John Locke

John Locke (1632–1704) believed that all knowledge was gained through experience. While Descartes and other Rationalists maintained that ideas can be generated by the mind or inspired by the soul, independent of practical experience, Locke dismissed such notions as unprovable. There was no such thing as innate ideas. He put forth his philosophy in a book called An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding.

Tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate.” The theory is that a baby is born with a void for a brain, and information is imprinted on the empty mind as the child is exposed to all manner of sensory experiences.

Locke Versus Hobbes

Locke and his more irascible predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, have much in common. There is no evidence that either was an atheist, but much of their belief system infers that they were. As previously noted, it would have been career (and perhaps literal) suicide to aggressively espouse such a view in those days. Suffice it to say, they minimized, if not outright dismissed, all matters metaphysical. They also had little use for the imperious notion of the Divine Right of Kings.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were deeply influenced by the philosophy of John Locke, especially his notion of social contract and his belief that mankind is endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Whereas Hobbes felt the natural law of man was survival at any cost and the “state of nature” was one of violence and barbarism, Locke believed in a natural law where people had, to paraphrase another famous writer, “certain inalienable rights” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And these rights are to be gained by working for them, not by the noblesse oblige of the sitting liege or from a welfare state. The system of capitalism is an economic expression of Lockean principles. Capitalism, of course, is the system of providing goods and services for a financial profit.

A Social Contract

Locke, like Hobbes, is also famous for his notion of a social contract. Locke saw the contract as between society and the government to protect the rights of the individual. Basically, Locke feels that a citizenry's silence is consent. If they are displeased, they have the right to pack up and leave, or change it. The architects of the American and French Revolutions picked up on this idea and ran with it.

The nagging question of substances led to certain inconsistencies in Lockean theory. After going on and on about how all knowledge is gained from experience alone, he was left with the question of substances, which he did not satisfactorily address.

What is the difference between Hobbes's and Locke's social contract?

Thomas Hobbes believed that a social contract existed between the ruler and the masses in an effort, by any means necessary, to keep civilization from reverting to its natural state, which Hobbes believed was savage anarchy. Locke believed that the contract is there for the greater good of society and to uphold the inherent rights of the individual.

Two subsequent British empiricists, both Locke supporters, added their unique voices to the Lockean theory.

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