John Locke (1632-1704)

 “Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct.  If we can find out those measures… we need not to be troubled that some other things escape our knowledge.”

 

Biography  

    John Locke was born in Wrington, England, on August 29, 1632.  He grew up in a small, middle-class, provincial household.  At age 15, Locke enrolled at Westminster School where he was taught by Richard Busby, a Royalist headmaster.  Busby taught his pupils to think for themselves and to beware of the influence of propaganda.  Locke learned from Busby and some of his fellow Royalist pupils that there were two sides to most stories.

    After five years at Westminster, Locke won a scholarship to Christchurch at Oxford in which he took a junior studentship.  It was at Oxford that Locke read the writing of Descartes that intellectually stimulated him.  In 1689, Locke published a notable writing known as Two Treatises on Government in which he advocated human rights and a governmental structure based on checks and balances.  In 1690, he wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which rejected Descartes' view of innate ideas and told of his own view of empiricism.

    Locke moved to his country manor in Essex due to his poor health in the last few years of his life, but remained busy publishing other books.  He died in 1704.

 

Locke’s Influences and Contemporaries

            An early influence in Locke’s life was Richard Busby.  Busby was a headmaster at Westminster School where Locke studied when he was 15.  Locke learned from him to remain open-minded but not be easily persuaded at the same time.  Later, Locke came into contact with Anthony Ashley Cooper, an ailing political figure whose views intrigued Locke.  Cooper believed in religious tolerance and a parliament that could keep the monarchy in check.  These views would be reflected in Locke’s Two Treatises on Government.

            Locke held Isaac Newton in high regard.  Newton’s reductionism and corpuscular view of the world had a direct impact on Locke’s theory of the mind.  Newton believed the world is composed of basic particles, which he called corpuscles.  The force of gravity held these corpuscles together.  Likewise, Locke saw the mind as made up of basic constituents.  Simple ideas are the basic components.  The force of association combines simple ideas to form complex ideas.  Locke was the first person to posit this Newtonian-influenced theory of the mind.

            Locke had something of a love/hate relationship with the views of Descartes.  He was interested in Descartes’ views of the physical world, in which so-called simple matters are the building blocks of material.  This is reminiscent of Newton’s theory of the physical world.  At the same time, Locke disagreed with Descartes’ view on the soul and innate ideas.  Being an empiricist, Locke did not believe that the mind contained anything innate besides certain capacities for some mental processes.  The tabula rasa view that Locke subscribed to was actually the creation of Aristotle.  Locke’s empiricism was a unique one, drawing from many people and combining these ideas with his own.

            Gottfried Leibniz was a contemporary philosopher of Locke.  Like Locke, Leibniz was very much interested in Descartes’ philosophy.  While Locke did not agree with the idea of souls and innate ideas, this is what Leibniz was interested in.  Leibniz did not believe in a mechanistic view of the universe.  Leibniz wrote New Essays On Human Understanding, which consisted of two characters engaged in philosophical discussions.  One character espoused Locke’s views, while the other represented Leibniz’s views.  Leibniz tried to show how innate ideas are possible and challenged the tenets of materialism.  He drew upon his view of the world known as monadology, which saw the universe as being composed of particles that vary in their degree of consciousness of the world.  It was found that Leibniz had misinterpreted Locke’s view of tabula rasa.  Locke never intended to imply that the mind has no innate functions or capacities whatsoever.  He only meant that a small portion of mental capacities are innate, with the rest coming about through experience.

 

Important Works of John Locke

Locke’s most famous and important work is arguably An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.  This work relayed his philosophical and scientific views of the mind.  Locke’s notion of empiricism is in full force in this work.  He believed the mind was formed by experiences, not innate ideas as some held.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding contained the concepts central to his viewpoint, such as the tabula rasa view of the mind, simple and complex ideas and their association, primary and secondary qualities, and others.  The tabula rasa view of the mind posited that the mind contains innate capacities for certain activities, but the rest of the knowledge comes from experience with the world.  This work discussed how knowledge in the mind is formed, and also the types of knowledge humans can have about things in the world.

The refutation of innate ideas stands in opposition to the views of Descartes, whose ideas were still held during Locke’s time.  The ideas in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding helped influence later psychological movements, most notably behaviorism.  Although the ideas were modified somewhat and the focus was changed, the underlying idea that experience of some kind shapes the mind was still in the spirit of Locke.

Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689, reflected Locke’s roots in politics.  Locke’s time was one of a chaotic political climate.  In this book, he outlines a view that asserts the need for governmental checks and a humanitarian focus.  An idea carried over from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding regarding the subjectivity of a person’s experience was also an underlying factor in this book.  Because the experience of any one person is not a complete record of the truth, many must be active in the governmental process to ensure that the government is working for all.  The ideas in this book influenced the Founding Fathers of America when drafting the Constitution. 

 

Locke's Contributions to Psychology

            John Locke was considered one of the most influential philosophers in post-renaissance Europe, which was about the mid 1600s.   One of his major contributions was to the field of psychology and he is often called the “Father of English Psychology.” Locke has been recognized for several important documents that have influenced the beginnings of modern psychology.  One of his most important works written in 1690 was entitled, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  The work was considered a foundational text in Western philosophy and brought up the model of how people developed.  The essay also asked the question of how and why people become individuals.   In the essay, Locke proposes that we are all born with certain knowledge and principles that helps us to become part of society. The theory known as Tabula Rasa meaning white sheets helps explain development.  He states that it is through experience, of the world around us, this is how one forms ideas.  He further states that human knowledge is gathered in 2 distinct ways through sensation and reflection.  These are further broken down into primary and secondary qualities of senses.  With the basic idea he suggested that out of the 2 sources of human knowledge one starts out with simple ideas that are used to form complex ideas, which are formed through communication between individuals.

            It is clear to see that Locke’s ideas on the idea of how individuals develop is the starting point to many theorists in modern psychology and specifically developmental psychology.  He was poised with the question of what is the ultimate significance of life and how does one develop the tools to proceed through life.  His ultimate suggestion was that we are all born with the building blocks to become who we are.  An in turn, as we go through life and experience what it has to offer, we form the necessary tools to survive and become individuals.  

 

Links

Locke Timeline:

http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/locke.html

Descartes, an important influence on Locke:

http://www3.niu.edu/acad/psych/Millis/history/2002/descartes.htm

Leibniz:

http://mally.stanford.edu/leibniz.html