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It will be enough if we can secure “the Conveniences of Life” and recognize what we ought to do.
Even with respect to such vital matters, Locke supposed, our knowledge is often limited.
The testimony of our senses, together with a natural inclination to seek pleasure and avoid pain, guides much of our daily conduct even though sensitive knowledge cannot offer demonstrative certainty about the existence of an external world.
[Essay I iii 24-26] Our best defense against this fate is to engage in independent thinking, which properly begins with a careful examinination of the function and limits of our discursive capacities.
Attention to specific issues at hand often leads us to overlook the function of the most noble of our faculties, but Locke believed that the operations of the human understanding are familiar to us all.
[Essay IV xiv 2] The pace of ordinary life commonly requires all of us to act quickly, on the basis of little more than our fallible memory of the merely probable evidence in favor of this course of action, Locke supposed, but awareness of this common reliance on “our mutual Ignorance” appropriately motivates broad toleration of the diversity of opinions and practices to which others may adhere.
[Essay IV xvi 3-4] The great theme of the Essay, then, is that we ought not to expect to achieve knowledge beyond the relatively narrow confines of what is necessary or, at least, useful for the practical conduct of human life.
Claiming only to be an “Under-Labourer” whose task is to prepare the way for the “Master-Builders” of science, he encouraged ordinary readers to rely upon their own capacity for judgment rather than to accept the dictates of intellectual fashion.
[Essay Epistle] In the daily course of ordinary activity, everyone is inclined to rely upon a set of simple guidelines for living, and laziness or pride may encourage us to accept dearly held convictions without ever embarking on a careful examination of their truth. Locke pointed out that blind acceptance of “borrowed Principles”—the confident pronouncements of putative cultural authorities regarding crucial elements of human life—often leaves us vulnerable to their imposition of absurd doctrines under the guise of an innate divine inscription.
Written in a straightforward, uncomplicated style, the Essay attempts nothing less than a fundamental account of human knowledge—its origin in our ideas and application to our lives, its methodical progress and inescapable limitations.
Even three centuries later, Locke’s patient, insightful, and honest reflections on these issues continue to merit the careful study that this guide is intended to encourage.