English philosopher. Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset and educated at Oxford, where he seemed destined for a career in medicine. In 1666 he met Anthony Ashley-Cooper, later the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who became his friend and patron. Locke supervised a major operation to remove a hydatid cyst of the liver from Shaftesbury in 1668; the wits of the time found it very amusing that Shaftesbury's liver needed a silver tap for the rest of his life. From 1675 to 1679 Locke lived in France, where he studied the work of Descartes and Gassendi. Shaftesbury, who had been much engaged with parliamentary opposition to the house of Stuart, fled to Holland in 1681, and Locke followed in 1683, returning to England after the accession of William of Orange in 1688. In the course of the next year Locke's major philosophical works, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises of Government, as well as the Letter on Toleration, were published, the latter two anonymously. Locke's final years saw Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). He was given minor administrative functions by the government, and lived out his life quietly at the house of Damaris, Lady Masham in Essex.
Although he is famous as the senior figure of British empiricism, Locke's philosophy is more complex than this suggests. The Essay rejects any place for ‘innate ideas’ in the foundations of knowledge, and is in that sense anti-rationalistic. It puts experience, or ideas of sensation and reflection, firmly at the basis of human understanding. However, Locke retains the possibility of knowing that some of our ideas (those of primary qualities) give us an adequate representation of the world around us. But the power to know things derives from the all-knowing God, and ‘we more certainly know that there is a GOD than that there is any thing else without us’ (Essay, iv. 10). Although Locke is thought of as the first great English philosopher of the scientific revolution, the ally and ‘under-labourer’ for Boyle and Newton, he himself was doubtful whether such natural philosophy could ever aspire to the condition of a science, by which he meant an activity capable of yielding us God-like rational and adequate insight into the real essences of things (Essay, iii. 26). The task of a scientific epistemology is to display what we do know, the various sources of knowledge, the proper employment, and above all the limits and doubtful capacities of our minds. It is through this theme that Locke connected his epistemology with the defence of religious toleration. This radical doctrine, together with his work on property and on the relationship between government and consent, is his enduring legacy to political philosophy.
Locke's great distinction lies in his close attention to the actual phenomena of mental life, but his philosophy is in fact balanced precariously between the radical empiricism of followers such as Berkeley and Hume, and the theological world of reliance on reason underpinning the deliverances of the Christian religion that formed the climate in which he lived. His view that religion and morality were as much open to demonstration and proof as mathematics stamps him as a pre-Enlightenment figure, even as his insistence on the primacy of ideas opened the way to more radical departures from that climate.