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  • Locke: A Biography
  • Michael Losonsky
Roger Woolhouse . Locke: A Biography. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xviii + 528. Cloth, $39.99.

"A man of versatile mind"—a remark from a letter to Locke by a life-long friend—is the subtitle of the first chapter of this biography. It could also be the book's subtitle. Relying on Locke's correspondence, manuscripts, and mostly unpublished journals, Woolhouse pieces together a detailed quilt that exhibits the tremendous variety of Locke's interests and activities.

Locke, who admitted to wandering interests (133), wrote about medicine, horticulture, religion, education, economics, government, and human understanding, as well as occasional poetry and a play. He even edited Boyle's History of the Air and a bilingual version of Aesop's Fables. His resume included a Bachelor of Medicine, a license to practice it, teaching and tutoring positions, diplomatic services, secretary, commissioner, and more. Woolhouse does justice to this variety and sometimes gives the impression that Locke's life was a crazy quilt. For example, after describing Locke's diverse activities after returning from France in 1679, he writes, "there was . . . much else going on . . . for during these years he also composed two lengthy works about the nature of government" (181). [End Page 175]

Adhering closely to Locke's correspondence and journals, Woolhouse is reserved about ties between Locke's political writings and the activism of Shaftesbury's circle. He is also skeptical about the role of politics in Locke's extended trip to France in 1675. Other biographers believe that the trip was motivated by fear, since the English government had just condemned a pamphlet written by Shaftesbury that was also attributed to Locke. Woolhouse argues that it is very likely that Locke "went for nothing more than his health" (117).

Locke suffered from asthma and chronic bronchitis, and Woolhouse emphasizes their role in his life, observing that Locke's writings on medicine, which antedate the Essay, are already "imbued by . . . empirical, anti-theoretical methodology" (86, 104–05). Locke believed doctors should pursue systematic observations that track the observable history or course of a disease and not speculate about their hidden natures—a methodology that should be extended to natural philosophy. This is what Locke does in the Essay, where human knowledge of nature, as Woolhouse deftly notes, is "inevitably, literally superficial" (243).

The most dramatic part of Locke's life was his exile to Holland. Here Woolhouse's attention to detail is particularly effective as the story of Locke's exile reads like a film script, complete with refugees, agents, Locke hiding under assumed names, coded letters, and plots to assassinate and invade. Locke's precise relationship to the various political plans, including the invasion of England by William of Orange, is disputed, and Woolhouse again is skeptical about Locke's involvement. What is clear is that in Holland Locke made great progress on the Essay. Working on it was "a cherished diversion with which its author entertained and consoled himself during exile, and which, had circumstances been different, he would never have been sufficiently single-minded to complete" (229).

This is a comprehensive biography, exceeding in depth and scope Maurice Cranston's John Locke (1957). Locke's personal life is not neglected, including his relationships with women, his obsessive love of order, and what foods he liked. Woolhouse even speculates that Locke's friendship with Nicholas Toinard "though apparently never physical, is sometimes suggestive of homosexuality" (149).

Still, in the end, Locke remains enigmatic. Does Woolhouse emphasize Locke's "versatile mind" at the expense of its unity? Locke's letters and journals yield only a fragmented account. After all, when it came to politics, a contemporary described Locke as "a master of taciturnity" (208). Or was there simply no unifying theme to Locke's life? Woolhouse does not directly address this question, but suggests that the disunity is real and that two factors account for this. First, there is Locke's lament that his life was pushed along "contrary to my design and expectation" (4). Second, Locke was by nature not a single-minded person; instead, he "had a breadth of interest and ability, which . . . got in the way...


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