Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

John Locke 1632-1704

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Recommended Reading

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding   The Two Treatises of Government  


->  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

->  The Two Treatises of Government

The Man

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, a small village in southwestern England. His father was a legal clerk and had served as a captain in the English Civil War. Both of his parents were Puritans. They were comfortable although not of particularly high social or economic standing.

In 1647, through the patronage of the man who had been his father’s commander during the war and who had since become a local MP, Locke was able to enrol at Westminster School in London. He was an outstanding student and was named a King’s Scholar, an honour awarded only to a select number of boys.

Locke entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1652 where he studied logic, metaphysics, and classical languages. Education at Oxford was primarily scholastic although Locke had little appetite for the predominantly Aristotelian-based curriculum and would soon break with this way of thinking. He graduated with a B.A. four years later and qualified as a Master of Arts in 1658. After completing his undergraduate degree and until the time he left Oxford in 1667, Locke held a number of administrative and academic posts at the college. In his final years here, he focused his studies in the fields of medicine and natural philosophy (science), training to become a physician. Around this time, Locke became acquainted with a number of notable natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, whose influence is apparent in many of Locke’s ideas.

In 1666, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the Earl of Shaftesbury), one of the most prominent English politicians of the time, visited Oxford where he met Locke and invited him to London to become his personal physician. Locke accepted and moved the following year. He continued his studies in London where he became friends with several members of the Royal Society and was elected a fellow in 1668. He did a variety of different jobs for Ashley and through him found himself working for the government. It was at this time that he began work on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1674, Shaftesbury (as Ashely was called now) left the government and Locke returned to Oxford where he completed his Bachelor’s in medicine and earned a licence to practice. The following year he went to France where he would stay for three and a half years, spending much of this time learning about Protestantism.

When Locke returned to England around 1680, the political climate had turned against him and Shaftesbury, who had already been imprisoned once and would be tried on charges of treason a year later. Around this time Locke began work on his major political treatise, Two Treatises of Government. Wrongly implicated in a failed assassination attempt on King Charles II, known as the Rye House Plot, Locke was forced to flee to Holland in 1683 where he finished the Essay.

Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Locke was able to return to England although rather than settling in London, he stayed in the country in Essex, with friends. He published the Essay and Two Treatises and over the next few years, continued to write, completing most notably, A Letter Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

Locke found employ in the government, serving on the Board of Trade and Plantations (an administrative board with a fairly wide mandate) from 1696 until 1700. During this time, his health (Locke was asthmatic) began to deteriorate and he found working in London, with its poor air quality, increasingly difficult. After retiring, he moved permanently to Essex where he lived for another four years, dying on Sunday 28 October, 1704.

The Timeline

1632: Born on August 29 in Wrington, England

1647: Enrolled in the Westminster School in London

1652: Enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford

1656: Obtained his B.A.

1658: Completed his Masters of Arts

1661-64: Lectured at Christ Church, Oxford

1666: Met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper

1667: Moved to London as a member of Lord Ashley’s household

1671: Began work on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

1673-74: Worked as secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations

1674: Returned to Oxford to complete a Bachelor’s in medicine

1675: Moved to France

1680: Returned to London and began work on Two Treatises of Government

1683: Exiled to Holland

1688: Returned to England

1689: Published the Essay, Two Treatises, and A Letter Concerning Toleration

1693: Published Some Thoughts Concerning Education

1695: Published The Reasonableness of Christianity

1693: Became a member of the Board of Trade and Plantations

1704: Died on October 28 in Essex

The Philosophy

John Locke is the first of three philosophers typically grouped together and called the British Empiricists. Empiricism claims that all knowledge is derived from empirical experience, and is opposed to rationalism, a way of understanding the world which emphasises pure reason.

Locke’s most important philosophical treatise is An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his goal in it is “to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent”. This makes the Essay principally a work of epistemology and is so important to Locke because without an understanding of how we obtain knowledge and the limits thereon, we will be tempted into “meddling with things exceeding its [the mind’s] comprehension”. Much of this text is a direct response to the ideas of Descartes, who had spearheaded the rival theory of the time, Rationalism.

This summary will mainly be concerned with the ideas explicated in the Essay but since any outline of Locke’s thought that did not include some mention of his political views would be sorely lacking, I will also look at his major political work, Two Treatises of Government, in which he sets out the foundations that make up our modern representative democracies. In reading Two Treatises one might be surprised by just how much appears to be merely common sense, but this is a testament to the influence Locke has had on politics and the Western mindset. At the time Locke was writing, his ideas were anything but common sense and some of them would have seemed positively radical to the average person.


Innate Principles / Ideas

Locke’s first concern in the Essay is to reject the notion that certain principles or ideas are innate to humans. Rationalism held that people were born with certain ideas “imprinted” on their minds. Although not the first to dispute this by claiming the mind at birth is a tabula rasa (blank slate), the modern formulation of the argument is usually attributed to Locke who used the term “white paper” to emphasise the idea that humans are born completely without any knowledge or principles.

There are three categories Locke considers here; theoretical principles, practical principles, and ideas. The principle arguments for innate principles tend to turn on the idea of universal assent or immediate assent upon learning of them but Locke rejects these out of hand because there are no principles which are truly universal. Children, the illiterate/uneducated, etc., are ignorant of all principles until they are taught or learned through direct experience. Indeed, if these principles (theoretical or practical) were truly innate, they ought to manifest more clearly in those whose minds have been uncluttered by education, but this is manifestly not the case. Why would we even need to teach children how to act well (morality) if practical principles were innate?

The problems are only compounded when we realise that before we can have innate principles, the ideas those principles refer to must also be innate. This means we are being asked to believe that children are somehow born with real, concrete knowledge prior to any experience at all. Locke takes for his example here, the idea of God, which isn’t even universally assented to by reasoning adults, let alone appearing unclouded and fully-formed in children and the illiterate.

Origin and Types of Ideas / Primary and Secondary Qualities

All ideas come from experience and experience alone. Locke asserts there are two “fountains of knowledge”; sensation and reflection. Sensation refers to all experience appropriated from external sources through the senses. Reflection is internal and comes from the mind reflecting on, manipulating, combining, etc., the ideas it has acquired from sensation.

There are two categories of ideas; simple and complex. The former are those which are absolutely basic, in the sense that they are not composed of multiple ideas but are fundamentally irreducible. These ideas cannot be invented at whim. Examples of these ideas include:

- Light, sounds, hardness, space, figure (known from sensation)

- Perception, volition (known from reflection)

- Pleasure, pain, existence, unity (known from both sensation and reflection)

Simple ideas of sensation also reveal another crucial distinction in Locke; that of primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are those which are “utterly inseparable from the body” and include things like solidity, extension, number, etc. Secondary qualities come from the power of things “to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities”. Examples of these include colours, sounds, tastes, etc.

This is an important distinction because it means that only primary qualities “really exist… The secondary exist in things only as modes of the primary” and are more like incidental properties belonging not to things themselves but to the way we interact with and experience things.

Complex ideas are those which involve some kind of manipulation of already existing ideas. There are three ways complex ideas can be formed; (1) by combining several simple ideas, (2) by comparing two ideas without uniting them to obtain a relation, (3) by separating the individual ideas that constitute a real thing, i.e. abstraction. There are also three categories of complex ideas which don’t perfectly map onto the three ways of forming them:

1. Modes – complex ideas derived from other ideas. Examples include time and eternity (modes of the simple idea of duration), couple and triple (modes of the simple idea of number), good and evil (modes of the simple ideas of pleasure and pain).

2. Substances – combinations of simple ideas that represent distinct things. Locke is deliberately vague about what exactly substance is because we don’t have any clear or distinct ideas about it. We never see ‘substance’ – we only see the qualities it supports. Nevertheless we must suppose substance exists because without it there would be nothing for qualities to subsist in. Locke accepts three substances: God, finite intelligences (mind/spirit), and bodies.

3. Relations – comparisons between ideas. One example of this is cause and effect.

Degrees of Ideas

Locke measures our ideas against a number of different scales:

- Clear/Obscure – This reflects how closely the ideas we bring to mind from memory resemble the original idea thought.

- Distinct/Confused – This measures how clearly our ideas are differentiated from other ideas and therefore distinctly understood.

- Real/Fantastical – Real ideas are those that exist in nature.

- Adequate/Inadequate – This measures how closely an idea represents the archetype it was taken from.

- True/False – This only applies to propositions, not ideas in themselves, and reflects how accurately a judgement about our ideas compares to some standard.


Simple Ideas

The names we have for simple ideas always refer to some real existing thing but they can’t be perfectly defined. The reason for this is quite simple. A definition works by “showing the meaning of one word by several other not synonymous terms” but since simple ideas are irreducible concepts obtainable only through the impressions objects make on our minds, a perfectly adequate definition is impossible.

Consider light. Anyone with eyes knows what light is but to someone born blind, how could you define this simple idea so they could understand exactly what you are talking about? You could explain that light is composed of packets of electromagnetic energy called photons which are detected by the eye but to someone who lacks vision, this definition is absolutely meaningless and could only result in confusion.

Complex Ideas – Modes and Relations

The names we have for complex modes and relations don’t refer to any real existing thing. Instead they refer to concepts arbitrarily made by the understanding. These days, we are accustomed to thinking of anything arbitrary as inadequate or inaccurate. This isn’t true. The fact that these names (and the ideas themselves) are arbitrary doesn’t make them meaningless or random. On the contrary, it means the names we use for these ideas completely and certainly refer to the ideas themselves.

The example Locke gives is the idea of parricide. Why do we have a special name for the murder of one’s father, but not for the murder of one’s neighbour? For some reason (which will ultimately be found in custom, societal norms, tradition, etc.) we have found it important to mark the murder of one’s father as distinct from the murder of one’s neighbour. The point is that there is absolutely no difference between the two from a purely natural, physical perspective.

Complex Ideas – Substances

While the names we give substances do refer to really existing things, they only refer to an abstraction or generalised concept, not the actual, particular thing. This is, in part, because we don’t actually know what substance really is. All we perceive are qualities (colour, shape, hardness, etc.) but since qualities can’t exist without an underlying substance we are forced to postulate some substance. In Lockean terminology, we can know the nominal essence but not the real essence.

An interesting consequence of this is that nominal essences are arbitrarily made by us, although because they are constrained by real existing things, they aren’t as arbitrary as modes and relations. Locke uses the examples of ice and water, which he treats as different substances. Someone who has never seen ice wouldn’t have a separate word/concept for it, but would presumably call it something like ‘hardened water’. The point is, like that for modes and relations, our classification of things in the world is less based on real, material differences than we typically suppose.


Contrary to what you may expect from an empiricist, Locke wasn’t a materialist. He acknowledged the existence of an “immaterial thinking being” within humans, over and above corporeal bodies. Indeed, he claims that he knows the existence of spiritual being “more certainly” than he knows the corporeal.

His objection, directed at materialists who claim they comprehend matter but not spirit, works by disputing the fact that they actually know matter at all. He makes two points in this direction. First, no one knows how the separate parts of bodies actually cohere together to make extension. He may have rethought this charge had he lived to see that state of 21st century science. Secondly, no one can explain how something as evanescent and intangible as thought can lead to bodily motion or even how motion can be communicated from one object to another (e.g. billiard balls). We can see what happens when one billiard ball in motion hits a stationary one but we can’t explain why the motion from the first is transferred to the second one. Even today, we can describe what happens but a description is not an explanation.


Locke holds that we derive our complex ideas of good and evil from the simple ones of pleasure and pain. This makes him a hedonist. He defines good as that “which is apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain in us; or else to procure or preserve us the possession of any other good or absence of any evil”. Evil (or bad) is obviously the opposite. Ethics, for Locke, then is simply the seeking out of those rules regarding human actions which lead to happiness.

He divides moral rules or laws into three categories; divine, civil, and, the law of opinion or reputation. Through our relation to the first, we establish sin or duty. The second, establishes whether we are criminal or innocent. The third, virtue or vice.


Locke has an intriguing position on freewill. The question he is investigating is whether the will is free or not. He thinks much confusion has been stirred up in relation to this and seeks to bring some clarity to the discussion. He begins by defining will as the power the mind has to bring any idea into consideration or prefer the motion of any part of the body to its rest, and vice versa.

So what does freedom mean? Well, we are free whenever our thought or movement follows according to the preference or direction of our mind. If I want to think about what I ate for dinner last night and my thoughts turn to pizza and chips, then I am free. Likewise, if I want to stop walking and my legs stop moving, then I am free. As Locke asks, “how can we think any one freer, than to have the power to do what he will?”

Clarifying exactly what ‘freedom’ means reveals that the initial question – is the will free or not? – is completely absurd because the will, as a faculty of a human being, isn’t something that can be free or not. Only agents can be free (i.e. have their thoughts or actions follow their will), so asking if the will is free is to treat the will as if it were an agent. It makes no more sense to ask whether the will is free than it does to ask a man “whether his sleep be swift, or his virtue square”.

So Locke goes on to clarify the question. Perhaps when people ask if the will is free, they are really asking whether we are free to will. And it turns out we aren’t. Our freedom lies in being able to follow through on what we will; whether we will or not is out of our control. Locke gives the example of someone walking, who is therefore free to either continue walking or stop. As soon as the decision presents itself to their mind however, they aren’t free to will or not will one option. They must necessarily prefer one or the other; i.e. to either continue walking or stop.

If someone were to continue to press the question and ask whether our walker is free to will whichever of the two he wants, we find ourselves back in the realm of the absurd essentially asking whether a person can will what they will.

Personal Identity

Locke breaks down this thorny idea in such a way that much of the mystery surrounding it dissolves. He first considers an atom, by which he presumably has in mind something that cannot be further divided, and states that it is the “same with itself” at any and every moment it exists. That is what identity means for an atom.

Next, he looks at a clump of atoms that together make a mass. Such a grouping is the same mass as long as the atoms which comprise it remain constant. Atoms changing place within the clump doesn’t alter the identity of the mass but if it loses or gains an atom, then it can no longer be said to be the same mass.

Now we come to living creatures, where Locke says that “their identity depends not on a mass of the same particles, but on something else. For in them the variation of great parcels of matter alters not the identity”. The horse isn’t different (in terms of identity) from the colt it was when it was young. This follows because our ideas of living creatures aren’t the same as the ideas we have of inert masses. This is another line of reasoning in which we see Locke distancing himself from materialism.

Finally, we come to personal identity. Locke defines person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places”. This turns on consciousness which, for Locke, seems to be basically self-consciousness; that is, the way we are always, not just perceiving, but aware of ourselves perceiving. Consciousness is what undergirds personal identity. A person today is therefore the same person from last year as long as they share the same consciousness; i.e. as long as the awareness of self with which they are aware of their actions today is the same as the awareness of self with which they were aware of their actions last year.


Locke defines knowledge as the “perception of the connexion of and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our ideas.” I think it is fair to say that Locke is measured in his claims about the extent of our knowledge. While rejecting unbridled scepticism, it is easy to see how Locke lays the groundwork for it that Hume would build on a few decades later, particularly concerning our knowledge of substances.

Specifically here, Locke talks about how certain our knowledge of general propositions can be. No proposition can be absolutely certain where the real essence (see above ‘Names / Complex Ideas – Substances’) isn’t known. For simple ideas and modes this is no problem, but when it comes to substances where real essences are unknown (and perhaps unknowable) we encounter a significant obstacle.

Consider the idea of ‘human’. The abstract idea (nominal essence) of human is something like “a body of the ordinary shape, with sense, voluntary motion, and reason joined to it” but knowledge of this alone allows us to make very few general propositions we can be certain of. For example, we can’t certainly affirm from our knowledge alone: “That all men sleep by intervals; That no man can be nourished by wood or stones; That all men will be poisoned by hemlock: because these ideas have no connexion nor repugnancy with this our nominal essence of man”. The only way we can come by the above facts is through trial in particular subjects. We can obviously then infer from these particular subjects that other similarly constituted creatures will also have these same characteristics, but our certainty here can never extend beyond mere probability.

Degrees of Clarity of Knowledge

Locke lists three degrees of clarity for knowledge:

- Intuitive – this type of knowledge occurs where the agreement or disagreement of two ideas is immediately perceived without the intervention of any other idea. Examples include the knowledge that white is not black and a circle is not a triangle. Intuitive knowledge is the clearest and most certain we are capable of.

- Demonstrative – This is where agreement or disagreement is only perceived through intermediate ideas and occurs as a result of the process we call reasoning. An example is the knowledge that the three angles of a triangle and two right angles are equal. This form of knowledge is certain but less clear.

- Sensitive – This is knowledge of “the particular existence of finite beings without us”. While we cannot be absolutely certain of the existence of things around us, Locke nevertheless feels our knowledge here goes beyond mere probability.

Threefold Knowledge of Existence

There are three things we can be confident in the existence of: ourselves, God, and the external world.


Locke basically accepts Descartes’ cogito ergo sum argument as delivering irrefutable proof that we exist.


Locke was heavily religious and argued that we could know for certain that God exists. He essentially makes three arguments that all seem to be variations on Aquinas’ argument from causation and which get him to the existence of an “eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being”.

First, non-being cannot produce being. Therefore, if there is being (which there plainly is), there must have been some being existing from eternity.

Second, whatever has a beginning can only get its beginning and its power from another. The source of this power must then be the most powerful.

Finally, perception and knowing cannot come from non-knowing. Therefore, if knowledge/perception and knowing/perceiving beings exist (they do), then there must have been a knowing being existing for eternity.

External World

As we have already seen, the existence of the external world is apparent through sensation and, while less certain than demonstration, still rises above mere probability. Locke isn’t troubled by the sceptic who denies the world because this level of scepticism guarantees that “he can never be sure I say anything contrary to his own opinion.”

In addition to the testimony of our senses, Locke sees four other reasons for accepting the existence of an external world:

1. Our perceptions can only be produced in us by exterior causes affecting our sense organs. This is sure because those lacking certain organs never develop the ideas associated with those sensory perceptions, nor do our organs themselves produce the sensations or “the eyes of a man in the dark would produce colours”.

2. Ideas from sensation and from memory are clearly different.

3. Pleasure and pain only accompany actual sensations. We don’t experience the same degree of pleasure or pain when we merely bring to mind the ideas of external objects.

4. Multiple senses confirm our perceptions. We are also able to predict what will happen, whether we would will it to occur that way or not.

One limitation of this certainty however, is that, since it depends on sensation, we can only be sure of things which we are currently experiencing through our senses. If I am not sensing my bed (looking at it, lying on it, etc.) I cannot be sure it exists.


Locke begins his essay on civil government by defining the state of nature, which is how humans naturally exist in the absence of regulated laws or any organised society. First, people are all in a state of perfect freedom to do as they like. Second, they are in perfect equality with each other. There is but one law in the state of nature which obtains because everyone is equal and independent; viz. “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

If someone violates this law, the parties involved descend into a state of war. Since there is no organised society or means of redress for violations of this law, it falls to each individual to execute it themselves. Civil government is the remedy for the insecurity inherent in the state of nature.

In a political society, individuals must voluntarily give up their right in the state of nature to act however they choose and in return they receive an established set of laws and the security of having recourse when they are wronged. Locke is clear that the end of political society is “the peace, safety, and public good of the people.”

Locke envisioned two separate branches to government; legislative and executive. The former would be responsible for making laws, while the latter would be responsible for ensuring they were followed.

He wasn’t against monarchy as such, but he was very clearly against absolute monarchy where there are, by definition, no restrictions on the power of the ruler and he or she is above the law. He outlined five forms a commonwealth could take:

1. Perfect democracy – Where the majority makes laws and execute them by officers of their own appointing.

2. Oligarchy – Where the power to make laws is put into the hands of a few select people.

3. Monarchy – Where the power to make laws is put into the hands of one person.

4. Hereditary monarchy – Where the power to make laws is put into the hands of one person and their heirs.

5. Elective monarchy – Where the power to make laws is put into the hands of one person until his or her death before which time they can nominate a successor.

In all of the above (except (1) because there are no rulers; or everyone is a ruler), the rulers are totally accountable to the people and the power they wield is only for their benefit.