English philosopher John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Somerset, England. He was an important political figure and author of Two Treatises of Government. It is his views on the nature of human knowledge in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that he is best remembered in modern philosophy.
An associate of the Earl of Shaftesbury, he spent time in exile in Holland, returning to England after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. He died on October 28, 1704.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding
The Essay Concerning Human Understanding or Essay for short, is Locke’s greatest philosophical work, one of the greatest influences for another century and for this he is considered to be the greatest British philosopher of all time.
The subject of Essay is the nature of human understanding, the way in which the human mind collects, organizes, classifies and makes judgments based on data received through the senses. His theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and “the self,” which figures prominently in the later works of the successors to his Essay, including philosophers George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume.
View of Empiricism
A good friend of scientists Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, Locke wanted to set the foundations of human knowledge on a sound scientific footing. For Locke, there is no innate knowledge as opposed to Descartes innate idea of God, as all things must be derived from experience, through sense organs. This is the view of “empiricism.” His rationalist detractors include Berkeley, Descartes and Leibniz, in the supporters of Noam Chomsky whose philosophy is of the innate or generative, grammar.
He states that at birth, the mind is a “blank slate” or “tabula rasa,” waiting to explore and be written on by experience. He believes that these ideas can be classified into two general sorts:
Complex Ideas — are constructions made out of simple ideas. These include ideas of familiar objects, such as dogs, cats, tables and chairs. But they need not represent anything real. For example, that of a unicorn, complex idea itself made up from conjoining two complex ideas, such as “horse” and “horn.”
Simple ideas — are immediate products of stimulation from the senses. Among his simple ideas is a distinction between primary qualities of objects and others that are secondary qualities. Primary are those such as solidity, shape, motion or rest, and number. Secondary qualities are those such as color, scent and taste.
Locke’s Philosophical Works
Two Treatises of Government, 1690
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690