It has often been said that a person's philosophy is merely a reflection of personal temperament and the peculiar circumstances that have shaped the course of life. While this statement may not be regarded as a complete explanation, no one can reasonably doubt that the activities in which a person has been engaged throughout the greater portion of his life will have a considerable bearing on the views expressed in his later and more mature years. This is especially true in the case of John Locke, for he was a man who was deeply involved in the affairs of his country, as well as one whose judgment was held in high esteem by the more prominent scholars of his day. It is for this reason that some familiarity with his life and the times in which he lived is essential for an understanding of his philosophical works.
Information concerning the early years of his life is rather meager, but we do know that he was born on August 29, 1632, in the village of Wrington in Somersetshire, not many miles from Bristol, England. He was the elder of two sons in a family that was known for its sympathies with the Puritans and the Roundheads at a time when political affairs in England were characterized by internal strife and uncertainty with reference to the future. The father of the family became a captain in the army of the Parliament, and in the course of the events that took place during this turbulent period in English history, his estate was greatly reduced so that only a minor portion of what was once of considerable size was left to be inherited by the sons. When John Locke was fourteen years of age, he was placed in Westminster school, where he remained for six years. In 1652, he was granted a scholarship in Christ Church in Oxford, and it was there that he made his home for a period of fourteen years.
He was not altogether happy with the type of instruction that he received at Oxford. The school had for a long time been under the influence of the Aristotelian tradition, and Locke resented the idea of being told what he should think. He is said to have reported that while there, he discovered that what was called general freedom was general bondage. His attitude is illustrated in the fact that he refused to take notes on the lectures that were given, and he did not participate in the debates that were being held since he considered them to be for the most part idle disputations about topics of no practical use. He preferred sticking to facts rather than dealing with abstractions.
The year of the Restoration in England was an important one for Locke. It was during this year that his father died, and the small estate which he left was sufficient to enable the son to pursue studies along the lines of his varied interests. It was a time when Calvinistic theology was ascendant in England, and Locke's interest in religion led him to give some consideration to the idea of preparing for the ministry. The idea was soon abandoned, primarily because of the dogmatic character of the instruction given to those who expected to follow that profession. Locke's sympathies with the idea of free inquiry persuaded him to pursue studies along other lines. However, his interest in the field of religion continued throughout the later years of his life, as evidenced by the publication of his book entitled The Reasonableness of Christianity.
Experimental research was fashionable in England at the time, and the methods used in the pursuit of these investigations were more in line with Locke's temperament. He became familiar with what was going on in these areas, and he resolved to do something on his own to extend the domain of human knowledge. It was during these years that he became acquainted with the philosophy of René Descartes, whose writings had been published about twenty years earlier.
Although the method used by Descartes was something of which Locke became critical in his later years, it seems highly probable that the purpose and content of these writings had much to do with the objective that Locke had in mind when he wrote his own book about human understanding. Descartes had said that the question concerning the limitations of human knowledge was one that "any man who loves truth must examine once at least in his life; since the adequate investigation of it comprehends all intellectual method and the organon of human knowledge." He had said further, in the same connection, that "nothing is more absurd than to argue about the mysteries of the universe without consideration of the relative competency of the human mind."
Experiments in the field of chemistry occupied Locke's attention for some time, and he became especially interested in medicine. He never became a practitioner, but it was his close association with a physician that led to his first meeting with Lord Ashley, who later became the first Earl of Shaftesbury. This acquaintance developed into a friendship that became a significant factor in Locke's later career. Locke's studies included more than an investigation of the experimental sciences, for he became very much interested in the fields of education and in the problems that have to do with government. Both of these interests bore fruit in his later years and led to important publications, the merits of which have been recognized by succeeding generations of students.
During the winter of 1665, Locke spent several months in the diplomatic service at the court of the Elector of Brandenburg in Germany. It was shortly after his return to England that he became acquainted with the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the friendship that developed between them made possible a series of conversations having to do with academic subjects and contributing much to the philosophical views that were expressed in Locke's later writings. Locke served as secretary to the earl and was on such intimate terms with the family that he is said to have become "the factotum of the most striking political personage in the reign of Charles the Second." It was during this period that he came in contact with several of the leading scientists of England and was held by them in such high esteem that one of their number wrote concerning Locke that he was "a man whom, in the acuteness of his intellect, in the steadiness of his judgment, and in the simplicity, that is, in the excellence of his manners, I confidently declare to have, amongst the men of our time, few equals and no superior."
It was at the close of a series of discussions that took place among a small group of friends who were accustomed to meet regularly that Locke began the writing of what eventually became the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It began in a small way, but he tells us that what he had intended to put down on a single sheet of paper kept on growing and developing in his own mind until it became a huge volume of writing. His reflections on the subject matter that was being treated did not take place all at once but continued with interruptions over a period of more than twenty years. The interruptions included two periods of residence on the continent.
The first one took place between the years 1675 and 1679. The Earl of Shaftesbury had fallen into disfavor with the ruling powers, and Locke found it expedient to go to France, where he stayed for approximately four years. His return to England did not mean for him a peaceful existence, for the government of the country was in a state of turmoil and Locke had been too deeply involved in political affairs to be undisturbed by the events that were taking place.
In 1683, he became a voluntary exile in Holland, which had long been known as a place where refugees could abide in safety. He stayed in Holland for five years and returned to England shortly after the revolution of 1688 and the accession to the throne of William and Mary. In fact, Locke is said to have returned to London on the same ship that carried the new queen. Because he stood in high favor with the new administration, he was offered a post of honor in the new government, which he declined to accept.
In 1689, he began his residence in Oates in the household of Sir Francis Masham. His circle of friends included the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he carried on long series of conversations. The results of these conversations can be seen in several of Locke's later publications. Public recognition of Locke's achievements is evidenced by the fact that he was made a member of the Royal Society. The last fourteen years of his life were occupied chiefly by his numerous writings.
The Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published for the first time about 1690. It attracted the attention of scholars not only in England but on the continent as well. It became the subject of much scholarly discussion, and books were soon to appear in which Locke's views were subjected to analyses and criticisms. Some of these criticisms led to certain modifications and additions in the three later editions that appeared while the author was still living.
Although the Essay Concerning Human Understanding is still recognized as Locke's greatest literary achievement, his interests were by no means confined to a discussion of the problem of knowing. He was deeply concerned with governmental issues and the role of education in human society. His publications included two Treatises on Government, three Letters on Toleration, Thoughts on Education, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and An Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul's Epistles. He died in 1704.