John Locke
READING LIST

John LockeThe Best 5 Books to Read

The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke is, along with Immanuel Kant, one of the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers. Often dubbed the ‘father’ of empiricism, Locke is perhaps best known for his assertion that at birth we are all tabula rasas (blank slates), as well as for his foundational contribution to modern liberalism.

Locke’s work has had a profound influence on the history of Western philosophy. In epistemology, for example, Locke reacted against the rationalism of thinkers like Descartes (‘I think therefore I am’), and set in motion the great chain of empirical philosophy that would follow with philosophers like George Berkley and David Hume.

In political philosophy, meanwhile, Locke’s emphasis on clearly separating Church and State had a pivotal impact on French thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as the Founding Fathers of the United States. In fact, a passage from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is reproduced verbatim in the US Declaration of Independence.

Given these contributions, the late philosopher Bryan Magee argues there’s a case to be made that Locke is the most influential philosopher since the great ancient Greek thinker Aristotle. Summarizing Locke’s legacy in his philosophical memoirs, Confessions of a Philosopher, Magee writes:

If Locke has come to be thought of as something of a plain, commonsensical thinker, perhaps even a bit pedestrian, it is because what he had to say has become so familiar that it may be in danger of seeming obvious to us now; but the truth is that when he put it forward it was profoundly original, and not obvious at all. The fact that it can seem obvious now is a measure of his influence. Indeed, it could be seriously argued that he is the most influential philosopher since Aristotle.

This reading list consists of the best books on and by John Locke. After reading it, you’ll understand exactly why this brilliant 17th-century thinker has been so influential on modern civilization.

1. Locke: A Very Short Introduction, by John Dunn

Published in 2003, John Dunn’s Locke: A Very Short Introduction is a fantastic place to start for anyone with a budding interest in John Locke’s philosophy. Considering the sheer breadth and depth of Locke’s thinking, Dunn does an admirable job in providing an illuminating overview of his most important ideas. Dunn also provides helpful background to contextualize Locke’s work, and makes clear why his influence continues to be so enduring. Coming in at an accessible 112 pages, this is a very nice entry point to Locke.

Locke: A Very Short Introduction, by John Dunn

2. Locke: A Biography, by Roger Woolhouse

If you’re seeking to dive a little deeper with your Locke scholarship, look no further than Roger Woolhouse’s Locke: A Biography, first published in 2008. Offering the first biography of Locke in over half a century, Woolhouse does a wonderful job in guiding the reader through Locke’s varied life and thought against the historical background of the English Civil War, religious intolerance, and bigotry. Woolhouse not only outlines and contextualizes Locke’s philosophy, but provides facinating insights into debates and arguments he had with other intellectuals of the period. With its 560 pages packed full of insight, this book is a brilliant accompaniment for those seeking a deeper understanding of Locke’s life, thought, and enduring legacy.

Locke: A Biography, by Roger Woolhouse

3. The Cambridge Companion to Locke, by Vere Chappell

If you’re seeking a more philosophically engaged introduction to and critique of Locke’s philosophy, look no further than The Cambridge Companion to Locke, edited by Vere Chappell. This volume assembles nine brilliant essays from leading scholars discussing various aspects of Locke’s thought, from his epistemology to his politics. An engaging and thoughtful read, The Cambridge Companion to Locke belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of Locke’s philosophy.

The Cambridge Companion to Locke, by Vere Chappell

4. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke

Turning from introductions to primary texts, where better to start than with the text that cemented Locke’s name into the history of philosophy? Locke’s 1689 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of the most important philosophical works of all time. It forever immortalized Locke as the empiricist of philosophy, as he argues that human beings are born as blank slates, and that it is experience and experience only that furnishes the mind with ideas. This was in stark contrast to his rationalist predecessors and contemporaries, who believed it to be self-evident that we’re all born with innate ideas and knowledge. With this work, Locke formally started an argument that philosophers are still having today. Its originality and profundity make An Essay Concerning Human Understanding a must read for anyone interested in where our ideas come from.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke

5. Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke

The influence of John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise of Government can be observed simply by examining the constitutions of any democratically-elected government today. Widely regarded as the foundational text of modern liberalism, in this short work Locke asserts that we are all born equal and endowed with natural rights and freedoms, and that governments can never be considered legitimate unless they have the consent of the people. This particular edition also features Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, published in the same year, that aimed to end Christianity's wars of religion and called for the separation of church and state.

Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke

Further reading

Are there any other books you think should be on this list? Let us know via email or drop us a message on Twitter or Instagram.

Explore more reading lists of the best philosophy books:

philosophy bookshop
READING LISTS

View All Reading Lists

Essential Philosophy Books by Subject

Philosophy Break
START LEARNING

Discover exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life with just 1 email per day for 3 days

Philosophy Basics

What is philosophy? Why is it important? How can it improve your life? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our free, 3-lesson introductory email course:

1 email per day for 3 days. Join 50,000+ thinkers. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics

NEW!


6-DAY COURSE

NEW!

6-DAY COURSE

Your Myth-Busting Guide to Nietzsche & His 5 Greatest Ideas

Introduction to Nietzsche

Learn everything you need to know about Nietzsche in just six 30-minute daily chapters. This course distills his best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

★★★★★ (12 reviews)

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Amazing

This course is amazing! You can agree or not with Nietzsche’s views, but the professionalism, the methodology, the clarity, and deepness of the investigation is really comprehensive. I totally advise philosophy fans to do this course.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Elsa V. on 6 December 2022

★★★★★  Very informative

Very good and informative. Written with easy and comprehensible language. Enjoyed throughout - every line of the course was a delight. Keep doing what you're doing!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Milad A. on 24 November 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Robert J. on 19 July 2022

See All Course Reviews

Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Easy to understand, entertaining and thought-provoking and has given me some new approaches that I’ll continue to think about. The first and last chapters were my favorites. I find the question 'why is there anything at all?' is a mind blower. And the last chapter (especially about absurdity) relates to that. Thanks!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Mario H. on 26 November 2022

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Wonderful, clear, concise, and very informative. This is a great introductory course, exactly what I was looking for in general and enough depth to inspire further investigations. I also really enjoy the reading lists at the end of the chapters and have taken up a few suggestions. Thanks!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Matt J. on 16 September 2022

★★★★★  Brilliant primers

Brilliant primers on all the major topics of philosophy. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but the content provides a ton of value, it's all brilliantly written and delivered and covers so much. Highly recommend if you're at all interested in philosophy.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Rebecca L. on 7 August 2022

See All Course Reviews

Latest Breaks

Each philosophy break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your curiosity.

Aristotle On Why Leisure Defines Us More than Work
Life is Hard, by Kieran Setiya
Epicurus Principal Doctrines
If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

View All Breaks