Modern philosophy

Locke was a 17th century English philosopher (1632-1704) considered one of the founders of empiricism, and politically, liberalism. While studying at Oxford, he became interested in the thought of Descartes. He travelled to France and met some of the most brilliant minds of the time. During the Tory Reaction, he was exiled from England and took refuge in Holland. He is the author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, but also of The Second Treatise of Government or Essay Concerning Toleration.

Locke's works summarised on this site

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke develops here a resolutely empiricist theory of knowledge. How are our ideas formed? Is our knowledge limited?


Here are the essential books if you want to understand this author's thinking better:

Roger Woolhouse (2007). Locke: A Biography. Cambridge University Press
Dunn, John (1969), The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Marshall, John (1994), John Locke: resistance, religion and responsibility, Cambridge
Vere Claiborne Chappell, ed. (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge University Press.
Ayers, Michael, 1991. Locke. Epistemology & Ontology, Routledge

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Biography: life of Locke


John Locke was born in 1632, in Wrington, a small town near Bristol in south-west England.

At the time, the country was torn apart by civil war; this would leave a lasting mark on Locke's childhood. It led to the ruin of his father, a captain in Parliament who had worked in the legal profession as a solicitor. The war would not end until his late teens, with the execution of Charles I in 1649.

At the age of 15, he went to London to study. After learning Latin and Greek, he enrolled at Westminster School and read the works of Aristotle.

A zealous student, he won a scholarship to continue his studies at Oxford, where he returned at the age of twenty.

Interested in medicine and the natural sciences, he found little use for rhetoric and scholasticism. In 1663, he was elected Censor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. As a tutor, he supervised the studies of younger students.

He was all the more committed to his mission because he was a loner: both his parents and his two brothers were dead. He remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.

Politically, he was one of those who opposed the absolutism of the Stuarts.

Travel and philosophy

At the age of thirty-five, he left Oxford to become secretary to Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury, minister to Charles II, and befriended him. He was physician to the family, and tutor to the Earl's son.

Up to this point he had been mainly interested in medicine and the natural sciences. It was not until 1671 that he really turned to philosophy, following his reading of the works of Descartes, who had died some twenty years earlier.

At this point, he began writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, his major work. It was to be written over many years.

portrait of John Locke
Portrait of John Locke

From 1672 to 1675, he went travelling. He visited France, not only Paris, but also Montpellier, to take care of himself: he went there to enjoy the excellent climate of the South of France. It was an opportunity for him to improve his knowledge of Descartes, and to make connections in intellectual circles.

In France, he was tutor to the son of Sir John Banks, a friend of the Shaftesburys. Over all these years, he developed a real expertise in terms of education and pedagogy, which was to play an important role in the writing of his last work Some Thoughts Concerning Education, many years later.

In 1682, he was forced into exile from England as a result of the Civil War. For seven years, he took refuge in Holland, before being able to return to his native country, the side he supported having triumphed. He was appointed a Commissioner of Appeal and worked at the Board of Trade.

Fame in Oates

For Locke, 1689 was a banner year: he published one after the other the Two Treatises of Government, and A Letter Concerning Toleration. To circumvent censorship, the first work appeared anonymously, while the second was first published in Latin in the Netherlands.

The following year, it was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was published. This soon provided the basis for philosophical teaching at Trinity College Dublin, and would exert a profound influence, a few decades later, on the French philosophers of the Enlightenment.

From 1691, he lived with his friend Lady Masham at her manor house in Oates, Essex, a few dozen miles from London. Now famous, he entertained friends, responded to reviews of his works, and kept up a correspondence with many prominent people, including the King's ministers.

Two years later, in 1693, he published his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which some say had an even greater influence on his time than An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Affected by oedema in his leg and deaf, Locke died in 1704, at High Laver.

Main works

Essay Concerning Toleration
A Letter Concerning Toleration
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Two Treatises of Government
Some Thoughts Concerning Education