John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding


John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding


A court physician, ethical thinker, and political player, John Locke’s ideas figured prominently in the mainstream Enlightenment. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding put forth his thoughts on the origin of human knowledge. He wrote that everyone is born as a “tabula rasa,” or “blank slate,” which had important implications for the prominence of education in society. According to Locke, our senses and perceptions provide a pathway for simple thoughts and then for complex thoughts. It is only then that we are able to reason, but once we reach this point, he argues, that we have to fight against our natural inclination to act contrary to what we know to be best for us. Moreover, humans are born with reason rather than acquire it through the events of their lives. However, reflection plays a large part in the effectiveness of turning perceptions or simple thoughts into complex ones, thereby warranting the usage of reason.

Wiesner-Hanks writes that Locke “picked up on Francis Bacon’s emphasis on experience, observation, and sense perceptions as the true basis of knowledge,” alluding to the continuity of Bacon’s ideas throughout the Enlightenment and the increasing inclination of scholars to base their hypotheses about nature on the happenings of the physical world rather than on religious dogma (Wiesner-Hanks, 382).

Locke’s writing during the Enlightenment represents the large conversation prominent thinkers engaged in, as well as the rise of political philosophy that he took part in. The reason he argued was born innate in every human had implications for politics of the era, and his ideas about private property -- and the limits to a monarchy’s power when it came to private property -- found new meaning in terms of opposing tyranny. However, his ideas formed the basis for the popular conviction that only property-owning people should be able to vote, which extended to America prior to the nineteenth century (Wiesner-Hanks, 383).


John Locke


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Early Modern Europe: 1450-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.




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Public domain.


John Locke, “John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” HIST 139 - Early Modern Europe, accessed March 25, 2023,

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