Inconsistencies in John Locke’s Philosophy

No philosopher has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility and achieved it at the expense of consistency.


John Locke is regarded as the founder of Liberalism. The development of what we know today as Liberal tradition, Liberal thoughts and ideas, in the West or anywhere else in the world, began with Locke.

John Locke

What Locke attempted was a bird’s eye-view on many influences. There were varied tendencies that Locke was trying to synthesise. Thus, his ideas are understandably inconsistent. However, these inconsistencies in his philosophy became a reservoir of further development of political thoughts and ideas which are today regarded as Liberalism.

Inconsistencies in Locke’s Philosophy and Influence in the Development of Liberal Tradition

Lockean philosophy is full of inconsistencies and ambiguous terms and concepts. The elements of inconsistency in Locke’s ideas and philosophy are examined below:

Inconsistency Between His Theory and Philosophical Position

Locke is an empiricist, one who believes that all our knowledge is derived from experience. In his philosophy, he argues for an empirical order in which there is no point of having self-evident truth. However, Locke’s theory of natural rights, the laws of nature are based on principles of self-evident truth. There is a clear inconsistency between his theory and his philosophical position. The theory that all individuals are endowed by their creator with certain natural rights is certainly not a proposition for which any empirical proof can be presented.

Inconsistency Between His Doctrine of Utilitarianism and Natural Rights

Locke’s ethics is utilitarian, yet in his doctrine of rights he does not bring in utilitarian considerations. In its absolute form, the doctrine of natural rights- that an individual has certain inalienable rights- is incompatible with utilitarianism, which holds the doctrine that right acts are those that do most to promote the general happiness.

Inconsistency in Locke’s Theory of Social Contract

According to Locke, civil society involves the rule of the majority unless it is agreed upon that a greater number will be required. This sounds democratic, yet the limitation here is that Locke assumes the exclusion of women and poor from the rights of citizenship. In a similar tone, the democratic element in the Lockean philosophy is limited and contradicted by the view that those who have no property are not to be reckoned with the status of citizenship.

Inconsistency in Locke’s Theory of Property

A more ambiguous concept is found in his theory of property. One finds in Locke, side by side and unreconciled, doctrines which foreshadow those of capitalism and doctrines which outline a more nearly socialistic outlook. It is easy to misrepresent Locke by one-sided quotations.

Inconsistency Between Theory of Natural Law and Theory of Consent

Locke’s theory of natural law confounds his theory of consent. The latter holds that justice/injustice depends on civil law and social recognition; whereas according to natural law, justice and injustice exist independently of social recognition.

John Locke made a sad admixture between his empiricism and his rationalism. He is an empiricist in so far as he rejects the theory of innate ideas. He is also a rationalist as a champion of natural rights.

Influence on the Development of Liberal Tradition

The inconsistencies and ambiguities in Locke’s philosophy has left a huge room for further development of political thought.

John Locke is in no doubt the fountainhead from where varied traditions of Liberalism emerged. After Locke, his theories were developed by Rousseau into an extreme form of sovereignty of the people which was responsible for the outbreak of the French Revolution. Locke’s theory of separation of powers form the basic principle of the “Espirit des Lois” of Montesquieu, and also influenced the  American revolutionaries as evidenced by the drafts of various American constitutions. This principle is still followed by the Federal Government of the United States. Besides, Locke’s concept of labour as the sole creation of value inspired Adam Smith and Karl Marx, though in different ways.

John Locke was the guiding father of the 18th century Enlightenment period, particularly for philosophers such as Rousseau and Voltaire. He was also acknowledged as the founder of modern empiricism along with Hume, Berkeley, J. S. Mill and many other liberal thinkers. Moreover, Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism was also influenced by Locke.

To put it in short, the Liberal conceptions of individualism, freedom, consensual limited government, minimal state, constitutional authority, the rule of law, the majority rule principle, principle of separation of powers, sovereignty of the people, representative democracy, property rights, civil society, pluralism, tolerance and the right to judge authority- all began with or sprung from Locke and his philosophy. Subsequent Liberal theorists have worked within the framework that Locke provided.

No philosopher has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Though by chance or coincidence, because of this lack of consistency, John Locke became one of the most controversial and influential theorists in the entire history of political thought. These inconsistencies in his philosophy also certainly made Locke’s ideas more profoundly influential in the development of Liberal tradition.

NOTE: I wrote this as an assignment for the subject, Western Political Thought (WPT), taught during my undergraduate in Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
The question for the assignment:
Inconsistencies in Lockean philosophy make his thought a powerful influence on the development of the Liberal tradition. Explain.
Certain grammatical corrections have been made here.


Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy.

George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory.

Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswami, A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx.

Class lectures and notes.

The Original Assignment




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