An essay concerning human understanding



Author(s): John Locke


It has been many years since I pondered and repondered over this volume. Locke is an important figure in the history of Western Philosophy. He is really the founding figure of the great empirical tradition which would go through Hume all the way up to the various analytical philosophies of the twentieth century. 
He is also a major political thinker whose importance for the great founders of America cannot be overestimated. 
Locke talks about the mind as tabula rasa as a blank slate which experience writes upon, and reflection compounds into ‘ complex ideas’ The simple ideas come through experience. This total rejection of inherent ideas, and inherent structures of the mind is something which a lot of modern linguistic theory rejects. 
As to the way we apprehend experience immediately I think here too Locke is in some way contradicted by modern psychological theory which would speak in some sense about our structuring that experience through our own participation in perception. In other words Locke’s model of perception is I believe a far too ‘ passive one’. I cannot however judge, as I do not know enough about the subject whether or not Lockean categories in these areas of perception, reflection and in general description of the way we experience and know the world have any force today. 
Locke’s political thinking is incorporated in the Declaration of Independence with its formulation of rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As strong opponent of tyrannical authority in the political world Locke’s thinking made a real impact on the world. He is one of those thinkers at the foundation of modern democratic thought. 
The book is not easy reading. I can remember going back over it again and again to try and understand the difference between primary and secondary qualities- I can remember trying to understand how much of what Locke says has validity and is ‘ really the truth’. 
Parenthetically I think of how as a young person knowing the truth finding the truth was such a supreme value for me. And how I thus felt it so important to know whether Locke was ‘ right’ or not. Time and experience perhaps have made me worse. And I see this work as yet one more effort to interpret and understand Reality . This is as if to say I at this age anyway seem to accept the idea that I myself will not know and find the truth in regard to everything, including the philosophy of Locke.
Again. This is one of the major works of Western philosophy and it should be read and studied by one who cares to know the Western philosophical tradition.

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