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               The Literature and Culture of the Closet
                         in the Eighteenth Century
                                                    Danielle Bobker

The Philosophy of Progress

Readings:
➢ John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, selections
➢ John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, selections

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke contests traditional notions of knowledge; in the Two Treatises, he contests traditional notions of government. Our discussion of excerpts from these texts gives depth to the historical transformations introduced in the opening lecture.

Our conversation about the epistemology touches on Locke’s rejection of prior models of innate knowledge. We note his special use of such terms as sensation and reflection, and explore various images of human understanding at work turning experience into ideas, including that of the “closet wholly shut from light, with only some little opening left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without.” We then approach the political theory as a comparable rejection of top-down authority. Students become familiar with such key concepts as patriarchy/patriarchalism, the state of nature, property, social contract, civil society, and paternal power.

Finally we find links between these two foundational texts of liberal democratic thought. I ask students to think with me about how the empirical mind is served by civil society and vice versa. We also discuss contradictions and gaps within and between Locke’s epistemology and his political theory, particularly relating to the status of women. On the one hand, Locke’s (largely) universal models of learning and political engagement cut against traditional views of female cognitive and political inferiority. On the other hand, though Locke refutes the traditional equivalence of political and familial authority, he ultimately rationalizes male superiority within the family and more or less takes it as a given within the state.

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