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Lecture 1c: Locke

January 31, 2014

By the time of 17th century England, these beliefs have more or less taken root in society, if in somewhat less explicit form than they are set out above. At the very least, we can say that the above propositions inform the background of beliefs on which the common person draws in his or her daily life. Certainly, the intellectual of the period is substantially more likely to make explicit reference to this framework, but the implicit relation remains there all the same.

How does this come to the fore in Locke’s work? There are three main parts of Locke’s work.

1.) Theoretico-epistemological.

2.) Politico-moral.

3.) Politico-religious.

What does 1.) entail? In general, Locke is a sensualist and an empiricist. What do these things mean precisely? Sensualism holds that we have no innate ideas. This is the famous tabula rasa principle, i.e. that the mind is a blank slate upon birth. Everything in the mind comes first through the senses or outer experience, and we can have no innate ideas of anything like the soul or God. Empiricism is opposed to rationalism. As an empiricist, Locke believes that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience and reflection on our sensory experience. For this reason, our theories must be tested against the world (as per 4.) above). There can be no knowledge a priori (through reason alone) nor through intuition or revelation. The most powerful example of knowledge is that of scientific progress, which for classical thinkers would be mere nonsense.

2.) concerns what is perhaps Locke’s most lasting legacy insofar as Locke is considered the father of Classical Liberalism. His politico-moral views are liberal in that they promote the protection of individual rights necessary preserve individual’s life, freedom and property. Classical in the sense that he does not take issue with the state of women’s rights, slavery or the religious discrimination against atheists and Catholics. This classical liberalism comes out best in his Two Treatises. The first is directed against Robert Filmer and (indirectly) Hobbes. The second concerns the emergence of political society from the state of nature.

The First Treatise is mostly negative and attacks the position of Robert Filmer (1588-1653) directly and that of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) indirectly. Both were concerned with the origins of political society. They were in agreement that there was an absence of a cosmic order and, thus, of the traditional authority lent to human communities by God. For this reason, there was a need to legitimate the authority found in political society, to which there are typically two solutions at this time in history.

Filmer opted for “divine right of kings” route, an absolutist vision on which authority and command over others was held by those in descent from Adam. As Adam had command over the things of the earth, he was the first property owner, in some sense, and, by extension, his right to command the things and beings of the earth passed to his descendants, the royalty, aristocrats and nobles. For this reason, Filmer supported a strictly traditional, partriachal view of political power.

By contrast, Hobbes takes an opposed path, contractualism, though similarly absolutist in the end. If, as Hobbes famously holds, the state of nature is a war of all against all, and all are in danger, then it makes sense that individuals in that state will do what they can to protect their individual rights to life and property. The best means of protecting these, on Hobbes’ view, proves to be a contract between individuals. More specifically, each individual enters a contract with all others and gives up his or her natural rights to force and self-defense; these rights come to rest with a Sovereign, representative of all people and responsible for the safety of each. This legitimizes society insofar as, because there is no order, legitimacy can only follow from the consent of each and every individual concerned. In the end, all power within political society is in the hands of the Sovereign, the head of an absolutist state.

Unsurprisingly, Locke wants neither of these solutions and this for two reasons. First, both are absolutist in scope and do not arise from free association. Secondly, property should be conceived in terms of labor, not as a right that descends from Adam. Yet Locke does not reject the whole story that is to be found in Hobbes. In particular, he is keen to retain the contractualist frame in Hobbes, as well as the state of nature and the latently free association of individuals in political society. Unlike Hobbes’ petty, miserable and vengeful individuals, those to be found in the natural state on Locke’s view are rational and tolerant although selfish. This selfishness is, however, tempered by God’s command, particularly that requiring humanity to be fruitful and multiply. (Here, we see the combined influence of propositions 1.) and 2.) above.)

What is meant by this command to be fruitful? The most noticeable aspects of this command link up with human nature through the notion of self-preservation. In order to preserve oneself and the species, the individual procreates and engages in labor to produce those resources necessary for life. Given that the command applies to all of humanity and that all individuals are endowed with this sense of self-preservation, before God’s commandment, we all have the same rights and are, therefore, equal. But what, more precisely, lies at the basis of this equality?

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