Locke (part 1) – Theory of Knowledge

The ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688 in England is described by Bertrand Russell as the most moderate and successful of all revolutions. It aimed to replace an absolutist monarchy with a constitutional monarchy, where power comes ultimately from the people rather than from God. It achieved these aims quickly and with minimal violence or even disruption to society. Comparisons are often made to the French Revolution, which started with the same objective. John Locke was, according to Russell, the apostle of the Glorious Revolution and faithfully embodied its spirit. He was fortunate in that he completed his philosophical work just at the moment when the government fell into the hands of people who shared his political opinions. He can be thought of as the founder of philosophical liberalism, as well as Empiricism in theory of knowledge. This post is concerned with the latter of those two remarkable accolades. A key characteristic of Locke is a lack of dogmatism. He accepts some certainties from his predecessors, such as the existence of God and the truth of mathematics, but most things are to be treated with a sensible dose of scepticism. Principles are never perfect, so valid reasoning can always lead to conclusions which seem absurd. While many thinkers have followed lines of reasoning wherever it took them, Locke had a more pragmatic temperament. Very few things we can say are certainly true, for everything else we can only determine probabilities of truth.


Empiricism is the doctrine that all our knowledge (excluding logic and mathematics) is derived from experience. This requires refuting such thinkers as Plato, Descartes and the Scholastics, who believed that there are innate ideas which exist that we can discover through deductive reasoning or revelation, or that we are born knowing. How then do we know that intangible things exist that we can’t experience or observe? Locke goes on to compromise from his starting point – we can perceive the existence of particular things by sensation, but some things we can know intuitively (such as our own existence), and some things we can know by reason, but reason comes from thinking about ideas that we have experienced. Locke believed that sensations, which are really things that happen in the mind, have their own causes which are separate to the sensation itself. But how do we know that based on empiricism? By definition we can only sense sensations and not their causes, and Locke does not give an answer for this. Russell believes that no philosophy has ever been completely consistent and completely credible. Most of the great philosophers aimed at consistency, such Plato and his theory of ideas, but Locke is unusual in aiming at credibility over consistency. A philosophy that is inconsistent cannot be wholly correct, but a consistent philosophy can be wholly wrong.  

The Virtue of Prudence

Locke believed that our actions are motivated solely by desire for our own happiness, and that we consider things to be good or bad depending on whether they cause us pleasure or pain. He also believed in heaven and hell, and therefore considered it rational to act in accordance with Christian morality in order to maximise one’s chances of getting into heaven. Locke recognised that people do not always act rationally in their own pursuit of happiness. This is partly because we value pleasure or pain more highly in the present than in the future, which is why people do not fear hell as much as they rationally should. Part of the purpose of the state is to guide people to act prudently, i.e. in their long-term rather than short-term interests, and state religion is a necessary part of this. The focus on prudence as the chief virtue allowed some to argue in later centuries that the rich had earned their wealth through prudent actions, and people were poor because of their imprudence, and so had only themselves to blame. Russell raises some objections to this view of ethics. The focus on prudence as the chief virtue is narrow at best and unpleasant for most people. It is also highly debatable that we desire pleasure itself; many including Russell would argue that our desires are much more varied than that, and we gain pleasure as a result of obtaining our desires. In addition, it is completely reliant on people believing in God in order to act ethically, which is a more obvious problem now than in Locke’s time.

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