John Locke: The “Jocose Problem” and the Theoretical Foundation of Toleration

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 107118
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211070320
John Locke: The Jocose Problemand the
Theoretical Foundation of Toleration
Rafael Major
Two years after the publication of LockesAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he sought advice from his Irish
friend, William Molyneux, concerning improvements for the second edition. This discussion resulted in the most
substantial alterations of the Essay. Among these changes, Molyneux proposed a Jocose Problem”—a 17th Century
brain-teaser”—concerning the ability of a formerly blind person to recognize the simple difference between the
appearance of a cube and a sphere. Molyneuxs jocose riddle eventually awakened the greatest philosophic interestand
became the common centerof attention for 18th Century thinkers like Berkeley, Voltaire, and Diderot (Cassirer 1951,
108-9). The following is meant to reintroduce Molyneuxs Problem by suggesting its origin in the thought of Thomas
Hobbes and its bearing on the role of religion in public life. After examining Molyneuxs Problem and its importance for
understanding the Essay, I conclude with a brief comparison to LockesLetter Concerning Toleration in order to stress its
bearing on theoretical and practical considerations for a wide range of political scientists.
Molyneux, Locke, Hobbes, religious toleration, politics and perception
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a foun-
dational document for our contemporary understanding of
empiricism, epistemology, and cognitive psychology.
John Locke also intended for the Essay to have a practical
effect and made a sustained effort if subtle effort to
connect his abstract studies to political life.
In particular,
he suggests that the Essay contains his deepest theoretical
justif‌ication for toleration, and especially for religious
toleration (Epistle p. 13-4, II.1.9, III.9.21, IV.3.22,
IV.16.4, IV.18.111). Identifying and analyzing this
fundamental 17
Century argument is again relevant in
the 21
Century because today the status or basis of
toleration is under stress. In addition to the obvious po-
litical evidence of a rise in intolerance around the globe,
Jürgen Habermas has pointed out a general attitude of
defeatismamong western intellectuals who have lost
conf‌idence in the central pillar of modern liberalism.
long ago we could take for granted that there was a
consensus that toleration was both the best protection for a
diversity of religious views, and the best guarantor of the
freedom of belief and conscience for everyone else too. It
is imperative to revisit the roots of the arguments for
toleration in an effort to judge for ourselves the underlying
source of the older conf‌idence and whether the current
defeatismis justif‌ied.
It is not enough to point to the
practical threats of an authoritarian drift among both re-
ligious and secular citizens. Just as it was the case for
Locke, it is incumbent on 21
intellectuals to give reasons
for political preferences and this makes the Essay more
relevant than it seemed only a generation ago.
Among the proponents of toleration whose arguments
helped shape the modern liberal world, (e.g., Spinoza,
Hobbes, Montesquieu) Locke is most immediately ac-
cessible. His Letter Concerning Toleration is almost
exclusively focused on religious toleration and civil order,
and this in combination with its short length, make it the
most studied text on the subject. It continues to be as-
signed in undergraduate classrooms, and indeed several of
its central political arguments on behalf of toleration are
known to many citizens who have never come into contact
with the original source. In essence, without peace, neither
civil liberty nor religious liberty are secure. According to
Locke, religious differences are not the source of political
University of North Texas, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rafael Major, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle #310529
Denton, TX 76203-5017, USA.

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