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Claiming only to be an “Under-Labourer” whose task is to prepare the way for the “Master-Builders” of science, he encouraged ordinary readers to rely upon their own capacity for judgment rather than to accept the dictates of intellectual fashion.[Essay Epistle] In the daily course of ordinary activity, everyone is inclined to rely upon a set of simple guidelines for living, and laziness or pride may encourage us to accept dearly held convictions without ever embarking on a careful examination of their truth. Locke pointed out that blind acceptance of “borrowed Principles”—the confident pronouncements of putative cultural authorities regarding crucial elements of human life—often leaves us vulnerable to their imposition of absurd doctrines under the guise of an innate divine inscription.He devoted particular attention to the primary/secondary quality distinction and to the acquisition of simple ideas of space, time, number, pleasure, and pain.
Written in a straightforward, uncomplicated style, the Essay attempts nothing less than a fundamental account of human knowledge—its origin in our ideas and application to our lives, its methodical progress and inescapable limitations.
Even three centuries later, Locke’s patient, insightful, and honest reflections on these issues continue to merit the careful study that this guide is intended to encourage.
After all, Locke argued, we do have what we need most.
The practical conduct of human life doesn’t depend upon achieving speculative certainty about the inner workings of the natural world or acquiring detailed information about our own natures.
[Essay I iii 24-26] Our best defense against this fate is to engage in independent thinking, which properly begins with a careful examinination of the function and limits of our discursive capacities.
Attention to specific issues at hand often leads us to overlook the function of the most noble of our faculties, but Locke believed that the operations of the human understanding are familiar to us all.
For that purpose, Locke supposed, we must pursue the “Historical, plain Method” of observing ourselves in the process of thinking and acting.
With respect to each significant area of human knowledge, we must ask ourselves: where does it come from, how reliable is it, and how broadly does it extend?
Drawing the distinction between civil and philosophical uses of language, he pointed out that difficulties in communication result both from the natural imperfections of language and from its deliberate misuse. 378-388] Finally, Locke defined knowledge and distinguished its several types, each of which is subject to strict limitations.
Arguing in some detail against the common inclination to rely upon supposedly self-evident principles, Locke proposed that genuine advances in human knowledge depend instead upon the proper exercise of good judgment in assenting to opinions suitable to the ideas with which they are concerned. 388-398] Cambridge Platonists Benjamin Whichcote and Peter Sterry / Locke rarely commented explicitly on the relation of his own work with that of other thinkers.