John Locke

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John Locke (portrait by Godfrey Kneller , 1697)
John Locke Signature.svg

John Locke [ dʒɒn lɒk ] (born August 29, 1632 in Wrington near Bristol , † October 28, 1704 in Oates, Epping Forest , Essex ) was an English doctor and influential philosopher and thought leader of the Enlightenment .

Locke is widely regarded as the father of liberalism . Together with Isaac Newton and David Hume, he is the main exponent of British empiricism . Furthermore, he is next to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) one of the most important contract theorists in the early Age of Enlightenment .

His political philosophy influenced the Declaration of Independence of the United States , the Constitution of the United States , the Constitution of revolutionary France and, through this, most of the constitutions of liberal states. In Two Treatises of Government , Locke argues that government is only legitimate if it has the consent of the governed and protects the natural rights of life, liberty and property. If these conditions are not met, the subjects have a right to oppose the rulers.


John Locke (portrait of John Greenhill, before 1676)

Locke was the son of a court official in the county of Somerset born. He came from a relatively wealthy family. His grandfather Nicholas Locke had amassed small fortunes and land holdings as a drapery on which the family could live. His father was an officer on the side of Parliament during the English Civil War . The Lockes enjoyed the protection of the Popham family, who had produced a speaker of the House of Commons with John Popham (1531-1602) and a long-time member of the House of Commons with Alexander Popham (1595-1669). So it was possible for John Locke in 1647 to attend the former royal Westminster School in central London. From there he could hear the crowd as the Puritans executed King Charles I on January 30, 1649.

Locke obtained a scholarship that enabled him to study "Classical Sciences" from 1652 at the College Christ Church at the University of Oxford , which included training in Aristotle and Scholasticism (logic and metaphysics) as well as the ancient languages ​​of Greek and Latin and the classical Authors included. In 1656 the university awarded him a Bachelor of Arts . He gave up thinking about dropping out of his studies and entering a law firm. Instead, he took the Master of Arts examination two trimesters before the end of the scheduled study period in 1658. He then became a member of the faculty as a senior student and took up his position as a lecturer. From 1660 he was lecturer for Greek, then rhetoric (1662) and ethics (1663 “Censor of Moral Philosophy”). His career was thus quite typical for Oxford conditions.

After his younger brother died in childhood, John Locke inherited some land and some cottages after the early death of his father in 1661 , making him financially independent. In the status-based English society he held the rank of landowner.

As a student, Locke had shown interest in medical issues and the emerging empirical methods, as his notes indicate. So he dealt with the natural sciences and attended Richard Lower unofficially medical lectures. During this time he had closer contact with Robert Boyle and the experimental empirical methods of the natural sciences. He was particularly interested in the botanical aspects of medicine and by 1675 earned a Bachelor's degree in medicine from Oxford . During the following years Locke wrote a number of treatises that are quite royalist in color, but also represent the point of view of classical natural law. However, these were never published during his lifetime. His career stagnated, both academically and politically he could not find a sponsor at first.

In 1665 Locke accompanied the envoy Sir Walter Vane as secretary to negotiations with the Brandenburg Elector Friedrich Wilhelm in Kleve . However, he returned to Oxford the following year and turned again to medicine. In the same year he met Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper , later 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. Ashley Cooper had come to Oxford to undergo therapy for liver disease. He was very impressed by Locke and persuaded him to join him as a personal physician, although he did not have a license to practice medicine: the university did not grant him an official license to practice medicine until 1675. Locke moved in 1667 in Shaftesburys domicile at Exeter House in London and served him as personal physician. In London, Locke deepened his medical studies, which included precise bedside observation, under the direction of Thomas Sydenham . As early as 1668, Locke performed a daring medical procedure that may have saved Ashley Cooper's life.

Since then, Locke has been a lasting protector; Locke participated in his political ascent to a gentry leader and eventually to government. That Locke did not make a great political career is likely due to Locke's own skepticism about these tasks, not a lack of support from the Earl. Through the close connection to the ruling class in the turbulent time of the conflict between parliamentary and absolute monarchy, mercantilism and the trading state, Locke acquired knowledge and opinions that also influenced his philosophical works. In 1672 he was given one of the less important government posts by Shaftesbury, which, however, gave him reputation and wealth. But more important was the intellectual exchange that Shaftesbury cultivated and encouraged. Locke became a member of the Royal Society in 1668 .

When Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the course of power struggles in the government, Locke made a trip through France from 1675 to 1679, which he used to exchange ideas with local naturalists. After his release, Shaftesbury initially went into the opposition, but was imprisoned again in 1681 because of the conflict with the king, he was against the successor of Jacob II to the throne of Charles II . It was during this period that Locke wrote his first two treatises on government . Shaftesbury, now the leader of the groups that would later form the Whigs' party , attempted a coup d'état after his release in 1682, the Rye House Plot , in which James II and Charles II were to be murdered, which failed, and went to the Dutch Exile where he died in 1683. Locke initially remained hidden in England, but then went to Holland from 1683 to 1688.

Locke was given the job of looking after the earl's grandchildren, including Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury , who himself would become a famous moral philosopher. In 1684 the English king ordered him to be expelled from Christ Church College in absentia. Locke, who was a staunch member of the university throughout his life, protested against this decision. Locke's affection for Oxford was by no means reciprocal: as early as 1683 the last public book burning in England took place in the court , whereby many works that Locke valued were destroyed. In 1684, various professors at the University of Locke accused Locke of being hostile to the Stuarts. In 1703, after his works caused a sensation in the European intellectual world, the university refused to include her son's books in the curriculum.

It was not until William of Orange came to power in 1689 that he was offered a government office again, which he refused for health reasons. From 1690 he withdrew to the estate of a befriended nobleman. As he withdrew personally, his reputation grew. With Wilhelm III. and the Bill of Rights had prevailed the Protestant-bourgeois party in the English power conflict. Locke's An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding , published in 1690, made his name known and famous in the learned circles of Europe, so that later publications attracted a great deal of attention and led to intense controversy. A group formed in the House of Commons around John Somers, 1st Baron Somers , who were heavily influenced by Locke's ideas and who met with him when he was in London. Somers himself later became the most important advisor to William III.

Locke died in his study on October 28, 1704.



Locke's first publication was a poem in praise of Oliver Cromwell , published in 1653 after he won a battle in the Anglo-Dutch War . During his time at Christ Church Locke did not deal in his writings with philosophy in the strict sense, but he prepared some texts on the politics of England and natural law . He prepared a treatise on the civil magistrate for printing in 1664, but it was never published. Together with his in-university writings, the text shows that Locke was far more authoritarian at that time than at a later time. He defends the absolute power of the magistrate over members of society; the decisions bind even the conscience of the individual members. The freedom of the individual only begins where there is no binding decision. In contrast to advocates of monarchical absolutism , Locke already bases this phase on a kind of constitutional state : the highest legitimate power was not the person of the ruler, but the totality of the laws that he represented.

Locke's first widespread publications were probably created in close collaboration with the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina appeared in 1669, the Letter from a Person of Quality in 1675, both published anonymously.

In his later years, far away from the political events of the day, he published his main works; the drafts and sketches were much older. The main features of them came into being when Locke was still working closely with the Earl of Shaftesbury. His first draft for the experiment on the human mind dates from 1671.

In 1686 the anonymously published letters about tolerance appeared , some of which probably originate from Shaftesbury's pen. In 1690 two treatises on the government followed anonymously , in the same year the experiment on the human mind appeared , in which at least his name was under the foreword; In 1692 the considerations about the lowering of the interest rate and the increase of the monetary value , already written in 1668, were published in which he advocated an early form of free trade, in 1694 finally the Thoughts Concerning Education (thoughts on education).

An exception in his work are the two treatises on government , about which there are no sketches, manuscripts or other records by Locke. The book was essentially probably written in the mid-1680s, before the Bill of Rights. Since it was only published after this, he was able to rewrite the introduction and certain parts in such a way that it could be read as a reason for this. He not only had the work published anonymously, but also removed all traces that could connect him as the author to the work. Among other things, he destroyed the manuscript. Although many of his contemporaries publicly ascribed the treatise to him and praised it during his lifetime, Locke did not respond. It was even in its own alphabetical bookshelf with the unknown authors. Only in his will did he confess to authorship.


An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (London: T. Basset / E. Mory, 1690)

Locke made an important contribution to epistemology . He advocates the rational theology and the turn from the philosophy of the Middle Ages to the philosophy of the modern age , which the rationalist philosophy owes above all to René Descartes . Locke, however, turned against the justification of the natural sciences by mere thought and instead sought its foundation in experience .

Nevertheless, like Descartes, he took as the starting point of his philosophical considerations the doubt about objective reality, about the existence of the outside world. The lifting of this doubt was no longer carried out by him through the concept of God , but empirically , inspired by Pierre Gassendi . In his four-book main work An Essay concerning Humane Understanding , Locke examined the origin, certainty and extent of human knowledge as distinct from belief , opinion and guesswork. The starting point was on the one hand Locke's scholastic training at Oxford on the basis of the nominalism prevailing in England . On the other hand, during his four-year stay in France he had dealt intensively with Descartes and his conception of innate ideas.

Accordingly, in the first book, Locke first examined the origin of ideas and developed a number of pragmatic arguments against the existence of innate ideas. His basic thesis is the sensualistic statement formulated well before him : Nihil est in intellectu quod non (prius) fuerit in sensibus (“Nothing is in the mind that would not have been in the senses before”). The second book deals with the relationship between ideas and experience. At birth, human consciousness is like a sheet of white paper ( tabula rasa ) on which experience first writes. The starting point for knowledge is sensual perception. He distinguished between external perceptions (sensations) and internal perceptions ( reflections ) . The next step in the third book is to examine the role of language , its relationship with ideas, and its significance for knowledge. Finally, book four deals with the complex (summarized) ideas, the limits of knowledge and the relationship between reason and belief.


Locke's critique of the representation of innate ideas (ideae innatae) has an enlightening character. By examining things themselves, the dogmas , prejudices and the principles prescribed by authorities, as they were the order of the day in his day, should be broken. He emphatically opposed Descartes' assumption that the idea of ​​God is also innate: because in many parts of the world there is no corresponding idea of ​​God.

If there were innate ideas, they should also be present in mentally retarded people.

“First of all, it is obvious that all children and idiots have no idea or thought about these sentences. This deficiency alone is enough to destroy that general agreement that must necessarily and unconditionally be the companion of all innate truths. "

- Book I, Chapter 1, Section 3

Innate ideas would also make reason superfluous, since one does not need to discover what one already has. Principles such as that of the excluded contradiction (“Nothing can be and not be at the same time and in the same respect”) or of identity (“Everything that is, that is”) are evident, but must first be inferred by reason. There are no criteria to distinguish innate from acquired ideas. From Locke's point of view, the criterion of evidence cannot characterize innate ideas, because there are so many evident statements that they cannot possibly be innate. For the same reasons there are no inherent moral principles. Principles such as fairness or the keeping of contracts would have to be justified by reason in order for them to be universally valid.

Overview of the presentation of ideas by John Locke

Locke saw as an essential argument against innatism that his own epistemology, which was conclusive for him, got by without the idea of ​​innate ideas.

The material of knowledge are simple ideas. Their origin lies in experience. Locke distinguished between sensations (external impressions) and reflections (internal impressions), which are only combined and formed into complex ideas in the mind. The inner impressions include mental activities such as perceiving, doubting, believing, reasoning, recognizing or willing. Complex ideas arise through comparison, assembly, abstraction and other corresponding activities of the mind. Locke was not - as is so often read - a sensualist . For him there was indeed an active mind (cf. intellectus agens ), which plays an essential role in the cognitive process. So far there is no difference to Kant . For Locke there were simply no a priori ideas , only the ability to process perceptions into images, complex ideas and concepts. In the case of complex ideas, he distinguished between substances, relations and modes. Substances are things that exist on their own, including angels , God, and other "constructed" objects. The relationship between different ideas is expressed in relations. Modes are ideas that do not depict reality, but intellectual constructs, for example "triangle", "state" or "gratitude".

When recording the substances which, for Locke, correspond to complex ideas, he distinguished between primary and secondary qualities . Primary are properties that are inherent in the substances, such as expansion, strength or shape. Secondary qualities are properties that are not actually found in the body of the object, but are added by our perception in the idea of ​​the respective substance.

"What is in the idea of ​​sweet, blue or warm is just a certain size, shape and movement of the sensuously imperceptible particles in the bodies themselves, which we call that."

- II, 8.15

Locke found a problem in the distinction between secondary qualities that is still being discussed intensively in contemporary philosophy under the heading of qualia . For Locke, secondary qualities are products of the mind . They “are nothing more than the faculties of various combinations of the primary qualities” (II, 8:22). Primary qualities are properties of solid bodies, the images of which evoke ideas in the human mind. This presupposes an indeterminable carrier (II, 22,2), a substance whose knowledge must be assumed, something of which we obviously have no clear idea. Locke described this substance, following Gassendi and in agreement with the atomism advocated by Boyle, as imperceptible smallest particles. He characterized his idea as a hypothesis . The world is as it appears to us, even if it does not have to correspond to the real world. But you have to stick to the concept of a real world. As a consequence, there is a dualism of spirit and matter. The assumption of both a spiritual world and a real world was the starting point of criticism by both Berkeley's idealism and Hume's skepticism .


Concept of Knowledge in John Locke

According to Locke, knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas. In order to know, therefore, it is necessary to judge whether a statement is valid. Locke distinguished three elements of knowledge, the intuitive , the demonstrative and the sensitive knowledge. One recognizes ideas as such intuitively if they exist in the mind as a unit (identity) and they differ from other ideas (distinctiveness). The intuitive grasping of an idea is necessary for the further steps of knowledge. Intuitive truth arises when the ideas can no longer be analyzed further (evidence).

Demonstrative knowledge only takes place indirectly. The mind has the ability to use ideas to create a connection between two ideas. According to Locke, this faculty is reason. He called this kind of knowledge the rational. The ideas are linked in individual steps, with each step being confirmed by intuitive knowledge. For Locke, the scholastic syllogisms were only deductive, and therefore not suitable for actually generating new knowledge. They only had a didactic function.

Finally, with sensitive knowledge, man grasps the existence of real objects; for "nobody can seriously be so skeptical that he is uncertain about the existence of the things he sees or feels" (IV, 11, 3). However, the senses are afflicted with a certain uncertainty in relation to the evidence and the deducibility, so that Locke ultimately defines the knowledge in the narrower sense as intuitive and demonstrative knowledge.

“These two, intuition and demonstration, are the degrees of our knowledge. Anything that does not correspond to one of these two is - however confidently one may accept it - mere belief or opinion, but not knowledge. "

- IV, 2.14

But how certain is the knowledge of what has been recognized? Locke's empiricism limits knowledge to experience. What lies beyond sensual experience, the essence (essence) of things, cannot be known. The understanding gives unity to what is known by forming the “concept of pure substance in general” (II, 4.18). Nothing definitive can be said about nature. With the help of reason, man cannot transcend the senses. He can only hypothesize as a guide for research and experiment. Absolute certainty is not possible empirically. In the area of ​​hypotheses, the mind works with abstract concepts such as species and genus by using complex ideas derived from experience but abstracted, such as relations and modes. Such ideas as that of the triangle have not only nominal , but also real essence. Therefore, in the abstract sciences like mathematics, it is possible to find unimpeachable truths.

"General and certain truths are founded only in the relationships and proportions of the abstract ideas."

- IV, 12.7

Since he z. B. classified justice, gratitude, or theft as modes at the same time, Locke counted morality among the abstract sciences for which one can derive these general and certain truths with the help of reason.

Reception of the theory of knowledge

There were first reactions to the essay during Locke's lifetime, with both Cartesians (John Norris) and Thomists (John Sergeant) expressing negative views. Of the well-known philosophers, both Leibniz with New Treatises on Human Understanding (1704, printed 1759) and Berkeley with his Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1709) reacted directly and critically to Locke's work. This can therefore be seen as the impetus for a new genre of treatise in philosophy that focuses exclusively on the epistemological question.

In this sense, Hume's study of the human understanding and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason are also in line with the discussion of epistemology. While Locke, Berkeley and Hume each took the empirical position, Leibniz and Kant are representatives of apriorism - a contradiction that, since Descartes and Locke, has influenced the philosophical discussion of positivism ( John Stuart Mill ) and neopositivism on the one hand, and German idealism including Arthur Schopenhauer , who criticized Locke as shallow, and on the other hand determined neo-Kantianism to the present day. Locke's theory of experience found a positive reception in process and reality with Alfred North Whitehead , whereas he criticized the fact that Locke , like many other philosophers of his time, at least implicitly adopted the separation of subject and substance .

Religion, the idea of ​​tolerance and thought of upbringing

Of Locke's theological writings, The Reasonableness of Christianity as Deliver'd in the Scriptures is particularly important. Locke combined rationalist ideas with traditional supranaturalism . He wanted to show that what is testified in the Bible corresponds to reason, and must be recognized by it as logical. The miracles are a certification of the truth claims of the Bible. Locke held fast to the literal inspiration of the biblical texts ( verbal inspiration ), as well as to the cosmological proof of God . For him, Jesus was both the teacher of the divine will ( Savior ) and the Redeemer ( Christ ) and the content of divine self-expression (God's Son). Like Luther , Locke studied the apostle Paul's letters intensively . Posthumously published A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (A paraphrase and notes on the letters of Paul).

Locke's parents were Puritans . That is why he was familiar with Reformation piety , lifestyle and theology from an early age. This included the democratic structures in the life of the parishes of congregationalists , Presbyterians , Baptists and Quakers (e.g. election of church elders (presbyters) and the representatives sent to regional and national synods by parishioners, equality of clergy and lay people) . This democratic approach goes back to Luther's views (“general priesthood of all believers”, election and, if necessary, deselection of pastors by parishioners), Calvin's church order (1541; elected church elders, etc.) and the creation of synods at regional and national level by the Huguenots (Separation of church and state).

The Plymouth Colony , founded by congregationalists (" Pilgrim Fathers ") in North America in 1620 , was administered democratically, as was the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony . The Baptist Roger Williams founded the Rhode Islands colony in 1636 , which combined democratic principles with freedom of belief and conscience for all Christian denominations. The same was done by William Penn in 1682 in the Pennsylvania colony , which became a refuge for religious minorities persecuted in Europe (Quakers, Huguenots, Mennonites , Bohemian Brethren and many others). The English public learned of these disruptive events for the 17th century through writings published by leaders of these colonies (e.g. Edward Winslow , William Bradford , John Cotton ). The colonies were already familiar with the principle of the separation of powers .

The Anabaptist movement arose in connection with the Reformation . As a minority persecuted many times, the Anabaptists insisted on freedom of belief and conscience. At the beginning of the 17th century, Baptist churches (General Baptists and Particular Baptists) were formed from the English Anabaptists. Leading Baptists like John Smyth , Thomas Helwys, and John Murton called for freedom of worship in a number of scriptures . Roger Williams, too, wrote a passionate plea for freedom of belief and conscience.

Locke was influenced by these writings. These influences also included the draft constitution of the Independents (Congregationalists) under their leader Oliver Cromwell (Agreement of the People, 1647), who emphasized the equality of all people as a result of democratic tendencies. It was in keeping with Locke's “positive-believing position on religion” (Karl Heussi) that he did not justify religious tolerance, or not just philosophically (see below), but also, like Roger Williams, biblically and theologically. In the early 16th century, Luther had already emphasized the "unenforceable freedom of belief". Locke excluded atheism and Catholicism from the state's toleration . This means that all atheistic forms of enlightenment are also rejected. In Locke's view, the Catholic Church prevents the realization of his central concern, the right of the individual to be able to determine his own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Locke supported the forces that opposed the absolutist claims of Charles I, Charles II and Jacob II and their efforts to reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion in England and Scotland against the will of the vast majority of the people. With that the Inquisition would have returned. This is why Locke welcomed the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the resolution of Parliament that every English monarch must be a member of the Anglican Church .

In his Letter Concerning Toleration ( Letter on the tolerance ) and the two successor letters Locke went on the relationship between state and religion one. At that time he feared the takeover of power by the Roman Catholic Church and the persecution of all those of different faiths. He advocated that the state leave religion largely to its citizens. Locke used essentially one religious- Christian and three in the narrower sense philosophical arguments. Religiously, he argued that nowhere in the Bible is there any indication that people are being forced to change their religion by force. Within the philosophical argument, he took up a thought from his Two Treatises : the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty and property; if it intervened in the religious life of its citizens, it would exceed its powers. This would also not make sense, since belief depends on an inner contemplation and conviction that cannot be forced through violence and persecution. The purely outward acceptance of another religion would not lead to a step towards true faith, but would interfere with the natural rights of the subjects. And even assuming that the government could somehow change the inner beliefs of its subjects, it would still be questionable whether this would help the true religion, since governments themselves are just as susceptible to propagating a false religion as their subjects.

In upbringing , Locke, who was not married and had no children, opposed strict school discipline. Instead, education must promote the individuality of children and young people. Locke's recommendations on education and upbringing are closely linked to his teaching that every child is born mentally as a tabula rasa.

Social and State Theory

Title page of the 1690 edition, published 1689

Locke wrote his works against the background of the conflicts between Parliament and the Crown. In his time it was not abstract considerations, but argumentative weapons in the conflict over the new social order. The absolute right of the king stood against the claims of the bourgeoisie to participation in government and their own rights against the king. Locke explains why the ruler's power should be restricted.

Locke's political thinking is based on “Protestant-Christian” assumptions. As a theologian, he derives certain central concepts such as equality of people from biblical texts and then as a philosopher, with the help of his understanding, examines the consequences that arise from the concepts for state and society. The Whig (supporter of the constitutional monarchy ) Locke assumes in his main political work Two Treatises of Government ( Two Treatises of Government ) of naturally given human rights (see natural law ). He makes certain assumptions about the state of man in the absence of the state and derives from these how people lived together in the natural state. Societies were formed through the accumulation of property. With the help of his contract theory , Locke justifies how these social contracts and thus governments gave themselves. Since governments were only created to serve specific human purposes, he can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate governments. He sees a right to revolution against illegitimate governments .

Natural law theory

What is called "natural law" is necessarily indefinite in content. Because from the “nature” of human beings, from the alleged original or ideal states of human society, one can only read what has been brought into it before as “law”. The Protestant philosophers of natural law Hugo Grotius , Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke escaped the dilemma of the indeterminacy of the content of natural law by equating it with biblical revelation, since, in their opinion, both go back to the same author, God. Locke was firmly rooted in a Calvinist-tinged Protestantism. In all of his writings dealing with political, legal and social issues, he constantly refers to the Old Testament and New Testament . In particular from the creation story (Genesis 1 and 2), the Decalogue (Ten Commandments, Exodus 20), the conduct and teaching of Jesus (Good Samaritan ( Luke 10:30-37  EU ), the commandment of love ( Matthew 5:44  EU ); ( Matthew 19:19  EU ), Golden Rule ( Matthew 7, 12  EU ) and the exhortations of the letters of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus , he derived crucial points of his political theory. Nature is reality created by God. "As far as the content of natural law is concerned, Locke firmly believes that God's commandments are necessarily in accordance with reason: God gave man reason, and 'with it a law that could not contain anything other than what reason prescribed.'" (“As for the content of natural law, Locke insists that God's commands are necessarily reasonable: God gave man reason, and 'with it a law: that could not be otherwise than what reason should dictate'.”) The Decalogue provides, among other things Life, property and good reputation of man, i.e. his honor and dignity, under divine protection. The preamble ( Ex 20.2  EU ) points to the liberation of the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery. God's act of liberation precedes the demands and justifies them. The right to life, freedom, dignity and property - these are central natural law concepts not only of Locke's political thought, but also of other philosophers of the Enlightenment and filled with biblical content.

For Locke, law arises from his understanding of natural law. He declares freedom, equality and inviolability of person and property to be the highest legal interests . He starts from the idea that the highest goal and purpose of man is life. Locke justifies this explicitly with the fact that man was created by God:

... by his [God's] order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: ... [human being] has no liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, yet when some nobler use than its bare possession calls for it.

“They are his property because they are his work, created by him to last as long as he pleases, but not as they please one another. ... [Man] does not have the freedom to destroy himself or any living being subject to him, unless a nobler purpose than mere preservation demands it. "

- Two Treatises of Government, II. Ii. 5

But he also states that God's will can be recognized through pure reflection and observation of the world (cf. natural theology ). Conversely, that would mean that the argument works without God. However, this reverse conclusion ignores the fact that the reference to the biblical God was deliberately made by Locke. Locke's trains of thought cannot be detached from their anchoring in biblical thought. Because this defines the rights in terms of content. To ensure survival, the rights to life, health, freedom and property (Life, Health, Liberty, Property) are necessary.

In contrast to Thomas Hobbes ' conception, Locke's natural rights are limited by the rights of others. While in Hobbes everyone has a right to everything in principle, in Locke the rights to freedom and property are restricted by the freedom and property rights of others. Nobody should harm another in his life, his health, his freedom or his property: “No one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” (II, 6; 9-10). From this restriction he himself derives the right to punish those who violate them and to demand compensation from those who violate them. While Hobbes is based on individual rights, Locke's Law of Nature is super-individual: “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one” (II, 6, II, 6–7), German: “Im In the state of nature there is a natural law that is binding for everyone. ”In doing so, he falls back on older natural law concepts.


First of all, Locke established the right of a person to enjoy and receive the comforts of life: “to subsist and enjoy the conveniences of life” (I 97, II, 2-3). It is important here that this right not only includes pure self-preservation, but also the joy of one's own life. Following his conception of natural rights and the resulting natural state, it also means that human life is already secured in the natural state. Unlike Hobbes, the government's job cannot just be to protect people's lives.


It is characteristic of Locke's thinking that he does not derive human equality, including the equality of men and women, from philosophical premises, but from the Bible ( Gen 1.27  EU ), the basis of the theological Imago Dei doctrine. For Locke, equality is the prerequisite for a government to exercise power only with the consent of the governed. In this respect, it is also a prerequisite for freedom and the indispensable basis of any constitutional democracy.


The second treatise begins with the right to freedom:

Freedom to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.

“[The state of nature] is a state of complete freedom, within the limits of natural law, to direct one's actions and to dispose of one's possessions and one's person as it seems best - without obtaining anyone's permission and without depending on the will of another be."

- II, § 4

But Locke also defines a legitimate total restriction on freedom: slavery . People can legitimately enslave other people the moment the latter start and lose an unjust war. In order to end the war, the victor has only the choice at this moment of either killing or enslaving his opponent. But if the loser offers as an act of repentance an appropriate reparation for the injustice he has caused, the victor must follow the reason of the natural law and end the state of war. Both parties now have the absolute freedom that is inherent in the state of nature.

The historian David Brion Davis sees Locke as the last great philosopher who tries to justify absolute and everlasting slavery.


Labor theory: appropriation of nature

Locke's argument about property is twofold. In the first stage, labor theory, he explains how people can legitimately acquire private property at all. In the first step, he contradicts the absolutist thesis, which only grants legitimate property rights to the king. It says that the world was given to Adam , Noah and then their descendants, the kings, to rule over them. According to Locke, God gave nature to all people in common (see Genesis ). Rather, what needs to be justified is that individuals can acquire private property and thus deny other people access to this part of nature.

Property is justified by the right to self-preservation : in accordance with the right to freedom and self-determination, man is not only the owner of himself and thus his work , but is also entitled to take an appropriate piece of nature from nature in order to preserve himself.

natural reason… tells us that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things, as nature affords for their subsistence

"Natural reason ... says that people, once they are born, have a right to their preservation and thus to food and drink and all other things that nature produces for their maintenance."

- II, § 25 ( online )

By mixing nature, which still belongs to everyone, with one's own work, which belongs to the individual, man is entitled to appropriate this part of nature. As an example, he gives the appropriation of a piece of fruit that has fallen from a tree: It belongs to the person who picked it up because by picking it up he mixed it with his work:

The labor that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.

"My work, which has relieved them of the mean state in which they found themselves, determined my ownership of them."

- II, § 28 ( online )

At this point in the argument, Locke falls back on older theorists of private property such as Hugo Grotius or Samuel von Pufendorf . With Locke, property is initially limited by several restrictions: One must not take more from nature than one can use up. Other people must also retain enough of the common given nature in order to survive on their own.

In his opinion, the first point in particular is important. It is forbidden to appropriate the fruits of nature and then, in the original sense of the word, to let them spoil:

As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in: Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.

“As much as everyone can use to any benefit for his life before it spoils, he can make himself his own. Anything beyond that is more than his due and belongs to the others. Nothing was created by God to be destroyed. "

- II, § 31 ( online )
Monetary Theory: Accumulation of Property

In the second stage, his monetary theory, he explains how the original, subsistence- based property system can legitimately transition into a capitalist property system: it is permissible to exchange perishable gifts of nature for less perishable ones, for example apples for nuts. You can have more nuts than you currently need as long as they don't spoil. This intermediate step allows natural products that have been appropriated to be exchanged for money, i.e. gold or silver:

if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its color, or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or diamond, and keep those by him all his life, he invaded not the right of others, he might heap up as much of the durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his property not lying in the largeness of his possessions, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it.

“If he then gave nuts for a piece of metal whose color he liked, if he traded his sheep for mussels or wool for a sparkling pebble or diamond so that he could carry them with him all his life, he did not reach into them Rights of others, no matter how much of these permanent things he accumulated as he wanted. He did not cross the boundaries of legitimate property by increasing his property, but when something perished unused. "

- II, § 46 ( online )

For Locke, however, this is not a law in the strict sense, but arises through human agreement and acceptance. Since money doesn't spoil, you can acquire as much of it as you want and can. In this way Locke circumvents the barrier to private property developed and maintained in the older natural law without violating it. The natural law restriction that nothing should spoil remains formally recognized, but in fact one can accumulate "infinite" wealth, since money does not spoil.

Social contract and government

As people accumulate property, so too do inequalities in society. In the first stage, people are bound to what they can personally produce and consume, and ownership will remain relatively the same. In the advanced monetary economy, property gaps become considerable, leading to envy, quarrels, and more frequent violations of natural law. In theory, anyone can punish someone who violates natural law. In practice, however, it will mostly be the victim who carries out the sentence. However, since the punishment should be proportionate to the act and the victim often overestimates the gravity of the offense, overreactions can often occur here. Excessive punishments and subsequent retaliation lead to confrontations and even war. At this moment, according to Locke, people are banding together to break off the process and protect their own property rights.

Locke builds on Thomas Hobbes' theory of the social contract , according to which the relationship between people and government is understood as the relationship of a free, bourgeois owner society . In doing so, he considerably expands the right to resist the government. In contrast to Hobbes, people with Locke can forfeit their rights, including that to life, entirely through an act that deserves death (which deserves death ) (II, 23, I, 10).

On the basis of the development of the social contract, Locke develops standards according to which the legitimacy of a government can be decided: Legitimate are governments that protect the naturally given human rights; illegitimate those who hurt them. Since an illegitimate government has no right to exist after that, it is again legitimate to rebel against such a government.

Separation of powers

Even before Charles de Montesquieu , Locke developed a theory of the separation of powers in the second treatise on government (in Chapters 12-14) . He sees two powers already assigned to the individual in their natural state, but given up by the social contract, namely the executive and the federal . In the state, there are also the legislature and the prerogative . By federation Locke understands the power that makes decisions about alliances and thus about war and peace, by prerogative a power assigned to the executive that also acts outside the law according to its own decision for the public good.

Origin and reception of the two treatises

Locke had probably read Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan - implicit references to it can be found in the Two Treatises - but above all his book was conceived as a response to Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings . Since the first editions contain numerous typographical errors, which Locke warned, it is difficult to assume an original version. Today the 4th edition is generally considered to be the authorized version.

Locke's theory of the state has significantly influenced the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the French draft constitution of 1791 and the entire development of the bourgeois-liberal constitutional state up to the present day. The introduction to the Declaration of Independence builds directly on Locke:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it

“We consider these truths to be established, that all human beings were created equal, that they were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. That governments have been introduced among the people to insure these rights, which derive their just power from the consent of the ruled; that as soon as a form of government becomes corruptible to these ends, it is the right of the people to change or abolish it and establish a new government ”

Like Locke, the Declaration of Independence derives general human and democratic civil rights from the biblical belief in creation. They are theonomes, i.e. H. Thoughts relating to God's law. The triad Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a literarily adapted version of Locke's natural rights to Life, Health, Liberty and Property , whereby Property was also literally in the text in the first drafts and Thomas Jefferson did it later through the less clear Pursuit of Happiness replaced.

In addition to the revolutionary politicians of the time, Locke also had a decisive influence on the development of political theory : the natural rights on which he was based are still the core of liberalism today . Likewise, with his treatises, all concepts of the minimal state can be justified, which allow government intervention in people's lives only for narrowly defined purposes.

The academic discussion about his theory of the state was particularly influenced by Leo Strauss (1953) and CB Macpherson (1962). For Strauss and his followers, Locke's theory is very similar to Thomas Hobbes. Locke merely formulated his approaches in a more socially acceptable manner for the time. Macpherson presents a Marxist interpretation that Locke sees as an apologist for capitalism. Both complain that Locke's work legitimizes the unlimited accumulation of property of emerging capitalism. The restrictions he makes are only superficial and ultimately meaningless.

Others like James Tully interpret the work almost the opposite: According to this, money and the associated accumulation of wealth, as well as the inequalities based on it, made the detachment from the natural state necessary. The introduction of state power based on a social contract prevented the decline of humanity.

While Locke uses the theory of money to undermine the waste restriction of property in his work, he just goes into the fact that every human being must have enough to survive. In Locke's day, this was not a major problem, since with the newly discovered America, there were seemingly unlimited natural resources. Today, since there is no longer any land on earth that is not claimed by someone, a large part of the scientific discussion is concerned with how this limitation of resources is to be interpreted and what the consequences are.

Works and editions

Works (selection)

  • Epistola de tolerantia (A Letter Concerning Toleration) , 1689 ( Letter on Tolerance )
  • An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding , 1690 (An Essay on the Human Mind)
  • The Second Treatise of Civil Government , 1690 ( Second Treatise on Government )
  • Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, an the Raising of the Value of Money , 1692, 5th ed. 1705
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education , 1693 (thoughts on education)
  • The Reasonableness of Christianity as Deliver'd in the Scriptures , 1695
  • Of the Conduct of the Understanding , 1706

Work edition

with a number of postponed manuscripts:

  • The Works , I – III, London 1704, I – X, 11th ed. 1812, (new ed. Corrected) 1823 (reprinted by Aalen 1963)

German text editions

  • A Letter concerning Toleration
  • An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding
    • Experiment on the human mind. in four books (in two volumes [newly translated from the Oxford edition in 1894 by C. Winkler 1911]): Vol. 1., Book I and II. 5th edition, Meiner, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 978-3-7873-1555 -0 , Vol. 2 .: Book III and IV, 3rd edition, Meiner, Hamburg 1988. ISBN 978-3-7873-0931-3 .
  • The Second Treatise of Civil Government
    • About the government (The second treatise of government), translated by Dorothee Tidow. With an afterword ed. by Peter Cornelius Mayer-Tasch , Reclam, Stuttgart 1974, ISBN 3-15-009691-X .
    • Two treatises of government , [ Two Treatises of Governmern ] translated by Hans Jörn Hoffmann, ed. and introduced by Walter Euchner , Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1977 (= permanent volume 213), ISBN 3-518-27813-4 .
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education
    • Thoughts on education , translated, notes and afterword by Heinz Wohlers, Reclam, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3-15-006147-4 .
  • Of the Conduct of the Understanding
    • The management of the mind , translated by Jürgen Bona Meyer , edited by Klaus H. Fischer, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Schutterwald, 1999, ISBN 978-3-928640-61-9 .
    • On the correct use of the mind , translated by Otto Martin, Meiner, Leipzig 1920; Unchanged reprint of the edition from 1920, Meiner, Hamburg 1978, ISBN 3-7873-0434-7 .

See also


Web links

Commons : John Locke  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: John Locke (English)  - sources and full texts
Wikisource: John Locke  - Sources and full texts

To person and work

Texts by Locke

Individual evidence

  1. Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration Routledge, New York, 1991. p. 5 (Introduction)
  2. Delaney, Tim. The march of unreason: science, democracy, and the new fundamentalism Oxford University Press, New York, 2005. p. 18th
  3. Godwin, Kenneth et al. School choice tradeoffs: liberty, equity, and diversity University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002. p. 12
  4. ^ Franz-Josef Illhardt: Locke, John. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 860.
  5. D. Henrich: Locke, John. - In: The religion in past and present, 3rd edition, Volume IV (1960), Col. 425 f. - Karl Heussi: Compendium of Church History. 11th edition (1956), p. 398
  6. Uzgalis, William, "John Locke," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition)
  7. ^ Karl Heussi: Compendium of Church History. 11th ed. (1956), p. 316; 325
  8. ^ The Plymouth Colony Archive Project and Massachusetts Bay Colony
  9. M. Schmidt: Pilgrim Fathers. - In: The religion in history and present, 3rd edition, Volume V (1961), Col. 384
  10. ^ Karl Heussi: Compendium of Church History. 11th edition (1956), p. 382
  11. ^ A b Karl Heussi, Compendium of Church History. 11th edition (1956), p. 398
  12. ^ W. Breach of values: Human rights. Historical . In: ` The religion in past and present , 3rd edition, Volume IV (1960), Col. 869
  13. ^ A b Heinrich Bornkamm: Tolerance. In the history of Christianity . In: The religion in past and present , 3rd edition, Volume VI (1962), Col. 943
  14. D. Henrich Locke, John. - In: The religion in past and present, 3rd edition, Volume IV (1960), Col. 425
  15. D. Henrich: Locke, John. - In: The religion in history and present, 3rd edition, Volume IV (1960), Col. 425-426
  16. ^ "Protestant-Christian assumptions." John Dunn, Political Thought of John Locke: A Historical Account of the Argument of the 'Two Treatises of Government' . Cambridge University Press 1969, p. 99. Quoted with approval in Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press. Cambridge 2002, p. 12
  17. Helmut Thielicke : Theologische Ethik, Volume 1, Tübingen (1956), p. 657
  18. ^ H. Hohlwein: Pufendorf, Samuel Freiherr von . In: Religion, Past and Present , Volume V, Column 721. Jeremy Waldron: God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002, p. 208
  19. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002), p. 13
  20. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002), pp. 97, 41ff, 101, 155, 181, 192, 194, 196, 207f, 215, 217, 230
  21. Cf. Martin Noth: The second book of Mose. Exodus . Göttingen (1959), p. 130
  22. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002), p. 6th
  23. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002), pp. 21-43
  24. Original text online on wikisource
  25. Domenico Losurdo: Freedom as a privilege - A counter-history of liberalism , Papyrossa, 2010, p. 12.
  26. W. Wertbruch: Human Rights . In: The religion in past and present, 3rd edition, Volume IV, column 869
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on April 30, 2006 .