John Locke’s Note-taking in France, 1675-1679: between Journals and Commonplace Books

  • Richard Yeo Griffith University
Keywords: John Locke, journal, commonplace book, indexes, classification of knowledge, queries, transfer of information


Abstract: On 12 November 1675, the physician and philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), sailed for France without his commonplace books, the notebooks on which he had come to rely. For the next three and a half years, he assiduously recorded in journals things that he saw, heard, thought and read. What effects, if any, did this switch have on his note-taking and thinking? I suggest that Locke embraced the new options presented by the journal form in which notes were not necessarily tied to textual excerpts. Unlike the commonplace book, the journal demanded the dating of entries; and its portability encouraged the noting of on-the-spot observation, testimony, conversation, and trains of thought. On this basis, Locke pursued his inquiries under the rubric of Baconian natural history, adding ‘Queries’ to both excerpts and empirical observations, taking case histories of his patients, and venturing into new philosophical topics connected with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). The journal offered the freedom to make a note on any topic on any page; but this meant that Locke had to overlook the distinction between subjects he classified as either ‘Physica’ (medicine and science) or ‘Ethica’ (politics and religion) and entered in separate commonplace books. He regarded this as a temporary situation, setting up each journal with marginal heads/titles, cross-references and indexes that linked them to the commonplace books at home. On his return, he transferred selected material from the journals to the appropriate commonplace books. After appreciating the flexibility of the journal in France, Locke consolidated his existing database and retained his well-tried method of searching it.


Appendix: Locke and Note-taking