An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written by John Locke in 1690, was called "a history book of what passes in a man's own mind" 1 by Laurence Sterne. This highly influential work explored the human mind and how ideas were created through various thought processes. Breaking from the traditional doctrines of his day, John Locke sought to explicitly delineate the mechanisms surrounding thought.

"'Clear and distinct ideas' are terms which, though familiar and frequent in men's mouths, I have reason to think everyone who uses does not perfectly understand." 2

Locke's ideas as put forth in this essay and other works were coming into fruition and the same time as many of the dogmatic notions of The Great Awakening. The clergy rebelled against his doctrines, as his ideas meant that every individual should not maintain ideas that could not be reduced to the fundamental principles of reality on which they were based. Faith-based doctrines which could not be reduced to a set of logical ideas were not to be considered as the basis for an entire religious system. Locke thought that in order to communicate and formulate ideas effectively, any notion that is accepted on indistinct premises should be rejected, as it will damage an individual's overall conceptual understanding of the world.

John Locke's early philosophical background was in the Puritan movement. However, early on in his understanding of its aetiology, he dismissed it as an integrated system. Pursuing an education and then later a modest career as a physician, Locke sought an atmosphere of political freedom in which to find an audience for his ideas. Until then, he lived within his own mind, developing them. Working for the corrupt Earl of Shaftsbury as a doctor and tutor, Locke was often followed by men working for him, and he knew no freedom during that era of politcal hostility. Leaving for Holland for several years, Locke was finally able to return to England during The Glorious Revolution of 1688 - 1689 and the reign of William III. He was finally able to publish the Essay, which he had been working on for many years prior.

Given this context, the work laid out a set of ideas never before considered in such a systematic way. He set forth a way of learning and acquiring information that was clear to a fault. Basing all human thought on direct sensory experience, Locke's work was an excellent example of the empiricist tradition. Several important points were raised that are particularly central to this work.

  • The idea is the object of thought: Locke makes it explicitly clear that all concepts - hardness, dryness, coldness - are all ideas which function of "objects" that the mind concerns itself with.
  • All ideas come from sensation or reflection:
              "Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE; in that all our knowledge is founded and from that it ultimately derives itself." 3
  • One source of ideas is sensation: The senses convey distinct perceptions of reality to the mind, where they are in turn processed. All external objects which can be directly experienced act as the first object of ideas.
  • The other source of ideas are the operations of the mind: All such functions which come from the mind - namely reasoning - are the other source of ideas.
              "This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself: and though it be not sense, as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called internal sense." 3
  • All ideas come from either of these sources:
              "The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two. External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations." 3

One of the most important philosophical documents in all of Western thought, Locke's work was fundamental in the formation of the United Sates of America, as well as stretching influence across Europe and the world. His notions of the capacities of man and his rights as a consequence were inspirational and revolutionary, and so they remain today.


1 The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. p. 2145.
2 John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. p. 2149.
3 John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Issac Kramnick. p. 186-7.

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