An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

LockeThis celebrated essay, available to its first readers in December 1689, though formally dated 1690, could hardly be more topical today. It is an examination of the nature of the human mind, and its powers of understanding expressed in brilliant, lapidary prose: “General propositions are seldom mentioned in the huts of Indians: much less are they to be found in the thoughts of children.” In the first two books, the argument moves through the source of ideas, the substance of experience (the origin of ideas), leading to a discussion of “the freedom of the will”: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. In book three, Locke proceeds to discuss language, and in book four he defines knowledge as our perception of the agreement or disagreement between ideas. Eventually, after several arguments of great intricacy and subtlety, Locke establishes good arguments for empirical knowledge, and moves to explore the existence of God, discussing the relations between faith and reason: “Reason is natural revelation, whereby the eternal Father of light, and fountain of all knowledge, communicates to mankind that portion of truth which he has laid within the reach of their natural faculties.”

Bertrand Russell once said, possibly speaking for effect, that Locke had made a bigger difference to the intellectual climate of mankind than anyone since Aristotle. He added that “no one ever had Common Sense before John Locke” – and common sense was the watchword of much 18th and 19th century English endeavour. A sentence such as “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts” could equally have been written by Johnson. Nonetheless, there is really no writer in this series who more impressively embodies the English spirit than Locke, in the sense that it is he who teaches us to think for ourselves, to weigh evidence empirically, to keep belief within limits, and to put all things to the test of reason and experience. He is also witty: “All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.”

More here.