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Locke. A Biography

Roger Woolhouse


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
£25, 528 pp., ISBN 0-521-81786-2


Reviewed by Robert Mankin



Le Cabinet de M. Locke

It has been fifty years since Maurice Cranston’s John Locke: A Biography (1957), a book that many readers of Locke have appreciated in the way that students of philosophy often do with biographies, mixing condescension and mild interest. Biography and philosophy, such students hold, are just not meant for each other. Never mind Plato, and for that matter, never mind the early biographies of Locke. In any case, here is the way that Cranston expressed some reservations about the journal Locke kept during his stay in France from 1675-1679:

Locke was not an artist, and he was in many ways a surprisingly unperceptive traveller. He had no gift for describing natural beauty, no sense of history, and his immediate response to splendid architecture was to measure the building and leave it at that. But Locke»s philistinism was in no sense an aberration. He wanted to get away from the imagination, away from the vague glamour of medieval things, from reverence for tradition, from mysticism, enthusiasm and gloire; away from all private visionary insights and down to the plain, measurable, publicly verifiable facts; and this desire was central to his whole mission as a philosopher and reformer [Maurice Cranston, John Locke: A Biography, Oxford University Press reprint 1985, 63].

Cranston would have been the first to know that his statement was not altogether fair. Locke visited Paris and praised the Invalides as “a magnificent building” though, true enough, he also saw fit to measure it (“length of front 320 of my paces”). He thought highly of Versailles as well, though he considered the château in the town of Richelieu as “the most complete piece of building in France.” Very little remains of the château though a virtual model of it can be found, “visited” and “judged” on the Internet. If Locke’s “complete” is not a compliment, or meant as aesthetic praise, it at least shows that he was not insensitive to the architectural techniques for promoting gloire. All of which is to say that in the passage I’ve quoted, Cranston is deliberately straining the truth in order to reach the turning point of that third sentence and what follows. Locke was a deliberate philistine, a thinking, measuring, public-minded philistine. He did not appreciate the incarnation of public acts in works of art. He instead thought that what was conducive to material well-being and served the purposes of the collective order was of greater import. What makes him more than simply utilitarian is his sense that since the collective order was not tied to any past, or any particular vision of needs, it was open to innovation in the present and future.

In a passage like the one just quoted, we can see a long way: to why the 18th century elevated manners into something like a concept and needed to develop a standard for taste in art, to why Locke was appreciated by men like Jefferson and decried by the Romantics, and also to why Cranston’s biography does not make for bad reading. The cover of my 1985 reprint cites a reviewer calling it “most readable and entertaining” and one would have to agree. It is not a book for a desert island, but it is just right for a few consecutive rainy afternoons. For even as Cranston admires the factual philosopher and reformer, his own aesthetic requirements urge him to find a little more than the factual in Locke’s life. This leads to memorable moments: the anecdote about Newton telling Locke how when he shut his eyes, he saw the negative image of the sun for three days, and what that meant [Cranston, 346-47]; or of how Thomas Sydenham, in a portrait at the Royal College of Physicians, is depicted as “a man of ample frame, a large sad face, and long hair parted in the middle; a typical Puritan in appearance” [ibid. 91]; or how a passage from the posthumous Conduct of the Understanding shows that

Locke did not enter and remain in public life from any desire to be a “universal man.” He was a polymath, it is true, but in an age when it was still possible and indeed desirable for a man to be a polymath. … Locke believed that a life of action was a necessary part of the life of reason and that a man could not discover truth by sitting still and thinking. [419]

Not your conventional philistine…

As I said, Cranston’s biography is fifty years old, and in the publishing world it must have seemed obvious that whatever Cranston’s strengths and weaknesses, the time was right for a new look at one of the founding fathers of the modern world. Roger Woolhouse, a professor of philosophy emeritus at York and a specialist of the period, has supplied the new version. One gets an odd sense of his achievement from the first. His title is Cranston’s minus the first name. The two books are roughly of the same length too, though where Cranston often resorts to chatty footnotes at the bottom of the page, Woolhouse is all business: the end of his volume “reads” like an accounts book, austerely lining up code words for the Bodleian manuscripts or the letters in Locke’s published correspondence that support any given statement. (It can be regretted, in passing, that Cambridge University Press did not include a heading with running page numbers for the “bibliographical notes,” which contrast to a short section of “expository notes.” The reader who has forgotten what chapter he is reading must do a lot of useless searching to find out where he is in the book and then find out where he needs to go in the notes.) There are some signs too of hasty packaging: Gassendi’s follower Gilles de Launay [463] is credited with having a portrait in the illustration section of the book, though there is neither a portrait nor any good reason for so passing a figure to receive such liberal notice. Much more significantly, the back flap announces that the color portrait of Locke on the dust jacket is “John Locke, 1704” by Godfrey Kneller though it is impossible to understand (from inspection or from Woolhouse’s text) how it is not in fact John Greenhill’s 1672-1676 portrait, which we find reproduced in black and white near the end of the illustrations. The Internet does not help with this one… And so the reader is led to conclude that budget cuts in the course of the project did not give rise to careful revision as the book went to press.

It may be that these are typical editorial gaffes, and that similar problems in Cranston’s book simply had decades of time to be sorted out. But it must also be acknowledged that the new Locke biography is not obviously innovative compared to Cranston. True, a tremendous amount has gone on in Locke scholarship over the last fifty years. The transformations can be summarized by a few names and dates: Peter Laslett (1960), C.B. Macpherson (1962), John Dunn (1969), J.G.A. Pocock (1980), Richard Ashcraft (1986). And the list could go on. Cranston could not have spoken of these authors in 1957, and in 2007 Woolhouse by and large decided not to. He instead turns resolutely to the job, and with slightly more surefootedness than Cranston, takes a file card approach to Locke’s life. Chapters equal a certain number of years, sections a certain number of months. Key moments lead to a section of only a couple months; duller periods in the philosopher’s life can regroup a whole year’s worth at once. This is a bland way of pacing out a life, step by step, and in some ways it is a method Locke himself might have approved of. Among other things, it shows that imagination, sensitivity and interpretation were not allowed to get in the way, and that the present volume aims most of all to become a concise reference volume for all future historians and philosophers interested in Locke. As a result, readers wanting information about Locke will henceforth turn with confidence to Woolhouse, whereas those hoping for a dollop of judgment along with the story will look back to Cranston (or to the early biographical writings of Damaris Masham and Pierre Coste). Those allergic to the politely correct may also prefer Cranston, who is more forthright than Woolhouse in acknowledging that yes, Locke invested in the slave trade or in exploring his early rejection of Quakers (for instance, at the trial of James Nayler, which he witnessed) or his lifetime diffidence and more regarding Catholicism. 

For readers who are not obsessively interested in facts, I will probably not succeed in making Woolhouse’s volume sound worth the trouble. But readers obsessively interested in facts must exist in considerable numbers. Woolhouse’s book is not priced simply for university libraries but seems to be intended for readers as “philistine” as Locke himself and not necessarily instructed in the man’s philosophy either. One of the curious and, in my mind, unfortunate choices of the present volume is its desire to summarize in a page or two different key issues in Locke’s thinking: this is probably too much for very general readers (except beginning students) and certainly too thin for those who have read Locke or who are informed about the academic debates. Readers in the last category would certainly have liked to know just how Macpherson’s charges of “possessive individualism” look from a biographical point of view, or what to make of Ashcraft’s brief about the Levellers leaving their mark on the political activist, and then there is the question of the influence of Hobbes. (Laslett accorded Hobbes several thoughtful pages, Woolhouse one taciturn allusion.) But the biographer conceives of his task as the dutiful rendering of information far from the distractions of scholarly debate. This too has a Lockean ring, but it is nonetheless problematic. One has only to consider how Woolhouse treats the moment when Locke leaves for France and begins to keep his journal. Instead of simultaneously growling and celebrating Locke for his poor taste, as we saw with Cranston, Woolhouse describes the categories that Locke employed in his journal writing:

There are four “principal parts or heads of things to be taken notice of”: “the knowledge of things, their essence and nature, properties, causes and consequences of such species, which I call philosophica”; “history wherein it being both impossible in itself, and useless also to remember every particular I think it the most useful to observe the opinions we find amongst mankind concerning god, religion, and morality and the rules they have made to themselves or practise has established in any of these matters… or things that are commanded, forbidden, or permitted by their municipal laws in order to civil society”; “what things we find amongst other people fit for our imitation, whether politic or private wisdom. Any arts conducing to the convenience of life”; and “any natural productions that may be transplanted into our countries or commodities which may be an advantageous commerce.” [120-21]

Characteristically Woolhouse cites Locke a very great deal in the course of his description, so much so that his own contribution to the paragraph is not a matter of shaping so much as bits of added punctuation. And to follow up on these categories, we are not given anything more than examples of each case. Yet it would seem that here was a time when it might have been extremely useful for Professor Woolhouse to teach us something about Locke’s mind. Where is he coming from? One suspects the influence of Bacon in a passage like this and hopes (in vain) for the biographer’s help. Nor is this curiosity simply anecdotal or academic: it could illuminate the philosopher’s career and his politics. For in visiting France, what Locke seems to have done is arm himself with Baconian categories, framing for private use not just the protocol of a fact-finding mission but a fully philosophical project, whereby the Baconian realm of reason—natural philosophy and human and moral science—was being allowed to invade the historical, the imaginative and France as well. Bacon too crops up only once in the biography.

Along with these critical points, there are wonderful passages in Woolhouse’s account. Those who have not read the eight thick volumes of Locke’s correspondence cover to cover will be pleased to hit upon such remarks as the following, where Locke describes the writing of the Essay concerning Human Understanding during his period of political exile in Holland:

My time was most spent alone, at home by my fireside, where I confess I wrote a good deal, I think I may say, more than ever I did in so much time in my life, but no libels, unless perhaps it may be a libel against all mankind to give some account of the weakness and shortness of human understanding, for upon that old theme de Intellectu humano… has my head been beating, and my pen scribbling. [215]

Most readers know Locke’s claim that writing the Essay was an “innocent activity” that kept him out of political trouble during a difficult period of clandestine life. Here, in contrast, philosophy is libellous and perhaps even a continuation of the political by other means. Similarly, all readers will be able to savour and think about Locke’s keen interest during his stay in Paris in developing a standard of decimal measure that he called the “philosophical foot” and that he based on the movement of the pendulum. Locke tried to sell the idea to the likes of Robert Boyle, and we are told that he ordered and distributed boxwood rulers to propagate its use. In addition,

Locke used these units when he sent [his friend the antiquarian Nicolas] Toinard the measurement  of a “pigeon hole” cabinet he designed for the storage of rolled papers, such as letters and other manuscripts: a square of 3460 grys [a gry was the tenth of a line, which was itself the tenth of an inch, and an inch the tenth of a philosophical foot, which means a gry was the thousandth of a foot] divided into 100 square holes of 765 grys in depth with walls of a thickness of 36 or 37 grys, so each pigeon hole was 300 by 300 by 765 grys deep. Toinard thought the idea was wonderful, as did everyone to whom he described “le cabinet de monsieur Locke.” [156]

It is not much of a surprise that Cranston was unmoved by this project. His chapter on Locke’s return to England from France gives pride of place to the Popish plot, the Exclusion crisis and a ghost story that caught Locke’s attention. Woolhouse obviously is intrigued by Locke’s idea, as well one should be, and he even assumes (perhaps on the basis of an obvious reference somewhere) that Locke actually had the cabinet built. But he also notes that a Danish astronomer soon explained to Locke that one second of a pendulum’s movement would yield a different measure in different parts of the globe. It seems unlikely that Locke therefore would have gone ahead with a project for a merely English or London philosophical foot…

Even if Locke had great hopes for English philosophy, we may well feel that “le cabinet de monsieur Locke” throws an unexpectedly abstracting, encyclopédiste light on a man who swore only by experience. For Locke’s voluminous collections of information and even the piece of furniture he designed to hold the collections, like his recommended style for the commonplace book, show us a meticulous concern for a philosophy of classification. “Meticulous” is a polite word, obsessive and anal-retentive (cf. the allusion to “costiveness” and psychoanalysis [468]) are less so. But no doubt words like hyperbolical and unfathomable are just as appropriate. Locke’s desire to fathom and measure and observe and class was endless, one of the many mysteries of his rich and spectacularly interesting life. It is useful for all of us but something of a pity to lose the opportunity to study that desire, and the world it attempted to appropriate, as well as the systems it engendered.



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