so. It is this aspect of Locke's thinking which became very influential in the foundation of democratic ideals. It became crystal- lized in the American Revolution as well as within England itself and later on in many parts of the world. From the point of view of the history of modem thought, Locke must be thought of essentially as a political philosopher.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)