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Title: The Legacy of 'Two Treatises of Government'
Authors: Harris, Ian Collin
First Published: 2007
Publisher: AMS Press
Citation: Eighteenth Century Thought, 2007, 3, pp.143-167
Abstract: Locke's alteration in the inherited terms of political thinking was made possible by a prior change in metaphysics. Filmer's politics rested upon an Aristotelian conception of causality and a specific view of causal content but Locke had other views. His rejection of Filmer succeeded his narrowing of the scope of Aristotle's view of causality. Locke understood causality only in terms of efficient cause. This shift in metaphysical thinking is important for our purpose, because it established that explanations made in terms of efficient causality would be decisive. That is how Locke proceeded. Two Treatises set out two sequences of explanation, one each about politics and society, in both of which efficient causes played a crucial role. Just as Locke had revised causal content in one central instance, by replacing Adam with God as the causal power in procreation, so more widely He was a major source of efficient causation in Two Treatises. What was the causal content He provided? He originated people's natural faculties, standing, duties and rights, which were the preconditions of Lockean political institutions, and He was also the author of the appetites, desires, and situational needs that gave rise to human society. These causal antecedants informed Locke's distinctive account of government and society. Indeed, divine initiation informed not only the existence but also the character of society in respect of private property, the family, and marriage. So Two Treatises was an explanation of the existence and powers of government, as well as the character of society, that rested heavily on Locke's postulates about efficient causality, and on the content of efficient causation that he attributed to God. The book had further bearings. Locke both made a contribution to historical thinking and identified criteria, which in an important sense are factual, to judge social and political developments: these suggested that only one sort of historical result was acceptable. Such features are accessions of content, if also in some respects a narrowing of it. The explanations of Two Treatises also narrowed the scope of civil government, because they were crucial to Locke's exclusion of religious worship as such from its remit. Locke's metaphysical revisions are thus of a piece with his distinctive views about politics, society, and worship: they help us to understand why Locke's thought makes sense to us, and to recogize Locke as a contributor to subsequent thinking. Yet, for other reasons, Two Treatises has not proved easy for posterity to assimilate. If it embodies distintive views that have acquired enduring importance, it also poses a challenge to some contemporary thinking.
ISSN: 1545-0449
ISBN: 0-404-63763-9
Type: Article
Rights: Copyright 2007 AMS Press, Inc.
Appears in Collections:Published Articles, School of Historical Studies

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