The Political Thought of John Locke-An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ by John Dunn.  Cambridge at the University Press, 1969.  521 07408 8


The Political Thought of John Locke could have been called “My Thoughts about John Locke” being that it reads as if you were listening to a lecture being given by one of your favorite professors; it is fact an informative, thought-provoking, and challenging work on the political theory of Mr. Locke.  The challenge is a result of who this work is written for, not the general public, but for those who have a profound (and perhaps professional) interest in Locke.  Dr. Dunn assumes that the reader will have an understanding of not just Locke’s works but those of Locke’s contemporaries such as Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, not to mention the field of Political Theory in general.  His professed goal is to separate Locke from the ‘historical’ record and move towards an ‘excavation of Locke’s mind,”[1] a goal which I would say he accomplishes with some success.

The works two strongest parts are first his comparison of Locke to Hobbes, examining what Dunn says is Hobbes effort to create Political Theory out of an ‘ethical vacuum.’[2] while examining how Locke starts from a religious perspective, and second, a subtle yet pervasive examination of the effects of viewing a theorist in a historical v a structuralist motif.  The first point is particularly interesting given the recent controversy in how much attention Locke was paying to Hobbes.[3]  Dunn is clear in his estimation, saying that Locke “wrote to answer the terrible, if undeniably clever Hobbes.”[4]  In fact, we could say that Dunn credits Locke’s interaction with his contemporaries’ for much of what makes Locke interesting; further, for Dunn, this interest is primarily the role of religion in Locke’s writings.  Dunn remarks that Locke has a practical use for God, using God as a tool rather than an object of veneration, as he says, “What is most obvious is His tactical availability for Locke’s purposes-not the veneration He might be supposed to elect.”[5]

The second point is somewhat ironic, given that we are drawn towards understanding the historical/structuralist dichotomy in an historical perspective.  This work, however, was written in 1969 and had no doubt been many years in the making, ending up being published at the height of the structuralist movement.[6]  Dunn presents a structuralist argument, saying that we cannot trust what Locke meant by reading his words since he wrote “perhaps unconsciously” in “invisible ink”.[7]  He says that to understand Locke, we must hold him up to “the light (or heat) of the twentieth-century mind.”  So we are presented with a problem, is Locke influential because his works (as many say) lead to the era of liberalism (and individualism), which ultimately resulted in the American and (in part) French revolutions, or are his ideas important for how they speak to us today and in the future?

Fortunately for Dunn (not to mention Locke), we do not need to choose.  Both of their works can be appreciated for what they are, an examination of the interactions between people and ideas that express themselves in political theory, which helps to give meaning to how we interact with our world.  The Political Thought of John Locke is challenging indeed, but well worth the effort if such issues are important to you.

[1] p. ix, interestingly this is in spite of the sub-title of this work, which points towards the tension which exists when we examine Locke in any but the most traditional ways.

[2] P.79

[3] For example, see DOI: 10.1086/714068  

[4] P.77

[5] P.14


[7] p. ix

The Good

Provides insights beyond the standard Locke as a founder of liberalism trope.

The Bad

Important points are sometime buried in dense hard to read paragraphs.

Assumes an understanding of Locke that many readers will not have.