John Locke Biography
LOCKE, John (1632–1704) An English philosopher, born at Wrington, near Bristol, on Aug. 29, 1632. His father was an attorney and also served as captain in the Parliamentary army during the Civil War. Locke was sent for his education to Westminster School, where he continued till 1652, when he became a student of Christ Church, Oxford. After his graduation he took pupils, and from 1661 to 1664 he lectured in Oxford on Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. In 1665 he went to Cleves as secretary to the British Envoy, but soon returned to his studies at Oxford, where he devoted himself to medicine for a while. In 1666 he made the acquaintance of Lord Ashley, afterward Earl of Shaftesbury, and on his invitation went to live at his London house and became his family physician. It was in Lord Ashley's house that he had his attention directed to the importance of undertaking an investigation of the limits of human understanding. This investigation resulted many years after in the publication of his famous Essay. In 1672, when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor, Locke was appointed Secretary of Presentations, a post which he afterward exchanged for that of Secretary to the Council of Trade. He was employed to draw up a constitution for the American Province of Carolina, but the constitution was never adopted. After Shaftesbury's fall in 1675 Locke took up his residence at Montpellier for the benefit of his health. Here he formed the acquaintance of the Earl of Pembroke, to whom his Essay is dedicated. In 1679 he rejoined the Earl of Shaftesbury in England; but in 1682 the Earl fled to Holland, to avoid a prosecution for high treason. Although there is no evidence to warrant the belief that Locke was implicated in any treasonable practice, he was under surveillance and in the following year followed the Earl to Holland and so far shared with him the hostility of the government of Charles as to have his name erased, by royal mandate, from the list of students of Christ Church. Even in Holland he was demanded of the States-General by the English Envoy; but he contrived to conceal himself under the assumed name of Dr. Van der Linden, till the English court ceased to trouble itself on his account. In 1687 his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, begun 17 years before, was finished; and an abridgment of it was published in French (1688) by his friend Le Clerc,. in his Bibliotheque Universelle, in which Locke had published two years before his New Method of Making Commonplace Books. In 1689 he came back to England in the fleet that conveyed the Princess of Orange. He soon obtained from the new government the situation of Commissioner of Appeals, worth £200 a year. He took a lively interest in the cause of toleration and in maintaining the principles of the Revolution. In 1889 there appeared anonymously his first letter on "Toleration," the second letter in 1690, the third in 1692, and the fourth in 1706 (after his death). In 1690 his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding was published and met with a rapid and extensive celebrity, although Locke himself received only £30 for the copyright of the first edition. In the same year there appeared his well-known Treatises on Government. In 1691 he was engaged upon the momentous question of the restoration of the coinage and published a tract on the subject, followed by other financial papers in 1695. In 1693 was published Some Thoughts of Education. In 1696 King William appointed him member of a new council of trade at a salary of £1000. The Reasonableness of Christianity, anonymously published in 1695, had been written to promote William's favorite scheme of a comprehension of all the Christian sects in one national Church. In this work he argued the necessity of identifying Christianity, not with a belief in mysteries such as the incarnation and the atonement, but with the gospel of love. He maintained a controversy in defense of this book; he had another controversy in defense of the Essay, against Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. His feeble health compelled him to resign his office in June, 1700, and he spent the remainder of his life at Oates in Essex, at the seat of Sir Francis Masham, who had taken Locke into his home in 1691. His last years were very much occupied with the study of the Scriptures, on which he wrote several dissertations, which, with his little work entitled On the Conduct of the Understanding, were published after his death. He died Oct. 28, 1704, leaving quite a number of unpublished writings.
Great as were Locke's services to his country and to the cause of civil and religious liberty, his fame rests on the Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, which marks an epoch in the history of philosophy. His purpose was to inquire into the powers of the human understanding, with a view to finding out what things it was fitted to grapple with, and where it must fail, so as to make the mind of man "more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension, and disposed to stop when it is at the utmost extent of its tether." He institutes a preliminary inquiry in the first book as to the existence of innate ideas, theoretical and practical, on which the philosophical world has been much divided. (See Common Sense, Philosophy of.) Locke urges against the existence of these supposed innate conceptions or intuitions of the mind the fact that there is no truth universally accepted by mankind. Having thus repudiated the intuitive sources of our knowledge or ideas, he is bound to show how we come by them in the course of our experience. Our experience being twofold, external and internal, we have two classes of ideas—those of sensation and those of reflection. He has therefore to trace the recognized conceptions of the mind to one or other of these sources. Many of our notions are obviously derived from experience, as colors, sounds, etc.; but some have been disputed, more especially ideas of space, time, infinity, power, substance, cause, moral good and evil; and Locke discusses these at length, by way of tracing them to the same origin. This is the subject of book ii, entitled "Of Ideas." Book iii is on language considered as an instrument of truth and contains much valuable material. Book iv is on the nature, limits, and reality of our knowledge, including the nature of demonstrative truth, the existence of God, the provinces of faith and reason, and the nature of error. This work was epoch-making in the history of British philosophy, giving rise to English Empiricism (q.v.), and calling forth as reply Leibnitz's Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain, in which he canvasses Locke's work chapter by chapter.
In his views on government Locke was a disciple of Hobbes, but he was not slavish in his discipleship. He believed with Hobbes that government is the result of an original contract, but the state of nature preceding the establishment of government he did not believe to be a state of war. Right existed before the foundation of society. Society is a means to the better enjoyment of natural rights. Locke distinguishes in government the three functions of legislation, execution, and adjudication. Of these the legislative function is supreme, but even over this stands the sovereign will of the people. When the people enforce their will against the government, there is no rebellion. They are acting within their rights. In ethics he was a hedonist. Good and bad are equivalent to pleasure and pain or their causes. Moral good is accordance with the law imposed by an authority which rewards us with pleasure for obedience and punishes us with pain for disobedience. The law-imposing authority may be divine or human.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIV (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 275-276.