Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

6. Testimony, faith and enthusiasm

On the question of assenting to propositions on the basis of the testimony of others, Locke lists the grounds of the probability of propositions of matters of fact in order of decreasing evidential reliability. First, we need to consider whether the matter of fact conforms to our own knowledge and experience. Then with regard to the testimony of others, we need to consider the number of witnesses, their integrity, their skill or expertise, the intention of the author (should the proposition be in a book), the consistency of the testimony in the light of other circumstances and features of the context, and finally, contrary testimonies. He sums up by saying ‘[u]pon these grounds depends the probability of any proposition’ (Essay IV.xv.6).

There is one peculiar sort of testimony, according to Locke, that has a different epistemic status to all others and that is the testimony of God through which we come to assent to the propositions of revelation. Assent to propositions backed by this sort of testimony is called faith and faith is to be distinguished from reason. Reason is the generic faculty by which we come to know or judge the certainty or probability of a proposition by the use of our natural faculties of sensation and reflection. And judgement, as we have seen, includes the evaluation of the testimony of others. Faith, by contrast, has as its object propositions that both cannot be discovered by sensation or reflection and are accompanied by the testimony that they were originally revealed by God. These propositions are above reason in the sense that they could not be discovered by any witness through sensation and reflection. And yet their epistemic status is deeply tied to reason because reason is required to evaluate the claims that these propositions were originally revealed by God: ‘Revelation is natural reason enlarged by a new set of discoveries communicated by God immediately, which reason vouches the truth of’ (Essay IV.xix.4). Thus, one has faith in the proposition ‘the dead shall rise, and live again’, but one apportions assent on the standard grounds of probability – conformity with prior knowledge, number and integrity of witnesses and so on – to the proposition that this proposition was revealed by God.

Locke took this latter task, the use of reason in assenting to propositions about revealed propositions, very seriously. As for conformity to our prior knowledge, he claimed that we can have demonstrative knowledge of the existence of God (Essay IV.x) and as for testimony, he went to great lengths to study the eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and the textual transmission of the New Testament (Locke [1695] 1999).

Locke was also highly critical of those who claimed to have received immediate revelations from God in his own day: the enthusiasts. He admitted that he could not dismiss such claims to enthusiasm outright. However, more often than not these claims were made in the absence of the faculty of reason and were based upon the strength of the persuasion that a proposition was revealed or upon claims to a ‘true light in the mind’ which amounts to little more than this strength of persuasion (Essay IV.xix).

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