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Locke: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Locke: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Locke in just one hour.Much of Locke’s thought we would now regard as common sense. One of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers; his philosophy was to lay the foundations of empiricism with its belief that our knowledge of the world is based on experience. Locke’s work introduced the idea of liberal democracy – a concept that has become the shibboleth of Western civilisation. People who can’t even spell philosophy are now likely to accept these ideas; just over three centuries ago they were incomprehensible.Here is a concise, expert account of Locke’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Locke’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Locke in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u1ff25e83-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Title Page (#u1ff25e83-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Introduction (#)

Locke’s Life and Works (#)

Afterword (#)

Further Information (#)

From Locke’s Writings (#)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#)

Chronology of Locke’s Life (#)

Recommended Reading (#)

About the Author (#)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#)

Introduction (#)

Philosophy moves backward. It began with an infinite universe of complex, beautiful, and often conflicting ideas. Gradually, with the aid of religious bigotry, reason, and the will to understand, philosophy began to shrink this world to more comprehensible proportions. Everything became simpler, more obvious. Philosophy was regressing to the point where it described the world as we actually see it. With John Locke philosophy enters its flat-earth period.

Great ideas are often obvious. None more so than those of John Locke. Much of his thought we would now regard as common sense. His philosophy was to lay the foundations of empiricism, with its belief that our knowledge of the world is based on experience. It also introduced the idea of liberal democracy, which has become the shibboleth of Western civilisation. People who can’t even spell philosophy are now likely to accept these philosophical tenets, which were incomprehensible just over three centuries ago.

This all makes Locke’s philosophy rather uninteresting. But there’s no reason why philosophy shouldn’t be dull. On the contrary, there are very good reasons why it should be dull. It was when works of philosophy became interesting, and people actually began reading them, that the trouble started. People who read things are liable to believe in them, and then look what happens. The earlier part of the twentieth century remains as a hideous reminder of what happens when large groups of people start taking philosophy seriously. Fortunately, philosophy has now progressed well beyond the infantile stage where people who read it are expected to believe in it. But this was not always the case – and many of the wisest philosophers have realised the pitfall of readers actually understanding what they were saying. Spinoza did his best to solve this problem by rendering his works unreadable. Socrates, on the other hand, decided that the best way was not to write down anything at all. (The former tactic was adopted by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, the latter by Polique, Ehrensvard, and Huntingdon-Jones.) Locke’s solution was to write philosophy that was so obvious it soon appeared dull. But it wasn’t always so. Locke’s thought and ideas were revolutionary in their time and altered the course of philosophy.

Locke was the only major philosopher to become a government minister. And it shows. He was a man of many parts, but he remained for the most part consistent and practical. His philosophy is one that actually works – for both the individual and society at large.

Locke’s Life and Works (#)

Locke attempted to live a life that was almost as dull as his philosophy. Fortunately for us, though not for him, he lived in exciting times – and couldn’t avoid getting involved. John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in a small, rather grubby thatched cottage by the church in the Somerset village of Wrington. His father was an unambitious country lawyer and his mother a tanner’s daughter, who was reputed to have been a great beauty. Soon after John’s birth his parents moved to a family property near the small market town of Pensford, just south of Bristol. Here Locke grew up in a Tudor farmhouse called Belluton. This building has long since disappeared, but the house that now occupies the site is said to have been built on its foundations. It stands on a hill above the rather ordinary little town of Pensford, but here on a summer’s day you have a breathtaking view out over the Mendip Hills in the direction of Midsommer Norton and Downside Abbey.

This rural idyll was shattered by the outbreak of the civil war in 1642, when John was ten. The war was the culmination of a long-standing dispute between King Charles I and Parliament. Charles believed in the divine right of kings, according to which the monarch received his authority direct from God, and was thus not answerable to institutions run by mere mortals, such as Parliament. The members of Parliament, who were responsible for voting the king his cash, thought otherwise. In fact, the civil war was basically a stand-up fight between the emerging merchantile class in the red corner, with the king and his landed aristocracy in the blue corner. It tore the country apart and was to bring about the first successful revolution in European history.

The Locke family supported the Parliamentarians. The local member of Parliament, Alexander Popham, became colonel of the regional Parliamentary militia and appointed Locke’s father as his captain. Locke’s father left home to join the campaign. After coming across a few unsuspecting Royalist columns, which they quickly put to flight, Colonel Popham’s militia joined up with the Parliamentary army at Devizes. But this time the Royalists were prepared, and in the ensuing rout Locke’s father and Popham were lucky to escape with their lives. After this they “decided to withdraw from the military life” and returned home.

By now the country was in turmoil, and Locke’s family found themselves without means of support. Colonel Popham did his best for his old captain but only managed to secure him a post as the country clerk for sewers (this may well reflect how both these ex-warriors were held in local esteem).

In 1646 Charles I was captured, and three years later he was beheaded. The Commonwealth was established, with Oliver Cromwell soon emerging as its head. Meanwhile Colonel Popham was able to do a further favour for his friend Captain Locke. As a member of Parliament he was allowed to nominate pupils for entry to Westminster School in London, the finest in the land at the time. This favour, which he granted to the son of an obscure impecunious west-country lawyer, was to change John Locke’s life. Without such an education it is doubtful whether Locke would have had the opportunity to realise his exceptional talents.

Curiously, although Westminster was controlled by a Parliamentary committee, it retained a Royalist headmaster. This was a failed actor called Dr. Busby, renowned for his dramatic and sadistic floggings. According to the poet John Dryden, who was a contemporary of Locke’s at Westminster, “our Master Busby used to whip a boy so long, till he made him a confirmed blockhead.” But the essayist Richard Steele, who was also a pupil, was of the opinion that Busby had “a genius for education.” And, astonishingly, this is the view that has prevailed. Two centuries later the prime minister William Gladstone commended Dr. Busby as “the founder of the public school system.”

John Locke was a frail youngster, and the prospect of an encounter with Dr. Busby doubtless stimulated his dormant intellectual faculties to the full. As one of the brightest scholars at Westminster, Locke would certainly have got to know the precocious Dryden, who was already publishing poetry before he left school. Dryden appears to have learned something from his Royalist headmaster’s survival technique – in a school that stood in the very shadow of Parliament, during a time when the king was executed just across Parliament Square in Whitehall. At the age of twenty-six Dryden was to write a heroic tribute to Oliver Cromwell. Two years later, when the monarchy was restored, Dryden composed an equally mellifluous celebration of Charles II, and was later rewarded with the post of poet laureate. While poet laureate he composed a paean to the Anglican church; but when the Catholic James II ascended to the throne he changed his mind, became a Roman Catholic, and wrote an epic celebration of Catholicism. Unfortunately this time he was caught, because a few years later the Protestant King William assumed the throne, and Dryden was stripped of his poet laureateship. All this is far too interesting to have anything to do with John Locke, but it serves to illustrate the frequent (and often dangerous) shifts of political fortune that were to take place during his lifetime.

Unlike the great poet, Locke was to regard his principles as something more than a weather vane. Even so, Locke’s principles were to undergo several transformations. The first of these took place during his schooldays at Westminster. Locke had been brought up in a staunchly Parliamentarian home, but at school he found himself making friends with a number of Royalists among the pupils. These encounters, as well as his dislike of Parliamentarian excesses (such as the execution of the king), led him to a more sympathetic view of the Royalists. Learning from experience and toleration – two qualities for which Locke was to become renowned – were already apparent.

Yet in other ways Locke was a slow starter. He may have been bright at school, but he showed no signs of intellectual giantism. Indeed, he didn’t leave Westminster until he was twenty (the age at which his contemporary Gottfried Leibniz was already being offered a professorship). In 1652 Locke enrolled as an undergraduate at Christ Church College, Oxford. Education at Oxford University remained in the medieval era. Undergraduates were required to address their tutors and each other in Latin when in college. The curriculum was limited to the study of the classics, logic, and metaphysics. Despite the new philosophy of Descartes and recent widespread advances in science and mathematics, Aristotle and scholasticism reigned supreme. Undergraduates had the worst of both worlds, for even the time-honored benefits of a medieval education had been abolished. A short while earlier the bordellos and low-life taverns of Oxford had been closed down by the aptly titled vice-chancellor of the university.

The menu of nonstop classics and scholasticism was so boring that even Locke was driven to seek intellectual nourishment elsewhere. He began taking an interest in chemical experiments and medicine. Experimental science had recently been introduced to Oxford by John Wilkins, but it remained a fringe interest. It was viewed with much the same intellectual disdain as present-day universities tend to regard ESP or economics, and its introduction to Oxford had long been opposed. (The fact that Wilkins was Cromwell’s brother-in-law may well have helped in overcoming this opposition.)

Locke was introduced to medicine by his former schoolfriend Richard Lower. Medical knowledge was still largely based on Aristotle and the ancient Greek authorities, such as Galen and Hippocrates; but some felt the need to extend this knowledge by scientific investigation and experiment. These had already led to great advances in the study of anatomy – such as William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. (As a result of this, Locke’s friend Lower undertook a daring experiment – daring for his patient as much as for himself – and became the first man to perform a successful blood transfusion.) Even so, for practical purposes medicine remained largely at the sawbones and leeches stage. Locke read avidly of the latest developments but refrained from taking up medical carpentry as a hobby.

By the late 1650s the Commonwealth was being run by the Puritan element, and the country was beginning to suffer from the postrevolutionary religious fanaticism that has now become the norm, even after atheist revolutions. The English have always been very good at being boring, and several times in their history have emerged for considerable periods as undisputed world masters in the field. This was one of them. Under the Puritans all conspicuous signs of enjoyment were rigorously banned. Even Christmas was banned, despite what it celebrated. Citizens were expected to work all day and spend the rest of their time conforming. Life was given over to Puritan indoctrination, the thought police, informers (on the likes of wicked Christmas pudding eaters), and long sessions spent studying the principles of Markism, Lukism, and Johnism. Until in the end even the English had had enough, and decided to invite Charles II to take over. They preferred to be ruled by a drunkard who lived with a prostitute, rather than do without Christmas pudding.

Meanwhile Locke’s father had fallen seriously ill. Locke learned that he was being treated by the celebrated Irish doctor Edmund Meara, and wrote to his father expressing his confidence that he was in safe hands and would soon recover. This is curious as Dr. Meara was already notorious for having denounced Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood as a hoax, and had written a virulent pamphlet attacking Locke’s pioneering medical friend Lower. As a result of Dr. Meara’s attentions, Locke’s father soon got worse, and within a few months he was dead. Although Locke did travel to Somerset before the end (and even called in a new doctor), his behaviour here remains inexplicable. Could he have harboured some (perhaps unconscious) resentment against his father? Locke’s father had been strict at home but could well have lost authority when he was temporarily ruined by the civil war. In later life Locke always referred to his father respectfully, but as it was his habit to keep his deeper feelings to himself we can only speculate.

As a result of his father’s death Locke inherited a parcel of land and some cottages. The rent from these provided him with an income on which he could have lived modestly for the rest of his life. But Locke had no wish to become a gentleman. By now he had graduated and become a don at Christ Church. The Restoration had brought with it a new libertarianism, and Locke took advantage of this – in his own prudent fashion. He began casting his eyes around at the ladies (who wished to be known as such in those days, and usually behaved like them – except at the royal court and in Restoration comedies).

To judge from the portraits we have of Locke, he was an oddly handsome man, in a rather austere, distinguished manner. This may have been offset by his constant poor health. He appears to have suffered from asthma since childhood. Some have attributed this to psychosomatic causes, and indeed there may have been tensions in his childhood home. A good-looking mother of lower social standing married to an unambitious, sometimes impecunious man ten years her senior, who spent long periods away fighting in the civil war, hardly seems a recipe for domestic bliss. But asthma didn’t stop John Locke’s roving eye. Unfortunately Locke had been brought up in a Parliamentary household that espoused Puritan ways. Although he had by now transferred his sympathies to the Royalists, he never fully abandoned his former allegiance. At heart, something of the Puritan ethic remained – both in his behaviour and in his choice of ladies. He would write them long, amorous letters, and they would reply in equally amorous fashion. I quote from a typical example:

“Worthy Sir,

You are not able to imagine with what content and satisfaction I read over your civil and most obliging letter. …

I am sorry to hear that you rode out of your way, and repent with grief that I should be the cause of it, for I assure you that it was my prayers that you might have a happy journey. …”

And so on, ending: “I remain, your cordial friend. …”

Locke replied a week later: “That my returns are not so quick as yours is owing to an impossibility of finding that ecstasy your excellent letter first put me into, for which a week’s time is but little to recover myself.”

Unsurprisingly, not much came of these often prolonged dalliances, which were sometimes daringly conducted with more than one lady at a time.

But Locke may well have been a little disingenuous about the reasons for his weeklong delay in replying to his cordial friend. Despite his poor health, he set himself a heavy schedule and read long into the night.

Ostensibly Locke may have been a lecturer in ancient Greek, but he nonetheless devoted most of his time to scientific studies. Yet, though he theoretically favoured practical experiment, in practice his studies remained purely theoretical.

Science appears to have fulfilled a deep need in Locke. Like his country, he remained divided between the “unreflective adhesion to tradition” of the Royalists and the “enthusiasm” (i.e., unexamined emotional fervor) of the Puritans. Science was Locke’s way out of this dilemma. Here was a subject that relied purely upon experience (rather than tradition), and arrived at its truths through experiment (rather than fervent conviction).

Locke’s reading of rational science eventually led him to the rational philosophy of Descartes. Here at last, at the late age of thirty-four, he discovered his subject. It was Descartes who gave him “a relish of philosophical studies.” The philosophy of Descartes was to have a decisive influence on Locke. Indeed, to this day some French commentators consider him as one of Descartes’s followers. But this is ridiculous – as is shown by Voltaire, who rejected Descartes but was heavily influenced by Locke.
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