Early Drafts of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding

July 7, 2014

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of the most important works of philosophy published in the modern period. It was a founding document for British Empiricism and its influence throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is difficult to overstate. Its early drafts, written in 1671 nearly twenty years before its publication, are required reading for an understanding of Locke’s objectives and philosophical direction in the published book and are vital for a proper grasp of his philosophy both in general but often also in detail.

The first and shortest of these, Draft A, announces Locke’s famous commitment to the philosophical position known as Empiricism in its first sentence: ‘I imagin that all knowledge is founded on and ultimately derives it self from sense, or something analogous to it & may be cald sensation…’ It thus states a principle of Locke’s epistemology which lies at the base of British philosophy in the eighteenth century, most obviously, but not exclusively, in the work of George Berkeley and David Hume. In continental Europe much of the philosophy of the French Enlightenment began from a Lockean empiricism. It is fundamental to the thought of John Stuart Mill and, with some modification, that of Bertrand Russell and the Logical Positivists of the twentieth century.

In the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ of the published Essay Locke tells us about the origin of the book. He writes:

‘Were it fit to trouble thee with the History of this Essay, I should tell thee that five or six Friends meeting at my Chamber, and discoursing on a Subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the Difficulties that rose on every side. After we had a while puzzled our selves, without coming any nearer a Resolution of those Doubts which perplexed us, it came into my Thoughts, that we took a wrong course; and that, before we set our selves upon Enquiries of that Nature, it was necessary to examine our own Abilities, and see, what Objects our Understanding were, or were not fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the Company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed, that this should be our first Enquiry. Some hasty and undigested Thoughts, on a Subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next Meeting, gave the first entrance into this Discourse…’

It might be doubted that those first thoughts were Draft A, as we have it. It is approaching 30,000 words, and would therefore appear far too long for the proposed introduction to a discussion amongst the group of friends. But, equally it does not seem to be intended as a draft of a book. In this sense it stands in contrast with Draft B, which is titled ‘An Essay concerning The Understanding, Knowledge, Opinion and Assent’, and is organised in a way which promises publication, no doubt after revision and elaboration, but which in content is closely related to the earlier draft. Draft B, at approaching 70,000 words, is clearly looking like the first draft of a book.

Draft A, after the first sentence introduction of the empiricist principle in its first lines, continues with a discussion of the source of ideas, dividing them into simple and complex, and the difference between ideas of sensation and reflection. He considers standard objections to the empiricist principle derived from familiar claims that some knowledge is innate. He also examines the nature of certainty, the importance of probability claims in our accounts of the world. In the second section, amongst many other claims, he draws the distinction between body and mind, which he calls spirit, and claims that:

‘it is evident that having noe other Idea or notion of body but something wherein those many sensible qualitys which affect our senses doe subsist, by supposing a substance wherein thinking knowing doubting hopeing feareing &c doe subsist we have as clear a notion of the essence of a spirit as any one hath of the essence of body, the one being supposed to be without knowing what it is the substratum to those simple Ideas that we receive from without & the other supposd (with a like ignorance of what it is) to be the substratum to those actions we experiment in our selves..’ (p. 7)

This was a position that Locke was to hold to throughout the several editions of his work and which was widely misunderstood.

Draft B is well over twice the length of Draft A, and explores in much greater depth the claims and implications to be found in the earlier version. Although all the issues raised are covered in the published Essay, often with elaboration and greater sophistication, the general direction remains very much the same. They are also vital reading, often illuminating Locke’s argument in the later work. Not all of the topics which appear in the published Essay feature in Draft B. Nor, it must be remembered, do all the topics in Locke’s final edition appear in the first 1689 Edition. The history of the writing of the Essay is itself an important contribution to its argument. The two early Drafts make a considerable contribution to the correct understanding of that argument.

The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke: Drafts for the Essay Concerning Human Understanding


Professor John Rogers (Professor Emeritus of the History of Philosophy at Keele University) is co-editor of The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke: Drafts for the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Other Philosophical Writings: In Three Volumes, Vol. 1: Drafts A and B, now available on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online


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