The Empiricist Origin of Biopolitics: Freedom and Potentiality in John Locke


This article examines John Locke’s theory of subjectivity to challenge the recent critical tendency to associate biopolitics and empiricism. Michel Foucault, most notably among modern theorists of biopolitics, proposes that the Lockean man, or an interest-seeking animal, constitutes the paradigm of a person that remains subject to biopower. Such understanding of empiricism by biopolitical theorists is, however, reductive because Locke’s view of human subjectivity is fundamentally equivocal. As I demonstrate by analyzing his discussion of freedom, action, and desire in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and other writings, Locke admits the possibility for a human being to think and to act freely, although in the process of restricting the capacity for free action. Hence, the theorists’ simplistic view of Locke rather reflects the limits of their own conception of subjectivity, especially their behavioristic premises. As they consider a person as a mere machine of survival without agency and initiative, they preclude the possibility of overcoming biopower at the fundamental level. In demonstrating contradictions and tensions within Locke’s empiricism, this article then proposes the ways in which Locke can show a way beyond the critical impasse in political theory in elucidating (albeit inconsistently) the power of acting against the chain of causality.

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  1. 1.

    For an overview of the theory of biopolitics, see Campbell and Sitze 2013; Lemke 2011; Žukauskaitė and Wilmer 2016.

  2. 2.

    For Foucault’s homo economicus, see Foucault 2008, 268–82; for the immunitary self, see Esposito 2011, 159, 164–65; for bare life, see Agamben 1998, 83; for animal laborans, see Arendt 1958, 84. For a helpful survey of behaviorism in biopolitics, see Madra and Özselçuk 2010, 484–87.

  3. 3.

    For Locke’s empiricism as a philosophical foundation of biopolitics, see also Esposito 2008, 63–9.

  4. 4.

    Foucault’s analysis of homo economicus may seem anachronistic. In many historians’ view, homo economicus as a concept emerged in the early nineteenth century, for instance, in the political economy of Jeremy Bentham (Hodgson 2013, 13–4), or of John Stuart Mill (Persky 1995). Yet, I suggest, Foucault is not necessarily wrong to trace the origin of homo economicus to seventeenth-century empiricism. For he is here concerned not so much with the philological origin of homo economicus as with its philosophical foundation. For critical analysis of Foucault’s view of homo economicus, see W. Brown 2015, 47–78; Chambers 2018.

  5. 5.

    Determinism in the broad sense means a view that actions have antecedent causes (Chappell 2007, 145). While commentators have debated exactly what the causes consist of for Locke and how they determine actions, I characterize Locke’s determinism as causal and natural. First, his determinism is casual, rather than teleological. That is, as I will demonstrate, Locke takes desire (or in his terms, “uneasiness”) to be the efficient cause of action (that is, what prompts an action), rather than its formal cause (what guides or directs an action). (For an interpretation that favors both causal and teleological determinism, see Chappell 2007, 150). Moreover, I view Locke as advancing (not unequivocally) natural determinism: he attributes the efficient cause of action to natural inclination for pleasure and aversion to pain, or to “the human tendency (the only innate tendency) to avoid pain and pursue pleasure” (Passmore, qtd. in Schouls 1992, 125). For a survey of the interpretative tradition that considers Locke as a determinist, see Schouls 1992, 119–26.

  6. 6.

    For discussions of dunamis in book Theta of Metaphysics, see Frede 1994; Witt 2003.

  7. 7.

    This is Stephen Makin’s translation (Aristotle 2006). In the subsequent citations of Metaphysics, I use C.D.C. Reeve’s translation (Aristotle 2016).

  8. 8.

    For the identity between potentiality and impotentiality, see also Aristotle’s other comments in Metaphysics (1019b 20; 1046a 32), which Agamben translates as follows: “there is an impotentiality corresponding to each kind of potentiality”; “every potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same” (1998, 45).

  9. 9.

    For Agamben’s analysis of Aristotle’s potentiality, see Agamben 1998, 44–8; 1999. In viewing potentiality as a source of actuality, Agamben follows Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle (Attell 2015, 91–2; Seshadri 2014, 470–73, 477–79). For Heidegger’s analysis of dunamis, see Heidegger 1995; N. Brown 2016.

  10. 10.

    Compare Reeve’s translation of the same sentence: “A given thing is capable if nothing impossible follows from the assumption that the activity it is said to have the capacity for belongs to it.”

  11. 11.

    The quotation is Kevin Artell’s translation of Agamben’s “La Potenza del pensiero” (2005). This essay, also translated by Kalpana Seshadri as “The Power of Thought” in Critical Inquiry (cf. Seshadri 2014), is a later draft of “On Potentiality” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Agamben 1999), which was based on a manuscript of his 1986 lecture.

  12. 12.

    For potentiality as the locus of possibility, see also Heidegger 1995, 96–8.

  13. 13.

    This is Locke’s rephrase of his definition of freedom in his letter written in May of 1701 (qtd. in Stuart 2013, 466).

  14. 14.

    The quotation is from book II, chapter 21, section 47 in Locke 1975, 263. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke 1975) will be hereafter cited in the text by book, chapter, section, and page number.

  15. 15.

    For inconsistencies between Locke’s two definitions of freedom, see Chappell 2007. For refutations of Chappell’s view, see Garrett 2015; Rickless 2016; Stuart 2013, 473–81.

  16. 16.

    For Aristotle’s influence on the early modern conception of power, including Locke’s and Leibniz’s, see Bolton 1998, 198.

  17. 17.

    See Rickless 2016, section 5 (I cite this online publication by section number).

  18. 18.

    Note that Aristotle’s potentiality (dunamis) can be also translated as capacity, force, or power; for example, Seshadri translates Agamben’s word for dunamis (potenza) as power (cf. 2014).

  19. 19.

    For Locke’s definition of freedom, see also 2.21.8, 237; 2.21.15, 241.

  20. 20.

    Notice how Locke pairs the power for action with the power for forbearance in his account of freedom whenever he can (2.21.5, 236; 2.21.15, 241). At one point, Locke even clarifies that even if he mentions only the former, he means to refer to both types of power (2.21.28, 248).

  21. 21.

    This quotation is from the heading of sections 22–4 in the chapter, “Of Power” (Locke 1975, 244).

  22. 22.

    Locke does not always make a clear-cut distinction between desire and will in the chapter “Of Power.” As I discuss below, for example, he defines freedom both as a power of suspending desires (2.21.50, 266) and as that of suspending the execution of desires (2.21.47, 263). Inasmuch as he does not clarify the relationship between these two definitions or choose one over the other, Locke appears to conflate will and desire. According to the former definition, the power of suspension results in the suppression of desires; according to the latter, it involves counteracting the will—a conscious, mental effort to act upon a desire.

  23. 23.

    For the act of standing still as an epitome of free action, see also 2.21.50, 266.

  24. 24.

    By psychological egoism, Stuart means that “the action that appears to an agent most likely to maximize his pleasure is always the one that pleases him more, and always the one that he wills to perform” (445). I take Locke’s psychological egoism (as Stuart understands it) as a form of hedonism. For Locke’s hedonism, see Schneewind 1994, 203, 208, 215; Stuart 2013, 435–8; Tully 1993, 208; Wilson 2008, 207–16. There are some scholars who have challenged the hedonistic interpretation of Locke’s theory of action on the basis of his natural law theory in Questions Concerning the Law of Nature (Coleman 2003; Rossiter 2016). In their view, Locke complicates his hedonism when he posits that we can perform moral action by obeying natural laws accessible via reason. In doing so, Locke suggests the possibility of action motivated by the intellectual kind of pleasure, rather than immediate pleasure (Coleman 2003, 110–111, 117–21; Rossiter 2016, 207–18). Yet, as other scholars suggest, it is not entirely certain to what extent one should take seriously his natural law theory, which is at odds with his psychological theory in the Essay (Byrne 1964; Schneewind 1994). After all, Locke discusses the natural law extensively only in his unpublished manuscripts (Schneewind 1994, 215).

  25. 25.

    For the context of Locke’s revision, see Stuart 2013, 478–79; Tully 1993, 219–20.

  26. 26.

    Consider Locke’s other remarks that express his hedonistic beliefs: “Nature, I confess, has put into Man a desire of Happiness, and an aversion to Misery” (1.3.3, 67); “Happyness & misery are the two great springs of humane actions” (“Of Ethick in General”; qtd. in Lolordo 2012, 18). In a similar vein, Locke takes the desire for self-preservation to be the most fundamental desire in The First Treatise of Government: “For the desire, strong desire of Preserving his Life and Being having been Planted in him, as a Principle of Action by God himself, Reason, which was the Voice of God in him, could not but teach him and assure him, that pursuing that natural Inclination he had to preserve his Being…” (Locke 1988, 204–5).

  27. 27.

    My discussion of Locke’s 1697 proposal to the Board of Trade relies on Beier 2016, 404–10. For the Foucaudian element in Locke’s theory of education, see Baltes 2013, 180–82; Hirschmann 2008, 87–9; Tully 1993, 179–80.

  28. 28.

    In his later monographs in the Homo Sacer series, Agamben suggests the possibility that biopolitics somehow preserves potentiality in humans, by elaborating the concept of potentiality and its cognates such as inoperativity (2011; 2013b), form-of-life, and use (2013a). The final work in the series, The Use of Bodies, provides the most compressive analysis of these concepts, all of which derive from potentiality (Agamben 2015). Yet it remains debatable whether Agamben’s recent works provide compelling counterarguments to those critics who accuse him (and other biopolitical theorists) of taking a defeatist attitude toward biopolitics. This is because, I suggest, Agamben does not sufficiently delineate practical strategies or programs to preserve potentiality against and within biopolitics; the most concrete plan he offers seems to be the revival of Franciscan monasticism (2013a).


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Lee, H. The Empiricist Origin of Biopolitics: Freedom and Potentiality in John Locke. Philosophia (2021).

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  • John Locke
  • Freedom
  • Potentiality
  • Aristotle
  • Homo economicus
  • Biopolitics