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  • The Politics and Philosophy of Mixture:John Locke Recomposed
  • Wolfram Schmidgen (bio)

It has always been difficult to get the political and the philosophical Locke to agree. When Peter Laslett published his groundbreaking edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government in 1960, he observed how fluently Locke could move between his major political and philosophical works. His notebooks from the early 1680s "reveal Locke at work on Two Treatises and the Essay on the Understanding at the same time."1 As enticing as this seemed, Laslett felt that the differences between these two works were so profound that any argument for kinship had to fail. There was no code that could fit Locke's politics into his epistemology or ontology. Unlike Hobbes, Locke didn't aim at such systematic coherence. The best we could hope for, Laslett suggested, was finding a general "Lockean attitude" that infused all his writings.2

The search for more emphatic agreement, however, continued. One line of thought, dominant for much of the twentieth century, drew on Locke's advocacy of bourgeois liberalism to align the politics with the philosophy. Two Treatises of Government was widely held to contain the clearest and earliest formulation of those differentiations that have defined the liberal state, from private/public to state/society, and individual/community. Historians of philosophy found a comparable tendency toward differentiation in the Essay. One of its central contributions to the history of philosophy, they argued, was the assertion that mind and world do not share a common structure, but are clearly distinguished.3 Charles Taylor has put this rather forcefully by charging Locke with a "radical disengagement and reification of the human psychology."4 According to this line of thought, the political and the philosophical Locke are thinkers of differentiation and individuation, central contributors to an early enlightenment that rationalized the heterogeneous constitution of the premodern world.

Neal Wood's The Politics of Locke's Philosophy (1983) is probably the most detailed fruit this line of thought has borne. With one eye on Locke's political [End Page 205] writings, Wood reads the Essay as promoting the attitudes and beliefs of the rising middle classes. "Locke's ideal," he explains, "is the self-directed, autonomous individual," and this ideal leads Locke to embrace clear distinctions between subject and object, self and other.5 Wood's is one of the very few studies to offer a sustained political reading of the Essay, but it was out of step with developments in political history that challenged the liberal consensus on Two Treatises. Laslett had already argued that Locke was not the apologist of the new Whig order of 1688, but the advocate of rebellion. John Dunn, James Tully, and Richard Ashcraft widened this vein of antiliberal reinterpretation, with Ashcraft offering a comprehensive case for the radical nature of Locke's political thought.6 Ashcraft's work opened the door—since then opened further by Jonathan Scott—to recognizing Locke's engagement with republican ideas. J. G. A. Pocock's influential exclusion of Locke from this tradition of thought, it now appears, rested on a rather narrow conception of republicanism.7

The broadening consensus among political historians regarding the radical nature of Locke's politics has increased the pressure to rethink its relationship to the philosophy. The revisionist momentum that carried Ashcraft and Tully made them both look for new links, but their emphasis on morality as a master term has produced limited results. As Ashcraft put the case, once we recognize that Locke views philosophy mainly as moral philosophy, we realize that the Essay discusses "the basic presuppositions that are essential to the moral dimensions of the practical action being urged by Locke in the Two Treatises."8 It is hard to disagree with this statement, but it leaves too much of Locke's philosophy and politics untouched. Ashcraft's broad moral formula fails to capture the concrete local contact between politics and philosophy suggested by Locke's note-keeping habits.

The reason for such failure, I believe, lies in the bland contact a systematic approach is forced into when it comes up against the profound antiformalist tendencies of Locke's thinking. Instead of devising ways...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0201
Print ISSN
0193-5380
Pages
pp. 205-223
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-23
Open Access
No
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