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LockeReview - Locke
A Biography
by Roger Woolhouse
Cambridge University Press, 2007
Review by Lisa McNulty
Mar 18th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 12)

As a subject for a biographer, Locke is rather opaque. This is not due to a lack of material, as he left a fine collection of detailed accounts of his life and travels. Rather it is simply due to Locke's character. He was notably quiet and self-controlled, seemingly asexual, with no family commitments of any kind, although he was well loved by friends. One can see the temptation of a biographer to produce an account of Locke's dramatic political times, rather than his life as such, but in the first comprehensive biography of Locke in fifty years, Roger Woolhouse provides us with a richly detailed account which seamlessly weaves together historical events, personal events and, importantly, philosophical theory.

The biography does not assume much, if any, previous knowledge of Locke's political and philosophical works. The works are not simply mentioned at the point which Locke writes them, but are examined in great depth, and with reference to the influence of the surrounding events of Locke's life. This is a real virtue, as newcomers to Locke's work are provided with a well rounded picture of his life and ideas, whilst those with prior knowledge will find that there are great insights to be had by placing Locke's works within their historical and biographical context.  For example, when presenting Locke's response to Sir Robert Filmer's work, Woolhouse dedicates several pages to explaining Locke's conception of paternal authority and its relationship to the divine right of kings (p183), before continuing with details of Locke's movements between London and Essex in April 1683. One might expect the effect be jarring, but in Woolhouse's hands it is not.

The only difficulty with the above approach is that on occasion, an experience which sparked a great idea of Locke's, and the actual writing of the work concerned, are many years apart. For example, when reading the detailed account of Locke's life at school, I was immediately struck by Locke's later reactions against the educational system in which he was brought up. Woolhouse touches on this briefly [p13], but a full discussion is postponed until the point when Locke began the exchange of letters with Edward Clark which would eventually become Some Thoughts Concerning Education [p203].  The wait is perhaps necessary, but as a reader it is a little frustrating. A clearer system of cross-referencing would remedy this problem. 

Woolhouse is not afraid to present everyday, mundane details: we have here Locke's laundry lists, his meticulous accounts and inventories, and the author allows himself the wry observation that Locke was 'anally retentive'. However these details are kept to a level where they are charmingly human rather than overpoweringly specific. Woolhouse's attention to Locke's relationships with Elinor Parry and Damaris Cudworth also serve to humanize Locke, who can easily seem rather dry.  However at points the attention on Locke's romantic life seems a little forced; after all, these relationships petered out undramatically, and don't seem to have played a great role in Locke's life. He was, to the end, a bachelor scholar.

Locke's most significant friendships, and his philosophical rivalries, are rightly emphasized, notably his association with Lord Ashley Shaftsbury (p78). Woolhouse resists the urge to paint Locke in more dramatic colours than the facts warrant, and as John Milton notes in his review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, he is clearly skeptical regarding Richard Ashcraft's account of Locke as Shaftsbury's primary political advisor. But whilst Woolhouse provides a more limited picture than Ashcraft does of Locke's actual political activity, the political content of his written works is properly explored, as are the years of exile which precede their publication.

Locke is influential enough to be read by scholars from a diverse array of disciplines, as well as by general readers. Woolhouse has hit the mark in producing a biography which is useful and accessible for all of them. This deserves to become a standard reference text.

© 2008 Lisa McNulty

Lisa McNulty is currently undertaking her Ph.D. at the University of Kent. Her interests lie in social epistemology, philosophy of science, and educational theory.


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