John Locke was a 17th-century English philosopher whose ideas formed the foundation of liberal democracy and greatly influenced both the American and French revolutions. His contributions to philosophy include the theory of knowledge known as empiricism, which addressed the limits of what we can understand about the nature of reality. Locke held that our understanding of reality ultimately derives from what we have experienced through the senses. The political implications of his theories included the notions that all people are born equal and that education can free people from the subjugation of tyranny. Locke also believed that government had a moral obligation to guarantee that individuals always retained sovereignty over their own rights, including ownership of property that resulted from their own labor.
In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke examines the nature of the human mind and the process by which it knows the world. Repudiating the traditional doctrine of innate ideas, Locke believed that the mind is born blank, a tabula rasa upon which the world describes itself through the experience of the five senses. Knowledge arising from sensation is perfected by reflection, thus enabling humans to arrive at such ideas as space, time, and infinity.
Locke distinguished the primary qualities of things (e.g., solidity, extension, number) from their secondary qualities (e.g., color, sound). These latter qualities he held to be produced by the impact of the world on the sense organs. Behind this curtain of sensation the world itself is colorless and silent. Science is possible, Locke maintained, because the primary world affects the sense organs mechanically, thus producing ideas that faithfully represent reality. The clear, common-sense style of the Essay concealed many unexplored assumptions that the later empiricists George Berkeley and David Hume would contest, but the problems that Locke set forth have occupied philosophy in one way or another ever since.
Locke is most renowned for his political theory. Contradicting Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. In that state all people were equal and independent, and none had a right to harm another’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” The state was formed by social contract because in the state of nature each was his own judge, and there was no protection against those who lived outside the law of nature. The state should be guided by natural law.
Rights of property are very important, because each person has a right to the product of his or her labor. Locke forecast the labor theory of value. The policy of governmental checks and balances, as delineated in the Constitution of the United States, was set down by Locke, as was the doctrine that revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation. At Shaftesbury’s behest, he contributed to the Fundamental Constitutions for the Carolinas; the colony’s proprietors, however, never implemented the document.
Locke based his ethical theories upon belief in the natural goodness of humanity. The inevitable pursuit of happiness and pleasure, when conducted rationally, leads to cooperation, and in the long run private happiness and the general welfare coincide. Immediate pleasures must give way to a prudent regard for ultimate good, including reward in the afterlife. He argued for broad religious freedom in three separate essays on toleration but excepted atheism and Roman Catholicism, which he felt should be legislated against as inimical to religion and the state. In his essay The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), he emphasized the ethical aspect of Christianity against dogma.