In An Essay concerning Human Understanding
, John Locke sets out his theory of knowledge and how we acquire it.
Eschewing doctrines of innate principles and ideas, Locke shows how all our ideas, even the most abstract and complex, are grounded in human experience and attained by sensation of external things or reflection upon our own mental activities.
A thorough examination of the communication of ideas through language and the conventions of taking words as signs of ideas paves the way for his penetrating critique of the limitations of ideas and the extent of our knowledge of ourselves, the world, God, and morals.
Click on the links below to hear an audio guide the Locke’s Essay by Dr Pauline Phemister of the University of Edinburgh, editor of the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book.
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Introducing John Locke
Approaching the Essay
Publication, reception, influence
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was first published in 1689 and went through several editions between then and the author’s death in 1704.
What did Locke’s critics make of the book?[3:33]
- Locke conceived of his own role in the Essay as that of an “under-labourer”, doing the intellectual spade-work to clear a path for scientists who would make scientific headway which would be beneficial to humanity.
Locke the "under-labourer"[1:25]
- Philosophy then and now: Pauline Phemister considers in conclusion the similarities between philosophy in Locke’s day and in our own and finds many parallels.
The enduring value of Locke’s work [2:29]