Meditation XXII, John Locke (1632-1704) – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

John Locke

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.


The most prominent English philosopher of the post-Cartesian period was John Locke who was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. Besides studying (he has a deep interest in medicine), Locke thought subjects like logic, moral philosophy, rhetoric and Greek. He was exiled after becoming involved in Protestant politics to Holland from 1683 to 1689 before returning to England to lead a life of private study and public service. He wrote widely on the various branches of philosophy which includes education, economics, religion and medicine.

In his better known work, the Treatises of Government, Locke argued for a government by consent and the right to religious dissent. He criticises the absolute monarchy system and the divine right of kings. This view he argued on the grounds that although subjects do have a duty to God to obey their ruler, their ruler’s power is not God given or absolute as was widely accepted during his time. Locke continues his political philosophy further by stating that by remaining in society, an individual tacitly consents to the law and authority of that society. This implies the possibility of legitimate resistance or revolution in order for a community to retain the supreme power of saving themselves from their legislators.

Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration on the other hand, considers how far a state can legitimately concern itself with religious practices. Believing that Christianity advocates tolerance, Locke considers it unjust that the state persecutes religious dissidents under the pretence of religion. He then argues that the state should separate the business of civil government from religion base on three conclusions. First, the ‘civil magistrate’ has no more duty or authority than anyone else to concern himself with ‘the care of souls’. Second, the ‘civil magistrate’ has equally no duty or authority to prescribe what faith or worship anyone has to embrace. Third, the imposition of a religion by the state would in many cases not help to save souls (Should men owe their eternal happiness or misery to the place they were born?).

John Locke’s theory of knowledge was fully expounded in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was written to discover what kind of things that God has fitted us to know by the use of our intellect and understanding. His purpose, stated clearly, was ‘to enquire into the original, certainty and extent of human knowledge’. He maintains at the start of his work that none of our ideas or knowledge, both theoretical and ethical, is innate. The mind, according Locke, is a piece of white paper and all our ideas derive from experience.

However, although all our knowledge derives from experience, these experience-based ideas are only the raw materials of reason and knowledge. Locke believes that knowledge itself is not made out of our senses but is a product of reasoning the connections between ideas. Locke’s theory of knowledge can then be said to be empiricism combined with rationalism. Should reason be absent, all we have is mere belief and not knowledge. His claims that all our ideas, the materials of knowledge, come from experience are facilitated by the distinction between simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas cannot be analysed and are indefinable. Complex ideas on the other hand, are constructed from simple ideas.

On words, Locke believed that they are but classifications for human interests and conveniences. General words are just ‘nominal essences’ and abstract ideas that we ourselves construct. Generality and universality, he maintains in contrast of Plato, do not belong to a real world but are just ‘inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its own use’. Knowledge he defines as the perception of the connection and agreement, or disagreement of any of our ideas. Some propositions are true solely by the virtue that relevant ideas are connected and related in a way to make them true. His definition of knowledge as the perception of connections between ideas leaves room for a priori knowledge that Immanuel Kant would elaborate to its fullest in later days

~ Ee Suen Zheng


  • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
  • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
  • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

“All our knowledge is founded in and ultimately derives from experience.”

~ John Locke

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  1. […] as the greatest English philosopher since John Locke, David Hume was the second son in a strict Scottish Presbyterian family. Well known as a […]

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