An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Characters

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John Locke

Although not actually a character in this book, Locke himself is one of the most important philosophers in history. His work, especially this book and his Two Treatises of Government, was wildly influential. Although this particular work is not studied anymore as much as later work by David Hume, it was extremely influential in its day and one reason that it is not studied as much as one might think is that the work is both incredibly radical and so widely responded to by both critics and supporters that the substance of Locke's ideas were integrated into later thinkers.

Locke was the son of an English country lawyer who had served under Cromwell in the English civil war. John Locke studied philosophy and medicine at Oxford where he read the works of Descartes and the Scholastic philosophers. While at Oxford, he met Ashley Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury and he joined Shaftesbury at his home. There he wrote the Essay as well as his later political work. He also wrote the constitution of the Carolinas and an influential letter and essay on religious toleration.

Locke's political work on limited government and private property were foundational doctrines in the development of liberalism and is still used today in classrooms. Locke's belief that the pursuit of happiness was central to both ethics and politics was eventually enshrined into the American declaration of independence, a document that owes much to Locke's influence. It is in this essay though, that we see the idea of the pursuit of happiness fully developed and we see how it fits into his overall philosophical system.


Descartes is generally considered to be the first modern, as opposed to medieval, philosopher. He self-consciously began his philosophical project in opposition to the scholastic orthodoxy that was still dominant at the time. Descartes held that we should proceed by a method of doubt, that is, we should throw out all of our ideas and proceed reacquiring what knowledge we could by slowly assessing which ideas were able to withstand radical doubt. He famously starts his investigation by imagining that he does not exist and then seeks to prove his own existence from the fact of his thinking. This is the famous, "Cogito ergo Sum" or "I think, therefore I am." After establishing that he exists, Descartes goes on to prove many other things, including the existence of God.

Unlike Locke, Descartes believed that we have innate ideas and that we could know many things before experience. He further argued that the mind and the body consisted of two entirely separate, though related, substances. Descartes was also known for his invention of the Cartesian coordinates and analytic geometry. His philosophy inspired a school of philosophers on the continent of Europe known as Rationalists. Rationalists, like Spinoza, Leibniz, and Malebranche believed with Descartes that knowledge did not rely on experience for its content. Locke is, in large part, replying to Descartes and providing a kind of analogue to Descartes' work. In some ways, Locke's Essay is a kind of project in radical doubt but instead of starting from doubt, Locke starts from basic experience and sees what he can construct out of that basis with different results from Descartes.


The name Schoolmen refers to a type of philosophy or method of philosophy dominant from about the 11th century until the 16th century. The key figure in Scholasticism was Thomas Aquinas who tried to combine Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine. In modern consciousness, Scholasticism is known for its debates about topics like how many angels can stand on the head of a pin and for its methodological reliance on the notion of substance and final ends.


Followers of Descartes who believed that knowledge did not necessarily require experience and that there were innate ideas.


Epicureanism was a school of philosophy that follows the teaching of Epicurus and is known for its materialism and atheism. Epicurus claimed that pleasure was the only good thing in the world and living properly was to avoid pain and maximize pleasure.


The Stoics are, in some ways, the Hellenistic competitors to the Epicureans. They believed in the existence of fate and the non-reality of free will, as well as the necessity of acting morally no matter what the circumstances.


Platonists are philosophical followers of the Greek Philosopher Plato. Plato argued that we have all of our knowledge innately and that when we learn something, we are actually remembering it from a previous life.


Aristotle was another Greek philosopher and student of Plato. He argued for the existence of real substances and final ends in nature. Though Locke ultimately disagrees with almost all of his doctrines, Locke agrees Aristotle was one of the greatest men who ever lived.


Socrates was the first real moral philosopher and was the teacher of Plato. As a result of his doctrines, he was forced to drink poisonous hemlock and die.


The beloved horse of Alexander the Great.

This section contains 836 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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