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Locke, John


John Locke (1632-1704) (Julian Gotobed, 2004-2005)

John Locke's Moral Philosophy in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Joas Adiprasetya, 2004-2005)

John Locke (1632-1704) (Brandon Daniel Hughes, 2002-2003)

John Locke (1632-1704) (Marylu Bunting, 2000-2001)

John Locke (1632-1704) (Slavica Jakelic, 1998-1999)

John Locke (1632-1704)

Julian Gotobed, 2004


John Locke witnessed and contributed to a period of turbulent change in English history. England experienced ferment in politics, economics, religion, philosophy, literature, and science throughout the seventeenth century. At the outset of the century, the English monarch, James I (1603-25), proclaimed the Divine Right of Kings and, therefore, absolute discretion to rule as he pleased. Charles I (1625-49) adopted the same principle in his reign. He pursued policies that alienated Parliament, which represented those with property and the rising merchant class, and precipitated a Civil War (1642-46). Charles I continued to be untrustworthy even in defeat and was consequently tried and executed in 1649 by the New Model Army, which had fought for Parliament against the King, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. A Republic was briefly declared, but, ultimately, did not succeed. The monarchy was restored in 1660 in the person of Charles II. Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his son James II. At the close of the century, Parliament asserted its authority over the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution by ejecting James II in 1688 and inviting William of Orange to become King of England. William ascended to the throne in 1689. The balance of power shifted from monarch to Parliament as the century progressed.

Church and Crown traditionally worked in concert to reinforce one another’s claims and interests in England. Critics of the State Church and the Monarchy were subject to severe punishments in the first four decades of the seventeenth century. Religious liberty was an alien concept. The State Church, however, did not escape both internal and external criticism. The Puritans sought to reconfigure the State Church in the Reformed tradition and pressed for a preaching ministry in parish churches, less ritualized liturgies, and a Presbyterian polity. Dissenters, Christians that refused to conform to the worship prescribed by the Church of England, added to the fragmentation and confusion of the period. The first Baptist congregation on English soil was planted in London in 1612. John Bunyan (1628-88) epitomized the dissenting spirit’s plea for religious liberty in his life, ministry, imprisonment, and writings, most notably in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). A century that began with imprisonment and torture of religious dissenters ended with the Act of Toleration in 1689 that permitted dissenters to worship freely.

In addition to Bunyan’s classic work, English literature and Christian spirituality were transformed by the appearance of two enduring publications: The Authorized Version of the Bible (1611) and The Book of Common Prayer (1662). All three publications assisted the development and standardization of the English language. The Authorized Version of the Bible enabled any person that could read to critique the teaching and practice of the State Church or any Dissenting congregation with reference to the New Testament. Theology was no longer confined to the cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge. Any congregation or interested individual could search the Scriptures to discern the Word of God for daily life. Books and pamphlets discussing theological themes proliferated. The Bible was central to theological debate in the seventeenth century.

The intellectual climate shifted dramatically in the seventeenth century. A new perspective on knowledge displaced the Aristotelian approach to philosophy and science. Philosophers in seventeenth century England increasingly saw the task of philosophy as that of testing propositions against empirical evidence and constructing conceptual frameworks based on first principles that were self-evident to human reason. Philosophers divided on whether or not human reason alone was sufficient for knowledge of God and the practice of religion.

John Locke was born into the revolutionary climate of seventeenth century England on 29 August 1632 at Wrington, a small village in Somerset, near Bristol. His father was an attorney and a modest property holder. Locke was admitted to Westminster School in 1647, subsequently elected to a studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1652 and graduated BA in 1656. Locke became acquainted with the scientist Robert Boyle in 1660 the same year in which the Royal Society was founded. Locke was a polymath. In the 1660s he lectured in Greek and Moral Philosophy at Oxford, and served as secretary to Sir Walter Vane throughout his diplomatic visit to the Elector of Brandenburg (November 1665-February 1666). The Royal Society elected Locke a fellow in 1668. Locke began to write what would ultimately be published as An Essay concerning Human Understanding in 1671. He briefly served as Secretary to the Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations (1673-74). Locke returned to Oxford to study medicine and graduated as Bachelor of Medicine in 1675. The same year he traveled to France and remained there until 1679. Locke was compelled to flee England in 1683, because of his close association with the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury attempted to exclude James the II from the throne between 1679 and 1681. There is no evidence that Locke was involved in this scheme, but his friendship with Shaftesbury placed him in a vulnerable position by virtue of association. He fled to Amsterdam in 1683 and did not return to England until 1689 on the accession of William and Mary. Locke published An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises on Government, and A Letter concerning Toleration in 1689, and met Isaac Newton in London. Locke spent the last years of his life as a man of letters working on manuscripts for publication and maintaining a considerable correspondence. He resided with Sir Francis and Lady Masham in their country house at Oates in Essex from 1691 until his death. Locke composed The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and published the fourth and final edition of the Essay while living quietly in the Essex countryside. He died on 28th October 1704.

Locke lived through a tumultuous age marked by conflict in Church and State. By the end of the century there was not one Church and Doctrine, but several churches and a multitude of teachings. The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures originated in Locke’s dissatisfaction with many of the theological systems that competed for loyalty in an age of revolution. The Reasonableness of Christianity also stemmed from his desire to find a foundation for consensus in religion that would be based upon agreement in essentials and toleration in matters of secondary importance that were merely expressions of human preference. The Reasonableness of Christianity is an apologetic work. Locke attempts to commend Christianity and make a compelling case for its veracity. He has in mind an audience that places a great deal of importance upon the exercise of human reason. Locke attempts to demonstrate that Christianity is consistent with human reason. Locke’s theological method consists of several elements that merit comment. First, he assumes that he approached the Bible as an unbiased inquirer after truth (Locke 1695: 25). Locke assumes that the architects of the theological systems he rejects have read a great deal into the New Testament that is extraneous to the Gospel and constructed correspondingly distorted systems of belief. Underlying Locke’s claim to an unbiased reading of the New Testament is a presupposition that unaided human reason has the capacity to discern what is true for all people at all times and in all places. Locke does not consider the possibility that his interpretation of the New Testament is no less subjective than the thinkers that he critiques in the pages of The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke acknowledges that the context in which he lived, a century of revolutionary change in England marked by conflict in politics and religion, prompted him to search the Bible to discern the essence of Christianity as a basis for religious consensus. A desire for agreement predisposes Locke to settle for a minimal statement of content, the lowest common denominator, to appeal to a broad theological spectrum that stretched from Deists to Calvinists. He avoids controversial issues of theological discourse such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity where much scope for disagreement existed. Locke did not approach the Bible with an unbiased gaze.

Second, Locke’s theological method is characterized by a careful study of the Bible, especially the New Testament. The Bible was the authority that Christian thinkers of all persuasions appealed to in varying degrees as the court of appeal for their ideas. Locke acknowledges the Bible as the authoritative source for the knowledge of God. Thus Locke sets out to establish the essence of Christianity by a careful reading of the Bible, particularly the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In Locke’s thought the Bible functions as a source of knowledge with widely recognized authority within Christianity and power to persuade those presently outside Christianity.

Third, Locke places a limit on the power of unaided human reason. There are some things that can be made known to human beings by revelation alone. Locke accepts that the Bible is Divinely inspired. Revelation is propositional in nature. Revelation makes known what reason cannot ascertain about God and His purposes. Revelation accomplishes what reason never can. Potentially, human reason can deduce the moral law. At the same time Locke insists that revelation is never contrary to reason. Revelation must be tested by reason. In effect, revelation is subject to human reason. In making revelation subject to human reason Locke evacuates the Gospel of any mystery. God and the Gospel in The Reasonableness of Christianity are simple and intelligible and entirely compatible with human reason. There is never any suspicion that God might subvert human reason in surprising ways.

The relationship between revelation and reason in The Reasonableness of Christianity points to a fourth dimension of Locke’s theological method. He is a synthesizer. Locke attempts to integrate revelation and reason, the natural and the supernatural in his thinking. Locke does not dispense with the supernatural. In fact, the case he makes depends upon the operation of miracles in the ministry of Jesus. Locke is not always successful in creating a totally consistent integration between the elements that he tries to hold together as in the case of revelation and reason.

Fifth, the plain meaning of the text in the context in which it was written determines the meaning of a passage of Scripture for Locke. Locke anticipates subsequent historical-critical research into the life of Jesus by focusing on the text in its historical context. His study of Jesus the Messiah wrestles with the seeming reluctance of Jesus to openly declare his Messianic identity. Locke anticipates Wrede's discussion of The Messianic Secret. The Reasonableness of Christianity is not a work of Systematic Theology. He is not interested in creating a system of theology. He wants to simplify and reduce the Gospel to its essence rather than build a complex system of interrelated components. However, Locke engages problematic issues raised by the text of the New Testament and works hard to think coherently and consistently about them. Locke considers the fate of those in Israel who lived before God sent Jesus Christ to declare His will to humankind. He also speculates about those who have never heard the Gospel. Many of the questions raided by Locke in The Reasonableness of Christianity are still engaging theologians today.

Sixth, Locke engages with alternative points of view to his own from the beginning of The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke in The Reasonableness of Christianity does not explicitly name deism and Calvinism, but their shadows linger over the text. Locke sees himself as a Christian seeking to engage systems of thought within the orbit of Christianity and also those that have abandoned any kind of Orthodox faith. Locke the theologian operates as a public figure that speaks to the community of faith and those beyond it.

The content of The Reasonableness of Christianity begins with a consideration of what Adam lost before examining what Christ restored in His work of Redemption. Locke disagrees with those that believe all people are subject to eternal punishment because of Adam. Such an outcome is inconsistent with the goodness and justice of God. “The reason for this strange interpretation we shall perhaps find in some mistaken places in the New Testament” (Locke, 1695: 27). The witness of the New Testament is relegated to the role of a supporting act when it does not agree with the canons of human reason. He also disagrees with those that think no Redemption is necessary since the Scriptures, which are the written Word of God, were plainly given to instruct people in the way of salvation. For Locke, Adam lost immortality by his act of transgression against God. Death for all was the consequence of Adam’s sin, not guilt or necessity of sinning. A righteous God would not condemn everybody to a necessity of sinning on the basis of one person’s sin. God does not impute the sin of Adam to his posterity. Locke effectively disagrees with the doctrine of original sin and diverges from those that stand in the tradition of Augustine. Each person is entirely responsible for his or her own sin without reference to the sin of Adam or any ancestors.

According to Locke, where there is no law there is no sin (Locke, 1695: 30). Law in the sense Locke means it is a set of moral imperatives and duties. The people of Israel were blessed with the Law of Moses from God. The part of the law concerned with worship and political life is temporary, but the moral code is eternal and binding. The moral law remains in force even under the Gospel. Locke distinguishes between two kinds of law. The law of works demands perfect obedience. No allowance is made for failure no matter how small. The law of faith is the means by which God justifies a sinful man who believes. The law of faith is granted to all who believe what God requires them to believe. God requires that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah (Locke, 1695: 32). This is the one article of faith essential to Christianity.

Faith in The Reasonableness of Christianity is assent to a propositional statement. Locke advances two reasons for believing the proposition that Jesus is the Messiah. First, Jesus and the Apostles performed miracles to proclaim and convince people that He was the Messiah. A miracle is a direct supernatural intervention by God that overrules the normal operation of natural laws in the universe. Second, Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Locke conceived prophecies to be predictions that come to pass.

An appropriate response to the Gospel is more than mere assent to the proposition that Jesus is the Messiah, but also necessitates action, namely, obedience to the moral law. What advantage is there for Christians if any human being can, in principle, discern God’s moral demands? Locke answers that, historically, few people in human societies have seriously pursued the demanding life of a philosopher. In any event no philosophical school has ever produced such an all-embracing body of moral truth such as the teaching of Jesus. The mass of humanity has lived in moral darkness and normally lacks the time and the ability to engage in serious inquiry into the nature of truth. The propositional truth revealed by Jesus is a comprehensive body of moral truth that is unequaled by any philosophical school. Jesus acts as a revelatory shortcut that enables those who believe in him to access a comprehensive body of truth without expending the time and effort normally needed to arrive at moral insight. Locke did not welcome Dissenting congregations encouraging members to study the Bible for themselves. Plain, unlearned people needed to be taught the truth. Moreover, Locke believed that a clear authentication of one sent by God to instruct people in moral truth by means of miracles would be a far more effective way of bringing people to an awareness of moral truth rather than by reasoning with them from general principles.

The version of Christianity commended in The Reasonableness of Christianity differed markedly from the emphases found especially in many dissenting congregations. Locke’s Christianity was devoid of enthusiasm, minimized direct contact with God, and did not resonate with the more democratic or participatory instincts of dissenting Christians.



Brooke, Christopher and Denis Mack Smith, ed. A History of England. Vol.5, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714, by Christopher Hill. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1961.

Hargreaves-Mawdsley, W.N., Oxford in the Age of John Locke. The Centres of Civilization Series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

Hill, Christopher. A Tinker and a Poor Man: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1989.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H.Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

             The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures, Edited with an Introduction, Notes, Critical Apparatus and Transcription of Related Manuscripts by John C.Higgins-Biddle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

            The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures with A Discourse of Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. I.T.Ramsey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

            Writings on Religion, ed. Victor Nuovo. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.

Marshall, John. John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Nuovo, Victor, ed. Contemporary Responses to The Reasonableness of Christianity. Key Issues, ed. Andrew Pyle, no.16. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1997.

John Locke’s Moral Philosophy in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Joas Adiprasetya, 2004



The fact that John Locke’s opus magnum, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was published in four editions during its author’s life (1689, 1694, 1695 & 1700) shows at least two things. First, it demonstrates Locke’s dynamic struggle with his own thinking process; second, it gives us a clue that his philosophical work received wide responses from its author’s contemporaries.

The main purpose of the Essay, as Locke states, is “to inquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent” (I.1.2). However, Locke is fully aware that this constructive effort could be done only by primarily “clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge” (“The Epistle to the Reader,” 10). By reading through his four books of the Essay, we can see how Locke makes every effort to meet his two purposes (constructive and critical). What motivates him to write the Essay, however, is his discussion with some friends in his chamber about what his friend James Tyrell called the “principles of morality and revealed religion,” which finally comes to a cul-de-sac (Fraser 1959, 9n2). Thus, what he has produced in the Essay !is in reality very remote from the original purpose established in the meeting. Nevertheless, we can still find out how Locke always keeps the issues of morality and religion in the background of this work. The purpose of this paper is, thus, to discuss one of the issues, i.e., morality, within the larger scope of his Essay.

General Overview of the Essay

The design of the Essays is as follows. In “Book I” Locke makes the case against the dominant grand theory of innatism. By innatism he means a theory that “there are in the Understanding certain innate Principles; 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). He starts with rejecting speculative innate principles (I.2) before practical or moral innate principles (I.3), simply because the latter are  “more visible” that the first. He also puts in chapter 4 some additional considerations and proofs to support his campaign. It is in the last chapter of the first book that we can find massive arguments on morality and the notion of God.

Locke understands “principle” as a derivative of “idea”, and he focuses his “Book II” of the Essay on explaining his understanding of idea, through which he also provides a counter-theory of innatism. He maintains that ideas as the materials of knowledge come from experience, and experience takes two forms: sensation and reflection. These two are “the Fountains of Knowledge” (II.1.2). While the first deals with external sources of ideas or perceptions, the second deals with an internal operation of the mind that receives ideas from the senses. Thus, we cannot have the experience of reflection (or “internal Sense,” II.1.4) until we have the experience of external sensation. The understanding that ideas are conveyed from outside into the human mind, through senses and reflection, presupposes the image of mind as “empty Cabinet”!  or “white Paper” (I.2.15; II.1.2).

Locke devotes almost all of the pages in “Book II” to a detailed explanation of two categories of ideas as raw materials of knowledge, i.e., simple and complex ideas (Banach 2004). A simple idea is defined as “one uniform Appearance, or Conception in the mind [that is] not distinguishable into different Ideas” (II.2.1). A complex idea, on the other hand, is received and constructed actively by the mind -- through the operations of combination, relation, and abstraction -- as an amalgam of simple ideas. Furthermore, his categorization of ideas is deepened with his focused exploration of language in “Book III,” on which we do not spend much space here.

“Book IV” demonstrates Locke’s view of knowledge, which he defines as “the perception of the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas” (IV.1.2). In such a process of perceiving, one can come to three different degrees or modes of knowledge, i.e., intuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive (IV.2). Intuitive knowledge, for Locke, is “the clearest, and most certain, that humane Frailty is capable of” (IV.2.1). Locke informs us that we can grasp the intuitive knowledge immediately, without any intervention of other ideas, so that we can come to “Certainty and Evidence of all our Knowledge.”

A second degree of knowledge is demonstrative knowledge, namely, "the shewing the Agreement, or Disagreement of two Ideas, by the intervention of one or more Proofs [or “intervening Ideas,” IV.2.3], which have a constant, immutable, and visible connexion one with another” (IV.15.1). Therefore, the truth of this kind of knowledge does not come immediately, as in the intuitive knowledge, but needs the intervention of other ideas. We can intuitively (and immediately) know -- without any help from other ideas -- that a car is not a tree, but we need some other intervening ideas to know, for example, that God exists. Demonstrative knowledge, therefore, needs to be “shewn to the Understanding, and the Mind made see that it is so” (IV.2.3). Locke calls this mediated process “reasoning” (IV.2.3). Though here Locke recognizes it as one degree of knowledge, in IV.14.4 he sha!rply distinguishes knowledge from judgment, in the sense that in the latter the agreement or disagreement is not perceived but rather presumed. For this reason, the association of the terms “knowledge” and “demonstrative” is ambiguous, since the truth of demonstrative knowledge is presumed, as a result of judgment and probability, rather than of certainty. In this kind of “knowledge” he puts morality and religious ideas, as well as mathematics. He maintains, “[H]erein lies the difference between Probability and Certainty, Faith and Knowledge, that in all the parts of Knowledge, there is intuition; each immediate Idea, each step has its visible and certain connexion; in belief, not so” (IV.15.3).

A third degree of knowledge, namely, sensitive knowledge, is not knowledge in the strict sense of the term. It deals only with “the particular existence without us.”

… if I saw such a Collection of simple Ideas, as is wont to be called Man, existing together one minute since, and am now alone, I cannot be certain, that the same Man exists now, since there is no necessary connexion of his Existence a minute since, with his Existence now (IV.11.9).

Locke’s Moral Philosophy

We now turn to the issue of morality in Locke’s Essay, especially in the context of the polemic against innate ideas. We have already seen that in order to “inquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge,” Locke needs to counter his opponents. We can grasp easily that it is the innatism that he means by the “rubbish.” It is traditionally taken that Locke has René Descartes is mind when he rejects innate ideas (cf. Aaron 1955, 88ff; Colman 1983, 51f). This is either not fully correct or not fair to Descartes, since Descartes, in his Meditations, expresses puzzlement regarding the source of ideas. He writes:

But among these ideas, some appear to me to be innate, others adventitious [i.e., entering the mind from outside], and others to be made by myself (factitious); for, as I have the power of conceiving what is called a thing, or a truth, or a thought, it seems to me that I hold this power from no other source than my own nature … But I may even perhaps come to be of opinion that all my ideas are of the class which I call adventitious, or that they are all innate, or that they are all factitious; for I have not yet clearly discovered their true origin. (Meditations, III.7)

Although, if it were true that Descartes is the real opponent of Locke's rejection, we still see a deep influence of Descartes on Locke’s theory of reason, idea and knowledge (Gibson 1968, 205-32; Rogers 1995, 49-67). Despite the unsolved question of who is the direct opponent of Locke’s polemic, it is clear that his “imagined opponent” is one that takes a naïve form of innatism and not a dispositional form of the theory (Yolton 1968). My particular concern here is with his arguments against the innate ideas and morality.

According to Locke, both speculative and practical principles are not innate. They are neither present consciously at birth, nor are they present implicitly (or unconsciously) at birth in order to be discovered by reason through learning in the future. With regard to the speculative innate principles (I.2), Locke presents the main argument of his opponents. They believe that speculative principles are innate because they receive universal assent. Against this argument Locke’s answer is straightforward, as can be seen in this modus tollens, proposed by Peg O’Connor (1994, 45):

1.      If a principle is innate, there must be universal assent or agreement for that principle.

2.      No principles receive universal assent or agreement.

3.      Therefore, no principles are innate.

In order to prove his second premise, “No principles receive universal assent or agreement,” Locke shows the fact that many people, “at least one half of Mankind” (I.2.24), do not know the principles. Nevertheless, Locke anticipates the answer from his opponents that the principles are innate unconsciously until they are discovered by the use of reason. To this Locke responds that, if they were innate, the principles should be known immediately and cannot be dependent on the discovery by the reason.

Locke employs a similar argument with additional premises in rejecting the theory of innate practical principles or moral rules (I.2). His first basic assumption is that “the Actions of Men [are] the best Interpreters of their thoughts” (I.3.3). Based on the importance of conformity between rules and actions, Locke argues that moral principles are not native because, if they were so, they must guide the actions to be conformed to the principles. Locke also adds his second argument by assuming that if a moral principle were innate, it should be universally practiced. Thus, moral principles cannot be innate, since there is cultural disagreement on the principle from one to another place.

Locke’s campaign against innate morality does not necessarily mean he rejects any innateness within the human soul. In some places he acknowledges two kinds of innateness: rationalistic and hedonistic (Aaron 1955, 257ff; Yolton 1970, 145; Lamprecht 1962, chs. III-IV). With regard to rationalistic innateness, Locke recognizes the presence of “natural Faculties” within the human soul (I.2.1-2; I.3.13), which undoubtedly refer to human senses and reason. In I.3.26 he uses the term “reasoning Faculties of the Soul, which are almost constantly ... employ'd.” Thus, though Locke’s rationalism agrees with widespread emphasis on reason as the requirement of knowledge, it differs from other types of rationalism, in the sense that reason is useful insofar as it receives ideas from sensation and reflection (Lamprecht 1962, 65).

A second sort of innateness in Locke’s Essay is more explicitly stated. He maintains in I.3.3:

Nature, I confess, has put into Man a desire of Happiness, and an aversion to Misery: These indeed are innate practical Principles, which (as practical Principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our Actions, without ceasing: These may be observ'd in all Persons and all Ages, steady and universal; but these are Inclinations of the Appetite to good, not Impressions of truth on the Understanding. I deny not, that there are natural tendencies imprinted on the Minds of Men; and that, from the very first instances of Sense and Perception, there are some things, that are grateful, and others unwelcome to them; some things that they incline to, and others that they fly: But this makes nothing for innate Characters on the Mind, which are to be the Principles of Knowledge, regulating our Practice.

He also asserts that “things then are Good or Evil, only in reference to Pleasure or Pain” (II.20.2; cf. II.21.42). Here, Locke seems to accept a certain hedonistic innateness. However, he strictly distinguishes these “inclinations” or “tendencies” from the innate ideas. Colman rightly calls Locke’s version of hedonism as “a hedonistic theory of reasons for actions” (1983, 223). This is to say that, different from Hobbes’ egoistic and bodily hedonism, Locke’s is always related to human states of mind, because both tendencies “join themselves to almost all our ideas both of sensation and reflection” (II.7.2). His refusal of Hobbes’ hedonism is also clear from this statement,

By Pleasure and Pain … I must all along be understood … to mean, not only bodily Pain and Pleasure, but whatsoever Delight or Uneasiness is felt by us, whether arising from any grateful, or unacceptable Sensation or Reflection.” (II.20.15)

In short, Locke’s hedonism allows him to accept the innate tendencies of achieving pleasure and avoiding pain insofar as they relate to experiential reasoning, sensation and reflection. The notion of happiness as the end of moral action authorizes Locke’s construction of ethics. Ethics is for him “the seeking out those Rules, and Measures of humane Actions, which lead to Happiness, and the Means to practise them” (IV.21.3).

Although Locke admits the (law of) Nature, which is also the law of God, as the source of human desire for happiness, he understands natural law in the Essay differently than in the earlier book, Essays on the Law of Nature (1664). In this he takes an absolutist position by holding the natural law as the objective standard for the good for man and thus for human actions to achieve it. In the Essay, on the other hand, he seems to summarize the natural law into two basic hedonistic motives: attaining happiness and avoiding misery. Although both hedonistic motives are indeed derived from Nature (I.3.3), we cannot ensure that the cause of pain and happiness for every person is the same. Also, the objects of happiness and pain are relative to the individual. His shift from an absolutist view of natural law to relativism is also supported by his view of the “law of opinion.” He distinguishes three kinds of law, i.e., the divine law, th!e civil law, and the law of opinion (II.28.7). Regarding the last law, he maintains,

… these Names, Virtue and Vice, in the particular instances of their application, through the several Nations and Societies of Men in the World, are constantly attributed only to such actions, as in each Country and Society are in reputation or discredit. Nor is it to be thought strange, that Men every where should give the Name of Vertue to those actions, which amongst them are judged praise worthy; and call that Vice, which they account blamable … (II.28.10)

It does not mean that Locke abandons the law of God as the source of practical rules of right and wrong (II.28.11). While he realizes that moral disagreement can happen, he also states that the “true ground of Morality” (I.3.6) and “the only true touchstone of moral Rectitude” (II.28.8) is the law of God. It is without doubt that Locke refers to the Christian God, “who sees Men in the dark, has in his Hand Rewards and Punishments, and Power enough to call to account the Proudest Offender” (I.3.6).

Locke is sharply aware that his campaign against innatism might be interpreted as a rejection of the God-given law of nature, especially since he argues that some of the moral principles are self-evident. To avoid this misinterpretation he maintains, “There is a great deal of difference between an innate Law, and a Law of Nature; between something imprinted on our Minds in their very original, and something that we being ignorant of may attain to the knowledge of, by the use and due application of our natural Faculties” (I.3.13).

Here, in sum, we see an ongoing struggle in Locke to reconcile his relativistic conception and the acceptance of morality as God’s law. Both elements, however, meet in his “hedonistic theory of reasons for actions.”

While the hedonistic motive in Locke’s theory has been explained above, a particular note on the “reasonableness” of morality should also be offered. We remember that for Locke morality is classified as demonstrative knowledge. The often-quoted statement, “Morality is capable of Demonstration, as well as Mathematicks” (III.11.16; cf. IV.3.18), is in practice very complicated. John W. Yolton concludes that Locke’s programme of demonstrative ethics fails. This failure, he continues, makes Locke move to another programme, in which he “[S]ettled for a haphazard listing of moral rules as required for illustration or for appeal to sanction some action” (1970, 172; cf. Reasonableness 188).

Cited Works

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Gibson, James. Locke’s Theology of Knowledge and Its Historical Relations. Cambridge: The University Press, 1968.

Lamprecht, Sterling P. The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Locke. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Peter H. Nidditch (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

_____________. Essays on the Law of Nature. W. von Leyden (ed.). Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965.

_____________.The Reasonableness of Christianity with A Discourse of Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration. I.T. Ramsey (ed.). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

O’Connor, Peg. “Locke’s Challenge to Innate Practical Principles Revisited.” In The Locke Newsletter, Roland Hall (ed.). No. 25, 1994, 41-51.

Rogers, G.A.J. “Innate Ideas and the Infinite: The Case of Locke and Descartes.” In The Locke Newsletter, Roland Hall (ed.). No. 26, 1995, 49-67.

Yolton, John W. John Locke and the Way of Ideas. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968.

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John Locke (1632-1704)

Brandon Daniel Hughes, 2002

John Locke was born during one of the most exciting periods in English history.  As a member of the minor gentry he was privy to many of the intrigues surrounding the coronations of Charles II and James II.  His involvement in politics and his close working friendship with the Earl of Shaftsbury, who schemed against monarchs with Catholic tendencies, meant that his residency in England was never entirely secure.  He spent some of his most productive years in exile in Holland (1675-1679, 1683-1688) and only returned to England from his second continental sojourn on the heals of the Glorious Revolution.  His experiences as a political refugee led to the writing and publication of some of his most influential works, The Letter on Toleration (1689) and Two Treatises on Government (1689).  His obvious talents allowed him to find patronage among the more progressive families in England, and enabled him to live as an occasionally practicing doctor, a sometime public servant, and a general man of letters.

As a committed Christian thinker and theologian, Locke engaged the changing thought of his time with vigor.  He was an associate of Isaac Newton and dabbled in the sciences while taking a degree in medicine.  He was also familiar with the governing rationalist philosophies of the period and was responsible for seriously questioning, if not ending, the dominance of Cartesian epistemology.  His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which argued for the impossibility of innate ideas and the necessity of the sensible reception of simple ideas, was received with both shock and acclaim.

Locke presents his systematic theology in his The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).  However, the true virtues and larger significance of this piece are only seen in relation to his earlier epistemological works.  Therefore, an exposition of Locke’s theology must begin with his conception of the role and attainment of simple ideas.  Next, one must compare the roles of reason, knowledge and faith.  Additionally, the distinctions between natural reason and revelation must be examined.  Only then can one understand the intricacies of The Reasonableness of Christianity.

In a reaction against the dominant rationalism of his time, Locke was concerned to show that none of our ideas come from innate ideas or first principles.  In place of these ideas Locke offered experience.  All of our knowledge is based on and “our observation employed either, about external sensible objects or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves”  (Locke, 1690: 122).  Locke named these two roots of knowledge sensation and reflection, and he took them to be “the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginning”  (Locke, 1690: 124).  Sensation and reflection, he argued, are the portals through which all ideas enter.  Even memory is a mere retrieval of previous sensations or reflections.

Ideas themselves can be further divided into two categories, simple and complex.  Simple ideas are the basic building blocks of all knowledge and each simple idea is “one uniform appearance, or conception in the mind” and cannot be further analyzed into smaller pieces  (Locke, 1690: 145).  These ideas only enter our minds through the sensations and can be neither created nor destroyed (Locke, 1690: 145).  Complex ideas, on the other hand, are fashioned by the mind from the raw material of simple ideas.  Complex ideas include relations like father and son, as well as ideas like horse or castle, which the mind forms by combining simple ideas received through the senses.  One never sensibly receives the simple idea of horse or castle.  Rather, one takes the simple ideas of brown or gray and combines them with other simples so as to develop the idea of a horse or a castle.   Locke has many further divisions and classifications for his simple and complex ideas, but these two divisions are sufficient for understanding his notions of knowledge, reason, and faith.

As far as Locke is concerned, there are three kinds of knowledge: intuitive knowledge, sensitive knowledge and demonstrative knowledge  (Locke, 1690: 188).  As he was often fond of repeating, “we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence, and a demonstrative knowledge of the existence of a God: of the existence of anything else, we have no other but a sensitive knowledge; which extends not beyond objects present to our senses”  (Locke, 1690: 212).  Sensitive knowledge is the kind of knowledge derived by means of sensations, discussed above as the access point of simple ideas.  Intuitive knowledge, on the other hand, takes care of a lot of Locke’s philosophical heavy lifting.  About intuition he writes, “sometimes the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement of two ideas immediately by themselves, without the intervention of any other: and this I think we may call intuitive knowledge”  (Locke, 1690: 176).  The italicized phrase is extraordinarily important for Locke.  If two ideas needed a third mediating principle, in order to be compared with one another in the mind, then he would have to account for the presence of such a third mediating idea, and it is unlikely that he could do so by means of sensation alone.  Thus, he states that two ideas like black and white either do or do not match, and there is no explaining why.  It is also important to note that in his chapter on wrong assent and error he lists several possible sources of error, but incorrect intuition is not listed as a possibility  (Locke, 1690: 448).  

The third type of knowledge, demonstrative knowledge, also goes by its more common name: reasoning.  Where intuition fails (not in the sense of being in error, but in the sense of lacking sufficient means to accomplish its task) reasoning is called upon to connect or disassociate ideas that are in hidden agreement or disagreement.  Therefore, when intuition cannot perform its task, the mind is called on, “by the intervention of other ideas (one or more, as it happens) to discover the agreement or disagreement which it searches; and this is that which we call reasoning  (Locke, 1690: 178).  We intuitively know that black is not white, but can we intuitively affirm or deny the connection between the ideas “Plato” and “philosopher”?  Obviously in this case some intervening terms or ideas are needed in order to see the connection of lack there of, and it is the mission of reasoning to make such connections.

Before moving on to a discussion of Locke’s notion of faith, one other peculiarity about knowledge needs to be noted.  Locke postulated different degrees of knowledge or certainty that accompany each kind of knowledge.  As we saw above, Locke could be (and sometimes is) read as suggesting that intuition cannot fail, which is to say that intuition is certain and thus carries with it absolute probability.  Similarly, sensation would seem to yield a relatively high degree of probability, since it is the foundation of all knowledge.  It would be difficult to find a reason to doubt one’s sensations, since one’s doubts would themselves have to be based on sensational knowledge.  Demonstrative knowledge, however, can easily go awry and thus is subject to different levels of probability  (Locke, 1690: 363).  Yet, this is exactly what one would expect.  The demonstrations or reasonings of a scholar should carry a higher degree of probability than those of a child should.  Properly speaking, a probable demonstration is not an actual demonstration.  However, in a nod to common experience, Locke recognizes that if we were always to demand perfect reasoning and demonstrations, then humanity would never be able to advance knowledge except at a snails pace. 

Thus, Locke’s notion of faith emerges from the limits of intuition, sensation and reason.  He writes:

These two, viz. intuition and demonstration, are the degrees of our knowledge; whatsover comes short of one of these, with what assurance soever embraced, is but faith or opinion, but not knowledge, at least in all general truths  (Locke, 1690: 185).

And herein lies the difference between probability and certainty, faith and knowledge, that in all the parts of knowledge there is intuition; each immediate idea, each step has its visible and certain connexion: in belief, not so (Locke, 1690: 365).

Thus faith is neither certain nor necessary, it is merely a matter of probability and, as will be seen below, people have different capacities for judging faith’s probability.  However, the relativity of faith is not license, so Locke argues, to believe anything one wants.  There are limits to faith.  One cannot have faith in a proposition that goes against the clear dictates of reason or immediate intuition (Locke, 1690: 365).  One cannot have faith that black is white, since according to intuitive knowledge this is not the case and intuition always yields a higher probability than does belief, faith or opinion.  Nor can one have faith in a genuinely new simple idea, for simple ideas are only attained through sensation (Locke, 1690: 418-427).  Just as sensation, demonstration and intuition all have their sources, faith must also have a source, which is only to say that propositions one has faith in must come from somewhere.  Therefore, Locke argues, the dependability of propositions of faith, just like demonstrative propositions or simple ideas, depend on their source (Locke, 1690: 416).  Reasonable faith, if one may use the phrase, is based on propositions that come from the most dependable of sources: God.

Before moving on to discuss Locke’s conception of revelation we must first address his ideas on the capacity of humans to get knowledge of God through natural epistemological channels.  Locke writes, “having furnished us with those faculties our minds are endowed with, he [God] hath not left himself without witness: since we have sense, perception, and reason, and cannot want a clear proof of him, as long as we carry ourselves about us” (Locke, 1690: 306).  Humans, Locke believes, can come to knowledge of God by means of comparing and contrasting our simple ideas and building more and more complex ideas until finally through a lot of hard work we manage to come to the idea of “a supreme Being, infinite in power, goodness, and wisdom, whose workmanship we are, and on whom we depend.” (Locke, 1690: 208)  Locke is clear about this point in multiple places.  The mental powers of the individual are sufficient for coming to sure knowledge of God.  However, Locke is equally insistent that human reason often goes awry.  It often fails through lack of the proper simple ideas, poor reasoning and the like.  Humanity would be in much better shape were there some further guarantee that real knowledge of God could be attained.

As a final observation concerning Locke’s thought in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, one should note that Locke held direct revelation from God to be of the highest probability.  Unfortunately, while the revelation may be of the highest probability when God is its source, one is never entirely sure that God is the genuine source of such revelation (Locke, 1690: 383).  Therefore, the content of such a revelation would seem to be merely probable so long as there is no way of guaranteeing that God is the source.  This is the issue he addresses in The Reasonableness of Christianity.

The Reasonableness of Christianity recapitulates the entirety of Christian salvation history from Adam all the way to the final judgement.  The text is replete with biblical references and anecdotes.  However, throughout the text Locke never looses sight of his primary goal: to demonstrate that Jesus is a legitimate spokesperson for God and that, therefore, his teachings can be taken as revelatory propositions of the highest possible probability.  There are two movements in the text.  In the first movement, Locke makes the case that Jesus is the agent of God.  In the second, he attempts to lay out the content of Jesus’ teaching and argues that it is consonant with the conclusions of natural reason.

Two reasons are offered for why Jesus is thought to speak with the authority of God.  First, Jesus fits the ancient prophecy concerning the Messiah (Locke, 1695: 32).  Locke is unclear as to why this demonstrates that Jesus is God’s messenger.  The validity of this demonstration would seem to be not just a matter of Jesus’ fitting the Messianic bill, but also of the Messianic role being demonstrably connected to the idea of God’s true messenger.  In the end, this demonstration seems to rest on its status as a kind of miracle; i.e. it is miraculous that Jesus so perfectly fulfilled Messianic expectations.  (If this is the case then Locke is in fact offering one rather than two arguments for revelation through Jesus.)

The second reason offered for Jesus’ authority is that he performed miracles.  In Locke’s A Discourse of Miracles he defines a miracle as “a sensible operation, which, being above comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine” (Locke, 1701: 79).  It may at first seem odd for Locke to define a miracle relative to the opinion and comprehension of the observer, but if one recalls the problem of faith and revelation which was left unsolved in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, then his definition begins to make sense.  The miraculousness of a miracle does not stem from its being a violation of nature.  Rather, the miraculousness comes from its providing a high degree of probability that the performer of the miracle speaks for God and that, thereby, his or her words can be given “the highest degree of our assent” (Locke, 1690: 383).  Thus, the content of Jesus’ message can be taken as entirely probable since his miracles earn him recognition as God’s mouthpiece. 

What then is the content of Jesus’ and God’s message to humanity?  Even before listening to a word Jesus says, one already knows that nothing Jesus teaches will contravene the dictates of reason, nor will it offer any genuinely new simple ideas.  Locke argues that Jesus primarily teaches two things.  First, he teaches that he is the Messiah (Locke, 1695: 39).  This is a reasonable proposition since it amounts to the claim that God cared enough about humanity to send a messenger.  Thus faith in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah is tantamount to believing that God desires to save humanity. Second, Jesus teaches repentance followed by righteousness (Locke, 1695: 45, 52).  This means that one must lead a good life.  According to Locke, such a proposition also dovetails nicely with natural reason.

Faith in Jesus is as necessary for salvation as is righteousness, but Locke hints at two provisos to this statement.  First, since Jesus’ role is simply to reveal God to people, it would seem that faith in Jesus could easily take the form of faith in the certainty of God’s love and mercy.  It is, for instance, not clear in The Reasonableness of Christianity why Moses, who also performed miracles and spoke for God, is not also a reasonable and equivalent candidate for faith.  Second, God reveals knowledge of God to humans through Jesus in order to help those who cannot attain such knowledge by reason alone.  However, it is not at all apparent that those who can attain knowledge of God’s love and mercy as well as knowledge of the obligation to live a righteous life cannot be saved through that knowledge in tandem with righteous living.  Locke seems to leave this possibility open when he talks of the distinction between what is true and what is necessary for salvation.  (Locke, 1695: 75) 

Locke’s theology is therefore an attempt to preserve Christian doctrine and revelation along side of a relatively newfound optimism about the potential of human reason to fathom the ways of God, while simultaneously advocating an empiricist notion of knowledge and experience.


Locke, John. (1690)  Essay Concerning Human Understanding Vol. I and II.  Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1894.  Originally Published: London, Eliz Holt, first edition (1690), second edition (1694), third edition (1695), fourth edition (1700).

Locke, John.  (1695)  “The Reasonableness of Christianity”  The Reasonableness of Christianity with A Discourse of Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. I. T. Ramsey.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.  Originally Published: London, A. and J. Churchill, first edition (1695), second edition (1696).

Locke, John.  (1701)  “A Discourse of Miracles” The Reasonableness of Christianity with A Discourse of Miracles and part of A Third Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. I. T. Ramsey.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.  Originally Published: London, Charles Harper, first edition (1701), second edition (1702).

John Locke (1632-1704)

Marylu Bunting, 2000

Biographical Information

John Locke was born August 28, 1632 into a family in the lower gentry in Somerset, England. While his father did own some land outside of Pensford (a small town not far from Bristol), the family was of modest means and Locke’s father had to supplement their income through the practice of law and the fulfillment of different administrative positions. Ironically, Locke’s prospects changed with the coming of the Civil War in which his father served under and befriended Alexander Popham, a much more prominent personage within the Somerset gentry. Popham was a member of parliament representing Bath, and after the dispersion of the regiment, Locke’s father continued in Popham’s service as an administrative aid. Via Popham’s influence and connections, Locke gained a scholarship to the Westminster School—an institution at the time considered one of the best preparatory schools in England. Here Locke gained the knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew that would serve him well in his later endeavors, especially those in biblical hermeneutics.

In May of 1652, Locke was elected to a studentship (the equivalent of a fellowship in other colleges) at Christ Church, Oxford. The studentship could be held for life, but could be forfeited in certain circumstances, for example, if the holder became married. Locke was not hindered by this primary condition, but did have his studentship revoked when he later became embroiled in the Whig resistance to King Charles II. Locke earned his BA in February of 1656 and MA in June of 1658. For the next eight years, he was primarily employed in different posts at the college including praelector of Greek (1661-1662), praelector in rhetoric (1663), and censor of moral philosophy (1664-66).

While most Oxford graduates were headed for careers in the church, Locke turned his attentions to medicine in the later 1650s. His notebooks from this period contain detailed references both from lectures and independent reading in medical science. Locke also began to read natural philosophy, especially that of Boyle and Descartes. He followed his interest in medicine into a collaboration with Thomas Sydenham, a practicing London physician, on several medical tracts, including “De Arte Medica.” This work was once thought entirely composed of Locke’s own medical notions because the manuscript is in his hand, but is now suppose to be in the greater part Sydenham’s (Milton, 1994, 9).  Locke’s medical interests also lead him deeper into political interests when he gained the acquaintance of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley (later to be Earl of Shaftesbury) who was in the care of another of his medical collaborators, David Thomas. Locke and Shaftesbury upon acquaintance in 1666 quickly became friends and Locke moved to London in the spring of 1667, making Shaftesbury’s Exeter House his home and becoming Shaftesbury’s medical caretaker and administrative assistant.

Shaftesbury was Chancellor of the Exchequer (the rough equivalent of the finance minister) and a leading figure in Whig politics. He also became King Charles II primary foe when he and other radical Whigs attempted to block Charles’ Catholic brother James I from ascending the throne. After Charles disbanded parliament and dissolved the replacement parliament after one week’s service, Shaftesbury’s resistance turned from constitutional means to the contemplation of insurrection. When their plans became known and Shaftesbury was twice charged with treason in 1682, he, Locke, and their associates fled to Holland, where Shaftesbury died in 1683.

By the time of his flight to Holland, most scholars believe that Locke had already written the better portion of the Two Treatises of Government and had begun several drafts of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke’s three year trip to France during the mid-1670s had given him time away from government responsibilities to more thoroughly develop his own philosophy, reading much of Descartes and writing of philosophical matters almost daily in his journal. Locke returned to England in 1878 just as Shaftesbury’s controversy was beginning, only a few months prior to the disbanding of the Oxford (replacement) parliament and Shaftesbury’s subsequent turn to plans for insurrection. For the next four years, he was caught up almost entirely in Shaftesbury’s political world.

Once in Holland, however, Locke met with other dissenting exiles who encouraged both his political and philosophical interests supporting him as he worked to revise and produce most of his major works including the Two Treatises, the Essay, and the first Epistola de Tolerantia. Jean Le Clerc was particularly important among these fellow dissenters. He was the religiously unorthodox publisher of the new journal Bibliothque Universalle et Historique that eventually published a ninety-two page abridgment of Locke’s Essay and made this printed excerpt available to Locke for distribution among his friends and colleagues in England and in exile, before it was otherwise available. In May 1685, Locke’s association with English dissenters landed his name on a list of those to be arrested, after which Locke’s studentship at Christ Church was revoked and Locke went underground in exile, living under sometimes not-so-creative pseudonyms.

With the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the return of William of Orange as King, Locke was able to return to England as well. He was almost immediately offered a post as ambassador to the elector at Brandenburg. He turned down this post, however, officially because of his poor health (he suffered from asthma all his life), but unofficially because the proper fulfillment of the duties of the post would require the imbibing of much alcohol and Locke no longer took alcohol except for medicinal purposes (Milton, 1994, 17). No longer with the assistence of his studentship and without a desire to return to the familial holdings in Somerset, Locke cast about for a period without a permanent residence in England. In the first part of 1691, Locke took up permanent residence at Oates at the invitation of Damaris Masham, his former love and long-time correspondent. Masham was the daughter of prominent Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth through whom she and Locke had met in 1681.

1689 was a momentous year for Locke. Upon his return to England, he published the Two Treatises in October. The Epistola de Toleranta also appeared in October in William Popple’s translation from Locke’s original Latin text. These two were published anonymously. In December, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding appeared in Locke’s own name. While the Two Treatises and the Essay were met primarily favorably, the Epistola sparked controversy. Jonas Proast, an Oxford cleric, immediately attacked Locke. This attack joined the two men in a correspondence that lasted into 1692 with a series of two letters from Proast and two responses from Locke in vindication of tolerance for all Christians with the notable exclusion of atheists and Catholics as threats respectively to the moral and political order.

Also in 1689, Locke made the acquaintance of Newton and the two struck up a correspondence on their primary shared interest, biblical interpretation. Newton, however, proved more interested in the book of Revelation than Locke would ever come to be. Still, the subject of their correspondence suggests Locke’s growing concentration on the matter of specific Christian biblical and theological interpretation. This concentration lead to the composition and publication of the last of Locke’s major works which include the Reasonableness of Christianity and the Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St, Paul. The first appeared anonymously in 1695, while the second only appeared in full posthumously.

After advising the government along with Newton during the crisis of England’s silver in 1695, Locke spent the remainder of his public life in civil service at the Board of Trade from 1696 to 1700. Here he dealt with a broad range of issues from the colony of Virginia, to piracy on British ships, to linen manufacture in Ireland. During this period, Locke also undertook a defense of his Reasonableness and Essay against the attacks of the Bishop of Worcester, Edward Stillingfleet’s Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, which charged that these works lead to Socinianism and Unitarianism. Stillingfleet’s attack was not provoked primarily in response to Locke’s own work but in response to Tollard’s 1696 Christianity not Mysterious which was significantly more rationalist than Locke’s works but which took over Locke’s theory of knowledge from Book IV of the Essays almost entirely. This exchange like that with Proast before consisted of a series of two exchanges between Locke and Stillingfleet, which ended with Stillingfleet’s death, March 27, 1699. In part in response to this exchange, however, Locke added two chapters to the 1698 fourth edition of the Essay. These included the chapters “Of the Association of Ideas,” and “Of Enthusiasm,” both of which deal more thoroughly with the question of the causes of error within the operation of reason. After 1700, Locke retired almost completely to Oates and took up work in earnest on his Paraphrase. He died around 3:00 p.m. on October 28, 1704 as Lady Masham read the psalms to him. During his last years he was with Newton one of England’s as well as Europe’s most famous intellectuals.

Major Works

As his biography shows, Locke’s interests were broad and far reaching. During his life he published in many areas including medicine, economics, education, government, religious toleration, Christian doctrine, and biblical interpretation. His major influence however was primarily in government with the Two Treatise of Government; in religious toleration with the Epistola de Tolerantia and its three later sibling letters; in philosophical epistemology with the Essay Concerning Human Understanding; and in Christian theology and hermeneutics with the Reasonableness of Christianity and the Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul.

In the Two Treatises, of which the second is the more influential, Locke argued against patriarchal monarchy that humans (or man, as Locke wrote) are free and equal in a state of nature. By nature, no one is necessarily sovereign over anyone else. Because of the deficiencies of the natural state—such as the human tendency to harm others and their property, as well as,  to unjustly punish each other when such harm occurs—individuals contract with each other to form civil society and with it government. The end of government is to secure the natural rights of its citizens and to judge those who transgress these rights. This conception of government contains within it the justification of revolt, for if the government does not live up to its contractual obligations of protection and judicious punishment of offenses, then the individuals making up society have the right to dissolve the government in order to form one that will live up to its contractual obligations. While many initially believed the Two Treatises to have been written with the express purpose of supporting the Glorious Revolution, most scholars now hold that they were already in nearly their present form prior to Locke’s exile in Holland and thus underwent only minor revisions before their appearance in 1689 after the victory of William of Orange.

In the Epistola de Toleranta, Locke undertook an analysis of the nature of belief and argued from this analysis that toleration is appropriate in matters of belief that neither undermine the moral quality of society nor the authority of the duly constituted government. Belief, he said, is a matter which can neither be commanded not submitted to the authority of the government, whose responsibility extends only to the preservation of rights including the right to property and not to the salvation of individuals. Individuals must judge in the power of their reason what beliefs will be controlling for their lives. Truth gives its own recommendation. Atheists and Catholics were, however, excluded from Locke’s extension of toleration. Atheists, Locke held, by denying God, deny the foundation of morality and are thus a threat to civil society. Catholics by accepting the pope as the only supreme authority undermine the authority of the government and thus cannot be extended toleration in Locke’s view. The immediate context of Locke’s composition of the Epistola was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October 1685 which had extended limited toleration to non-Catholics in France.

Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding took shape over many decades of his life beginning sometime during his studentship at Christ Church and undergoing numerous revisions and transformations until its publication in 1689 and again with the publication of the second edition in 1694 and the fourth in 1698. The third edition contained no major revisions. Locke was trained, as all university pupils then were, in the medieval scholastic tradition of disputation which demanded multi-layered, sophisticated textual analysis of the historical philosophical and theological tradition. Locke and his contemporaries came to feel however that this method of inter- and intra-textual criticism was not productive in the pursuit of useful knowledge, but rather left one repeating the mistakes and misjudgments of the past. In an apocryphal conversation at Earl Shafetsbury’s in 1670, Locke found he and his colleagues embroiled in seemingly endless difficulties and began to think that what was needed was not so much the assertion of truths understood, but an analysis into the process of understanding itself including especially its capacity and limits (Locke, 1689a, The Epistle to the Reader).

The Essay which finally appeared undertook this task within the context of an argument against Cartesian and Platonist innate ideas and an argument for the proposal that all knowledge is gained from experience. Locke included within experience both experience of the world via the senses and reflective experience of the operations of the understanding itself which he called “internal sense.” He held that humans have access only to their own ideas of the world—which ideas he defined as “whatsoever is the object of the understanding” (I. i. 8). Ideas come in both simple and complex forms. Simple ideas come to humans passively via the senses and are indivisible. Complex ideas are mainly produced actively by humans’ reflective activity and involve the coordination, relation, and combination of more than one simple idea. Moreover, our ideas are of both primary and secondary qualities of bodies. Primary qualities are those which really exist in the body, such as solidity, extension, figure, motion and number. Secondary qualities are those which are the powers of the primary qualities to affect the human senses, such as color, taste, and sound. Locke held that these are not really existent in the bodies but are a result of the human capacities to affectively perceive them (II. i. 3).

Our knowledge of the world thus comes in various degrees of certainty moving from intuitive knowledge which immediately discriminates likeness and dissimilarity of ideas to demonstrative knowledge which requires reasoned thought in the form of argumentary proofs to discriminate its probable veracity. All certainty depends on intuitive knowledge (IV. ii. 1.), while we can only have lesser and greater degrees of probable knowledge from demonstrative knowledge. Demonstrative knowledge can always be thrown into suspicion by subsequent demonstration, whereas intuitive knowledge is immediately perceived (IV. ii. 1-2).  Locke wrote, “Intuition and demonstration are two degrees of knowledge—whatsoever comes short of one of these, with what assurance soever embraced, is but faith or opinion, but not knowledge...” (IV. ii. 14). While later interpreters would see Locke’s epistemology in his Essay as undermining the grounds of faith, Locke himself saw it as a support to faith since it delimited the capacities of knowledge and gave clarity as regards what can indeed be known. If certain matters cannot be known with certainty in Locke’s sense, they can still be believed and this belief can itself be grounded, according to Locke, in good reasoning in the extent that is possible. Unlike later users of his epistemology, Locke held that God was among those realities about which one could have knowledge. In fact, after the intuitive certainty of one’s own existence, Locke held that one could be most certain of God’s existence via the demonstration from finite to infinite causes, and the demonstration from knowledgeable and moral creatures to a most knowing and moral being (IV. x. 1-6). Locke’s epistemology in the Essay also left room for revelation as knowledge which can be confirmed by reason. He wrote of revelation as “natural reason enlarged by a new set of discoveries communicated by God immediately, which reason vouches the truth of by the testimony and proofs it gives that they come from God” (IV. xix. 4).

Locke’s estimation of the value of revelation “vouched” for by reason is clear in both the Reasonableness of Christianity and the Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul. In the former he argues that the Christian account of salvation through Christ is both reasonable and necessary given the fall of Adam. He holds that humanity lost immortality through Adam’s fall and that immortality which is life is restored through Jesus Christ in the form of the resurrection promised to Christian believers. Opening the way for considerable difference of opinion within Christian doctrine, he argued that the only thing which Jesus and thereby God requires for justifications is the firm belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Attendant to this belief will be sincere repentance and moral reform in keeping with the taking of Jesus as Lord, but in specifics all that is required is this firm belief in the Messiahship of Christ. Locke traces the theme of Jesus Christ as the Messiah through the four Gospels and Acts, arguing that this is the sole proclamation of Jesus himself, of the disciples, and of the gospel writers. Locke’s Christ returns the potential for immortality to humanity and again demonstrates the proper morality of natural law for humanity, especially the poor and unlearned who cannot reason out the natural law for themselves due to the extremity and necessities of their circumstances.

In the later of his religious works, the Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul Locke argues that one must understand each of the statements of Paul within the context of the letter in which it occurs. He notes what he took to be the difference between the Epistles as occasional letters provoked by specific situations occurring within maturing Christian communities and the gospels as universal declarations meant to teach new Christians and spread the proclamation of the Messiahship of Jesus Christ to non-believers. The material in the Epistles is therefore not as binding as that in the gospels but is still, on Locke’s view, potentially very important for contemporary Christians as they attempt to lead the moral life to which Jesus calls them.


Locke’s Major Works

1689: Epistola de Tolerantia (Gouda); tr. as Letter on Toleration, by William Popple (London); 2nd ed. (1690)

1690a: Two Treatises of Government (London); 2nd ed. (1694); 3rd ed. (1698).

1690b: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London); 2nd ed. (1694); 3rd ed (1695); 4th ed. (1700); 5th ed. (1706).

1695: The Reasonableness of Christianity, As Delivered in the Scriptures (London); 2nd ed. (1695).

1702: A Discourse on Miracles (London).

1705-1707: A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul. 6 vols. (London).

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Ayers, M. Locke. London: Routledge, 1993.

            . “Locke, John,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1st ed. 1998.

Chappell, V. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cranston, M. John Locke: A Biography. London: Longmans, 1957.

Harris, I. The Mind of John Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Marshall, J. John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Milton, J.R. “John Locke’s Life and Times.” In The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed V. Chappell, 5-25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Yolton, J.S.  and Yolton, J.W. John Locke: A Reference Guide. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Yolton, J.W. John Locke and the Way of Ideas.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.  


John Locke (1632-1704)

Slavica Jakelic, 1998

British philosopher of empiricism. His writings range from epistemology, political and moral philosophy, to education.

Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, in a Puritan family. Due to his father’s involvement in the struggle between Parliament and Charles I, Locke became acquainted very early with the political turmoil in England. He witnessed the most dramatic moments in English history: the execution of Charles I and the rule of Cromwell. He welcomed the Restoration and then contested the reigns of Charles II and Catholic James II. In 1688, Locke advocated the Glorious Revolution that restored the Protestant constitutional monarchy.

At Westminster School, Locke spent six years learning classical languages. He continued his education at Oxford’s prestigious Christ Church College. After graduation in 1656, he continued his master’s degree and became a Tutor and Censor of moral philosophy.

Locke was always dissatisfied with the scholastic teaching methods and contents, and this will be reflected in his writings on education. At Oxford, however, he had an opportunity to study new sciences, as well as experimental and empirical methods. This was decisive for his choice of medical studies as opposed to a clerical career.

In 1662, Locke met Lord Ashley, who was to become the Earl of Shaftesbury and Locke’s close friend. In 1668, Locke accepted the position of Earl’s personal physician. By entering Shaftesbury’s home, Locke found himself in the epicenter of political and intellectual life in England. He was soon elected into the Royal Society of London, which was formed in the 1660s as an anti-traditionalist institution for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (Woolhouse 1988, 68).

Shaftesbury’s political and economic activities directly affected Locke’s political ideas and personal life. When Shaftesbury disapproved of Charles II’s politics to grant the Roman Catholics the right to succeed the British throne, he was forced to flee England. Fearing for his life, Locke followed Shaftesbury to Holland and lived there in exile from 1683 –1689. These years were the beginning of the most prolific period in Locke’s career.

Locke’s philosophical thinking was influenced by a group known as the Cambridge Platonists. Locke included their idea of reason as natural light given by God into his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In his earlier work, Essay on the Law of Nature (1664), Locke wanted to reconcile the ideas of Cambridge Platonists with Thomas Hobbes’ sensationalism. According to Locke’s private correspondence, he was largely indebted for his philosophical thoughts to two French philosophers, Rene Decartes and Pierre Gassendi. The latter encouraged Locke’s questioning of the innate ideas.

Locke's Main Works

Locke's principal works were An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689/1690); Two Treatises of Government (1690); Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-92, First Letter Concerning Toleration was published anonymously as Epistola de Tolerantia in Holland); Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693); The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

Philosophical Ideas

Locke’s philosophical ideas are best presented in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He started working on the essay as a response to group discussions about the "principles of morality and revealed religion" (Locke 1969, 4). Locke had written that in these discussions he came to a conclusion that before starting any inquiry about the complex matters, we must "examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with" (4).

The essay attempts to answer the questions of origin, extent, and certainty of human knowledge. In the first book, Locke repudiates the doctrine of the innate principles. He protests against the assertion that human beings are born with certain ideas in their souls. He then declares that all our knowledge is founded and ultimately derives from experience. This sentence marked Locke as the founder of British Empiricism.

However, Locke’s empiricism did not identify sensations with knowledge. In the Essay, Locke only frames his discussion with the idea that our sensations are the origin of our knowledge, as well as the source of its certainty. He says that sensations are the ones that "convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things" (43). But, besides the perception of external things, Locke speaks of the second source of our ideas, that is, the operations of our mind – "thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing" (44).

Locke further emphasizes that the ideas of our mind are not yet the content, but merely the materials of knowledge. The ideas are defined as "whatever it is which the mind can be employed in thinking" (16). If the mind receives the ideas directly from our sensations, we speak about simple ideas. If the mind generates the ideas, then we speak about general ideas, or "abstract ideas" (229). The more general ideas are, the more incomplete and partial.

In the process of receiving and generating particular and general ideas respectively, our mind produces the knowledge of the qualities of things. These qualities of things are primary if they mechanically manifest themselves as existing in the body of things (original qualities such as form, or motion). The qualities of things are secondary if we denominate them from the things (for instance: sweet, blue, warm). Evidently, Locke establishes a correlation between simple ideas and primary qualities of things, and general ideas and secondary qualities of things. The first correlation is directly produced by senses; the second is created in our mind.

Locke argues that the effect of senses and the operations of our mind lead our mind to perceive "the connexion and agreement, or disagreement of…any of our ideas" (255). This process in which our mind establishes some form of connection among ideas is what Locke defines as knowledge.

Locke says that our mind establishes different kinds of relations and, accordingly, produces three different degrees of knowledge. Sensitive knowledge is based on simple ideas and produced by sensations. Demonstrative and intuitive knowledge is achieved when the mind establishes connections among ideas. Intuitive knowledge is knowledge of our own existence; demonstrative of God’s existence.

Although Locke declared that our knowledge originates in senses, he never ignored the role of reason and reasoning in the process of knowing. He did state that knowledge is possible and that it originates in experience. However, with this first statement, Locke answered to skepticism. With the second, he discharged the rationalistic argument that reason without experience can be the foundation of knowledge. In other words, Locke never asserted that sensational origins of knowledge guarantee its absolute certainty. On the contrary, he implied that our mind had freedom to establish connections among ideas and to err. Finally, Locke said that any general knowledge must begin from particular ideas. His empiricism, therefore, was built up of many building blocks, for which the sensations were only the necessary foundation.

Locke’s philosophical thought determined the development of British philosophy toward radical empiricism. George Berkeley and David Hume both followed Locke’s ideas but also tried to remove from them everything that was not directly founded on sensations. This approach led them into skepticism about the things that we accept as common knowledge.

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy attempted to bridge the gap between Locke’s empiricism and Decartes’s rationalism, experience and a priori knowledge. However, Locke’s "new way of ideas" has never ceased to be the intellectual challenge for the Western philosophers.

Political Ideas

Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government in order to "establish the throne of our great restorer, our present king William" (Lamprecht 1928, xxxvii). The first treatise was written as a document against Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Filmer argues that state and government have divine right to rule over people. The character of the state’s authority is paternal and a prolongation of Adam’s absolute authority over Eve.

Locke answers by making a distinction between public and private authority. He says that the state has right to intervene in the public sphere, but only if it recognizes the autonomy of the individuals. The state is for Locke a public and legal institution.

The second treatise is Locke’s defense of the constitutional government. Locke here speaks about the state of nature as a pre-political condition, in which people had a natural right to life, freedom and private property. However, the law of nature was not always respected because human beings are not necessarily guided by reason. In order to protect their natural rights, people associate on the basis of social contract into a political society. Locke’s idea of social contract gives the ultimate power to the community of people, not to the government. People have no right to rebel against the government, but they do have a right to defend the principles of social contract against tyranny.

Ideas about Religion

In the Epistola de Tolerantia, Locke makes a distinction between the spheres of state and church. He defines the state as a secular tool for securing the civil interests – "life, liberty, health,…, and the possession of outward things" (Locke 1965, 108). The care of souls belongs to church -- "a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together…in order to the public worshiping of God" (111). No church has the right to impose its beliefs or rituals on anyone who does not voluntarily accept them. On the other hand, the state needs to provide the freedom of worship for all religious societies equally. Yet, the state should not tolerate if some church is destructive for the whole society. Locke used this argument in the time of struggle between Shaftesbury and Charles II. He stated that Roman Catholics could not be tolerated "because their opinions were destructive to all governments except the Pope’s" (Cranston 1965, 8).

The three subsequent letters on toleration were Locke’s reply to Jonas Proast’s criticisms. Proast claimed that civil authorities could punish people if they refused to accept the Christian religion.

Locke’s discussion on the Reasonableness of Christianity is usually not considered as very representative for his philosophical ideas. The main purpose of this work is to show that Christianity is not a fanatical or purely emotional tradition, but that its truths and moral norms are in accordance with the law of nature. Locke tries to rationally present the character of Christian teaching; he even situates Christianity in the historical context. Ultimately, Locke does differentiate between reason and faith, and argues that human reason cannot fulfill the commands of Christianity without the truth of revelation. The philosophical basis for these ideas is in Locke’s distinction between the propositions that are according to reason (the existence of God), contrary to reason (the existence of more than one God), and above reason (the resurrection of the dead). The first type of propositions we get from sensations and reflection; the second type of propositions is contrary to the ideas produced by sensations and reflection. Those propositions that our reason cannot deduce from our sensations or reflections are above reason, and their source is revelation.

Ideas about Education

In his Thoughts on Education, which were published as a compilation of his personal letters, Lock asserts that the main purpose of education should not be the formation of scholars but the "formation of the whole man" (Caponigri 1963, 315). Lock advocates the respect for individuals’ talents, and demands physical exercise and open air. He believes that education needs to develop "a sound mind in the sound body," which clearly follows some of the ideals of Greek education described in Plato’s Republic (Caponigri 1963, 315). We can understand the uniqueness of Locke’s ideas about education only if we acknowledge that he was the first to articulate them. Locke’s Thoughts on Education made a tremendous impact on the later understanding of educational methods and contents.

In England and France, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding became "’the philosophical Bible’" (Pringle-Pattison 1969, X). Yet, Locke’s fame was never an obstacle for his intellectual modesty. He was known as a pious, pragmatic and witty person. He strongly believed that human understanding should be directed toward what is important for human conduct. Since Locke as a philosopher never became detached from practical life, his political writings both theoretically articulated and reflected his direct political engagement. His ideas about education resulted from his practical involvement in the educational process.

Locke’s strong devotion to Christian faith and loyalty to the philosophical quest for truth framed his discussions of religion and tolerance. Locke died in Essex in 1704. He never married.


Works Cited—Primary Sources

John Locke. 1969 [1689/1690]. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

John Locke. 1996 [1695]. The Reasonableness of Christianity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

John Locke. 1965 [1689-1692]. "A Letter Concerning Toleration" in Locke on Politics, Religion and Education. New York: Collier Books.

John Locke. 1965 [16??]. "The Second Treaties on Civil Government," in Locke on Politics, Religion and Education. New York: Collier Books.

Works Cited—Other Books

Caponigri, A. Robert. 1963. A History of Western Philosophy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Cranston, Maurice. 1965. "Introduction" to Locke on Politics, Religion and Education. New York: Collier Books.

Hamilton, D.W. 1967. "Empiricism" in the Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Lamprecht, Sternling P. 1928. Locke Selections. New York/Chicago/Boston: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Pringle-Pattisno, A.S. 1969. "Preface" to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Woolhouse, R.S. 1988. The Empiricists. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.


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