John Locke Writing Styles in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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It is somewhat odd to talk about the perspective in a book like this; still, Locke clearly takes the perspective of someone who is investigating these issues for the first time. Locke references other thinkers and refers to their work but he does not rely on their answers to guide his own. His empiricism is unique and radical and since he is striking out into new territory, other, previous thinkers will not necessarily be able to help direct his inquiry. This leads to some problems with the narrative of the Essay.

Some questions that Locke deals with are so interesting that he seems to want to deal with them exclusively for long periods without returning to the general narrative. This can be disconcerting to the reader even when, especially when, the digressions are important and interesting.

Locke's perspective on these issues is unique, at least at the time he wrote this essay and even today, though some have followed in his footsteps, his ideas are still not completely in line with modern thinking. This makes his perspective somewhat alien, though an open-minded reader should be able to follow him down the various avenues that his thought takes. Sometimes it is clear that he knows there is a potential problem with his thought but instead of dealing with it he moves on to another topic. Since Locke's thinking is highly original, some of the weaknesses of his view or the problems with his view would be just as fruitful or interesting to investigate as its strengths. It is not hard to see why an author would want to avoid the weakest parts of his work, but it would have been a richer work if he had spent more time on them.


Locke's tone is one of the best aspects of this work and of Locke's writing in general. Locke writes in a style that, though it might seem rarefied today, is actually very conversational. One gets the sense that if Locke were just explaining his ideas to you in person they would have much the same feel. Although some of the digression on archaic scholastic concepts is tedious, the rest of the book is strikingly engaging and conversational. His language, though resting on some jargon is also notably clear. This should not be surprising given the focus he puts on the clear and rigorous use of language in Book III and IV, but still it is a surprise and a delight to see the way he uses the English language.

The language is dated, but not as severely as that of many other writers of the same period. It is, of course, a serious work of philosophy and hence filled with abstract language and complicated arguments, but the technical terms actually aid understanding rather than hampering it.

Many of the terms that Locke uses here, such as "secondary qualities," are now in general use by philosophers; so philosophers may have an easier time relating to the usage than non-philosophers. All in all this work, like many other works of the time, was written for an audience of well-educated non-specialists. The fact that Locke's audience was broad no doubt contributes to the clarity of the language.


The Essay is structured in a seemingly straightforward, though not obvious way. Book I deals with the origin of all knowledge and is a sustained attack on the doctrine of innate ideas, that is, the doctrine that we have ideas implanted in us before birth by God or nature that can generate knowledge later. In Book II, Locke systematically develops his theory of the content of knowledge, ideas. In Book III Locke takes his analysis of ideas and applies it to words and language. In Book IV, Locke develops a final theory of knowledge and truth.

Each book has numerous chapters made up of numbered sections. Book II is the longest, accounting for a large portion of the Essay as a whole. The work suffers from this as the discussion takes several side routes and digressions, which could, no doubt, have benefited form their own books. Although the careful reader will be able to discern the structure underlying the Essay, Locke's work seems more unorganized that it needs to.

Ultimately Locke is concerned here with the origin, content, and ends of our knowledge as a whole. By dividing the work up into sections that do not necessarily relate to these aims, Locke may lose some of his readers. The sections on morality and free will seem added in and like digressions, though they are absolutely essential to his argument. With a different structure that highlighted the argumentative narrative rather than obscuring it, Locke would have clarified his general project and specific arguments.

This section contains 790 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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