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Keywords:

  • John Locke;
  • C.B. Macpherson;
  • possessive individualism;
  • seventeenth-century political philosophy;
  • classical liberalism

Abstract

C.B. Macpherson's “Possessive Individualist” reading of Locke is one of the most radical and influential interpretations in the history of exegesis. Despite a substantial critical response over the past five decades, Macpherson's reading remains orthodox in various circles in the humanities generally, particularly in legal studies, and his interpretation of several crucial passages has unwittingly been followed even by his sharpest critics within Lockean scholarship. In order to present the definitive rebuttal to this interpretation, and so finally to lay it to rest, I argue that every one of Macpherson's key pieces of textual evidence can be rejected entirely on its own terms; that is, by reference to no more than its immediate context. In this way I contend that fault of the Possessive Individualist reading lies far deeper than mere cherry-picking of the Lockean corpus, but centrally involves misreading, misplacing and misrepresenting the very parts of Locke's work Macpherson cites as evidence for his reading.