An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Essay - Critical Essays

John Locke

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

John Locke

The following entry contains critical discussions of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding published from 1975 through 1994. For further commentary on Locke's career and works, see LC, Volume 7.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of the most noted and influential works of Locke's career. Concerned with "the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge," the Essay explores epistemological issues associated with science, as well as Locke's philosophy of language and personal identity. Among the most notable elements of the work is Locke's empiricist rejection of the doctrine of innatism, which held that certain moral "truths" are inborn. Locke rejected this view, arguing that experience—rather than heredity or God—is the primary source of moral, as well as intellectual, ideas. Thus, the position Locke articulated in the Essay supports knowledge obtained through scientific methodology (or information perceived through the senses), and implicitly advocates a social philosophy of religious toleration. An important landmark in the history of ideas, the epistemological issues explored in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding have continued to be of interest to modern philosophers of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Locke composed two drafts of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1671, while serving as physician, confidential adviser, and secretary to Lord Ashley, who was a noted and outspoken champion of civil liberty. Locke's projects under Ashley included collaboration on the composition of a constitution for the Carolina colony in America titled Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. Locke put his Essay aside for several years, but returned to the task in approximately 1678, while he was seeking refuge in Holland from the rising suspicions of the English government associated with his supposed role as a radical. Along with revising drafts of his Essay, Locke wrote a powerful defense of toleration during this time, later published as Epistola de tolerantia (1689; A Letter concerning Toleration). Following his return to England, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which made an immediate and lasting impression on his contemporaries. The remaining years of Locke's career were largely devoted to the preparation

of new editions of the Essay; he produced five editions from 1690 through 1706.

Major Themes

Throughout his career, Locke's philosophy was concerned with four principal issues: politics, education, religion, and knowledge, with the Essay Concerning Human Understanding devoted primarily to the fourth of these subjects. Peter Nidditch has commented: "The Essay presents, for the first time, a systematic, detailed, reasoned, and wide-ranging philosophy of the mind and cognition whose thrust … is empiricist." In the Essay, Locke rejects the doctrine of "innate ideas" promoted by Descartes and such Cambridge Platonists as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, embracing instead an empiricist conception of knowledge as the product of sense perception and experience. In a now-famous metaphor, Locke compares the human mind at birth to a tabula rasa—a blank slate—on which morals, values, and beliefs are inscribed by environment and experience rather than heredity; through the accumulation of impressions and experiences, general ideas about the world are formed. Locke believed that absolute truth is difficult or impossible to ascertain through the senses, and his empiricist views are therefore in harmony with his advocation of a social policy of religious toleration. This aspect of his philosophy placed him in direct conflict with the intuitional school of morality which maintained the existence of certain moral axioms as inborn rather than learned through socialization. Although Locke describes knowledge as fundamentally the product of sense perception in the Essay, he also suggests that sensation alone does not necessarily constitute knowledge. Knowledge, the Essay concludes, is often the result of intuition as well as sense perception: "This part of knowledge," comments Locke, "is irresistible and, like bright sunshine, forces itself immediately to be perceived, as soon as ever the mind turns its view that way; and leaves no room for hesitation, doubt or examination."

Critical Reception

Locke's contemporaries, with the noted exception of the poet Matthew Prior, were virtually unanimous in their praise for An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In a 1695 letter to Locke, for example, John Wynne commented: "[The] truths contained in our book are so clear and evident, the notions so natural and agreeable to reason, that I imagine none that carefully reads and duly considers them, can avoid being enlightened and instructed by them." Nineteenth-century commentators essentially echoed eighteenth-century praise for the work, and emphasized its historical importance to the development of a scientific worldview. John Wilson, for example, credited the Essay with subverting the "abstract, speculative, and often obscure doctrine of the scholastic logicians" with the establishment of "surer" scientific principles. Stressing Locke's modernity, twentieth-century critics have also praised Locke for ushering in a new era in the history of ideas. Mau-rice Cranston has credited Locke with establishing the first modern philosophy of science, while George Santayana has attributed the initiation of two modern disciplines to Locke—the criticism of knowledge and modern psychology. Areas of particular interest for contemporary scholars of Locke include the rhetorical strategy and style of the Essay and the tension between the Christian and scientific aspects of Locke's thought. Contemporary critics are perhaps more impressed with the range of Locke's thought in the Essay than were Locke's contemporaries. Vere Chappell, for example, has commented: "[Contemporary philosophy is divided into] logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy, and then, by subdividing these, such specializations as the philosophies of language, science, mind, and religion, ethical theory, and political philosophy. Locke worked actively in nearly all of these areas."

Principal Works

The Funamental Constitutions of Carolinas [with Anthony Ashley Cooper, and others] (manifesto) 1670

A Letter from a Person of Quality, to His Friend in the Country [with Anthony Ashley Cooper] (essay) 1675

Epistola de tolerantia ad clarissimum virum [A Letter concerning Toleration, Humbly Submitted] (essay) 1689

An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (essay) 1690; also published as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1726; revised editions, 1694, 1700, and 1705

A Second Letter concerning Toleration to the Author of the Argument of the Letter concerning Toleration [as Philanthropus] (essay) 1690

Two Treatises of Government (essays) 1690

Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money (essay) 1690

A Third Letter for Toleration [written as Philanthropus] (essay) 1692

Some Thoughts concerning Education (essay) 1693; revised editions, 1695, 1699, 1705

Further Considerations concerning Raising the Value of Money (essay) 1695

The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (essay) 1695

Short Observations on a Printed Paper (essay) 1695

A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (essay) 1695

A Letter to the Right Reverend Edward Ld Bishop of Worcester, concerning Some Passages Relating to Mr. Locke's Essay of Humane Understanding (essay) 1697

Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to His Letter, concerning … Locke's Essay of Humane Understanding (essay) 1697

Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to His Second Letter… (essay) 1699

Posthumous Works of Mr. John Locke (essays and biography) 1706


Peter H. Nidditch (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: A foreword to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke, edited by Peter H. Nidditch, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1975, pp. vii-xxv.

[In the following essay, Nidditch offers an overview of Locke's main objectives in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and considers several reasons why the work continues to be actively studied by philosophers.]

The Ascendancy of the Essay

The Essay has long been recognized as one of the great works of English literature of the seventeenth century, and one of the epoch-making works in the history of philosophy. It has been one of the most repeatedly reprinted,...

(The entire section is 7004 words.)

John W. Yolton (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: An introduction to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by John W. Yolton, Dent, 1977, pp. ix-xxxi.

[In the following essay, Yolton discusses the primary philosophical issues and concepts addressed by Locke in Book I of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He emphasizes Locke's expansive treatment of scientific concepts and problems associated with diverse fields of study including ethics, linguistics, psychology, logic, and theology.]

In 1671 Locke began to write what became his Essay concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1690. During those intervening years the Essay went through many drafts, many starts and...

(The entire section is 9472 words.)

Robert L. Armstrong (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "John Locke on Ultimate Reality and Meaning," in Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1980, pp. 264-74.

[Following a brief overview of Locke's life and writings, Armstrong examines the tension between the Christian and scientific aspects of Locke's thought in an Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He argues that Locke's Christian understanding of ultimate reality was balanced by a faith in human reason and experience as significant, although potentially limited, sources of knowledge.]


John Locke was born at Wrington, England on August 29, 1632. He spent his boyhood in his family's rural home of...

(The entire section is 5323 words.)

James Farr (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Way of Hypotheses: Locke on Method," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XL VIII, No. 1, January-March, 1987, pp. 51-72.

[In the following essay, Farr examines two opposing interpretations of Locke's understanding of the functions of scientific hypotheses and proposes an alternative reading of Locke's philosophy in an attempt to reconcile these two positions.]

"[A]s every ones hypothesis is, soe is his reason disposed to judge …"1

The specter of empiricism no longer haunts the Essay Concerning Human Understanding as once it did. Thanks to historically-minded philosophers and...

(The entire section is 8638 words.)

Michael Ayers (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Personal Identity before the Essay, in Locke, Vol. II: Ontology, Routledge, 1991, pp. 254-59.

[In the following essay, Ayers discusses Locke's response to questions surrounding the nature of the human mind, soul, and identity in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.]

In the first of those few entries in his journals clearly on the subject-matter of the chapter 'Of Identity and Diversity' (although the word 'identity' does not occur) Locke launched an attack on the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul. The note begins with a statement of the 'usual physicall proofe' of natural immortality: since matter cannot think, the soul is immaterial; since...

(The entire section is 2852 words.)

Peter A. Schouls (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Master Builder' and 'Under Labourer'," in Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and Enlightenment, Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 9-29.

[In the following essay, Schouls argues that the "revolutionary" aspects of Locke's thought are a function of his scientific, as well as political, writings, since both emphasize the primacy of human reason. Schouls places Locke's scientific thought in the revolutionary tradition of Descartes, despite various doctrinal differences.]

"Master-Builder" and "Under-Labourer"

In the Essay's "Epistle to the Reader," Locke refers to the "Master-Builders" ("a Boyle, or a Sydenham; … the Great—Huygenius,...

(The entire section is 9351 words.)

Philip Vogt (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Seascape with Fog: Metaphor in Locke's Essay," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay Vogt explores the use of metaphor in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, arguing that Locke's imagery and meaning are far more varied, complex, and "probabilistic" than the straightforward empiricism suggested by the famous tabula rasa image.]

No image from John Locke's philosophical work is as widely recognized as that of the white paper, the famous tabula rasa. But calls by Dominick LaCapra and other similarly minded theorists of history for a rereading of such "great texts" as...

(The entire section is 8679 words.)

Roger Woolhouse (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Locke's Theory of Knowledge," in The Cambridge Companion to Locke, edited by Vere Chappell, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 146-71.

[In the following essay, Woolhouse examines Locke's view of the relationship between experience, ideas, and knowledge in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, emphasizing Locke's rejection of the innatist conception of the origin of knowledge and "moral truths."]

In the course of its considerable length the Essay concerning Human Understanding deals with many topics; but its main theme and concern is knowledge and the capacity of the human understanding to acquire it. "[M]y Purpose," Locke tells us,...

(The entire section is 10420 words.)

Further Reading


Ayers, Michael. Locke: Volume I: Epistemology. London: Routledge, 1991, 341 p.

Divides discussion of Locke's epistemology into four sections: "Ideas," "Knowledge and Belief," "Perceptual Knowledge," and "Particulars, Universals and Intuitive Knowledge" with a view to illuminating connections between Locke's thought and the epistemological problems faced by contemporary philosophers.

Fowler, Thomas. "Essay on the Human Understanding." In Locke, pp. 127-51. London: Macmillan and Co., 1880.

Argues that "Locke was the first of modern writers to attempt at once an...

(The entire section is 623 words.)