How short soever their Knowledge may come of an universal, or perfect Comprehension of whatsoever is, it yet secures their great Concernments, that they have Light enough to lead them to the Knowledge of their Maker, and the sight of their own Duties.
Men may find Matter sufficient to busy their Heads, and employ their Hands with Variety, Delight, and Satisfaction; if they will not boldly quarrel with their own Constitution, and throw away the Blessings their Hands are fill’d with, because they are not big enough to grasp every thing.
[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.
[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.
(According to another of the participants in that meeting, they included “the Principles of morality, and reveald Religion.”) Although he drafted a preliminary account that dealt with many of the central themes of the Essay as early as 1671, Locke expanded his comments repeatedly before publishing the book nearly twenty years later and continued to supplement them with additional material he prepared for four further editions.
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.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.We employ ourselves in thinking, deciding, doing, and knowing all the time.Our intellectual energy would be most efficiently employed were we to avoid intractable disputes over matters beyond our ken and rely instead upon our “Satisfaction in a quiet and secure Possession of Truths, that most concern’d us.” [Essay I i 7] In ordinary life, we know what we need to know, and expecting more than that would only lead us to despair.After all, Locke argued, we do have what we need most.The simple truth is that we can’t be certain about everything, and it would be counter-productive to try to expand our knowledge beyond its natural limits.Since we are not capable of knowing everything, contentment with our condition requires a willingness not to reach beyond the limitations of our cognitive capacities.The practical conduct of human life doesn’t depend upon achieving speculative certainty about the inner workings of the natural world or acquiring detailed information about our own natures.It will be enough if we can secure “the Conveniences of Life” and recognize what we ought to do.Limited though it may be, Locke supposed, the human capacity for knowledge is sufficient for our happiness here and hereafter, and since that is that is our primary concern, it would be pointless to demand that our faculties reach any further. 86-92] A year before the first edition was published, Locke wrote an “Abstract of the Essay.” Translated into French by his friend Jean le Clerc, this document was published in the Bibliothèque Universelle in 1688, giving the European intellectual community a full preview of the work to come.This presentation of the central themes indicates what Locke himself regarded as his most significant contributions to the subject.