A Guide to Locke's Essay
John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a classic statement of empiricist epistemology. Written in a straightforward, uncomplicated style, the Essay attempts nothing less than a fundamental account of human knowledge—its origin in our ideas and application to our lives, its methodical progress and inescapable limitations. Even three centuries later, Locke's patient, insightful, and honest reflections on these issues continue to merit the careful study that this guide is intended to encourage. Aims and Methods
Locke prefaced his masterwork with a rhetorically understated "Epistle to the Reader." His awareness of the need for a systematic investigation of the human understanding first arose in the context of a friendly but unproductive discussion of other issues. (According to another of the participants in that meeting, they included "the Principles of morality, and reveald Religion.") Although he drafted a preliminary account that dealt with many of the central themes of the Essay as early as 1671, Locke expanded his comments repeatedly before publishing the book nearly twenty years later and continued to supplement them with additional material he prepared for four further editions. Claiming only to be an "Under-Labourer" whose task is to prepare the way for the "Master-Builders" of science, he encouraged ordinary readers to rely upon their own capacity for judgment rather than to accept the dictates of intellectual fashion. [Essay Epistle] In the daily course of ordinary activity, everyone is inclined to rely upon a set of simple guidelines for living, and laziness or pride may encourage us to accept dearly held convictions without ever embarking on a careful examination of their truth. But this is a dangerous course. Locke pointed out that blind acceptance of "borrowed Principles"—the confident pronouncements of putative cultural authorities regarding crucial elements of human life—often leaves us vulnerable to their imposition of absurd doctrines under the guise of an innate divine inscription. [Essay I iii 24-26] Our best defense against this fate is to engage in independent thinking, which properly begins with a careful examinination of the function and limits of our discursive capacities. Attention to specific issues at hand often leads us to overlook the function of the most noble of our faculties, but Locke believed that the operations of the human understanding are familiar to us all. We employ ourselves in thinking, deciding, doing, and knowing all the time. What we require is not a detailed scientific explanation of the nature of the human mind, but rather a functional account of its operations in practice. For that purpose, Locke supposed, we must pursue the "Historical, plain Method" of observing ourselves in the process of thinking and acting. With respect to each significant area of human knowledge, we must ask ourselves: where does it come from, how reliable is it, and how broadly does it extend? [Essay I i 1-2] The last of these questions is arguably most to the point. Locke realized early on in his epistemological reflections that skeptical doubts often arise from unreasonable expectations about the degree of certainty it is possible for us to attain. [King, p. 107] Academic philosophers have contributed to the problem by demanding demonstrative certainty of the speculative truth even in instances where we are unlikely to be able to achieve it. But their demands for excessive precision in philosophical language lead only to pointless wrangling over the meanings of their terms, on Locke's view. The simple truth is that we can't be certain about everything, and it would be counter-productive to try to expand our knowledge beyond its natural limits. Since we are not capable of knowing everything, contentment with our condition requires a willingness not to reach beyond the limitations of our cognitive...