Locke's Practical View of Philosophy

If we had embraced the theoretical views of the philosopher John Locke, we would not have fallen into the errors which we have illustrated above. Unlike many philosophers who succeeded him, Locke was characterised with common sense, and he was not limited or tyrannised by the hobgoblin consistency.

Locke, in his essays, is always sensible, and always willing to sacrifice logic rather than become paradoxical. He puts forward general principles which are capable of leading to strange consequences; but whenever the strange consequences seem about to appear, Locke simply doesn't draw them. To a logician this is irritating; to a practical man, it is a proof of a sound judgement. Since the world is what it is, it is clear that valid reasoning from sound principles cannot lead to error; but a principle may be so nearly true as to deserve theoretical respect, and yet may lead to practical consequences which we feel to be absurd. Common sense tells us that we use the principle where it works, and we don't bother about the possible irrational conclusions that can be drawn from it. The theorist may retort that common sense is no more infallible than logic. But this retort, though made by Berkeley and Hume, would have been wholly foreign to Locke's intellectual temper. A characteristic of Locke, which descended from him to the whole Liberal movement, is lack of dogmatism.

Some few certainties he takes over from his predecessors: our own existence, the existence of God, and the truth of mathematics. But wherever his doctrines differ from those of his forerunners, Locke says whimsically, that truth is hard to attain and that a rational man will hold his opinions with some measure of doubt. This way of thinking is obviously connected with religious toleration, with the success of parliamentary democracy, with laissez-faire, and with the whole system of liberal maxims.

For example, he was a deeply religious man, a devout believer in Christianity who accepted revelation as a source of knowledge, he nevertheless hedges round professed revelations with rational safeguards. On one occasion he says: 'The bare testimony of revelation is the highest certainty, 'but on another he says: 'Revelation must be judged by reason ' 'Enthusiasm', in Locke's day meant a personal revelation of truth from God. Many can claim revelations, all inconsistent with each other, so 'truth' becomes purely personal, and loses its social character. Love of truth, which Locke considers essential, is a very different thing from love of some particular doctrine which is proclaimed as the truth. One unerring mark of love of truth, he says, 'not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than proofs it is built upon will warrant'. Forwardness to dictate, he says, shows failure of love of truth. 'Enthusiasm laying by reason, would set up revelation without it; whereby in effect it takes away reason and revelation, and substitutes in the room of it the rounded fancies of a man's own brain. 'Men who suffer from melancholy or conceit are likely to have `persuasions of immediate intercourse with the Deity'. Hence odd actions and opinions acquire Divine sanction which flatters men's laziness, ignorance, and vanity . He concludes that 'revelation must be judged of by reason'. His words echo through the ages in sharp relief to the behaviour of members of professional institutions both in the examples mentioned above and in our present time.

The following article examines what Locke meant by Reasoning


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