Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved December 13, 2018, from

1. Life and works

John Locke was born in Wrington near Bristol, England on 29 August 1632. He attended Westminster School and won a Studentship to Christ Church, Oxford where he took a BA in 1656 and MA in 1658. He went on to various tutorial posts at Christ Church and in 1666 secured his Studentship by royal intervention, without the need to take Holy Orders. While in Oxford in the early 1660s Locke made his first forays into moral and political philosophy, writing two tracts on church government (Locke [1660–2] 1967) and a set of disputations on the law of nature (Locke [1663–4] 1954). He also befriended the leading English natural philosopher Robert Boyle and undertook to educate himself in the new chemical medicine that was flourishing in England. He took a course in chemistry and began to assemble his own herbarium. These interests brought him to the periphery of the group of Oxford physiologists including Robert Hooke, Thomas Willis, and Richard Lower. It was an extraordinarily exciting time in Oxford, marked by significant breakthroughs in pneumatics and animal physiology by practitioners of the new experimental philosophy, which was being promoted by the newly founded Royal Society of London.

Locke left Oxford in April 1667 to take up residence in the London household of Anthony Ashley Cooper. Soon after arriving in London he wrote ‘An Essay Concerning Toleration’ (Locke [1667] 2006), an important precursor to his later, more famous Epistola de tolerantia (A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke [1689] 1983). Meanwhile, his medical interests continued unabated. He befriended the physician Thomas Sydenham and in June 1668 he assisted in a life-saving operation on Lord Ashley, soon to become the first Earl of Shaftesbury, that involved the draining of a large hydatid cyst above Ashley’s liver. Later in the same year he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, 1669, Locke assisted the Lords Proprietors in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina for the Carolina colonies in North America and two years later, in 1671, at the urging of some friends, Locke began to develop an account of the human understanding. The two drafts that survive from this period (Locke [1671] 1990) were eventually to evolve into his most important philosophical work An Essay concerning Human Understanding ([1690] 1975).

In June 1675 Locke was awarded an honorary Bachelor of Medicine from Oxford and secured a Medical Studentship at Christ Church. Then in November of that year he travelled to France where he remained for three-and-a-half years. This was a formative period for him: he began keeping a journal, he met many important philosophers and natural philosophers, and acquired sufficient competence in the French language to translate some of Pierre Nicole’s moral essays into English (Locke [1678] 2000). He returned to England in the Spring of 1679 and took up residence again in Shaftesbury’s household just as his patron was about to become embroiled in the Exclusion Crisis. Nevertheless, this proved to be a productive period for Locke and it was during this second period of association with Shaftesbury that he was involved in revising the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina and began writing his major work in political philosophy the Two Treatises of Government ([1690] 1988).

In the early 1680s Shaftesbury remained at loggerheads with the Court of Charles II and was involved in plotting insurrection. He fled to the Netherlands in late 1682 where he died a few months later. Locke, on account of his close association with Shaftesbury, quietly slipped across the Channel, arriving in the Netherlands in early September 1683. The following year he was deprived of his Studentship at Christ Church by royal decree and he remained in exile until February 1689 when he returned in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. While in the Netherlands he completed the Essay (an Abrégé appeared in French in 1688, Locke 1688a) and his Two Treatises of Government, as well as composing the anonymous A Letter Concerning Toleration which was published in 1689 in Latin for a European readership dealing with the fallout from Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Within a year of his return to England Locke’s major philosophical works were published, he met Isaac Newton, whose Principia of 1687 he had reviewed in 1688 (Locke 1688b), and he was emerging as a public intellectual. A period of intense writing and intellectual engagement ensued in the 1690s during which time he continued to revise the Essay and to respond to many of its critics, such as Bishop Edward Stillingfleet. He made substantial changes and additions to the 2nd and 4th editions of the Essay and supervised a French translation of the work by Pierre Coste which appeared in 1700. Meanwhile, he also published Some Thoughts Concerning Education ([1693] 1989) and began a period of sustained reading and writing in theology which issued in The Reasonableness of Christianity (Locke [1695] 1999) and its Vindications (Locke [1696–7] 2012; see also Latitudinarianism). In 1696 he joined the newly formed Board of Trade having recently contributed to the debate with the King and Treasury over coin clipping and the devaluation of the currency (Locke 1991).

During these last years he resided at Oates in the household of Damaris Masham, daughter of the Cambridge philosopher Ralph Cudworth. He died there on 28 October 1704. When G. W. Leibniz heard of Locke’s death he decided not to continue with his detailed commentary on Locke’s Essay and it was only published in 1765 as New Essays on Human Understanding (Leibniz [1765] 1996). Locke left a large Nachlass containing a number of unpublished philosophical writings, including Of the Conduct of the Understanding, A Discourse of Miracles and Examination of P. Malebranche, which were published in 1706.

Citing this article:
Anstey, Peter. Life and works. Locke, John (1632–1704), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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