Sunday, May 13, 2012

John Locke's Place in Intellectual History

It is the doctrine of toleration rather than the scientific epistemology of An Essay on Human Understanding (1693) that is Locke’s signal contribution to modern philosophy. Ill-informed and culpable voices in intellectual history have erroneously placed the Essay at the center of Locke’s thought.  Locke—as well as the actual measurable influence of his ideas on the way we live in the modern world—does not place this importance on the Essay, and from the time of Bishop Berkeley to the present day the Essay has been falsely elevated within Locke’s oeuvre so as to deflect attention from Locke’s central contributions. Beginning with Bishop Berkeley, this practice has in some instances been the opening move in clearing the way philosophically for constructing various illiberal and repressive political systems that are supposedly based on more accurate “scientific” foundations than Locke’s skeptical epistemology. Locke has thus been identified as part of a larger Enlightenment straw man that is the target of those seeking to advance the authoritarian agenda of Continental philosophy, which as a program, in anthropological terms, seems to be the logical systemic outcome of an increasingly corporate, nihilistic and authoritarian Academy. To put the story straight, An Essay on Human Understanding is Locke’s commonplace book, a record of tentative speculations. It is not his philosophy but rather an exercise in the method of his philosophy, and in this method conviviality, measured skepticism and unhurried consensus are as important as the progression of his epistemological propositions. The Essay serves Locke’s higher project to bring people together. Locke’s thinking on the subjects of religious toleration and social and political diversification represent the actual center of his philosophy. This philosophy was published in his Letter on Toleration (1689) and Two Treatises of Government (1690). The doctrines of tolerance and the diversification of powers that are elaborated in these documents are clearly based upon the same fundamentals of religious toleration and republican democracy negotiated among the Independents and the sectaries during the English Civil War. John Locke’s father, it should be remembered, was an officer under Cromwell. As well, the patronage of the Earl of Shaftesbury is additionally illustrative of the connection between the Good Old Cause and Locke’s theology and politics.