The Dennes Room

Philosophy 174

Fall 2007

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
174 Locke Ayers TuTh 11-12:30 210 Wheeler

Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding, published in 1689, is one of the few most influential works in general philosophy that have ever been written. Locke’s was a leading voice in favor of a reasonable, tolerant, and anti-dogmatic (more or less ‘modern’) approach to the natural world, to society and to religion. His theory of knowledge, part of this wider campaign, was supported by shrewd and subtle philosophical argument that was highly respected throughout Europe for well over a century – even by such opponents and critics as Leibniz and Kant. Since then it has often been underrated and misrepresented, but his thought is of great philosophical as well as historical interest and importance.

The Essay is a long book, and is constructed in an order that would have been more familiar to his first readers. Ayers’ Locke follows a rather different order, but is also regrettably long. Students who take this course will not be expected to read either ‘required’ book from beginning to end (though they won’t be discouraged from doing so). We will start by reading a selection of passages taken from different parts of the Essay, not necessarily with the aim of explaining the structure and philosophical motivation of Locke’s theories – an overall grasp of his strategy. Then we shall look at specific arguments and questions of interpretation in greater detail, as well as exploring the wider philosophical issues that they raise. The latter include the nature of knowledge and its relation to belief, the basic role of the senses, what thinking is, the relation between physical and logical necessity, the relations between language, thought and reality (for example, how far our classifications have an objective basis in reality), and what the identity of things and persons consists in. (A lot of work has been done on Locke since I wrote about him, and I expect to have to revise some earlier views.)

A student unfamiliar with the Essay might usefully look first at the following passages (about 190 pages in all). They do not include some very important topics (eg identity, classification, estimation of probability, the relation between faith and reason), but should give an overall idea of what Locke is about.

Book I ch I, ch ii, and ch iv sections 1-3 and 22-25;
Book II ch I sects 1-10 and 20-25, chs ii-viii, ch xiii 1-5, ch xiv sects 1-5, ch xvi, ch xvii sects 1-3 and 22, chs xix and xx, ch xxi sects 1-4, ch xxii, ch xxiii sects 1-12 and 37, ch xxv and ch xxxi. Book IV chs i-vi, ch xi, chs xv and xvi.

Previously taught: SP05.