Aug 292016



Today is the birthday (1632) of John Locke FRS, an English philosopher and physician, one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and in particular, influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, along with many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and North American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke’s theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa), and that contrary to Cartesian philosophy which postulated the existence of innate ideas, Locke proposed instead that knowledge is determined only by experience derived from sense perception.


Locke’s professional trajectory is indicative of how different the 17th century was from the modern era. Locke was born in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol. Soon after Locke’s birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton. In 1647, Locke was sent to  Westminster School and then was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in the autumn of 1652 at the age of 20. Although a capable student he was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum that focused on the classics, and preferred the works of contemporary philosophers, such as René Descartes. Through his friend Richard Lower, whom he knew from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.

After taking a bachelor’s degree in he was awarded a bachelor of medicine in February 1675, having studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford and having worked with the likes of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In 1666, he met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue. Locke’s medical knowledge was put to the test when Shaftesbury’s liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo surgery (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life. Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury’s home at Exeter House in London, to serve as Lord Ashley’s personal physician. In London, Locke resumed his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham who encouraged his philosophical bent.

I consider the so-called “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” to be a productive turn for philosophy and science in some respects, but probably ultimately a fatal one for Western civilization. Time will tell. The trajectory we are on looks decidedly abysmal. Locke was a leader in this march of “progress.” He was a champion of using experience to guide reason, but he was unaware of the hopeless limits of his own experience. You can’t just reason your way into any valuable insights into humans in the “state of nature,” for example. You need some concrete evidence. Making extrapolations from the social and political world around you won’t tell you about the distant past, no matter how precise your “reason” is.


Locke led Western philosophy down a path I have been skeptical of since I was an undergraduate. That’s why I became an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Ethnocentrism is the great curse of Locke’s path, as it is of so many Westerners in general, now as then. Pondering the social and political realities of 17th century Europe may have led to some useful outcomes in terms of reform and rebellion against the old order. But it was hopeless in the service of wider causes. Within the limits of his own experience, Locke was a decent philosopher. Here’s some quotes:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in; those who have read of everything, are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

The necessity of believing without knowledge . . .  should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

There is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.


Locke died on 28 October 1704, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. He never married nor had children. His epitaph is in Latin, but was translated thus:

Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.


As a good demonstration of my general attitude that we cannot assume that we know other cultures just by employing rational thought to limited evidence, I give you this recipe from A True Gentlewomans Delight, (1653) – maybe the kind of broth that Locke supped on in the rich households in frequented.

To make stewed Broth.

Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.


The language is more or less clear. You just need to know that sack is fortified wine imported from Spain or the Canary Islands, one style of which we now call sherry. Saunders is a food dye made from red sandalwood. The quantities are reasonably precise, so have at it. Or maybe a soup of mutton, spices, currants, raisins, prunes, wine, and sugar is not to your tastes. Why not? Locke was human and so are you. Surely you like similar things? Christmas mincemeat is about the last vestige in modern British cuisine of this style of cooking. The “meat” part of “mincemeat” is your hint that it was once made with real meat and not just suet. I’ve made it with venison, in fact, according to a 19th century recipe. But I served it in a pie as dessert, not as a main course. Sweet mutton soup is not appearing on my table any time