Paul Sigmund on Whether or Not John Locke was an Individualist

Thanks to the vast scholarship on Locke over the last half century and to the availability of so many original sources, we probably know more about Locke’s thinking than about the thought of any other great political philosopher. A review of the literature demonstrates that there is such a thing as progress in understanding of the classic texts of the history of political thought. In the last fifty years we have learned that Locke was not a covert Hobbesian or an apologist for unrestrained accumulation of property. The arguments that he was a hedonist, materialist, atomistic individualist, collectivist, deist, secularist, advocate of majority tyranny, and naive believer in human perfectibility have been refuted. His views on women and race have been seen as more nuanced than at first appears; distinctions have been made between his original intentions and later interpretations that invoke his name; and many disagreements of the past have given way to a new scholarly consensus because of access to new sources. We have a greater understanding of the continuities and discontinuities with the past represented in his thought, viewing him neither as the central figure in the quasi-Hegelian march of liberalism through history nor as the subverter of the Western tradition. More recently Locke scholarship has made us aware that Locke’s religiously based belief in the possibility of understanding, by the use of reason, God’s intentions for human moral conduct, individually and politically, provides a unity to his political thought, which modern secular commentators had seen as fully of contradictions.

Paul E. Sigmund, The Selected Political Writings of John Locke (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 2006), p. xvii, cited by John D Mueller, “Were John Locke and the Founders “Lockeans”—or Scholastics?” (lecture presented to the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC).

EDIT (16:34 19 Aug 2016): You can find a video excerpt and audio version of Mueller’s talk here.


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