In a superb essay on Locke’s “social imagination” in Rethinking Modern Political Theory: Essays 1979-1983 (Cambridge Paperback Library) (21-22), John Dunn traces Locke’s project to a “simple” central concern:
“As a whole this thinking can be legitimately represented as the attempt to think through the political implications of a rather chastened Puritan Christianity within the political frame of an inherited constitutional state and in the light of an epistemology which gave great epistemic weight to sensory experience. The resulting theory, as it can be elicited from the published works as a whole . . . represents a precarious balance between a strongly felt religious individual and a potentially incompatible and heavily skeptical theory of knowledge.” The tension could be resolved in a fideist direction, or in a secular one. Locke refused this option, and his disinclination from the irrationalist import of his theory “provides the dynamic of his intellectual life, driving him forward from one intellectual resting place to another, until he arrived at the relatively intellectually passive pietism of his later years.”
Why Locke tenaciously retained a theological framework in tension with the apparent implications of his epistemology is, Dunn says, obscure.
But he explores an answer by taking account of the “familial religious culture in which Locke was reared” and “of the distinctly dependent cliental social position which he occupied within the English society of his day, a position, in terms of the etiquette of social relations, at least as deeply marked by ‘feudal residues’ as it was by capitalist novelties” (25; Dunn takes aim at Macpherson’s claim that Locke’s “possessive individualism” served the emerging culture of capitalism).
Locke’s correspondence shows him operating in three sets of relations: familial, patronage, and egalitarian intellectual. The tension existed between the first two, brought into a “precarious synthesis” by the third. Within this “confusing welter of kinship and friendship and cliental relations” Locke’s self and outlook took form. It was not a “comfortable creation,” but it “sustained him in his highly dependent pursuit of social mobility and exacted form him the most strenuous intellectual and moral effort.” It formed a self and an ideology that brought dependence and individualism into a balance.