John Locke, British philosopher. Born Wrington, England, August 29, 1632. Died Oates, Essex, England, October 28, 1704.
Locke was a founder of British Empiricism, a philosophy whose stress on sense experience as a source of knowledge encouraged the growth of modern science. His political theories had great influence on the development of democracy in the West.
In opposition to Rene Descartes and other 17th-century Rationalist philosophers, Locke denied the existence of innate, or inborn, ideas. In his best-known work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he maintained that the mind at birth is like a blank tablet, upon which knowledge is gradually inscribed by sense experience. He urged men to test their theories with practical experiments and thus instigated the use of scientific method as an active, rather than a speculative, process. Similarly, he believed it was the philosopher's duty to join in public activities.
Locke's political attitudes are stated primarily in his Two Treatises of Government (1690). Like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, he regarded government as a result of a social contract among the people to submit to the rule of a sovereign. He also advocated civil liberties and held that the ruler's power was never absolute and that he should be overthrown by the people if he misused his power. Locke believed that church and state should be separate and regarded faith and morality as the sphere of religion alone. Although he was a member of the Church of England, his Christian creed was limited to the sole belief in Christ as the Messiah. He regarded happiness as the natural goal and greatest good of man.
Locke was educated at the Westminster School in London and at Oxford University, where he became a lecturer in Greek and philosophy in 1661. He also studied medicine, physics, and chemistry during this time, and in 1666 he became private physician and secretary to Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury. This association greatly assisted the development of Locke's ideas and public activities, taking him into politics and economics and encouraging his work in philosophy. Influenced by the liberalism of Shaftesbury, he opposed the Catholic sympathies of the English kings Charles II and James II and twice left the country to avoid government censure. With the ascension of William and Mary to the throne, in 1688, Locke published his political Treatises and afterward devoted his life to writing.