John Locke FRS (pron.: /ˈlɒk/; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704), widely known as the Father of Classical Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work had a great impact upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.
Locke’s theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to pre-existing Cartesian philosophy, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception.
Locke exercised a profound influence on political philosophy, in particular on modern liberalism. Michael Zuckert has argued that Locke launched liberalism by tempering Hobbesian absolutism and clearly separating the realms of Church and State. He had a strong influence on Voltaire who called him “le sage Locke”. His arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In fact, one passage from the Second Treatise is reproduced verbatim in the Declaration of Independence, the reference to a “long train of abuses.” Such was Locke’s influence that Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Bacon, Locke and Newton … I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences”. Today, most contemporary libertarians claim Locke as an influence.
But Locke’s influence may have been even more profound in the realm of epistemology. Locke redefined subjectivity, or self, and intellectual historians such as Charles Taylor and Jerrold Seigel argue that Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) marks the beginning of the modern Western conception of the self.
Locke, writing his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–92) in the aftermath of the European wars of religion, formulated a classic reasoning for religious tolerance. Three arguments are central: (1) Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) Even if they could, enforcing a single “true religion” would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.
Appraisals of Locke have often been tied to appraisals of liberalism in general, and also to appraisals of the United States. Detractors note that (in 1671) he was a major investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal African Company, as well as through his participation in drafting the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas while Shaftesbury‘s secretary, which established a feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves. For example, Martin Cohen notes that as a secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations (1673–4) and a member of the Board of Trade (1696–1700) Locke was, in fact, “one of just half a dozen men who created and supervised both the colonies and their iniquitous systems of servitude”. Some see his statements on unenclosed property as having been intended to justify the displacement of the Native Americans. Because of his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings, he is accused of hypocrisy and racism, or of caring only for the liberty of English capitalists.
Locke uses the word property in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations; more narrowly, it refers to material goods. He argues that property is a natural right and it is derived from labour.
In Chapter V of his Second Treatise, Locke argues that the individual ownership of goods and property is justified by the labour exerted to produce those goods or utilise property to produce goods beneficial to human society.
Locke stated his belief, in his Second Treatise, that nature on its own provides little of value to society; he provides the implication that the labour expended in the creation of goods gives them their value. This is used as supporting evidence for the interpretation of Locke’s labour theory of property as a labour theory of value, in his implication that goods produced by nature are of little value, unless combined with labour in their production and that labour is what gives goods their value.
Locke believed that ownership of property is created by the application of labour. In addition, he believed property precedes government and government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.” Karl Marx later critiqued Locke’s theory of property in his own social theory.
Locke’s political theory was founded on social contract theory. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature allowed men to be selfish. This is apparent with the introduction of currency. In a natural state all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions”. Most scholars trace the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in the American Declaration of Independence to Locke’s theory of rights, though other origins have been suggested.
Like Hobbes, Locke assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. However, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day. Locke also advocated governmental separation of powersand believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Declaration of Independence and theConstitution of the United States.
Along with Rousseau’s Emile (1762), Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education was one of the foundational eighteenth-century texts on educational theory. In Britain, it was considered the standard treatment of the topic for over a century. For this reason, some critics have maintained that Some Thoughts Concerning Education vies with the Essay Concerning Human Understanding for the title of Locke’s most influential work. Some of Locke’s contemporaries, such as seventeenth-century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, believed this as well; Leibniz argued that Some Thoughts superseded even the Essay in its impact on European society.
Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education was a runaway bestseller. During the eighteenth century alone, Some Thoughts was published in at least 53 editions: 25 English, 16 French, six Italian, three German, two Dutch, and one Swedish. It was also excerpted in novels such as Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela (1740–1), and it formed the theoretical basis of much children’s literature, particularly that of the first successful children’s publisher,John Newbery. According to James Secord, an eighteenth-century scholar, Newbery included Locke’s educational advice to legitimize the new genre of children’s literature. Locke’s imprimatur would ensure the genre’s success.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Locke’s influence on educational thought was widely acknowledged. In 1772 James Whitchurch wrote in his Essay Upon Education that Locke was “an Author, to whom the Learned must ever acknowledge themselves highly indebted, and whose Name can never be mentioned without a secret Veneration, and Respect; his Assertions being the result of intense Thought, strict Enquiry, a clear and penetrating Judgment.” Writers as politically dissimilar as Sarah Trimmer, in her periodical The Guardian of Education (1802–6), and Maria Edgeworth, in the educational treatise she penned with her father, Practical Education (1798), invoked Locke’s ideas. Even Rousseau, while disputing Locke’s central claim that parents should treat their children as rational beings, acknowledged his debt to Locke.
John Cleverley and D. C. Phillips place Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education at the beginning of a tradition of educational theory which they label “environmentalism.” In the years following the publication of Locke’s work, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac and Claude Adrien Helvétius eagerly adopted the idea that people’s minds were shaped through their experiences and thus through their education. Systems of teaching children through their senses proliferated throughout Europe. In Switzerland, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, relying on Locke’s theories, developed the concept of the “object lesson.” These lessons focused pupils’ attention on a particular thing and encouraged them to use all of their senses to explore it and urged them to use precise words to describe it. Used throughout Europe and America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these object lessons, according to one of their practitioners “if well-managed, cultivate Sense-Perception, or Observation, accustom children to express their thoughts in words, increase their available stock of words and of ideas, and by thus storing material for thinking, also prepare the way for more difficult and advanced study.”
Such techniques were also integral to Maria Montessori’s methods in the twentieth century. According to Cleverley and Phillips, the television show Sesame Street is also “based on Lockean assumptions—its aim has been to give underprivileged children, especially in the inner cities, the simple ideas and basic experiences that their environment normally does not provide.” In many ways, despite Locke’s continuing influence, as these authors point out, the twentieth century has been dominated by the “nature vs. nurture” debate in a way that Locke’s century was not. Locke’s optimistic “environmentalism,” though qualified in his text, is now no longer just a moral issue – it is also a scientific issue.
Limits to accumulation
Labour creates property, but it also does contain limits to its accumulation: man’s capacity to produce and man’s capacity to consume. According to Locke, unused property is waste and an offence against nature. However, with the introduction of “durable” goods, men could exchange their excessive perishable goods for goods that would last longer and thus not offend the natural law. The introduction of money marks the culmination of this process. Money makes possible the unlimited accumulation of property without causing waste through spoilage. He also includes gold or silver as money because they may be “hoarded up without injury to anyone,” since they do not spoil or decay in the hands of the possessor. The introduction of money eliminates the limits of accumulation. Locke stresses that inequality has come about by tacit agreement on the use of money, not by the social contract establishing civil society or the law of land regulating property. Locke is aware of a problem posed by unlimited accumulation but does not consider it his task. He just implies that government would function to moderate the conflict between the unlimited accumulation of property and a more nearly equal distribution of wealth and does not say which principles that government should apply to solve this problem. However, not all elements of his thought form a consistent whole. For example, labour theory of value of the Two Treatises of Government stands side by side with the demand-and-supply theory developed in a letter he wrote titled Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising of the Value of Money. Moreover, Locke anchors property in labour but in the end upholds the unlimited accumulation of wealth.
When Locke began writing the letters that would eventually become Some Thoughts on Education, he was addressing an aristocrat, but the final text appeals to a much wider audience. For example, Locke writes: “I place Vertue [sic] as the first and most necessary of those Endowments, that belong to a Man or a Gentleman.” James Axtell, who edited the most comprehensive edition of Locke’s educational writings, has explained that although “he was writing for this small class, this does not preclude the possibility that many of the things he said about education, especially its main principles, were equally applicable to all children” (Axtell’s emphasis). This was a contemporary view as well; Pierre Coste, in his introduction in the first French edition in 1695, wrote, “it is certain that this Work was particularly designed for the education of Gentlemen: but this does not prevent its serving also for the education of all sorts of Children, of whatever class they are.”
While it is possible to apply Locke’s general principles of education to all children, and contemporaries such as Coste certainly did so, Locke himself, despite statements that may imply the contrary, believed that Some Thoughts applied only to the wealthy and the middle-class (or as they would have been referred to at the time, the “middling sorts”). As Peter Gay writes, “[i]t never occurred to him that every child should be educated or that all those to be educated should be educated alike. Locke believed that until the school system was reformed, a gentleman ought to have his son trained at home by a tutor. As for the poor, they do not appear in Locke’s little book at all.”
In his “Essay on the Poor Law,” Locke turns to the education of the poor; he laments that “the children of labouring people are an ordinary burden to the parish, and are usually maintained in idleness, so that their labour also is generally lost to the public till they are 12 or 14 years old.” He suggests, therefore, that “working schools” be set up in each parish in England for poor children so that they will be “from infancy [three years old] inured to work.” He goes on to outline the economics of these schools, arguing not only that they will be profitable for the parish, but also that they will instill a good work ethic in the children.
On price theory
Locke’s general theory of value and price is a supply and demand theory, which was set out in a letter to a Member of Parliament in 1691, titled Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising of the Value of Money. Supply is quantity and demand is rent. “The price of any commodity rises or falls by the proportion of the number of buyer and sellers.” and “that which regulates the price… [of goods] is nothing else but their quantity in proportion to their rent.” The quantity theory of money forms a special case of this general theory. His idea is based on “money answers all things” (Ecclesiastes) or “rent of money is always sufficient, or more than enough,” and “varies very little…” Regardless of whether the demand for money is unlimited or constant, Locke concludes that as far as money is concerned, the demand is exclusively regulated by its quantity. He also investigates the determinants of demand and supply. For supply, goods in general are considered valuable because they can be exchanged, consumed and they must be scarce. For demand, goods are in demand because they yield a flow of income. Locke develops an early theory of capitalisation, such as land, which has value because “by its constant production of saleable commodities it brings in a certain yearly income.” Demand for money is almost the same as demand for goods or land; it depends on whether money is wanted as medium of exchange or as loanable funds. For medium of exchange “money is capable by exchange to procure us the necessaries or conveniences of life.” For loanable funds, “it comes to be of the same nature with land by yielding a certain yearly income … or interest.”
Locke distinguishes two functions of money, as a “counter” to measure value, and as a “pledge” to lay claim to goods. He believes that silver and gold, as opposed to paper money, are the appropriate currency for international transactions. Silver and gold, he says, are treated to have equal value by all of humanity and can thus be treated as a pledge by anyone, while the value of paper money is only valid under the government which issues it.
Locke argues that a country should seek a favourable balance of trade, lest it fall behind other countries and suffer a loss in its trade. Since the world money stock grows constantly, a country must constantly seek to enlarge its own stock. Locke develops his theory of foreign exchanges, in addition to commodity movements, there are also movements in country stock of money, and movements of capital determine exchange rates. The latter is less significant and less volatile than commodity movements. As for a country’s money stock, if it is large relative to that of other countries, it will cause the country’s exchange to rise above par, as an export balance would do.
He also prepares estimates of the cash requirements for different economic groups (landholders, labourers and brokers). In each group the cash requirements are closely related to the length of the pay period. He argues the brokers – middlemen – whose activities enlarge the monetary circuit and whose profits eat into the earnings of labourers and landholders, had a negative influence on both one’s personal and the public economy that they supposedly contributed to.
Locke defines the self as “that conscious thinking thing, (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends”. He does not, however, ignore “substance”, writing that “the body too goes to the making the man.” The Lockean self is therefore a self-aware and self-reflective consciousness that is fixed in a body.
In his Essay, Locke explains the gradual unfolding of this conscious mind. Arguing against both the Augustinian view of man as originally sinful and the Cartesian position, which holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions, Locke posits an “empty” mind, a tabula rasa, which is shaped by experience; sensations and reflections being the two sources of all our ideas.
Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education is an outline on how to educate this mind: he expresses the belief that education maketh the man, or, more fundamentally, that the mind is an “empty cabinet”, with the statement, “I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”
Locke also wrote that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences.” He argued that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later because they are the foundation of the self: they are, put differently, what first mark the tabula rasa. In his Essay, in which is introduced both of these concepts, Locke warns against, for example, letting “a foolish maid” convince a child that “goblins and sprites” are associated with the night for “darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other.”
“Associationism”, as this theory would come to be called, exerted a powerful influence over eighteenth-century thought, particularly educational theory, as nearly every educational writer warned parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations. It also led to the development of psychology and other new disciplines with David Hartley‘s attempt to discover a biological mechanism for associationism in his Observations on Man (1749).
Some scholars have seen Locke’s political convictions as deriving from his religious beliefs. Locke’s religious trajectory began in Calvinist trinitarianism, but by the time of the Reflections(1695) Locke was advocating not just Socinian views on tolerance but also Socinian Christology; with veiled denial of the pre-existence of Christ. However Wainwright (Oxford, 1987) notes that in the posthumously published Paraphrase (1707) Locke’s interpretation of one verse, Ephesians 1:10, is markedly different from that of Socinians like Biddle, and may indicate that near the end of his life Locke returned nearer to an Arian position.