Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (3): John Locke

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

John Locke is the third member of Jefferson's secular trinity that I'm discussing, along with Bacon and Newton.

John Locke 1632-1709

However much or little Jefferson may have been directly influenced by Locke's writing, it's hard not to see a strong philosophical kinship between Jefferson's insistence on separation of church and state of the document of non-sectarian government Locke elaborated in A Letter Concerning Tolerance, first published in Latin in 1685 in Holland.

Religious freedom and the separation of church and state was a key political principle for Jefferson. Dumas Malone writes in Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933):

His Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, presented in 1779 by John Harvie of Albemarle and passed, with slight but significant modifications in the preamble in 1786 when Jefferson was in France, was regarded by him as one of his greatest contributions to humanity. In its assertion that the mind is not subject to coercion, that civil rights have no dependence on religious opinions, and that the opinions of men are not the concern of civil government, it is indeed one of the great American charters of freedom. [my emphasis]
He emphasized how important it was to him in the arrangements for his burial. As Malone writes:

On the simple stone over his grave in the family burial ground at Monticello, he is described as he wished to be remembered, not as the holder of great offices, but as the author of the Declaration oflndependence and the Virginia statute for religious freedom, and as the father of the University of Virginia. [my emphasis

Back in 2008, I posted about Locke and the development of democratic theory (Why democracy and Christianity need science 08/05/2008), summarizing the argument of F.S.C. Northrup in The Meeting of East and West (1946):

The Jeffersonian notions of freedom of speech and religion and the need for rule by a democratic majority were heavily based on the ideas of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who derived his basic understanding of human equality from working out the implications of the physics of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

I won't go into the more excruciating details here. But basically, Locke's philosophy addressed the nature of the observer in the theoretical scheme of the physics of his day, in which "the sensed qualities in sensed space and time" are not considered direct qualities of the object being observed, but qualities perceived "indirectly by way of the observer".

There are obviously quite a few intermediate steps to get from there to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress. Freedom in practice had to be obtained through a political and military revolution against the British, not by arguments over the philosophy of science. But Northrup's point is valid and important. Our democratic notions of freedom stem from a scientific understanding of the world, as well as from moral and religious notions of the dignity of the individual human. Science is an integral part of democracy, not a luxury that can be treated as a fad or partisan preference without undercutting the basis of democracy.

Locke's philosophical influence extended well beyond political theory. Hegel in his Glauben and Wissen (Faith and Knowledge) of 1802 quotes the following passage from John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689):

For I thought that the first step towards satisfying several inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was, to take a survey of our own understandings, examine our own powers, and see to what things they were adapted. Till that was done I suspected we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and sure possession of truths that most concerned us, whilst we let loose our thoughts into the vast ocean of Being; as if all that boundless extent were the natural and undoubted possession of our understandings, wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions, or that escaped its comprehension. Thus men, extending their inquiries beyond their capacities, and letting their thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure footing, it is no wonder that they raise questions and multiply disputes, which, never coming to any clear resolution, are proper only to continue and increase their doubts, and to confirm them at last in perfect scepticism. Whereas, were the capacities of our understandings well considered, the extent of our knowledge once discovered, and the horizon found which sets the bounds between the enlightened and dark parts of things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avowed ignorance of the one, and employ their thoughts and discourse with more advantage and satisfaction in the other. [my emphasis]
Hegel cited this as something that Kant could have said of his own view, as a way of emphasizing how deeply Kant's philosophy drew from the English empiricist tradition of which David Hume and John Locke were leading lights. Along with the other two members of Jefferson's secular trinity, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

Hegel also used this quote to flag a core feature of this tradtion which he found extremely problematic, the ways in which is defined certain features of empirical reality as beyond the full cognition of human beings. Hegel's thesis, as Christoph Halbig et al describe it, was "that there is no outer border to which can be conceptualized" ("dass es keine AuBengrenze des Begrifflichen gibt"; Hegels Erbe; 2004)


Christoph Halbig, Michael Quante und Ludwig Siep, "Hegels Erbe- eine Einleitung" Hegels Erbe; Suhrkamp 2004

G.W.F. Hegel, Glauben und Wissen oder Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie (1802). The version used here is that of G.W.F. Hegel Werke 2, Jenaer Schriften (1801-1807); Suhrkamp; 1970.

The John Locke Collection: 6 Classic Works (Waxkeep Publishing; Kindle edition)

John Locke, On Politics and Education (Classics Club edition; introduction by Howard Penniman)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with introductory material by Alexander Campbell Fraser (Dover; 1959; 2 vols.)

Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933)

William Uzgalis, "John Locke" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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