PHILOSOPHY IN AN HOUR
Philosophy moves backward. It began with an infinite universe of complex, beautiful, and often conflicting ideas. Gradually, with the aid of religious bigotry, reason, and the will to understand, philosophy began to shrink this world to more comprehensible proportions. Everything became simpler, more obvious. Philosophy was regressing to the point where it described the world as we actually see it. With John Locke philosophy enters its flat-earth period.
Great ideas are often obvious. None more so than those of John Locke. Much of his thought we would now regard as common sense. His philosophy was to lay the foundations of empiricism, with its belief that our knowledge of the world is based on experience. It also introduced the idea of liberal democracy, which has become the shibboleth of Western civilisation. People who can’t even spell philosophy are now likely to accept these philosophical tenets, which were incomprehensible just over three centuries ago.
This all makes Locke’s philosophy rather uninteresting. But there’s no reason why philosophy shouldn’t be dull. On the contrary, there are very good reasons why it should be dull. It was when works of philosophy became interesting, and people actually began reading them, that the trouble started. People who read things are liable to believe in them, and then look what happens. The earlier part of the twentieth century remains as a hideous reminder of what happens when large groups of people start taking philosophy seriously. Fortunately, philosophy has now progressed well beyond the infantile stage where people who read it are expected to believe in it. But this was not always the case – and many of the wisest philosophers have realised the pitfall of readers actually understanding what they were saying. Spinoza did his best to solve this problem by rendering his works unreadable. Socrates, on the other hand, decided that the best way was not to write down anything at all. (The former tactic was adopted by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, the latter by Polique, Ehrensvard, and Huntingdon-Jones.) Locke’s solution was to write philosophy that was so obvious it soon appeared dull.
Locke was the only major philosopher to become a government minister. And it shows. He was a man of many parts, but he remained for the most part consistent and practical. His philosophy is one that actually works – for both the individual and society at large.
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