John Locke, the British philosopher and physician, is considered to be one of the most prominent figures of the Age of Enlightenment; he is also sometimes referred to as the Father of Liberalism. Drawing on the philosophical principles of Francis Bacon, his predecessor, and the progress of contemporary natural science with what it could offer philosophy in terms of contributing to its progress John Locke developed the theory of empiricism that had a profound influence on French materialists of the Enlightenment Age.
In his first book Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke laid down his major principles of the human mind being what can be described as tabula rasa, a blank on which people write what they acquire from their experience. He contrasted his major principle of cognition to Descartes’ ideas of innatism claiming people would not be able not to recognize the existence of such ideas if only they possessed them. Lockes also referred to the way different people learn throughout their lives, and how basic principles they are guided with vary for different people and at different periods of time. As human experience is the only source of knowledge, people depend on their senses in acquiring knowledge. Thus Locke’s theory is also known as sensualism.
According to Locke, the experience should be seen as either external or internal. The former, also called sensation, provides us with what we know about the objects of the external world (or what we suppose to be such, as there is no evidence, according to Locke, of their actual physical existence). These can be, for example, sounds, motion, color, size, etc. The internal experience, or reflection, is expressed in such human processes as knowing, believing, doubting etc., all of which are related to our internal operations of the spirit caused by the influence of objects. Also, Locke discriminates between simple and complex sensations and reflections, depending on whether they can be reduced to more simple elements (e.g. rotundity) or they are such that cannot be reduced to more simple components. Complex ideas that we have about complex elements can be also distinguished into three groups: ideas of substance, ideas of mode and ideas of relationship. The first group includes certain simple ideas of a given object that has its core characteristics; the ideas of mode are a combination of ideas presented by human mind, which are the reflection of the mode or features of existing things. The ideas of relationship derive from human comparison of ideas and may include certain relationship and cause or other types of relations. Besides, Locke stipulated the existence of general ideas that come as a result of isolating the universal, abstract idea from the actual object due to its being common to several sensations. Thus the humans collect abstract ideas, which are regarded as the cognitive process of nominalization. Having given a detailed theory of human cognition process, John Locke emphasized the value of education by claiming that he thought that it may be said that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten were what they were, good or evil, useful or not, were made by their education.” (Locke, 1979).
It is important to see what implications Locke’s ideas had for ethics and political theory both of his contemporaries and further periods of human history. In his ethical principles Locke approaches Rationalism. As there are no innate moral ideas human well-being becomes the key the criterion of moral actions. Human experience demonstrates that all people try to find more pleasure and avoid pain. Yet if people are rational in their pursuit of pleasure they will come to principles of cooperation that will result in the general happiness and welfare coinciding with individual emotions. Therefore it is in the best interests of people to think of others, to be focused on general good, both in terms of their daily routine and what may come after their lives in this world. Locke supported religious freedom (being himself born into a Puritan family) and was against dogmatic approach to religious principles emphasizing on the ethical principles of Christianity. Specifically focusing on tolerance, Locke rejected atheism and Roman Catholicism.
Those ideas and principles expressed by an outstanding philosopher that were probably most valued by different people and prominent political leaders in different countries are those associated with political theories. Locke postulated that all people were created equal (the principle referred to by the US Constitution and its founders expressing their admiration of Locke). No person had the right over other person’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” The state had to be result of people’s concession and had to be guided by natural laws. Rights of property had to be valued, and each person had to exercise his or her right over the products of their labor. Therefore Locke is justly looked upon as the founder of liberalism in politics, with his influence extending far to other thinkers and their theories.
Similarly to Locke, La Mettrie was a man with broad academic background typical for great thinkers of his time. He, like Locke, also found his main opponent in the personality of Rene Descartes contrasting his principles to the latter’s principles of rationalism, or truth through knowledge. For La Mettrie truth came through experience, and this principle of empiricism makes him what can be described as Locke’s disciple.
Another point of debate was that Descartes claimed animals were machines. La Mettrie argues with Descartes about what he termed as an “absurd system”. In his best-known work Man a Machine, though, La Mettrie comes closer to principles of Descartes who considered the soul as a separate entity from the body and denied the soul in men, thus recognizing only the mind, which, according to him, was merely a function of the brain. Further in his book, La Mettrie
surveyed the philosophy of materialism and atheism. In contrast to John Locke’s principles,
La Mettrie denied that the natural world could serve as the evidence of God. According to him, all the evidences of a creator, repeated thousands and thousands of times, were the evidences that placed far above the comprehension of men. The natural consequence is his next idea that life might be completely without purpose.
La Mettrie considered the essence and attributes of matter. He claimed that its main property was the ability to move. This feature is universal for describing any objects in the world and therefore can be hardly argued with. For La Mettrie the human soul was not more than the physical functions of the body not proved by any evidence of physiology. Being consistent in applying his theories to humans La Mettrie brought to the maximum the principles of the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. Having the medical academic background, La Mettrie cited examples from anatomy, physiology, and psychology showing the functions of the body as the basis of what philosophers considered to be a soul. His claim was that people were so closely related to animals that there hardly was a difference between them. La Mettrie’s man was organic, self-moving (as part of any matter), active; the philosopher made no distinction between conscious, or voluntary movement and unconscious, or instinctive movement.
Other important implications of La Mettrie’s theory were those connected to moral issues. He viewed the moral problems as something that needed to be associated with physiological nature of human beings. For him the good and the evil were merely arbitrarily notions constructed social structures out of their own interests and with the aim of serving their own needs, which not only could not be corroborate by natural science but also contradicted
it and the nature of an individual. La Mettrie went as far as stating that by recognizing the arbitrary nature of moral principles developed by mankind and its institutions people would get better chances of getting happiness for them and accept wider frameworks of behavior patterns. According to him, the society could not dispose of its members that their behavior aimed at personal happiness was contrary to its principles. The objects of La Mettrie acute criticism was in particular Christianity as a moral systems, because he believed that it was based on an adequate and distorted principles of addressing the human nature.
La Mettrie philosophy can be seen as starting from John Locke’s basic principles of empiricism, sensualim and liberalism but then departing from them far enough to get to atheism and the kind of materialism that exaggerated the physiological nature of human beings, underestimating the principles of their social behavior and thus reducing them to creatures not bound by moral principles or social laws.