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Locke was very much a man of his times, and, in part, this was because he did so much to shape them. He was born into an England on the brink of enlightenment, and he helped push the nation over the edge. By the late 17th century, the belief in reasonable religion and secular values were overtaking a blind confidence in authority; individual freedoms were taking central stage in political debates; and excitement over modern technologies and abilities were beginning to replace a worshipful focus on the ancient world. Locke embraced each of these trends and became their most influential spokesman.
The political scene of Locke's maturity was unstable at best. In the wake of civil war, Oliver Cromwell had brought temporary peace. With Cromwell gone by the mid-17th century, however, Parliament and Crown reentered an ardent struggle for power. Because Lord Ashley, Locke's employer, was first the right hand man of King Charles II and then the leader of his opposition in Parliament, Locke found himself at the center of political maneuverings and intrigue. He helped to frame the constitution for the colony of Carolina and wrote the treatises that justified the Glorious Revolution, in which William of Orange seized the throne from King James, Charles' brother. Locke's two Treatises of Government, published anonymously, argued that the only justified government was one that ruled contractually rather than by the ruler's whimsy, thus laying the foundation for a limited kingship, heavily tethered by Parliament and the will of the people. (Years later the insurgent colonists in America would use Locke's arguments as the basis for their own revolution, claiming that King George had failed to abide by his contract, thereby forfeiting his right to rule over them.)
Locke was also extremely active in religious affairs. A heated Protestant/Catholic divide helped to make the stormy political scene of late 17th England even more turbulent. Issues of religious intolerance and forced conversion were of paramount practical importance. Locke began his career on the side of authoritarian religious impositions, but quickly changed his mind. A 1675 visit to Cleves, which exposed him to a community where members of different churches lived together peacefully, might have helped sway his opinion toward religious toleration, in favor of which he wrote several well-read and enormously controversial essays. Locke's religious writings, as well his publication of the Essay, landed him in a lengthy disagreement with the Bishop of Worcester. Some material generated from their published debates found its way into later editions of the Essay.
Locke's participation in modern scientific advances was largely the result of his close ties with Robert Boyle. Throughout Europe the dominance of the Universities, with their focus on the ancient world, was being challenged by thinkers who preferred to focus on new technology and modern ideas. Locke's Essay gave one of the decisive blows to the already ailing Scholastic movement.
The Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the only work on epistemology and metaphysics in a lifetime collection dominated by religious and political writings. There is no indication that Locke showed any interest in epistemology prior to 1671, electing instead to focus his energies on questions of politics, religion, and science. In a famous paragraph called the "Epistle to the Reader" in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explains what drew him suddenly to the study of human understanding: while discussing an unrelated subject with friends (he does not mention what this subject was), he came to the conclusion that no significant headway could be made in any field until there was an understanding of understanding itself, in particular of its capacities and limits. Therefore, he set out to determine what we could and could not hope to understand by analyzing the human mind and the nature of knowledge. The Essay can be read as an attempt to ground all of Locke's further inquiries into politics, religion, economics, education and the like, by drawing the boundaries that demarcate where a search for answers should begin and end.
The philosophy Locke presents in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding is best understood as a direct response to the two schools of philosophical thought dominating the intellectual scene of the late 17th century: the Aristotelian-influenced Scholasticism, which had ruled the Universities since the Middle Ages, and the Cartesian rationalism, which was challenging Scholastic authority with a radical new picture of how the mind comes to know. Locke wanted to chart a middle course between these two views, one that retained the positive features of each. The Scholastic picture of how the mind works can be summed up the phrase "nothing in the intellect, not first in the senses." Scholastic philosophers, following Aristotle, believed that all of our knowledge comes through our sense organs. They were empiricists, like Locke. However, their empiricism was of a very naïve form; they believed that our senses are incapable of systematically deceiving us about the kinds of things that are in the world. If the senses tell us that there are colors, then there are colors. If the senses tell us that there are enduring objects, such as tables and chairs, then there are enduring objects. The trustworthiness of the senses was built into the theory of how perception operated: on this view, the perceiver took on the form of the thing perceived and became, in a very obscure sense, like the object of perception.
René Descartes, in his Meditations of First Philosophy, attempted to revolutionize epistemology. If the Aristotelian view can be summarized as "nothing in the intellect, not first in the senses," Descartes' position can be summed up as "no trusting the senses until they have been verified by the intellect." Descartes believed that the senses systematically deceive us, and that it is only by properly utilizing our faculty of reason that we can come to know the world. Like the other rationalists who came after him, such as Baruch Spinoza and G. W. Leibniz, Descartes believed that the entire natural world is explicable in terms of a chain of logical connections, and that all we need do is use our reason to trace these connections to know everything there is to know.
Descartes' primary reason for asserting that the senses systematically deceive was his commitment to the new mechanistic science, which conflicted with the Scholastic conception of the natural world. On the Scholastic view, the most basic units of existence were substances, and these came in an innumerable variety, each with their own distinct essence, the thing that made them what they were. All substances were composed of some mixture of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. To explain why anything happened in the natural world, the Scholastic would appeal to these four elements and the four primary qualities by which they were characterized - hot, cold, wet, dry.
Descartes simplified this picture considerably. He too called the basic units of existence substances, but for him substances came in only three types, rather than in an innumerable variety. There was God, there were minds, and there were bodies. The essence of mind was thought, while the essence of body—of matter, of the natural world, of all we see around us—was extension. By making extension the essence of body, Descartes was able to simplify the study of the natural world: it no longer involved the complex and obscure charting of primary qualities flowing in and out of elements. Instead, the study of the natural world was simply the study of geometry.
This was where Descartes' new epistemology came in. The natural world that he posited—one that was explicable exclusively in terms of the size, shape, and motion of matter—sounded nothing like the world our senses represent to us. We perceive a world filled with things like color, odor, and sound and see nothing to indicate that the essence of body is extension. Descartes' solution to this apparent problem was to give more power to the intellect and less to the senses. On his view, we come to understand the world not by observing it, but by reasoning about it, starting from ideas innate to the human mind. It is by reasoning with these innate ideas, he claimed, that he arrived at the discovery that the essence of body is extension, and it is by reasoning that we can come to know everything else about the way the world really is.
Like Descartes, Locke, was a proponent of the new science. He too believed that the natural world was explicable exclusively in terms of shape, size, and motion of matter, though the particulars of the view he ascribed to were somewhat different from the Cartesian picture. (Whereas Descartes believed that all matter was continuous, Locke ascribed to Boyle's Corpuscular Hypothesis, according to which the natural world is composed of indivisible bits of matter called corpuscles.) He had to admit, therefore, that Descartes was right about that the senses do systematically deceive us.
Locke, however, resisted accepting Descartes' epistemology because he held, like the Scholastics, that nothing came into the mind except via the senses. The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, therefore, is an attempt to reconcile his empiricism with his commitment to the new science. His aim was to defend an empiricist model of the mind, while clearing the way for new ideas about the nature of reality.
The attempt had never been made before, but once Locke began the search for a plausible empiricism, one consistent with science, has never really ended. George Berkeley and David Hume made the first significant endeavors after Locke, building on the foundation that their predecessor had so meticulously laid. In the 20th century the Logical Positivists gave it a worthy shot as well, as did their nemesis W.V. Quine. Empiricism has, to a certain extent, fallen out of fashion as of late, but epistemology is still largely guided by the questions originally posed by Locke and his empiricist followers.