The 100 best nonfiction books: No 90 – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)
Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance
This celebrated essay, available to its first readers in December 1689, though formally dated 1690, could hardly be more topical today. It is an examination of the nature of the human mind, and its powers of understanding expressed in brilliant, lapidary prose: “General propositions are seldom mentioned in the huts of Indians: much less are they to be found in the thoughts of children.”
In the first two books, the argument moves through the source of ideas, the substance of experience (the origin of ideas), leading to a discussion of “the freedom of the will”: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. In book three, Locke proceeds to discuss language, and in book four he defines knowledge as our perception of the agreement or disagreement between ideas.