Some of John Locke’s significant works include A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), A Second Letter Concerning Toleration (1690), A Third Letter for Toleration (1692), Two Treatises of Government (1689), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695) and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). Some other major works left unpublished or published posthumously include First Tract of Government (1660), Second Tract of Government (1662), Questions Concerning the Law of Nature (1664), Essay Concerning Toleration (1667), Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706), and A paraphrase and notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians (1707).
Oxford had enjoyed an influx of scientific inquiry and humanism – Roger Bacon (1220-92), John Wycliffe (1330-84), Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) and Sir Thomas More (1477-1535), all had their influence on the colleges. The present head of Christ Church for Locke was the Presbyterian John Owen (1616-83), a Puritan proponent of toleration and independence for Protestant sects and an earlier supporter and follower of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). (Owen travelled with Cromwell into his wars in Scotland and Ireland). Avoiding a career in theology and despising the dry Scholasticism (although the techniques and knowledge were of great use to his mind), Locke concentrated his studies on medical science at Oxford and later held teaching and diplomatic positions until meeting up with Lord Ashley Cooper in 1666 (later Earl of Shaftesbury). The position of a don was Locke’s preferred ambition and would have loved to live his whole life at Oxford – but events altered this path and he was illegally ejected on political grounds in 1684 from his studentship at Christ Church.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding begins with a short epistle to the reader and a general introduction to the work as a whole. Following this introductory material, the Essay is divided into four parts, which are designated as books. Book I has to do with the subject of innate ideas. This topic was especially important for Locke since the belief in innate ideas was fairly common among the scholars of his day. The belief was as old as the dialogues of Plato, in which the doctrine of a world of ideas or universals had been expressed. Plato had taught that ideas are latent in the human mind and need only the stimulation of sense perception to bring them to the level of consciousness. Many of the philosophers of the so-called rationalistic school followed Plato in this respect.