An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Themes

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One of the key themes of this work is the defense and articulation of an empiricist theory of knowledge. Although Hobbes had previously developed something like an empiricist theory of knowledge, his theory, though brilliant, is idiosyncratic. Locke is properly seen as the father of modern empiricism, the approach to philosophy followed by Hume, Berkeley, Mill, Ayer, Quine and many other philosophers up until the present day. Indeed, some form of empiricism is the dominant approach to philosophy in the English-speaking world. Locke's approach is developed in this Essay.

Empiricism is first and foremost a doctrine about where knowledge comes from. Knowledge, the empiricist claims, derives ultimately from experience. Many, like Locke and Hume argue that all knowledge basically comes from experience, though some empiricists may allow for the existence of a priori knowledge or knowledge that is not derived from experience.

Locke is extremely radical in this regard, even going so far as to argue that knowledge of God comes from experience. Although empiricism is an extremely powerful approach that need not make many methodological assumptions that other approaches must make, such as belief in the existence of innate ideas, there is one main drawback to the approach that Locke notices but does not really respond to here. If all of our knowledge is derived from experience, how do we know that our knowledge is related to the way things actually are rather than just the way things seem? Philosophers including Berkeley and Kant wrestled with this problem over the following decades but the debate is still raging to this day among philosophers.


According to Locke in the Essay, good and evil only refer to different tendencies of things to cause pain or pleasure. That is, we call things good that tend to cause pleasure and bad things that tend to cause pain. This general philosophical view about morality is called hedonism because pleasure is the ultimate moral good for which we should seek. Epicurus and his followers held a form or hedonism and later philosophers called utilitarians, most notably Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, would also argue that pleasure was the ultimate moral good. This view is more complicated than it may initially appear.

Simple pleasure seeking, as Locke understands, will not lead to happiness. Many things that cause pleasure in the short run also cause pain in the long run. One may enjoy drinking alcohol, but there is always a hangover to contend with. The intelligent pursuit of pleasure recognizes this and seeks to understand the things that tend to produce pleasure and alleviate pain. Locke argues that a science of ethics should investigate those things and behaviors that tend to increase pleasure and produce happiness.

This science would not strictly be a philosophical science but would probably look something more like economics. We need to actually investigate the things that lead to happiness in humans so the science of ethics will have a considerable empirical component. The recent psychological sub-discipline of happiness research and different aspects of economics seem similar to what Locke had in mind.

Free Will

Throughout the history of philosophy, philosophers have debated the problem of free will. The natural world of things all around us seems to operate on regular, necessary causal laws. In the natural world, effects follow naturally from causes. From our point of view, though, we seem to somehow have escaped this natural world of causes and effects and we seem to have a will that we determine rather than previous causes. Determinists argue that this appearance of a free will is just an illusion while libertarians argue that freedom necessitates some lack of causal determinism. Locke, however, rejects both of these lines of argument and claims that freedom is possible even in a deterministic world.

The mistake, according to Locke is that previous philosophers were concerned about the freedom of the will rather than the freedom of the person. The will, Locke claims, is merely a power, a mental faculty. We are concerned with the freedom to act, not with the freedom of volition. Locke gives several examples where a person is restrained physically though they have no inclination to act in the way that they are restrained from.

Still, even though they have no desire, say, to leave a room that they are locked in, they are nevertheless not free to leave. The relevant sense of freedom we are concerned with politically, psychologically, and personally is the freedom to do one thing rather than another. We need not concern ourselves with freedom of the will.

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