The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Paperback

The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Paperback

Edited by Peter H. Nidditch

Part of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke series

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Published in 1689, John Locke's pioneering investigation into the origins, certainty, and extent of human knowledge set the groundwork for modern philosophy and influenced psychology, literature, political theory, and other areas of human thought and expression.




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This treatise published in 1689 was listed in <i>Good Reading</i>'s "100 Significant Books." It's a work of epistemology--the branch of philosophy that examines knowledge. Rejecting Descartes' argument of innate principles, Locke argues that humans at birth are a blank slate written on by experience. Locke argues that innate ideas can't exist since by their nature they'd be universal, and there is no knowledge everyone agrees upon. I'm not sure given human nature I agree. I know that as different as human cultures and individuals might be, there are some constants, and even linguists think that's reflected in the structure of language. Many scientists and philosophers seem to try to argue for one single cause for things. I see no reason to believe identity and ideas couldn't come from both a hard-wired human nature <i>and</i> experience--that is, both nature <i>and</i> nurture. It's not that I disagree that what knowledge we have can only come from the senses and the use of reason to interpret it. That makes sense to me--but that doesn't mean I find Locke's particular line of argument completely convincing.And particularly because epistemology lies at the root of philosophy, it has consequences for ethics and politics. Locke is associated with the libertarian principles of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson cribbed much of the American Declaration of Independence from Locke's <i>Two Treatises of Government.</i> If humans are blank slates to be written on, in one way that can be very heartening and optimistic--a chance to make the world anew. But it also tempts people into totalitarian schemes, thinking humans can be twisted into whatever shapes they will.I have other doubts about Locke's arguments. If we only know things by experience, and there are no universals, how can Locke argue in Book II that it is a "certain and evident truth" that there is a God? But then even in the dedication and "Epistle" to the reader there seemed to be a nervousness that the entire thrust of his argument is atheist. Methinks here Locke was not being intellectually honest or at least not intellectually consistent--and given the intolerance of his times I hardly blame him. Moreover I really don't see the usefulness of dividing ideas and things into simple and complex, primary and secondary qualities. But the importance of the ideas in this essay I do not doubt. And despite the difficulties of the subject, I found Locke fairly lucid--it probably helped I was exposed to excerpts from this essay before in school. I don't know that I'd call it enjoyable reading, and I think this could be more succinct (even Locke admits that in his opening remarks.) But reading it is useful to know to understand not just the subjects it touches upon, but its influence on history.

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I see I gave book three of the <i>Essay</i> five-and-a-half stars when I read it on its own, which I hope shows that I do see the insightful and innovative side of this magnum opus, because I think I'm about to come across more negative about it than I mean to.Why?? Well, so there is a cute thing Locke says near the beginning that serves not only as life maxim but also as oblique and presumably unintentional commentary on his own work: "It is of great use to the sailor to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the ocean. It is well he knows that it is long enough to reach the bottom, at such places as are necessary to direct his voyage, and caution him against running upon shoals that may ruin him." Locke goes further to say that is our job here in the <i>Essay</i> too and we shouldn't expect to know it all, but dude ... I feel so incorrigibly modern for saying this, but stop trying to know it all then! You can't be a fox and a hedgehog at the same time! Or if you're going to be a psychologist, then psychologize, but stop talking about sailors and ropes and not needing to know it all if you're about to spend six hundred pages anatomizing our ideas of things and the operations of the human mind. This is not a cheery, speculative, line-trawling kind of book--it is a System, and how you feel about reading the thing instead of a two paragraph summary in <i>A History of Western Philosophy</i> or your psych text or something will depend a lot on how you feel about prolix, ponderous systematicity.For me, I am getting old and sad and this old sailor didn't need Locke to prove that cultural relativism exists or that it doesn't make sense to argue that ideas are innate if kids still have to learn them. I know it was noble service. I'm even prepared to imagine that you invented the present-day model of the self, because if not you, then who? But did you have to do it at such length, and then mock us by being all "I know I repeat myself, but enhhh, fuckit"?One good way to deal with this issue is to read this as a treasure hunt for epigrams, which will result in a rich sense of the process whereby the gentleman of the Enlightenment gathers the low-hanging fruit of the understanding. Sometimes it is perverse--like, the kind of perversity that takes "manna" as the go-to example of the perception of the qualities of substances--manna is sweet, manna is white, shove your manna up your manna hole. But sometimes it's kind of neat--if the sun melts wax is that quality in the sun or the wax? Sunny-dock, grass-chewing stuff. Overall I'm sort of 49% no on that stuff (I challenge anyone to remove a part of space from space. Now!); but what it distracts from is that he's discussing infinity/eternity and categoricity/gradience and free will in sophisticated ways and sometimes talks about what it would be like if we had microscope eyes, and that stuff I am like 57% yes on, even when it's done Locke style.One funny thing is the way he tries to be universalist and then tumbles into the rabbit hole of differences in perception and the only thing he can do to deal with it is turn to language--the weird ways we put words together, they ways they trick and slied, the "double conformity" of words to our ideas and the ideas of others, and the funny little social compact called language that we try to salvage meaning with. The "connection of ideas," a concept with import beyond its days. (Probably this would be a weird review of Locke if it didn't also mention the tabula rasa in that capacity.) There is annoying Christian contusions about epistemology--"here is a thing that makes sense but oh the one exception is God." And much of this is near-impenetrable and seemingly trivial when penetrated. Is that a founder effect, like it seems obvious NOW, or am I just a whiner? At least it's not Leibniz.