Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the first major presentation of the empirical theory of knowledge that was to play such an important role in British philosophy. The author had studied at Oxford, and later he became a medical doctor. Although he did not practice much, he was greatly interested in the developments current in medical and physical science, and there is some evidence that he first began to formulate his theory of knowledge in terms of considerations arising from medical researches of the day. Locke was a member of the Royal Society of England, where he came into contact with many of the important experimental scientists, such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. A discussion with some of his friends seems to have been the immediate occasion of the writing of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke attempted to work out a theory of knowledge in keeping with the developing scientific findings and outlook.

The completed version of the work dates from the period when Locke, along with his patron, the Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, was a political refugee in Holland. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Locke returned to England and was quickly recognized as the leading spokesperson for the democratic system of government that was emerging in his homeland. The essay, first published in the same year as Locke’s famous work in political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, quickly established the author as the foremost spokesperson for the new empirical philosophical point of view that was to dominate English philosophy from then on.