“Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” JOHN LOCKE
BY ALEX P. VIDAL
One of the British Empiricists, John Locke lived at a time of great scientific discovery and political upheaval. He was to become deeply involved in, and affected by, both.
Locke’s claim is that all thoughts and ideas issue from what we have taken in through the senses. Before we perceive anything, the mind is a “tabula rasa” or an empty slate, as bare and empty as a blackboard before the teacher arrives in the classroom.
But then we begin to sense things. We see the world around us, we smell, taste, feel and hear. And nobody does this more intensely than an infant. In this way what Locke called “simple ideas of sense” arises. But the mind does not just passively receive information from outside it.
Some activity happens in the mind as well. The single-sense ideas are worked on by thinking, reasoning, believing and doubting, thus giving rise to what he calls “reflection.” So he distinguished between “sensation” and “reflection.” The mind is not merely a passive receiver. It classifies and processes all sensations as they come streaming in.
Locke (1632-1704) spoke out for intellectual liberty and tolerance. He was also preoccupied with equality of the sexes, maintaining that the subjugation of women to men was “man-made.” Therefore, it could be altered. He had a great influence on John Stuart Mill, who, in turn, had a key role in the struggle for equality of the sexes.
Locke was a forerunner of many liberal ideas which came into full flower later, during the French Enlightenment in the 18th century. It was he who first argued for the principle of division of powers, by which the power of the state is divided between different institutions: the legislative power, or elected representatives; the judicial power, or law of courts; and the executive power, or the government.
Locke rejected many of the ideas of the other great Empiricist, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed in a powerful monarchy and that man has no right to rebel and break the “social contract.”