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Oct 23, 2015

John Locke: Hermeneutics and Labor

Smith explains Locke’s ideas about how we should interpret a philosophic text, and the relationship between labor and private property.

I previously noted the different interpretations of John Locke’s political theory. The traditional interpretation, according to which Locke is a seminal figure in the history of classical liberalism and the theory of limited government, has always seemed obvious to me, especially if we focus on Locke’s fundamental ideas rather than on his inconsistencies. It is not unusual—in fact, it is the general rule rather than the exception—for philosophers of every stripe to lay down basic principles and then fail to apply those principles consistently. Locke was no exception, so it is an easy task to cherry-pick certain anti-liberal passages from his writings and then use them to undercut his liberal credentials. Although it legitimate for the historian to call attention to those instances in which a philosopher defended views that conflict with his basic theoretical system, it is not legitimate to elevate those inconsistencies to the status of fundamental principles that represent his perspective as a whole.

It was with good reason that many subsequent classical liberals viewed Locke as a key figure in their tradition. They understood the crucial difference between Locke’s fundamental principles and his occasional failures to embrace the logical implications of those principles. For various reasons, it may take decades or even centuries for consistent conclusions to work their way to the surface of a philosophical system, and those conclusions may be quite different from what the original philosopher intended. Unintended consequences emerge as surely in the realm of ideas as they do in the realm of actions. The Catholic philosopher and historian Etienne Gilson (The Unity of Philosophic Experience, 1965, p. 302) described this inevitable development, which has been called the inner logic of ideas, as follows:

[I]n each instance of philosophical thinking, both the philosopher and his particular doctrine are ruled from above by an impersonal necessity. In the first place, philosophers are free to lay down their own sets of principles, but once this is done, they no longer think as they wish—they think as they can. In the second place, it seems to result from the facts under discussion, that any attempt on the part of a philosopher to shun the consequences of his own position is doomed to failure. What he himself declines to say will be said by his disciples, if he has any; if he has none, it may remain eternally unsaid, but it is there, and anybody going back to the same principles, be it several centuries later, will have to face the same conclusions. It seems, therefore, that though philosophical ideas can never be found separate from philosophers and their philosophies, they are, to some extent, independent of philosophers as well as of their philosophies. Philosophy consists in the concepts of philosophers, taken in the naked, impersonal necessity of both their contents and their relationships in the history of philosophy itself.

Over the past fifty years or so a good deal has been published on the methods that should be used in our efforts to understand philosophic texts. Often called hermeneutics—a term that originally referred to the interpretation of biblical texts—this cottage industry has yielded mixed results, from the worthwhile contributions of Quentin Skinner and other members of the “Cambridge School” of political historiography to the downright silly and sometimes incoherent pronouncements of Jacques Derrida and other practitioners of “deconstructionism.”

What approach should we take when reading John Locke? Fortunately for our purpose, Locke himself offered sound advice on the interpretation of texts. Buried in a little-known essay, “A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians” (1705), Locke’s theory of hermeneutics may easily be extrapolated from his focus on the Bible and applied to texts of all kinds, including his own writings on political philosophy. So before continuing my discussion of Locke’s theory of property, let’s take a brief look at what Locke had to say about this matter. As we shall see, his advice is concise and eminently sensible.

Locke pointed out that we naturally tend to interpret a passage through our own understanding of words, even when those words might have meant something different to an author from a bygone era and different culture. To overcome this difficulty, Locke suggested that we read each section (or chapter) of a text as if it were a self-contained unit—seeking thereby to understand the central theme of that unit or, if it contains other themes, to ascertain how they are connected, if at all. We should seek, in other words, a general view of the writer’s “main purpose in writing,” as well as his fundamental arguments in which that purpose is fulfilled. This will give us a sense of “the disposition of the whole.” One or two hasty readings are insufficient; according to Locke, especially when a text proves difficult to interpret. The reading “must be repeated again and again, with close attention to the tenor of the discussion.” 

As a working presumption, we should assume that a section has “but one business and one aim, until, by a frequent perusal of it, you are forced to see that there are independent matters in it….” When seeking the meaning of “obscure and abstruse” passages, we need to recall the overall purpose and context of the writer. It helps to know the particular circumstances and intended audience of the writer. If we cannot discern these, then we must use the text itself as a tool of interpretation. We should presume that the writer was coherent and informed, and we should interpret him in a manner that is consistent with this assumption. We should interpret a text with a view to the writer’s “character,” which we come to know from “diligent examination.” We should look for “coherence of discourse, tending with close, strong reasoning to a point.” 

Locke thus proposed what we may call a presumption of coherence. We should presume that the author had a full and comprehensive grasp of his subject, and, moreover, that he had a reason for expressing his arguments in a certain manner. These assumptions will lead us to an interpretation that is more likely to be correct than any other. Or, at the very least, it will enable us to eliminate the more improbable interpretations as inconsistent with the overall tenor of the text. Thus, having observed how a writer argues and thinks, we will be able “to pronounce with confidence, in several cases, that he could not talk this or that.”

We should understand that Locke offered his hermeneutical advice as defeasible presumptions, not as inflexible rules. It may turn out that the thinking of a given philosopher is so muddled that no coherent theory can be extracted from his text. Incompetence is as rife in philosophy as in any other profession, perhaps even more so. (As Descartes observed, there is no position so silly or implausible that it has not been defended by a philosopher at some time or other.) Generally speaking, however, the philosophic classics, such as Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, are classics for a reason. Unlike period pieces that have little interest (except to historians) after the controversies they addressed have passed, and unlike those incompetent forays into philosophy that are more on the order of raids, a classic typically paints with broad strokes by establishing general principles that are applicable beyond the specific problems that a given philosopher was addressing. In other words, even though a classic was written within a particular historical context, its relevance is not confined to that context.

Now, having ended my mini-lecture on hermeneutics, I shall return to Locke’s justification of private property, a discussion that will be continued in future installments in this series.

For Locke (as I explained in earlier essays), private property does not depend on the “assignation or consent of any body.” Private property is not a social convention or an institution created by government. It is a natural right required for human survival and happiness, so private property would exist even in a state of nature without government. As Locke put it, “the Condition of Human Life, which requires Labor and Materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions.”

Labor is the essential factor in the original acquisition of property titles, including property in land. Man’s wants, indeed his very survival, compel him to labor, so “subduing or cultivating the Earth, and having Dominion, we see are joyned together.” Labor is a type of purposeful human action, one that links property (moral dominion) in one’s person to property in external goods. Locke spoke of mixing one’s labor with land and other natural resources; he also spoke of annexing those resources to oneself through labor. The earth and its resources were given by God to mankind in common, but God also commanded us to “subdue the Earth, i.e., to improve it for the benefit of life.” (Reason demands the same thing,  according to Locke; reason and revelation run along parallel lines.) But natural goods can further human life only if they are appropriated for individual use, and they can be appropriated only by means of the rational and purposeful activity known as labor. And since, morally speaking, our labor is inseparable from our self-ownership, to expend labor on a previously unowned object is to “mix” something that belongs to us alone (our labor) with a common resource that previously could be used by anyone. Thus—again, from a moral point of view—private property, justly acquired, becomes an extension of the self. To rob a person of his property is to confiscate the effects of his labor, and this, in turn, is to deprive the victim of his basic means of survival. Force and fraud are the two basic methods by which a criminal attempts to profit from another’s labor, “which he had no right to.”

To summarize: when we mix our labor with unowned natural resources (fruits of the earth, nonrational creatures, and land), those resources become our private property: “The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my Property in them.”

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