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“Contesting the Empire of Habit”: Habituation and Liberty in Lockean Education


Although John Locke's educational curriculum has traditionally been seen to aim at creating free citizens capable of independent thought, the centrality of habituation to his pedagogy has recently raised concerns that the Education is no more than “indoctrination” for compliant subjects. I argue here that by re-examining habituation in light of Locke's epistemology, we find that Locke's education does aim at freedom, but that this freedom requires a strong will and a cultivated skepticism. The habits which Locke asks parents to instill are aimed not at programming specific behavior and opinions, but rather at training children to “cross their desires” to strengthen their wills against the impositions of nature, custom, and fashion, which Locke argues pose an far more serious threat to independent thought than parental discipline. Locke's education aims to cultivate a skeptical mental disposition that permits individuals to resist these other sources of habit and to continually question and revise their own convictions.

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Rita Koganzon is Associate Director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy and Lecturer in the Politics Department, University of Virginia (, Gibson Hall, 1540 Jefferson Park Ave, Charlottesville, VA 22904.
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I'm grateful to Harvey Mansfield, Jennifer Page, Will Selinger, Richard Tuck, and Sebastian Waisman for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I would also like to thank Ruth Grant and the other participants in the 2015 Duke Graduate Political Theory conference, as well as the reviewers at the American Political Science Review for their instructive objections and suggestions for improving this article.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Jason Aronson . 1959. “Shaftesbury on Locke.” American Political Science Review 53, 1101–4.

John Baltes . 2013. “Locke's Inverted Quarantine: Discipline, Panopticism, and the Making of the Liberal Subject.” Review of Politics 75, 175–92.

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Hannah Dawson . 2007. Locke, Language and Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

John Dunn . 1989. “‘Bright Enough for All Our Purposes': John Locke's Conception of a Civilized Society.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 43, 133–53.

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Ruth Grant . 1987. John Locke's Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John Locke . 1983. Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James Tully . Indianapolis: Hackett.

John Locke . 1988. “Second Treatise.” In Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 265–428.

John Locke . 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Alex Neill . 1989. “Locke on Habituation, Autonomy, and Education.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 27, 225–45.

Paul Schuurman . 2001. “Locke's Way of Ideas as Context for his Theory of Education in Of the Conduct of the Understanding .” History of European Ideas 27, 4559.

John Scott . 2000. “The Sovereignless State and Locke's Language of Obligation.” American Political Science Review 94, 547–61.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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