Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke, Liberalism, and the Historical Sense - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1
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Locke, Liberalism, and the Historical Sense - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Locke, Liberalism, and the Historical Sense
“John Locke's Historical Sense.” The Review of Politics 43 (January 1981): 3–21.
J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner have shown that “what was central to early modern political thought was not so much its concern with reason, but its interest in, and development of, a truly modern historical analysis of politics.” However, Pocock paradoxically relapses into the conventional rationalist interpretation of Locke by believing that Locke was ahistorical. On the contrary, Locke, the empiricist philosopher, developed modern ideas about the study of history that paralleled the sophisticated historical sense of French and Continental historians, especially Jean Bodin (1530–1596), who sought “to return facts to their (historical) contexts and interpret them there.” (Early in his career, Locke assigned his Oxford students Bodin's Method for the Easy Comprehension of History).
In returning facts to their historical context, Locke rejected traditional English historical thought and its non-modern forms of political argument. Locke's complex epistemological caution in assessing the validity and meaning of the historical past points to “a rather different sort of relationship between the origins of liberalism in Locke and the study of history than has hitherto been noticed.” The origins of liberal thought cannot be dismissed as “ahistorical” simply because the English empiricists of the seventeenth century identified methodological problems in gaining certain knowledge of past historical events. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a classic exposition of empiricist epistemology, together with Locke's other writings show that he was not ahistorical; they rather caution us to exercise a careful method in regard to historical meaning and linguistic intention in order to understand how our beliefs and opinions developed over time. By conceiving of the past as distinct from the historical present, Locke reveals the modern understanding of history practiced by Renaissance historians like Bodin.
Locke conceptualized history as events whose meaning contexts changed over time. Such foreign events required our applying careful rules before we could assent to such probable knowledge of the historical. The discriminating self which sorts out such probable knowledge is the nexus between empiricist philosophy and critical history in Locke's thought. Locke grew more historically oriented through his empiricist philosophy and developed highly creative ideas concerning historical reconstruction and interpretation.
Locke objected on both philosophical and historical grounds to the traditionalist attempt of Whig historians to reconcile reason and history by appealing to a parochial English “immemorial custom.” His historical sense as revealed in the Two Treatises rejected such conservative ahistoricism in the relations between reason, history, and politics. In Locke's arguments regarding the development of private property and the emergence of political society out of the state of nature, we see a highly original deployment of his historical sense as a liberal political thinker. Locke avoided narrow references to the English past and made use of historical ethnography, 17th-century cosmopolitan travel literature, and the “history of mankind” to depict the condition of man both in and out of political society. Locke used the New World descriptions of pre-political societies to historically explain the universal origins of political power in consent. Comparative social anthropology (especially dealing with the New World peoples of America) undermined Whig contractarian conservatism and established “the historical character of the liberal political rights of Englishmen.” For Locke, the “proof of man's historical freedom was discoverable in all ages of the world once we had learned how to read history as the general interpretation of man's intentional actions.” (Prof. Glat pursues these questions in his 1978 Rutgers dissertation, “The Political Anthropology of John Locke and the Origins of Modern Politics.”)