Theorist of post-Cartesian science based on empiricism, John Locke is also the promoter of a political philosophy based on the concept of natural law. Locke is also a precursor of liberalism, his thought has been modeled by the French philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Locke as a Philosopher of the Enlightenment
Born into a family of small landowners, John Locke is the representative of the Puritan England that defends the rights of Parliament against the royal prerogatives. Locke entered in Christ Church (Oxford) in 1652, he became a censor of Greek philosophy in 1664. At the same time, he opened his mind to sciences (medicine and physics). From 1666 to 1683, he ranked among the resolutely opposed to the absolutism of the Stuarts.
In 1671, Locke began to develop what would become the Essay on Human Understanding, published in 1690, before being overhauled thanks to four subsequent editions (1694, 1695, 1700, 1706). In response, Leibniz‘s New Essays prepare Concerning Human Understanding, which will be published in 1765, however, after the death of the two philosophers. Also author of the Two Treatises of Government, published anonymously in 1689, the Letter Concerning Toleration, published in Latin in 1689 in the Netherlands then translated into English in 1690, Thoughts on Education (1693) and Reasonable Christianity (1695).
Locke, Empiricism and the natural law
For Locke, science embraces three areas:
- physics, or natural philosophy, which deals with bodies and minds;
- ethics, which determines the rules leading to happiness and the right conduct,
- the science of signs, which interprets the words and ideas.
Locke’s Philosophy on Ideas
Locke teaches that man has no innate idea in theory and in practice. Our ideas come from two sources: sensation and reflection.
Simple ideas, the most obvious because they look like their subject, are provided by the senses, they concern the physical space, body shape, its rest or movement. Those that we are by our power of reflection are the thoughts and wills. The error can arise with judgments that our understanding operates.
Complex ideas are the result of work of the mind, achieved by construction and composition from simple ideas. First there is the ideas of simple modes, space or time: we can always add length to a line, a time to time.
Locke’s Philosophy on knowledge
Once known the nature of our ideas, we must determine what a certain knowledge. Knowledge is certain when it comes to proposals that are faithful to the arrangement of our ideas, and when they actually look like what exists in nature. All would be well if our ideas were associated with each number in the order of things. But connections are mostly random, or according to custom, without reflection, and the association of ideas is an ongoing opportunity for error.
It is no exaggeration to say that the mind is often prey to the imagination than the truth. As the real essence of things escapes us, and we can only approach it, our knowledge is often only probable. Locke was born with a tradition of knowledge approximation, which is between skepticism and dogmatism. Our knowledge and has varying degrees of precision and certainty, as it is near or far from the resemblance of things immediately.
There is nothing more certain that our sensible intuitions, in which we present our idea the thing itself. Our demonstrations are richer, but they span several insights, which makes them fragile. Objects finally hit us passively accepted ideas, the ideas of sensitive knowledge, which are unmistakable. In all, science is based entirely on the demonstration, but knowledge is the safest one passively receive our senses.
Locke, Liberalism and Social Contract
Descartes opposed to the theory of innate ideas, Locke nevertheless retains a decisive contribution of Cartesianism: the men have real freedom, whose expresses the power of their mind when fortunately directed. This free man, aspiring to happiness, is the man of the state of nature. It has a life of its own, and has the right and duty to maintain. How would renounce it by giving his life in the hands of others?
Locke therefore disqualifies any doctrine that sovereignty belongs by nature to a providential man. He said it is political power that built society, resulting from the voluntary agreement – or tacitly accepted – by men to have laws: such a social contract does not establish the company, which is the state of nature, but the government. But the laws are legitimate only if they accurately reflect the natural rights of man are his personal liberty, but also its ownership and its right to exchange the fruits of his labor. In exchange, he created within the state of nature, the two instruments that are exchange currency and funding of the goods. Thus sets up the global market that is the creed of liberalism.
Founder of the modern concept of law, taking into account the universal qualities of man, Locke proposes a model of political legitimacy that will feed the whole thought of the eighteenth century.