Review of J. W. Gough: John Locke’s Political Philosophy

Review of John Locke's Political Philosophy, by J. W. Gough, American Political Science Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (September 1950).  Reprinted in What Is Political Philosophy?


Gough’s view is the outcome of his method. He has tried to understand Locke historically, but his notion of what “historical” means, is much too narrow. His only remark on this subject is to the effect that “it is simply unhistorical to examine [Locke’s ideas] in the light of the experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (pp. 41-42). It is not necessary to discuss whether Gough always obeys this rule and whether, in examining Locke’s ideas in the light of the experience of the seventeenth century, he employs the necessary
care (cf. p. 35 with p. 189). What is decisive is that by trying to understand Locke’s political thought primarily in the light of the political situation of seventeenth century England, he is seduced into understanding Locke’s political philosophy as barely more than an ideology of the Revolution of 1688. “He appears to state his political theory in general philosophical terms, as if it were a purely logical deduction from general principles, but if we read between the lines we recognize the historic features of the English seventeenth-century constitution” (p. 70). We may have to read between Locke’s lines, but we cannot do this before having laid a solid foundation for it. We would have to know first why he tried “to state his political theory in general philosophical terms.” Gough seems to believe that he did this in order to disguise the partisan character of his doctrine (p. 38). The only reasonable explanation, of course, is that it is impossible to approve or disapprove of any actual and hence “individual” constitution without tacit or explicit reference to “universal” principles. To regard Locke’s universal principles as secondary in comparison with his acceptance of the English constitution is to put the cart before the horse.