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A Resource Guide for Philosophy Students

Created by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson, MA

This page last modified:  October 14, 2012

© copyright, 1997 – present


School of Athens


John Locke

1632 – 1704 CE





Baird and Kaufmann.  Philosophical Classics:  From Plato to Nietzsche, 2nd Edition. (Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1997 [1994]).


Frederick Copleston,  A History of Philosophy:  Book Two.  (New York, NY:  Doubleday, 1985 [1944]). 


__________,  A History of Western Philosophy:  Hobbes to Hume, 2nd Edition.  (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt Brace, 1980 [1952]).


Daniel Kolak.  The Mayfield Anthology of Western Philosophy.  (Mountain View, CA:  Mayfield Publishing, 1998).


John Locke.  Second Treatise of Government; C. B. Macpherson, Editor.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing Company, 1980).


__________,  Two Treatises of Government; Peter Laslett, Editor.  (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2004 [1960]).


Louis P. Pojman.  Classics of Philosophy.  (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1998).


T. V. Smith and Marjorie Grene.  Philosophers Speak for Themselves:  From Descartes to Locke.  (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1967 [1940]).



The principle works of Locke


Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

Letter on Toleration (1689, 1st, of 4 and 4th incomplete)

Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)

Two Treatises of Government (1690)


The Conduct of the Understanding (left incomplete upon his death)


(Bio. material from Cahn, Steven, Classics of Western Philosophy) "John Locke was born in Somerset, England. He was educated first at Westminster School and then at Oxford, where he received his master's degree in 1658. He remained at Oxford to teach and study various subjects, among them medicine. In 1667, he went to London with his friend Lord Asley, later Earl of Shaftsbury, whom he first served as physician and later as secretary and advisor. During this period he began the nearly twenty years' labor which culminated in his major work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1675 poor health dictated a visit to France, where he spent four years at his studies. Locke returned to England in 1679, but his political fortunes declined along with Shaftsbury's, and he fled to Holland in 1683. He returned to England when William of Orange took the throne in 1689. In 1691 he retired to the serenity of Oat‘s in Essex, where he spent the remainder of his life."

Locke's important works include two: Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (1690), although revised four times; and Two Treatises of Government (1690), a discussion of the foundations of political authority.

Objective nature of empiricism


(1) There is a distinction between the knower and the thing known. (Contrast with subjectivism).

(2) Truth or verification of facts or objects depends on being experienced by other human beings, (or by more than one).

(3) Empiricists depend on the regularity and order of nature to make predictions about the behavior of things in the future.

Locke was an empiricist. In the first chapter of the first book, of his 'Essay', Locke demonstrates that ideas are not innate, as the rationalist would have you believe. Locke states: "For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind's perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible." (Bk 1, Ch 1, §5). Since children and idiots do not have knowledge of 'What is, is" (law of identity) and 'it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be' (law of non-contradiction) shows that such ideas are not naturally imprinted upon the mind. And so what if an idea is universally asserted to. This does not demonstrate that such ideas are innate. (Bk 1, Ch. 1, §3).

Book 2 is a discussion of what Locke thinks ideas are. First he tells us from where these ideas come. "Let us suppose the mind to be...white paper...without any ideas: How comes it to be furnished? ... Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? .....from EXPERIENCE." (Bk 2, Ch 1, §2).

What are ideas according to Locke? Locke states that an idea is: "whatever it is the mind can be employed about in thinking." (Introduction, §8).

All ideas, according to Locke, come from either sensation or reflection. Ideas are about (a) external sensible objects; or (b) the internal operations of the mind, or reflection. Locke gave names to these two types of ideas, and also thought that all ideas must be one or the other in kind. Ideas of Sensation, according to Locke, have their source in the great many sensible things detected by our five senses. This is a source of a great many of our ideas, but there is another source. Ideas of Reflection have their source inside each man, and have nothing to do with sensible objects. These ideas are derived through operations of the mind. Judging, willing, and imagining are operations of the mind.  So, therefore, Locke believed that there are two types of ideas: those provided by external objects, and those produced by the operations of the mind.

primary qualities: are about the primary qualities of an object, and are about qualities of matter such as form, extension, motion, number, and so on. Therefore, primary qualities are objective in nature.

secondary qualities: are about the qualities of an object such as color, tastes, sound, odors, and the like. These secondary qualities are not in the material substance; they are in the mind or they are the way in which the object affects the mind or the knower, and they vary from person to person. Therefore, secondary qualities are subjective in nature.

Locke accepted the existence of spiritual substance (God), ideas (mind), and material substance (body).

Some criticisms of Locke:

Locke's epistemological theory that there are Ideas of Sensation and Ideas of Reflection and both of these are composed of simple and complex ideas represents an epistemological dualism. Epistemological dualism is a dualism of the knower (mind) and what is known (ideas). The Knower may be material substance, and so may the ideas, depending on your point of view. Materialists would view everything in terms of material. But idealists would view everything in terms of idea. But Locke is an empiricist; what sort of view did he develop? Locke thought that there were two types of ideas: Sensation and Reflection. This can be seen as another dualism, where the Ideas of Sensation are empirical in nature and the Ideas of Reflection are rationalistic in nature. But Locke most certainly makes a distinction between the knower and the thing known. This is very similar to Berkeley's position that there are perceivers and perceptions.

But has Locke not been entirely too rationalistic for an empiricist? His Ideas of Reflection are not derived directly from experience, but are those ideas we become aware of through introspection, for example thinking, willing, and believing. Even his notion of substance cannot be known by sensation or reflection, since it is the thing in which qualities are held to subsist, rather than itself being a quality to which there corresponds an idea.

Simple ideas: have no other ideas contained within them, and like atoms cannot be created nor destroyed; and are ideas such as yellow, hot, sweet.

Complex ideas: are compounded out of simple ideas, and the mind is quite capable of imagining complex arrangements of simple ideas that do not in fact correspond to anything in the world, for example an unicorn.

primary qualities: are about the primary qualities of an object, and are about qualities of matter such as form, extension, motion, number, and so on. Therefore, primary qualities are objective in nature.

secondary qualities: are about the qualities of an object such as color, tastes, sound, odors, and the like. These secondary qualities are not in the material substance; they are in the mind or they are the way in which the object affects the mind or the knower, and they vary from person to person. Therefore, secondary qualities are subjective in nature.  

Locke was not the first to make the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This distinction had already been drawn by Galileo, Descartes, and Boyle. Locke also accepted the existence of spiritual substance, ideas, and material substance, just like Descartes had. Descartes also thought that the fundamental unit of knowledge to be that of intuition, and Locke also agreed. We can also know things by deduction or by demonstration. We can have certain knowledge through our senses of the existence of particular physical objects we see, touch, etc. But where Locke differs from Descartes is that Locke held that we can have no certain knowledge of general truths about the world.

Locke's immediate successor, Berkeley, had the most severe criticism of Locke. Locke had gotten himself into an egocentric predicament. An egocentric predicament is a situation in which all one knows, or can know, is one's own ideas. There is no way to determine whether these ideas about the world actually correspond to the world that they are supposed to be about. It may seem that all Berkeley knows is his own ideas as well. But at least he did not base his knowledge upon the objects of the external world, and yet leave us no certainty whether or not our ideas actually correspond to the world. We cannot compare the ideas and the objects to see if they match. Locke really felt that we did, as said before, know the particular objects we saw, touched, etc.

Berkeley tried to solve this problem by making things ideas. This way there had to be a necessary correspondence, because things were merely ideas, and nothing more.

Locke's Liberalism and Social Contract Theory


Second Treatise of Government (1690) The two treatises were published anonymously.

natural law: The rationally knowable morality which is founded in God's will for His creatures. Moral law is not innate, but deduced from experience.

state of nature: The human condition of natural freedoms and rights prior to the imposition of social organization and regulation (or social contract). It is a state, therefore, that may be thought of as either an alleged historical fact, or a hypothetical claim about what would be or would have been the case, given certain conditions that may or may not have occurred.

"The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent , no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions[.]" Ch. 2, § 6.

Locke, like Hobbes, introduces the "natural" condition of mankind not as an historical condition existing before the emergence of civil society, but as a logical abstraction from essential nature of man. Though Locke does later say that it may also have been an historical prior condition (§100-112) he presents it as a first logical deduction from the supposed nature of man and the supposed intentions of the Creator, which in turn are deduced from observable biological needs of man.

social contract: The agreement of a group of people (every one of them) to establish social organizations and regulations for the preservation of basic freedoms and rights.

tacit consent: The consent and support of social organizations and regulations by virtue of an individual's continued participation in them.

traditional liberalism

The traditional notion of liberalism has been challenged in this century, and new meanings have been applied to it. The result is that the term today is ambiguous, and everyone applying the label must specify exactly what they mean. Traditional liberalism gives primacy to the individual and his rights, where prior primacy was given to the state.

Locke built his assumption these human beings are by nature moral beings and that there are natural moral rules that they ought to obey. People are born free and equal, with the capacity to make rational choices. They are morally obligated to respect the freedom and self-determination of other people and deal with them on the basis of equality. On these premises Locke fashioned his central principle of the natural rights of every individual. To maintain their natural rights, people voluntarily give up some of their freedom and enter into a social contract to create a political authority capable of preserving these rights and restraining transgressors. It was Locke's view that people of majority consent draw up a contract for the establishment of a government and obligate them to abide by the decisions of the majority. Government authority stems from the act of making a contract, and the power thus is limited by the terms of the contract and is subject to continuous review by the citizens involved. The contract is specific and strictly limited, and the power given up to the government is not absolute or final.

According to Locke, the basic rights that people seek to preserve by political means are the rights of life, liberty, and property. The individual's right to private property is one of the most important guarantees of government. One of the fundamental moral rights retained by the individual is the right to challenge and resist authority. Locke favored a constitutional, representative government and denied the legitimacy of any permanent or absolute ruler. Locke's ideas had a profound impact on the framing of the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.