Tuesday, September 28, 2021

John Locke's New World of Liberal Evolutionary Anthropology: From the "Ancient Constitution" to the "History of Mankind"

John Locke's library of 3,641 books included 275 books that could be classified as travel or geography.  Remarkably, this is slightly more than the 269 books that could be classified as philosophy.  

Compared with other private libraries in late Stuart England, the libraries of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle were probably the only ones with comparable collections of travel writing.  Significantly, Locke, Hooke, and Boyle were all members of the Royal Society of London.  For scientists in the Royal Society, the study of such travel literature was part of their Baconian project for collecting the factual data about human life around the entire world, including the New World revealed to Europeans after 1492, for developing a natural history of humanity that began in the original state of nature in which the first human beings lived as hunter-gatherers.  

Another significant feature of these collections of travel writing is that they included very few ancient or medieval travel books.  Locke and his colleagues in the Royal Society were constructing a new mental map of the world to replace the ancient and medieval world view like that displayed in the Mappa Mundi of Hereford Cathedral.  Over the past three centuries, this project has been deepened and elaborated by the Darwinian science of evolutionary anthropology (Batz 1974; Harpham 2018; Rogers 1993; Talbot 2010).

Locke's use of the travel literature to sketch a natural history of humanity shows that scholars like John Pocock are wrong in claiming that Locke moved "outside history" in developing a "non-historical theory of politics," although Pocock is right in saying that Locke did not understand English politics through the history of the "ancient constitution" of England (Pocock 1987: 236-37).  Locke's argument for the natural rights of every individual was rooted in what he called "the history of mankind" (Second Treatise, par. 49, 100-112, 175; Essay Concerning Human Understanding I.3.10; II.28.12).  But this was a universal history of mankind rather than a particular history of England, and it certainly did not appeal to any fictional conception of England's "ancient constitution."

The idea of the "ancient constitution" was that the English common law and parliament were the immemorial protectors of English liberty that had originated in Saxon times before the Norman Conquest, and that this remained even after the Conquest.  It was claimed that every monarch was bound by his coronation oath to uphold this ancient constitution of English liberty. This supported the English resistance to absolute monarchy in the 17th century, because royal absolutism of the Stuart monarchs could be condemned as a violation of ancient English liberties.  (Previously, I have written about Magna Carta as part of the "ancient constitution.")

Opposed to this was the claim that William the Conqueror had imposed feudal law on England, so that the kingdom became a feudal estate in which all relationships were determined by the crown, and that parliament originated as a purely advisory council created by the king.  It was argued that there was no historical evidence to support the assertion that an ancient Saxon constitution with a parliament limiting royal prerogative had survived the Norman Conquest.

Whig theorists such as Algernon Sydney and James Tyrrell appealed to the ancient constitution in their arguments against royalist absolutism. Locke did not.  He showed no interest in explaining English politics through the history of English law.  

Pocock says that Locke's lack of interest in the debate over the ancient constitution made him "an exception, perhaps the only one among the important political writers of the age" (237).  Oddly, however, Pocock says that the idea of the ancient constitution was "crude dogma" and a "logical absurdity" (235); and yet he does not consider the possibility that Locke might have agreed with him, and that this might explain why he had no interest in this idea.

Pocock is famous among historians of political thought for being one of the original proponents (along with Quentin Skinner and Peter Laslett) of the "Cambridge School" methodology for reading texts of political thought within their historical contexts, which determine the meaning of a political thinker's thought.  In every era of political thought, it is said, there are a few predominant "languages" or "grammars" or ways of talking about politics that shape the political debate of the time, and no thinker can transcend those historical contexts.  We cannot rightly see the history of political thought as a transhistorical debate among political philosophers speaking to one another across the centuries, which is the mistaken view of the Straussians.

And so, for example, when we study today the political thought of seventeenth-century England, Pocock insists, we must interpret it within the conceptual frameworks that were popular at that time and place, which included the debate over the ancient constitution and feudal law in English history.  We cannot judge the truth or falsity of what those political thinkers said, because what they said was determined by conceptual frameworks that we do not share.

I do not agree.  I do agree that historical context matters for interpreting the history of political thought.  So, yes, when we see seventeenth-century English thinkers debating the "ancient constitution" of England, we must understand what that meant for them.  But we must also see that it was possible for people like Locke to go beyond this fictional history in considering English history as part of the "history of mankind" that was revealed in the travel literature written in the 16th and 17th century.  Moreover, we can judge the truth of that universal history in the light of the evolutionary anthropological studies carried out over the past three centuries.

So, for example, we can understand how Locke's account of the state of nature was shaped by his reading of the travel literature.  And we can decide whether that Lockean view of the state of nature is confirmed or falsified by the anthropological record that we have today.

To illustrate that, my next post will be on how Locke's thinking was influenced by his reading of Father Gabiel Sagard's reports about his life among the Huron in Canada, and whether the modern anthropological studies of the Huron support confirm this.


Batz, William G. 1974. "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke." Journal of the History of Ideas 35: 663-670.

Harpham, John Samuel. 2018. "Locke and the Churchill Catalogue Revisited." Locke Studies 17: 233-241.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1987. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century. A Reissue with a Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, G. A. J. 1993. "Locke, Anthropology, and Models of the Mind." History of the Human Sciences 6: 73-87.

Talbot, Ann. 2010. "The Great Ocean of Knowledge": The Influence of Travel Literature on the Work of John Locke. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

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