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."