John Locke's Philosophy


John Locke was a British philosopher of the 17th century, who contributed a lot to the areas of politics and governance. The work The Two Treatises of Government authored by Locke was to lay the groundwork and democratic foundation for the formation of modern-day democracies such as the independence constitution of the US in 1787. Another famous work of his was the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It concerned the foundations of understanding and human knowledge. It was an attempt to describe how human understanding develops from the birth of a child until the child matures and even ages. The essay is divided into four books, covering different parts of human understanding and knowledge that John Locke discoursed upon. In my view, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a well-thought-out treatise on human knowledge and understanding that has changed how people think and learn. The significance of this work is further demonstrated in that it was highly influential in the theories and ideas of other philosophers during the period of enlightenment such as George Berkeley and David Hume. Furthermore, the theory introduced empirical thoughts in the philosophical era of the 17th century (Locke, 1836).

The main theory that is discussed in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the knowledge theory of Tabula Rasa. Tabula Rasa is a concept that was implied by John Locke in this particular essay to refer to the state of mind of an infant child at birth. Locke argued that at birth, the mind of an infant was a blank slate, a Tabula Rasa and that as the child grew, societal influences and other life experiences filled up the blank slate. In the first book of the essay, Locke addressed the issue of innate ideas, referring to it as Of Innate Ideas. In this first book, the main theme was the rebuttal of the philosophical school of thought known as the Cartesian thought (Locke, 1836).

The Cartesian school of thought in knowledge contended that human beings are born with particular ideas already in their minds. Do notable Cartesians include Plato, Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary of Locke and Ren? Descartes held to this idea of innatism. Leibniz, for instance, argued that certain necessary truths or truisms exist in the mind of a baby just born and that these truisms universally assent. Locke attacks innatism through this first book of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In my opinion, John Locke’s knowledge theory of Tabula Rasa presents a more sensible argument in determining the origins of human knowledge and understanding. Moreover, the philosophical idea of innatism and the rationalist epistemology presented by the Cartesian view of knowledge and human understanding is not plausible in that infants are born with certain ideas already in their minds (Melchert, 2010).

In the backdrop of refuting the Cartesian view of human knowledge and understanding, Locke then, like a real scholar and philosopher, embarks on constructing his own theories to provide an alternative to the Cartesian view of knowledge. In his book Of Ideas, Locke attempts to explain the origins of ideas in the minds of human beings, who are born with a “blank sheet.” Locke argues that human ideas are derived from experiences that an individual undergoes during his or her daily activities and life. Locke contends that everything within the realm of the mind of a human being is an idea proposing two ways, through which ideas arrive in the mind of a human being. His first supposition was that ideas arrived in the minds of people through the biological senses of human beings. Locke argues that sensations from the direct sensory information provide ideas to the mind, upon which individuals then act or make decisions. These are derived from the observations people make about daily issues, which are picked upon by their senses and relayed to the mind. The second supposition of how ideas arrive into the mind of human beings was through reflection. In Of Simple Ideas of Reflection, Locke asserted that the human mind at times reflected on its own operations, thereby resulting in the generation of ideas in the mind of a human being. He contends in this portion of the book that after ideas have been fed into the mind through the sensory delivery, the mind through its own internal mechanisms turn sits view inward upon itself, observing its actions about those ideas (Arshcraft, 1986).

Earn 15% from every order!

Earn money today! Refer our service to your friends!

In my personal reflection, Locke provides a very sound explanation of where ideas originate from in contrast to the Cartesian view of innatism rebutted in the first book. This particular book also entails Locke’s ideas of an intelligent being, involved in the creation of human beings. Furthermore, Locke discusses the key concepts of perception and volition in his theory of human knowledge and understanding. In my opinion, the explanations of volition and perception or thinking closely identify and influence beliefs on human knowledge and understanding. Also, in this second book of the whole essay, there is included a differentiation by Locke between qualities, categorizing them into primary and secondary qualities (Melchert, 2010).

In the third book of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke turns to the philosophy of words, way from issues concerning the mind that are discussed in the first two books of the essay. This particular book, known commonly as Of Words, presents Locke’s position, where he argues that words are simply the description of ideas in one’s mind, as opposed to a reference of external objects around someone. I disagree with Locke’s assertion here, since the external objects that people perceive around them are one of the sources of ideas, according to Locke himself. Therefore, words are by extension the description and reference of the external world. This would perhaps also stand as a slight contradiction or rather contradistinction between Locke’s thinking in the second book and the third book of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The third book also entails other issues dealing with words that Locke looked at. These include the signification of words, names of simple ideas, names of mixed modes and relations, of substances, of particles, concrete and abstract terms, and finally the imperfection of words (Arshcraft, 1986).

In the fourth and final book of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke finally presents his views on knowledge. This fourth installment in the essay is referred to as Of Knowledge and Opinion, and Locke borrows heavily from his earlier assertions on ideas in the previous books of the essay. Locke provides quite a strict definition of what he perceives to be knowledge. He argues that knowledge simply consists of the perception of strong internal relations of the ideas existing in the mind of a human being. He again restates his view from the third book on words, stating here that knowledge is not the perception of external things, but only the ideas in the mind of a human being. This, in my estimation, presents an erroneous position on the part of Locke, since his definition puts all the focus on ideas, most of which clearly derive from observations and perceptions of the external world and objects (Locke, 1836).

In this final book of the essay, Locke goes into details of many other things as per the concept of knowledge. He discusses knowledge in general, the degree and extent of human knowledge, and the reality of knowledge. Locke then delves into issues that relate to the truth and certainty. He also looks into the threefold knowledge of existence, the knowledge of human beings of the existence of God and other things, of judgment, probability, faith and reason, enthusiasm and error. These are all extensively discussed in the last Locke’s book, namely the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Melchert, 2010).

As regards Locke’s philosophy of equality and liberty, they are expressed in another of Locke’s great works, The Two Treatises of Government. This was his piece of work that dealt with the role of government in terms of its citizens and how it was to govern the citizenry. The first of these two treatises were directed at the work of another contemporary writer and philosopher, Robert Filmer. Locke rebutted Filmer’s assertions in his works known as Patriarcha that all people of the non-ruling class were born as slaves and were to remain as so in their servitude to natural-born Kings. Locke completely disagreed with this position, which was at the time popular in monarch England, stating that according to God’s law, every man on earth had the ability to virtuously govern himself or herself in standards acceptable to other men (Locke, 1836).

In terms of this, Locke was expounding on the concept of equality of all men, whether the nobles and royals or slaves and commoners. I totally agree with Locke on equality, as this has enabled the world to get rid of certain social ills, such as slavery, and other forms of discrimination like racism. In my view, Locke’s rebuttal here of Filmer’s theory was quite objective and justified, as had the ideas of Filmer prevailed over the last couple of centuries, then the modern-day democracies thriving in many parts of the world would not exist. The French Revolution and the American fight for independence may have also not happened. On liberties and rights of the people, Locke asserted that the moment a government stopped serving its peoples and curtailing their liberties, rights, and even seizing their properties, then the people not only had the right but also an obligation to overthrow such a government. This is exactly what happened in the French revolution of 1789-99, the American Revolution of 1765-83, and as recently as 2011, the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (Arshcraft, 1986).

Related essays