Alan Johnson's Reviews > "The Great Ocean of Knowledge": The Influence of Travel Literature on the Work of John Locke

"The Great Ocean of Knowledge" by Ann Talbot
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Mar 25, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophers, philosophy-scholars

Although this book evidently originated as a Ph.D. dissertation, Ann Talbot's writing style is readable, perspicuous, artful, and without a trace of academic jargon. This work is an original contribution to knowledge, based to a considerable extent on Talbot's study of unpublished manuscripts as well as her intensive analysis of published primary sources. She rounds out her appraisal with an incisive review of the relevant secondary scholarly publications.

The book examines in depth Locke's use of anthropological travel literature in his Two Treatises of Government, Essay concerning Human Understanding, and other writings. Talbot also compares the anthropological literature available during the seventeenth century with twentieth- and twenty-first-century anthropological studies. Although modern anthropology may seem more scientific than the earlier investigations, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature had the advantage of being based on interactions with indigenous peoples before their cultures were much changed by contact with Europeans and Americans of European descent. Talbot provides many interesting vignettes from the travel books in Locke's library and shows how Locke used this information in his writings.

Chapter 14 of the book addresses how many scholars have changed the professional evaluation of Locke during the last few decades. As Talbot observes in the opening sentence of that chapter, "Locke once held an undisputed position as the philosopher of liberty and equality, but the philosopher of liberty and equality has increasingly been replaced in the scholarly literature by John Locke the philosopher of inequality, social hierarchy, colonial oppression and slavery." Talbot first describes the various postmodern attacks on Locke—by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Wayne Glausser, James Tully, David Armitage, Barbara Arneil, and others. She then deconstructs the deconstructionists. Talbot effectively demonstrates that such "postcolonial" literature is based on inaccurate history.

Talbot observes that James Tully based his postcolonial theory on Locke's particular concept of property. Tully claimed that chapter 5 of Locke's Second Treatise of Government was predicated upon a theory of land ownership of appropriation through cultivation. Locke's approach allegedly followed the earlier colonial Massachusetts Bay theories of John Winthrop and John Cotton rather than the view of Roger Williams. Although Talbot does not discuss this specific philosophical issue at length, the relevant primary sources show that Winthrop and Cotton believed that God had cleared the American Indians from their lands by visiting them with disease. Furthermore, the Native Americans did not, in the Puritan view, actually subdue the land through agriculture but rather used it for hunting. Such facts were marshaled to justify the Puritan appropriation of Amerindian land in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay. Williams objected to this entire theory. In England, he noted, the king and other great landholders owned large tracts of land that they did not use except for hunting, and ordinary people were forbidden to use those lands for agriculture, pasturage, or even hunting. John Cotton specifically disagreed with Williams's idea that the Natives were entitled to the land because they used it for hunting (as distinguished from agriculture). Cotton might have been horrified to learn that the socialistic Diggers later used his arguments to advocate land reform in revolutionary England. Locke wrote the Second Treatise after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Why did Locke apparently accept the view of Winthrop and Cotton (and, later, the Diggers) instead of the view of Williams? It is a difficult philosophical issue that is beyond the scope of Talbot's book and, similarly, beyond the scope of the present review. Talbot does establish, however, that it is anachronistic for the postmodern historians to blame Locke for all the sins of British colonialism, let alone American slavery, in later centuries.

Talbot's book reflects both in-depth and extensive research as well as an excellent writing style. I highly recommend it.
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Reading Progress

March 25, 2014 – Shelved
March 25, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 13, 2014 – Started Reading
January 20, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophers
January 20, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophy-scholars
August 8, 2015 –
page 113
August 18, 2015 –
page 183
September 13, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Randal (new)

Randal Samstag Terrific review, Alan. Why did Locke not take Williams's path, that is the question. A question I have had for a long time about Locke. My answer has always been, "Because Locke was (unconsciously) taking the view of the landed gentry."

message 2: by Alan (last edited Sep 13, 2015 08:32PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Johnson Randal wrote: "Terrific review, Alan. Why did Locke not take Williams's path, that is the question. A question I have had for a long time about Locke. My answer has always been, "Because Locke was (unconsciously)..."

Thanks, Randal. I don't know the answer to the question. It's difficult for me to believe that Locke was merely a creature of his socioeconomic milieu. The Straussian in me rebels against this conclusion. Perhaps he was a closet Digger lashing back at the landed king and nobles and their unproductive and hardly used "parkes" (Williams's word). As Ann pointed out in her book, Locke wouldn't admit authorship of the Second Treatise. Surprisingly, however, he signed his name to the Essay concerning Human Understanding, which earned him the reputation of being something of an atheist (predictable to everyone except perhaps himself). As Ann observed, Locke was preoccupied with the exclusion crisis when he wrote the Second Treatise. Although the book discussed Native Americans as being in the state of nature, Locke may not have thought about the consequences of his property theory for Native Americans. I reread the Second Treatise a few months ago, but I may have to read it again with a particular focus on this issue and also Ann's discussion of his use of travel literature in that work (I didn't read most of Ann's book until after my recent book on Roger Williams was published).

Ann, do you have some thoughts about Randal's question?


message 3: by Alan (last edited Sep 14, 2015 06:00AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Johnson Randal,

Unless I misunderstand what you mean by "landed gentry," Locke's view was actually inimical to their interests (perhaps one reason he did not admit authorship of the Two Treatises of Government). See the discussion of the 1633-36 dispute between the Massachusetts Bay authorities (especially John Cotton) and Roger Williams regarding Amerindian land rights (including Williams's analogy to "vacant" land held by landowners and restricted to their hunting) on pages 33-41 (Kindle loc. 782-909) of my book The First American Founder: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience (including endnotes). Williams was, of course, a secretary and perhaps law clerk to Sir Edward Coke, the greatest expert on land law in English history. Ibid., chap. 1 and app. A. Christopher Hill summarized the 1648-49 position of Gerrard Winstanley, one of the Diggers, as follows: "from a half to two-thirds of England was not properly cultivated. One-third of England was barren waste, which lords of manors would not permit the poor to cultivate." Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London: Penguin, 1975), 128-29. Locke made it clear at the outset of chapter 5 of the Second Treatise that he was objecting to Sir Robert Filmer's position that God gave all the land to the king, who then parceled it out to the lesser lords. Locke was opposing the whole concept of feudalism, which continued (with some modifications) to be the basis of English land law. No wonder Locke wished to remain anonymous! Far from supporting the landed aristocracy, the Second Treatise totally undermines it. But I need to go back and study (again) the Two Treatises in depth regarding Locke's whole concept of property and his understanding of how that view affected Native Americans. When I first studied Locke during the 1960s, the postcolonial interpretation of him did not exist (or, if it existed, was totally unknown to me). I always thought of Locke as being the votary of liberty, not the suppressor of it. I agree with Ann Talbot that attempts to make Locke responsible for all the evils of British colonialism, American slavery, and so forth are historically incorrect. Still, Locke's philosophical concept of property (in land) is puzzling, and I will have to come to terms with it sooner or later.


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