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John Locke

On August 29, 1632, in Wrington, England, the man widely known as the Father of Liberalism was born.  John Locke was an English philosopher and physician who has made a large impact on the United States Declaration of Independence with his contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory.  His work had made a great difference upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. He was also considered one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers.

Locke was born into an influential family, with his father being a country lawyer and military man who had served as a captain during the English civil war.  And through his father’s ties to the government, Locke was able to receive outstanding education.  He was also a distinct student who earned the honorary title “King’s Scholar”.  To sum up his life, John Locke was a rich and smart individual who had a smooth sailing life until he hit a political speed bump in 1679 and declining health problems thereafter.

Locke’s philosophical interests divide roughly into three parts: political, epistemological, and scientific. On the scientific side, his major influence was by his friend, the Irish scientist Robert Boyle, whom he helped with Locke’s experiments.  Lord Ashley’s contributions to John’s political thoughts and career can not be understated, as he was one of the founders of the Whig party.  Ashley imparted an outlook on rule and government that never left Locke.  However, Locke owes his success in Episemology to a 17th century Latin translation Philosophus Autodidactus (published by Edward Pococke) of the Arabic philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan by the 12th century Andalusian-Islamic philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail.  This also led to the creation of one of his most famous works – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke’s theory of the mind is often regarded as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self.  His main thesis in one of his major works An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was to explain that humans are not born with innate ideas but with an “empty” mind, a tabula rasa, “which is shaped by experience; sensations and reflections being the two sources of all our ideas”. [Wikipedia]

John Locke’s theory affects all of us, the very being of our human nature.  How we turn out and what we think is a result of our experiences, sensations, and reflections.  However, as understood by Locke, each individual was free to define the content of his or her character – but his or her basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be so altered. And through his theory, I came to reflect on the role that idea plays in perception, how we become who we are through these three qualities.  I agree on this idea of humans being born with a “blank-slate mind”.  As a result, we are shaped as we gain more knowledge because we are nothing to begin with, so humans will be what our experiences shape us to be.  But even so, we cannot completely alter who we were originally.



12 thoughts on “John Locke

  1. Steph,

    The impression I get from the way you talk about John Locke, is that he shares the same, most basic principle as many other philosophers – that we are what we make of ourselves, affected by life and built through it. Sartre, Rorty, Rawls and many others all believed this to be true as a building block for the ‘self’. In this case, I would question: Would Locke consider who we are to be built on a basis of nurture rather nature? As you stated, we are born with a clean slate, and I am inferencing that you meant that we all start no different than one another, in a most basic sense.

    In a previous (TALONS) project, I also looked at this. Here’s a quote that I think really fits what you’re trying to say
    “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience: in that, all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.” -John Locke

    On another note, I found it rather ironic the quote that you chose from the Bible. On the surface, it seems to make sense – we are brought in naked and clean, just as Locke stated. But the exit (clean as well), seems to contradict what Locke has said about being shaped after a lifetime of experiences.

    Also, I found the context of the verse to be rather ironic. It happens to be when Job (a follower of God) is being used as an example by God, that Satan can corrupt no man. Time and time again, Satan brings unspeakable horrors to Job’s life, yet, he remains (somewhat) unaffected and faithful to God. Essentially, no matter what experience is brought upon him(almost), his nature takes precedence over his experiences (nurture). This completely contradicts Locke’s philosophy, for Locke follows the path of nurture. That being said, be careful of the context around the quotes you use.

    So far, it seems like you are enjoying John Locke – he is a interesting man to research. I’m curious as to which direction you will take this project in, for Locke’s inquiries could take you in any direction. I’ll definitely be watching out for your next post! 🙂


    Posted by JonathanToews | October 25, 2012, 5:52 am
    • Hey Jonathan,

      True, John Locke did “share” the same theory as many other philosophers which is experiences shape ourselves. However, Locke was considered the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self; meaning he was basically the very first to ponder about the development of self. From the way you worded John Locke’s theory, it made his principle seem like he only looked at this idea from a deeper perspective, not truly setting the foundation for other philosophers to build their theories upon.

      I agree with your statement on human “selves” to be built on nurture. In his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke emphasized the idea of tabula rasa, or “empty mind” being shaped by experience; sensations and reflections – how our thoughts, actions, and qualities are affected from everything around us. However, he does mention that even before we were born, we process thoughts solely on our sensory; thus incorporating the “nature” into his theory. As understood by Locke, each individual was free to define the content of his or her character – but his or her basic identity as a member of the human species cannot be so altered.

      And thank-you for pointing that out, I was debating on whether I should take that verse out or not!

      Thank-you very much for your input! Looking forward to hearing from you again!


      Posted by stephsmiles777 | October 26, 2012, 4:14 am
  2. Your post is thorough. I appreciate the inclusion of your own perspective at the end. I submit, for your consideration, this short video about learning. It describes the role that evolution has had in the development of who we are (especially on our brains). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=falHoOEUFz0&feature=share&list=PL59652E5D76BE2AB4 I’m interested to know how you see this perspective aligning with the idea of the mind as being a “blank slate.” G

    Posted by GNA | October 25, 2012, 5:55 am
  3. Hey Dr. Garcia,

    This video brought up a lot of good points on the development of ourselves! From since we learned to pick up objects, adults have forced the definition of obedience and naughtiness into our empty minds – thus, we learn to restrict actions that will be condemned and emphasize on praiseworthy actions instead. Locke expressed that humans are shaped by experience, and that the factors around us affect who we become in the future. For example, if we were constantly exposed to violence or “unacceptable” behaviors from an early age (“blank-slate”), we learn that such behaviors are acceptable, and thus become shaped by these experiences.

    Thank-you for your input! Hope to hear more from you soon!


    Posted by stephsmiles777 | October 26, 2012, 4:59 am
  4. I like your post and I think you put the finger on one of the main Locke ideas: all knowledge comes from (sensory) experiences. Locke was one of the leaders of 17 century Empiricists, like Berkeley or Hume, for whom the knowledge comes from experience, hence the “clean-slate” state. They were opposed to Rationalists, like Descartes, Spinoza or Leibniz who thought that knowledge was coming from the reason. These two philosophical currents were dividing Philosophy on the 17 century. Understanding them would probably help you better understand Locke ideas and could provide you an interesting point of view to look at his work.
    Concerning the discussion about learning I encourage you to have a look at the work of Immanuel Kant who did an interesting synthesis of both currents (both reason and experience contribute to knowledge).

    Posted by Celso Gonzalez | October 26, 2012, 5:33 pm
  5. Hey Steph,
    I quite enjoyed reading your post. Thank you. One thing that I’m quite curious as to what Locke (and you as well) think about is what exactly is that “basic human nature”. Do we all start off from the exact same blank slate and would that be the base human nature? Are people’s personalities and actions exclusively determined by previous experience or do other factors play a role? What about genetics, or people who were born with chemical imbalances in their brain?
    Just curious as to what you think.

    Posted by nichoman321 | October 26, 2012, 6:18 pm
    • Hey Nick,

      The “basic human nature” is where all human beings start off the same, an empty mind, a tabula rasa. Locke’s main thesis in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is that there are “No Innate Principles”, by this reasoning: If we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them and that “by degrees afterward, ideas come into their minds”.

      John Locke believed that the origins of knowledge came from experience. He argues that everything in our mind is an idea, and that all ideas take one of two routes to arrive in our mind: either they come in through the senses, or else they come in through the mind’s reflection on its own operation. I recommend that you check out this video that GNA showed me (www.youtube.com/watch?v=falHoOEUFz0&feature=share&list=PL59652E5D76BE2AB4). This video explains how everything we learn comes from copying others, personal experiences, playing…etc. And it really suits the saying “experiences shape who we are”.

      Locke kept emphasizing that all humans start off the same as clean slates. Yet genetic-wise in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Locke himself repeatedly uses idiots to define and delimit the category of personhood. The idiot figure, so often mentioned by Locke, is void of reason and reflection. Idiocy is distinct, however, because it signifies the complete and permanent absence of thought. “Locke’s treatment of idiocy, by creating a subhuman population permanently denied entry into the public political sphere…” (Vanderbilt University). He does not compare those of “idiocy” to be equal to the majority of the population. Hope this explains it!

      Thank-you for commenting! I appreciate your input and thought!


      Posted by stephsmiles777 | October 28, 2012, 5:52 am
      • Steph,

        This is a really clear explanation of what Locke is saying – you’re doing an awesome job of painting a picture of who Locke really was. In response to the “experiences shape who we are”, how do you you think Locke would approach the concept of instinct? Of a person’s innate ability to do something they have never tried, seen, or ever heard of?

        Posted by JonathanToews | October 29, 2012, 2:14 am


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