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"This is the first comprehensive biography in half a century of John Locke. Against a historical background of the English Civil War, religious intolerance and bigotry, anti-Government struggles and plots, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Roger Woolhouse interweaves the events of Locke's rather varied life with detailed expositions of his developing ideas in medicine, theory of knowledge, philosophy of science, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and economics. Chronologically systemic in its coverage, this volume offers an account and explanation of Locke's ideas and their reception, while entering at large into the details of his private life of intimate friendships and warm companionship, and of the increasingly visible public life into which, despite himself, he was drawn - Oxford tutor, associate of Shaftesbury, dutiful civil servant."--Jacket.… (mais)
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Book Review
Locke: A Biography
by Roger Woolhouse
The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) left behind not only "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690) but also his laundry lists and many other records, documents, and correspondence — quite an abundant stock of material — that should enrich the work of his biographer.

Roger Woolhouse draws deeply on this awesome archive, and yet to my biographer's mind, "Locke: A Biography" (Cambridge, 548 pages, $39.99) is a let-down. Following the well-established procedures of academia, Mr. Woolhouse presents Locke's life in strict chronological order, paying heed to every treatise, even when there is considerable overlap between these works resulting in tiresome repetitions.

If this Locke scholar is obliged to be so rigidly faithful to the order of his subject's oeuvre, is there not a corresponding fealty to the demands of biography? Certainly, Mr. Woolhouse lays bare a good deal about his subject, but he never lingers to take the measure of the man who argued that government is founded on the consent of the governed, and that the individual begins life as a piece of "white paper" on which experience writes his ideas and values.

In his early writings, for example, Locke was doubtful that there could be comity between different Christian denominations, let alone between different faiths. After traveling to Cleves in Germany and witnessing how a diverse community of Christians managed to live in harmony, he began to change his views, becoming, in the end, an outspoken champion of toleration.

Why not write, then, a Lockean biography? Instead of giving every piece of the philosopher's writing equal weight, focus precisely on those experiences that gave rise to his treatises. And attach those experiences and works to the portrayal of a man with strikingly modern ideas about self-invention.

When Locke rejected an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic post in Spain, he wrote in a letter: "Whether I have let slip the minute that they say everyone has once in his life to make himself, I cannot tell." Step aside, Andy Warhol, for the original philosopher of self-creation.

Locke observed himself learning from experience, and consequently he launched a series of arguments against the notion of innate ideas. The mind expanded through the senses. God gave humankind a sensory apparatus for a purpose, Locke contended, even if not everything in creation can be comprehended through empirical investigation.

All this can be gleaned from Mr. Woolhouse's very learned book, but it becomes rather a chore to assemble. And some aspects of Locke are never integrated into a whole view of the man. Why, for example, was Locke so interested in medicine and chemistry? Surely his fascination with the functioning of the human body is connected to his fixation on a corporeal self, where ideas result from physical sensations.

Even more intriguing are Locke's chronic illnesses. He thought he had consumption (tuberculosis), although it now seems more probable that he suffered from asthma, bronchitis, and eventually emphysema from inhaling all that horrid coal smoke in London. He almost never visited the city without returning home to Oxford with a racking cough. Did Locke see in his own ailments — which interrupted but perhaps also stimulated his medical studies — proof of the way ideas and sensations mesh?

Mr. Woolhouse might object that evidence is lacking for the answers to my questions. But surely it is duty of any biographer to pose questions that arise out of the patterns of a subject's life.

Biography is not merely a matter of reporting what the biographer knows; it is also a work of interpretation seeking out the subject's motivations. For example, Mr. Woolhouse seems to think that Locke was rather cowardly when he disavowed the politics of his employer, the Earl of Shaftsbury, who was suspected of plotting against Charles II. Locke had been Shaftsbury's secretary and was certainly privy to, if not a full participant in, Shaftsbury's intrigues. Mr. Woolhouse quotes "someone who knew him [Locke] during his worrying years" as having a "peaceable temper, and rather fearful than courageous." He might here have pointed out that Locke's aim was to preserve his life as a thinker, even if it meant — to use Mr. Woolhouse's term — resorting to "disingenuity."

Experience taught Locke to bide his time. In 1699, he returned to England from a six-year exile in Holland, understanding that his new sovereign, William, would look favorably on his work. Thus began Locke's triumphant years of publication.

So Locke did not miss his minute, and it is unfortunate that Mr. Woolhouse's biography does not present his subject's grand return and triumph with the kind of fanfare it deserves. ( )
1 vote carl.rollyson | Sep 22, 2012 |
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"This is the first comprehensive biography in half a century of John Locke. Against a historical background of the English Civil War, religious intolerance and bigotry, anti-Government struggles and plots, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Roger Woolhouse interweaves the events of Locke's rather varied life with detailed expositions of his developing ideas in medicine, theory of knowledge, philosophy of science, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and economics. Chronologically systemic in its coverage, this volume offers an account and explanation of Locke's ideas and their reception, while entering at large into the details of his private life of intimate friendships and warm companionship, and of the increasingly visible public life into which, despite himself, he was drawn - Oxford tutor, associate of Shaftesbury, dutiful civil servant."--Jacket.

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