In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Locke

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Research Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Biography
  • Works
  • Influence
  • Toleration
  • Religion and Theology
  • Education
  • Political Theory

Renaissance and Reformation John Locke
Benjamin Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0381


John Locke (b. 29 August 1632–d. 28 October 1704) was one of the giants of the “age of genius.” His contributions to epistemology, metaphysics, natural philosophy, religion, political theory, and education theory are classics. An Oxonian, Locke’s early career was marked by chymical and medical studies. He is considered one of the Oxford virtuosi for his work in iatrochymistry and the epistemic foundations of science. In 1667 he joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, as senior aide and physician. During this period, he collaborated with Thomas Sydenham, was named Fellow of the Royal Society, and began writing An Essay concerning Human Understanding. After 1672 Locke’s political activities began to overshadow his medical activities. He also took an extended trip to France (1675–1679), where he met prominent physicians and natural philosophers. He returned to England amid the Exclusion Crisis, at the center of which was his patron, Lord Shaftesbury. He wrote the Two Treatises on Government during this period in 1679–1683. In 1682–1683 Lord Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London and tried for treason. After Shaftesbury’s death in exile in early 1683, Locke arranged to move to the Netherlands himself, exiling himself for six years. During his exile, he completed the Essay concerning Human Understanding and wrote the Letter on Toleration, and Some Thoughts concerning Education. In 1689, after the Glorious Revolution, he returned to England and arranged for the publication of the Essay, the Letter on Toleration, and the Two Treatises (the latter two anonymously). The 1690s saw Locke revising, expanding, and defending his three major works and writing on religion and economics. He published Some Thoughts on Education (1693) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). He became embroiled in public controversies with Jonas Proust on toleration (1689–1692 and 1704), with Jonathan Edwards on Christianity (1695–1698), and with Edward Stillingfleet on the nature of substance and skepticism (1696–1699), publishing several large defenses in each case. He finished his intellectual career publishing a child’s reader based on Aesop’s Fables and leaving an unfinished set of notes and paraphrases of Paul’s Epistles. In almost every case, Locke’s works were swiftly accepted and proved lasting, though not without controversy. To this day, Locke’s thought continues to set the agenda for and dominate the contours of one major strand of philosophy (analytic or Anglo-American) and it constitutes much of the core of modern liberalism. Few have left a broader or deeper imprint on contemporary thought.

General Overviews

Because Locke’s thought crossed so many boundaries and covered so many areas, it is difficult for a single work to provide comprehensive coverage of Locke’s thinking and virtually impossible for one to give a comprehensive synthesis of the essential character of Locke’s thinking. Most authors tend to restrict their focus to a single domain, for example, philosophy, politics, or religion. Such works are listed under their respective area headings. The works listed in this section aim to provide a more comprehensive picture of Locke’s thought. Most often Locke’s contributions to education and economic and monetary theory are overlooked. Stuart 2016, however, nicely includes such material under the rubric of “Government, Ethics, and Society,” as well as all the other areas of Locke’s thinking. Although Locke’s economic and monetary thinking is included in his thinking about private property, the essay on education (Grant and Hertzberg 2016, cited under Education) stands alone. Rickless 2014 is highly recommended because it comes closest to showing the essential character of Locke’s philosophical thinking by bringing in his political, moral, and religious thought to bear on the understanding of his metaphysics and epistemology. It is the text I recommend to my graduate students needing a firmer background in Locke. The essay structure of Chappell 1994 tends to segment Locke’s thinking into isolated domains, but it provides good coverage of the main areas of Locke’s intellectual contributions, except for education and economic and monetary theory. Furthermore, many of the essays still define the current state of scholarship, so it remains a valuable resource for scholars. Aaron 1971 is slanted to Locke’s philosophy, but it includes material on Locke’s moral philosophy, political theory, educational thought, and religious thinking to balance the metaphysical and epistemological material.

  • Aaron, Richard. John Locke. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

    First published in 1937. Aaron’s volume went through three editions and ushered in the modern study of Locke’s philosophy. Scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s served largely as reactions to the positions laid out by Aaron and he proved to be a sensitive and shrewd interpreter of Locke, even if modern scholarship has moved past the reasons he originally laid down for his interpretations.

  • Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Locke. The Cambridge Companion Series. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    A student classic, one of the better titles in the series. A collection of authoritative articles that topically covers the three main areas of Locke’s philosophical thought (metaphysics and epistemology, political philosophy and morality, and the philosophy of religion). Each does an excellent job explaining the scholarly consensus and the interpretative debates as of the early 1990s.

  • Rickless, Samuel. Locke. Blackwell Great Minds. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118327685

    Skewed considerably toward metaphysics and epistemology (nine chapters), Rickless includes a chapter on Locke’s moral philosophy and another on Locke’s political philosophy. Unity among the areas is not addressed. It provides a penetrating and sophisticated interpretation though without any engagement with contemporary scholarship or alternative interpretations. Best for identifying and exploring the principles animating and constituting Locke’s thinking about a topic. Essential for anyone interested in philosophical analysis of Locke’s texts.

  • Stuart, Matthew, ed. A Companion to Locke. Chichester, UK: Blackwell, 2016.

    A multiauthored collection, generally good but with some variability as to the quality of the contributions. Most contributions hew closely to outlining Locke’s texts and the scholarly consensus about their meanings. Occasionally the authors engage in defenses of specific interpretations. More comprehensive than Rickless 2014 and Chappell 1994. It is better at providing context for Locke’s thinking than the other works and provides reliable overviews. A good starting point for beginners.

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