Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reason Papers on Locke

Irfan Khawaja reviews my book Locke and Eric Mack’s John Locke in the latest issue of Reason Papers. From Khawaja’s comments on my book:

A clear and well-written overview and critique of the whole of Locke‘s philosophy…

Much of the latter third of Feser‘s book consists of an eminently clear (though not uncontroversial) summary of the main elements of Locke‘s views on rights, property, consent, revolution, and toleration. Readers familiar with this material will admire the clarity and organization of Feser‘s presentation (even as they look askance at this or that interpretation), and readers unfamiliar with it will get the overview that they need. Likewise, much of the latter part of the book consists of Scholastically inspired critiques of Locke, or discussions of the (genuine) tensions between Locke‘s metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand, and his political philosophy, on the other. Two of Feser‘s criticisms stand out for their subversive potential: (1) Locke‘s skepticism about our knowledge of real essences undermines what he has to say in defense of natural rights… (2) The defects in Locke‘s theory of personal identity undermine his justification of private property… These criticisms, and others like them, should force us to think more carefully about the relationship between Locke‘s Essay and his political works, and will undoubtedly keep Locke scholars busy for some time.

Feser ends the book… with a provocative chapter on “Locke‘s Contestable Legacy.” One bonus of the discussion is a very interesting (and in my view, correct) application of Locke‘s views to international politics in the post-9/11 world... Feser‘s main point, though, is that taken as a whole, Locke‘s philosophy offers us a package deal of incompatible elements, so that “[t]hose who seek to appropriate Locke‘s legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all”... Even if one thinks, as I do, that Feser occasionally lets his Scholastic polemics overshadow his examination of Locke‘s theorizing, he is right to push the reader to some such decision. Whether such a reader will be pushed from Lockeanism to Feser‘s Scholasticism is another matter, but there‘s no question that some pushing is in order, and that Feser‘s Locke does an excellent job at supplying it.

As the kids say, read the whole thing. (Not only for what it says about my book, but also for the review of the always-interesting Eric Mack.) Naturally, Khawaja offers some criticisms. Some are well-taken; some I would take issue with. All are valuable, and I thank him for his kind and very helpful review.


  1. Your book is clear and readable. In order to tackle Locke's contradictions, I'll probably run through it again once I finish thinking about "Persecution and the Art of Writing." Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Ed

    It has been a while since I read your volume on Locke. Do you take a position on whether or not Locke is a subjectivist with regards to secondary qualities?

    Also, do you agree with Berkeley's point that Locke can't know what the primary qualities are behind the secondary qualities? Doesn't it appear that someone like Kripke, who takes a similar position to Locke (seeing a contingent relationship between the primary and seconadary qualities), has the same sceptical problem?

    Thanks and keep up the great books!

    Damien S

  3. Ed, you seem to end up in the same place as the Strauss-Zuckert Locke, one that's becoming very popular in history circles, BTW, as an argument against America as a "Christian nation."

    Is there any daylight between yours and the Straussian "modernity" Locke?

    I do appreciate your notice of Locke-as-theologian, which they elide, about man being God's workmanship, etc. Still, what they credit to "esotericism," you credit to incoherence, and the result seems the same.

    [I see mpresley has much the same question.]

    BTW, elsewhere I passed on your being the "Dennis Miller of philosophy" dialogue. It still gives me a giggle.

  4. Hi Ed

    I have your book the Last Superstition, Aquinas for beginners, and Philosophy of mind, love'em all! Recently I read a great book called Natures God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by philosopher Matthew Stewart. A lot of the books is about the Deism in the colonies and how it was influenced by Hobbes , Locke, Spinoza and ultimately Epicurus. Is that addressed in your book on Locke?