John Locke and natural philosophy

New York: Oxford University Press (2011)
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Peter Anstey presents a thorough and innovative study of John Locke's views on the method and content of natural philosophy. Focusing on Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, but also drawing extensively from his other writings and manuscript remains, Anstey argues that Locke was an advocate of the Experimental Philosophy: the new approach to natural philosophy championed by Robert Boyle and the early Royal Society who were opposed to speculative philosophy. On the question of method, Anstey shows how Locke's pessimism about the prospects for a demonstrative science of nature led him, in the Essay, to promote Francis Bacon's method of natural history, and to downplay the value of hypotheses and analogical reasoning in science. But, according to Anstey, Locke never abandoned the ideal of a demonstrative natural philosophy, for he believed that if we could discover the primary qualities of the tiny corpuscles that constitute material bodies, we could then establish a kind of corpuscular metric that would allow us a genuine science of nature. It was only after the publication of the Essay, however, that Locke came to realize that Newton's Principia provided a model for the role of demonstrative reasoning in science based on principles established upon observation, and this led him to make significant revisions to his views in the 1690s. On the content of Locke's natural philosophy, it is argued that even though Locke adhered to the Experimental Philosophy, he was not averse to speculation about the corpuscular nature of matter. Anstey takes us into new terrain and new interpretations of Locke's thought in his explorations of his mercurialist transmutational chymistry, his theory of generation by seminal principles, and his conventionalism about species.



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This chapter provides an introductory discussion of the nature and scope of early modern natural philosophy, including the distinction between Experimental and Speculative natural philosophy and the relation between natural philosophy and medicine. States the main theses of the book and pr... see more

Natural philosophy and the aims of the Essay

This chapter challenges the claim that Locke's aim in writing the Essay was to defend or support mechanical philosophy. The chapter argues, instead, that Locke's stated aims have little to do with natural philosophy, though the famous under‐labourer passage in which he refers to the great ... see more

Hypotheses and analogy

This chapter argues that Locke believed hypotheses and analogical reasoning play a minor role in natural philosophical method and that this view is consistent with that of the proponents of the Experimental Philosophy. This is illustrated by his discussions of the acid and alkali theory of... see more


This chapter claims that the main theses of the book concerning Locke's commitment to the Experimental Philosophy are an important corrective to some interpretative trends in the secondary literature on Locke. The chapter discusses Locke's claim that the Essay is a study of human understan... see more

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Author's Profile

Peter R. Anstey
University of Sydney

Citations of this work

Locke, Arnauld, and Abstract Ideas.Kenneth L. Pearce - 2019 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27 (1):75-94.
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Locke's Theory of Demonstration and Demonstrative Morality.Patrick J. Connolly - 2018 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 98 (2):435-451.

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References found in this work

Locke's Primary Qualities.Robert A. Wilson - 2002 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 40 (2):201-228.

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