Richard Yeo

John Locke’s Notes and Baconian Information

Richard Yeo, Griffith University Brisbane, Australia

Discussant: Nathalie Kaoukji, University of Cambridge

The physician and philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), kept a massive collection of notes in notebooks of various kinds. His extant papers include at least forty-five of these. In an anonymous piece in the Bibliothèque Universelle of July 1686, he described his almost life-long practice of making notes (‘adversaria’), and entering them in a notebook, indexing them solely by reference to the first letter and first vowel of the ‘Head’, or ‘Title’, of the entry. This procedure scattered cognate topics and thus violated traditional precepts about the method of commonplacing. Nevertheless, Locke’s ‘New Method’ (as it came to be called) was received as a contribution to the genre of advice about keeping commonplace books. In both the French and English (1706) editions of his article, the examples of entries were all textual, all extracts from books.

However, there is another side of Locke’s actual note-taking that can be seen as an attempt to gather what Francis Bacon called ‘particulars’ relating to natural histories of various topics such as heat, wind, blood, and death. Such observations could be collated as ‘centuries’ (one hundred items), or collected as they were made, in diaries and journals. Locke’s ‘Register’ of the weather in Oxford during the late 1660s, eventually published as part of Robert Boyle’s General History of the Air (1692), can be considered in this context. So, too, can a large portion of the material entered in the journals he kept while travelling in France during 1676-79. More generally, I want to compare Locke’s ideas on the collection, arrangement, storage, and retrieval of empirical information with those Bacon offered. I suggest that in some ways, Locke was the perfect Baconian note-taker; but also that he differed on a number of issues. One obvious question is whether Locke’s attitude to note-taking reflects his published philosophical advice about the way knowledge, including scientific knowledge, might be advanced. 

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