Empiricist Philosopher John Locke: On Thinking About Thinking

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In his essay on human understanding, Locke challenges us to cognitively consider our thought process. Image of booklet by John Locke courtesy of the University of Sydney’s Rare Books Library

John Locke (1632 – 1704) is the Father of Classical Liberalism – a philosophy embracing freedom of the individual, while desiring to limit the power of government. We also see Locke as the Father of Empiricism, a philosophy promoting the discovery of truth through experience; that we know nothing that does not come to us through our senses.

Locke denounced the divine right of kings and authoritarianism. No one person could be considered better than another, because, according to Locke, we are all born equal. He said that mass education should lead to an end to social subjugation.

John Locke’s Empiricism

Locke did not believe that innate ideas existed but rather that the human mind at birth was literally a “blank slate,” and all knowledge came directly from the senses.

Some thinkers now dispute the doctrine of the Blank Slate, for example, Professor Steven Pinker. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker explains his conviction that intellectuals, who subscribe to the theory that the human mind is born a blank slate, on which experience makes its mark, are denying the existence of human nature, our common humanity and our individual preferences.

Of course, this is not to denigrate the great service John Locke performed in the 17th century, to both pure and political philosophical thought.  In his great work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke’s short chapter “Of the Modes of Thinking” examines aspects of thinking and considers how they are related to the human soul.

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Thinking from the Senses

Locke explains how, from our perception, which he rightly regards as an aspect of thinking, we receive distinct ideas.  “Thus, the perception which actually accompanies… any impression on the body made by an external object… furnishes the mind with a distinct idea which we call sensation.” This is, quite simply, the “entrance of an idea into the understanding by the senses.”

The same idea, recurring, is remembrance. Locke differentiates between recollection and contemplation by this distinction:  “…if it be sought after by the mind… and brought again in view, it is recollection; if it is held there long under attentive consideration, it is contemplation.”

Locke’s prose then becomes almost lyrical, as he plays with words such as the French reverie, for when words float into our minds or our understanding.  “…our language has scarce a name for it,” he says.

An idea gains our attention when the mind chooses to fix on and consider it. This concept leads to intention or study.

Dreaming, he says,  “… is the having of ideas (whilst the outward senses are stopped so that they receive not outward objects with their usual quickness) in the mind, not suggested by any external objects…and whether that which we call ecstasy be not dreaming with the eyes open, I leave to be examined.”

John Locke Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

John Locke was not only the father of classic liberalism, but also of empiricism. Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Thinking is the Action, not the Essence of the Soul

Locke mentions other aspects of thinking, such as reasoning, judging, volition (in the sense of the act of exercising the will) and knowledge, which he claims are “…some of the most considerable operations of the mind and modes of thinking.”  He reflects upon the different states of the mind in thinking that, for example, attention, reverie, and dreaming, suggest.

“Sometimes the mind fixes itself with so much earnestness on the contemplation of some objects, that it shuts out all other thoughts, and takes no notice of the ordinary impressions made then on the senses, which at another season would produce very sensible perceptions.” Sometimes, Locke explains, we do not observe or peruse thoughts, and so the thoughts may pass without regard, “… as faint shadows that make no impression.”

He concludes that thinking is  “the action and not the essence of the soul.”  Remarking on the degrees between “earnest study” and the  “very near minding nothing at all” he approaches the  “retirement of the mind” leading to “a yet more loose and incoherent manner of thinking, which we call dreaming.”

This idea provides the basis for why John Locke believes thinking is the action, not the essence of the soul. According to him  “…the essences of things are not conceived capable of any such variation.”

Empiricism: Questioning the Supremacy of Reason

In the Introduction to the Wordsworth edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Diane Collinson says: “John Locke was described by Bertrand Russell as the most fortunate of philosophers. Why? Because, unlike so many other innovative thinkers, his ideas were understood and warmly welcomed by many of his contemporaries.”

Collinson compares Locke to Descartes, as follows: “Descartes aspired to the construction of a coherent and integrated edifice of knowledge that took its certainty from the method of deductive reasoning. With Locke, there is a discursive and moderating openness of thought that is testimony to an awareness of a horizon further than Descartes was able to glimpse.”

Collinson acknowledges that Locke was keen on deductive reasoning, but he was also drawn to experimental science and questioned the supremacy of reason while pursuing knowledge.

John Locke: Philosopher and Empiricist

Although Locke’s most famous work was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he expounded his belief in Empiricism, a belief still embraced by some philosophers today, he also published, anonymously in 1690, Two Treatises of Government. The Treatises contain his political thinking, and his conviction that authoritarianism and the “Divine Right of Kings” is wrong. This theory came to be described as Classical Liberalism and was an enormous influence on political thinking, especially during the period of the Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Locke, John, “Of the Modes of Thinking,” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (1689/1998). Wordsworth Classics.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. (2002). BCA.

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© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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