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Father of Liberalism: John Locke

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1. John Locke: The Father of Liberalism

English philosopher John Locke's works are considered the foundation of modern philosophical empiricism, political liberalism, and the early age of enlightenment. Locke’s ideas were used as the basis for the revolution of the English colonies in North America.

It is posited that philosophy is often a reflection of personal disposition and life circumstances. Locke was deeply involved in the political affairs of his country which no doubt influenced his philosophical work.

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Somerset, England, the eldest of two sons. His father was a lawyer and captain in the military during the English civil war. Locke’s parents were Puritans, seeking to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices. Locke received an excellent education because of his father’s connections in the military and through his loyalty to the English government.

Locke was educated at Westminster school where he earned the honor of being named a King’s Scholar. It provided Locke with the opportunity to attend the University of Oxford’s most prestigious school, Christ Church. Locke studied logic, metaphysics, and classical languages, and graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine.

When studying medicine Locke met Lord Ashley, who later went on to become the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury convinced Locke to become his personal physician in London. During that period Locke continued his medical training under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham, who influenced Locke’s natural philosophical thinking.

In the 1670s Locke’s responsibilities grew beyond being a physician and he was exposed to business and politics, with his mentor Shaftesbury having a significant influence on Locke’s political philosophy. Locke served as secretary on several boards, shaping his ideas on economics and international trade.

Locke’s mentor Shaftesbury fell from favor in England around 1675. Locke took the opportunity to travel through France, returning to England in 1679. Locke departed England again in 1683 after becoming a target of Government and speculation he was involved in a plot to assassinate the King, which was later proven improbable. Nonetheless, he fled to Holland. When exiled in Holland, Locke began writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding which ultimately became four books examining the nature of human knowledge.

In 1688 Locke returned to his homeland after the overthrow of King James II by William of Orange, a Dutchman who became King William III. The overthrow of King James II, known as the Glorious Revolution amongst other terms, eternally altered the course of the English government, moving the balance of power from constitutional monarchy to Parliament, lending support to Locke’s contention that government was a social contract between the king and representatives of the people, the Parliament. It also set Locke up to be a hero to many in his native country.

Locke was a prolific writer and wrote on political, scientific, and philosophical matters in correspondence and in journals throughout his life. Remarkably, Locke’s seminal works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Two Treatises of Civil Government, and 'A Letter Concerning Toleration were published in the short period between 1689 to 1690. Then in 1693, he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education, his contribution to the Philosophy of Education, and in 1695 The Reasonableness of Christianity, suggesting the basic doctrines of Christianity are relatively few and entirely compatible with reason.

In 1691 Locke moved to his close friend Lady Damaris Masham's country house at Oates, Essex. In the ensuing years, Locke responded to followers and critics by revising later editions of his books and discussing matters with such figures as John Dryden and Sir Isaac Newton.

Locke remained connected to administrative matters associated with the Government. He re-established the Board of Trade, the body responsible for overseeing England's new territories in North America, serving as one of the Board’s key members.

He continued to work at the Board of Trade from 1696 until his retirement in 1700. Locke died in Essex on October 28, 1704, He was buried at the High Laver Church, in the county of Essex.

Years after his death Locke’s impact on Western thought is still being debated. His theories regarding the separation of Church and State, religious freedom, and liberty influenced America's founders, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Locke’s views on the innateness of the human mind also laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason influencing enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

2. Heart of the Argument

John Locke is considered one of the most influential western philosophers of contemporary times. Locke is regarded as the first philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment and has influenced consequent western thought.

Locke's most significant contributions were to modern philosophical empiricism and the establishment of the modern theory of Liberalism. Moreover, Locke’s views and influence also comprise a broad spectrum including theology, religious tolerance, and educational theory. Locke pioneered the exploration of modern concepts of identity and the self and led the first significant analysis of linguistics by studying the role of language in human mental life. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, developed their philosophies based on Locke’s work.


Empiricism is a theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding he seeks to uncover the source of human knowledge and understanding. Locke proposes that at birth the mind is a tabula rasa, a Latin phrase meaning blank slate. He believed we are born without innate ideas and that over time information is added and rules for processing formed solely by the experience we gain from our senses. The Essay is considered one of Locke’s most influential works and continues to shape philosophical thought.

Nonetheless, Locke also considered the mind had intrinsic capacities, predispositions, and inclinations preceding receipt of any ideas from sensation, being activated only when the senses receive an idea.


Liberalism is a political philosophy that considers individual liberty to be the most important political goal and emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. John Locke is recognized for establishing liberalism as a discrete philosophical tradition. Locke’s contribution to philosophy led him to become known as the Father of Liberalism.

Locke's Two Treatises on Government established two fundamental liberal ideas:

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  • economic liberty (meaning the right to have and use the property); and
  • intellectual liberty (including freedom of conscience).

The Second Treatise has several themes including the nature of government, conquest, slavery, property, and the right to revolution.

Locke developed his natural rights theory (the guarantee of life, liberty, and property), the predecessor of the modern conception of human rights and the basis for contemporary democracy. Locke’s view of government was that it is a social contract in which individuals retain the rights they have in the state of nature and receive protection from physical harm, security for their possessions, etc. in return for relinquishing certain rights, the right to punishment.

Locke proposed the then revolutionary concept that government obtains consent from the governed, consequently, authority is derived from the people rather than from above. Therefore, Government is obliged to be responsive to the citizens otherwise citizens are obligated to revolt and remove any government failing to secure their natural rights. Locke also advocated the separation of church and state, and of the individual right to follow one’s own religious beliefs without a religion being imposed by the state.

Locke also outlined his labor theory of property, a theory of natural law holding that property is the product of the exertion of labor upon natural resources, later influencing Marx’s labor theory of value.

3. Strengths


Locke's empiricism was developed through his observations of the contrast between natural scientists and moralists and theologians. Locke believed the scientific method of accepting as true only those conclusions verified by experiment and observation was clearly a safe method and should be used for all disciplines of inquiry. He suggested that the inductive method of arriving at the truth was superior to the deductive method. Locke's repudiation of the principle of innate ideas directly challenged rationalistic thinkers’ doctrines, which were primarily based on assumed principles and conclusions reached by a process of deductive reasoning.

Locke's theory concerning the flawed belief in innate ideas strongly influenced the development of empirical philosophy in the century following the publication of the Essay. The emphasis on the empirical method did not completely supersede rationalistic philosophy, it caused followers of rationalism to be more cautious. The influence of empiricism became more prominent over successive generations and remains a core characteristic of contemporary thinking.


John Locke synthesized previous doctrines of classical liberalism from the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes into a clear body of classical liberal thought. In support of his theory, he sought to demonstrate how James II forfeited his throne because he violated the social contract. As discussed at the heart of the argument, when the contract is broken, citizens have the right to revolt against the sovereign or government.

Locke’s social contract philosophy formed the basis of the Contract of Government, whereby all political power is in trust for the benefit of the people, and citizens are responsible for creating that trust whilst also being beneficiaries of the trust. The social contract provides power only so the welfare of its citizens is improved and their property is protected.

Locke’s liberalism philosophy is driven by humanity. It is suggested Locke’s true objective was to allow humans to live happier and fuller lives, engaging their spiritual or religious natures, and that he viewed religious toleration and contractual government principally to achieve that goal. His philosophy accepts diversity, provides citizens the freedom to pursue diverse goals, and supports peaceful cooperation throughout the world. Locke’s political philosophy supported the basic elements of free market economics, and Locke’s concept of natural law led to the development of legal systems to protect the rights of individuals.

4. Weaknesses


Locke's theory was based on contradicting his definition of innate ideas, however, he may have misinterpreted the meaning of innate as used by the rationalistic thinkers. Plato did not think the soul was conscious of ideas until the mind was stimulated by sense perceptions. Descartes' conception of innate ideas had to do with his criterion of truth. Consistent with Plato, he theorized ideas exist in the mind without being perceived by the senses but does not imply that the full meaning of either of them was necessarily present in one's consciousness.

In his theory, Locke assumed Descartes's definition of mind, that unless an idea was present in one's consciousness, it was not in his mind at all. Leibnitz conclusively argued Descartes's definition was untrue, arguing if it were so, remembering something could not be distinguished from obtaining information for the first time. Presently, the concept of a subconscious mind is generally accepted by psychologists and is rarely disputed.

If the subconscious mind is acknowledged, Locke's argument of ideas emanating from sensory experience diminishes. That is, an idea may be in the subconscious mind and don’t appear at the conscious level until after experiences have occurred.


In Locke’s view, what he called “the Law of Nature” meant that individuals were morally bound not to damage other people’s lives or property. In economic terms, this position broadly equates to a state that focuses on the protection of property rights and adjudication of contractual disputes. Critics argue that Locke developed his theory from his political experience of his time, to justify the outcomes of the Glorious Revolution and to protect the property of the aristocracy. It should be noted Locke’s work was not recognized by his contemporaries as being influential.

Locke’s social contract theory could be considered unrealistic as it assumes that each person is a distinct independent individual whereas humans are naturally social and political beings. Furthermore, despite Locke’s theory of citizens' delegation of authority to a government, it is a notional fiction rather than reality, as anarchy would reign if people revolted each time the government did not maintain the ‘social contract.

His political theory is about maintaining the status quo and does not propose governments should improve social conditions if they contradict the ‘law of nature. In the contemporary context, Locke’s social contract theory is elitist, or biased towards those who have property, because the real benefits of property ownership apply to those who have property, and a perpetual cause of conflict is the divide between those who own, and those who do not own, property.

Finally, Locke’s theory does not support human flourishing and proposed that we obey our rulers because of their superior will, which is somewhat contradictory to his contention of ‘people power’.

5. Leadership Lessons

Though John Locke died over three centuries ago there his philosophy and philosophical works can still provide useful lessons for contemporary leaders.

Locke’s philosophy on tolerance provides a valuable lesson in accepting diversity. Diversity of thought within a workplace has been proven to increase creativity, productivity, employee engagement, and profit.

Locke’s belief in natural law, the theory of value, and the right of the individual to ‘own their own life’ forms the basis of economic theory. He believed the individual could ‘own’ the product of their work, or in contemporary terms, generate assets from the application of labor and that all wealth is the product of labor. As a leader, knowledge of economic theory is important. The ability to influence the efficient application of labor can increases performance.

The last and most significant leadership lesson from Locke is the empowerment and participation of all employees of an organization. Contemporary leadership is about authenticity, cooperation, and collaboration, not necessarily democracy. Forsaking authoritarian leadership and respecting the knowledge of employees. A connection is structured by a social contract based upon immutable rights afforded to everyone. Locke was an advocate of man acknowledging the dignity of humankind.


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  5. Locke, J. &. Y. J. W., 1993. An essay concerning human understanding. London: Dent.
  6. Matson, W. I. & Fogelin, R. J., 1987. A New History of Philosophy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
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  8. Spillane, R. & Joulie, J.-E., 2015. The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought. 1st ed. Maryland: Lexington Books.
  9. Spillane, R. & Joullie, J.-E., 2015. Philosophy of Leadership: The Power of Authority. 1st ed. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.
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