John Locke

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher and a towering figure of the 17th century. He trained as a doctor, studying medicine at the University of Oxford. He is perhaps most famous for his idea that at birth, a human being’s mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which experience imprints ideas and that everything comes to us through experience, ultimately. Another key idea from Locke that’s had a huge influence in philosophy in more recent years is his writing about the nature of a person and what it is for a person to exist over time. Given we change so much, how can we be the same people that we were when we were children in any sense? Roughly, his answer is that it is memory that provides our personal identity rather than a physical continuity. These and a huge variety of ideas are explored in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

But Locke was also an early liberal thinker. In his A Letter Concerning Toleration, he was very concerned to justify philosophically a policy of not trying to force people to believe things they didn’t believe in about religion. This was firstly because he thought it wouldn’t work, and secondly because he thought it was unchristian.

His other contributions to philosophy include his theory about the nature of property, which for Locke was all about working the land. This and his other political writings can be read in his Second Treatise on Civil Government.

Locke led a complicated life, moving to France after his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, fell from favour and later fleeing England after being suspected of involvement in a plot to kill Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York. Locke lived and worked in Holland for a while, which was a more tolerant society at that time, and returned to England when William (the Dutch stadtholder) and Mary took the throne after the Revolution of 1688.

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