Is Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities tenable The world we live in is often taken to be the direct cause of all of our sense experience and this common sense approach is rarely given a second thought. However, upon reflection the experiential process of acquiring and interpreting sense data is complex and still under discussion. John Locke proposed the idea that our minds are born in a state of Tabula Rasa and therefore all knowledge must be gained through experience.
Although Locke proposed that are minds are blank at birth he did not succumb to the Naive realist theory that our minds experience the world directly. For Locke, our experiences are more convoluted and involve different qualities to explain the relationship between our minds and the external reality. Inspired by the scientific theories of Robert Boyle, Locke follows from the Corpuscular theory by trying to express external reality in terms of particles, the smallest components of matter.
The primary qualities according to Locke are made up of five properties: shape, extension, solidity, motion, number.
Secondary properties are dependent on primary qualities and act as a “power” in creating the sense experiences of colour, smell, sound, texture and taste in the mind, thus bridging the gap between mind and body thereby satisfying Locke’s dualistic views. However, the distinction Locke makes comes under attack from many angles.
Berkley argues that the distinction is impossible to comprehend and we should therefore refrain from attempting to look behind the view of perception and accept that we can’t refer to things beyond the mental. If Berkley’s rebuttal has understood Locke’s proposal correctly and tenability is dependent on comprehension, the distinction Locke makes between primary and secondary qualities must be deemed untenable. In order to establish whether the distinction Locke makes is tenable it is important to assess why he proposes the experiential theory.
Locke’s distinction was inspired by scientific thinking of the time, specifically Boyle’s Corpuscular theory. The theory proposes that particles are immutable and absolute in their nature and therefore intrinsically constitute matter and represent reality. Locke uses illustrations in an attempt to justify his atomistic theory and drive a gap between what seems to be the objects of our experiences and what actually constitutes reality. Locke gives the example of an Almond which is ground up into a powder thereby loosing it’s original colour and texture.
The point of the illustration is to show that although the Almond we perceive has changed according to our senses, the substance remains and therefore the object on an atomistic level has remained consistent. This analogy can be paralleled with Descartes example of the wax candle which retains a particular essence even though it’s sensible qualities are changed by the heat. However, the essence of the two objects is very difficult to comprehend considering that we are only capable of experiencing the world on a macroscopic level and are blind to the atoms of which objects are compiled.
The plausibility of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is difficult to defend in light of our lack of direct experience involving objects on a corpuscular level. However, as Locke points out, we have an indirect experience of reality and therefore our sensations tell us nothing directly about the objects of reality. Therefore, even though we cannot experience objects on an atomistic level the primary and secondary distinction is still possible. Our experiences do not replicate the objects of reality and therefore the distinction must by reliant on another explanation.
As Locke points out, we have an indirect experience of reality explained by the dependence that secondary qualities have on primary is creating ideas in our minds. The primary qualities of experiences are distinct from secondary properties in that they supply the physical underpinning or grounding of all experiences. Secondary properties on the other hand, represent the disposition of the primary quality to produce sense experience which is perceived as an idea in the mind.
However, if Locke accepts that secondary properties like colour and texture are ultimately perceived as ideas in the mind, why isn’t the same true of primary qualities? Berkley tries to exploit this problem in his first dialogue in which Philonous asks Hylas whether the arguments brought to establish secondary qualities as purely mental could also work for primary qualities. Berkley accepts Locke’s position that our ideas are in the mind, but as a monist rejects the materialistic implications of primary qualities.
However, Berkley assumes that Locke has defined secondary properties as purely mental. Whereas, Locke specifically uses the word “power” to describe secondary properties in order to explain the connection between primary qualities and our experiences. Secondary properties create the bridge between ideas in the mind and the primary qualities that represent the atomic reality. Nonetheless, aside from the slight misinterpretation, Berkley’s rational argument that all ideas can only represent ideas still stands.
We cannot possibly conceive of something outside our minds and therefore we should not try to establish the external world. This can seem damaging to Locke’s distinction as one of the key differences is the degrees of reality each quality represents. Primary qualities are inherent in the object themselves, whereas secondary properties represent the disposition of objects to create sense experience. Locke gives an example that you cannot annex the idea of blue to the intrinsic qualities of a violet flower in the same way that you cannot attribute pain to a steel knife.
The secondary properties are used to explain the physical cause and effect relationship between the primary qualities and the experiences. The particles in a table hold together to form the particular size, shape, extensions and figure of a table, the light is then absorbed by the table and the secondary disposition of the particles creates the idea of brownness when the light is interpreted by our sense modalities. Berkley states that all ideas must be in the mind and it is possible to conceive of a particle considering the idea accumulated from a scientific theory.
If the primary and secondary conclusion is not dependent on the atomistic assumption of reality but of the cause-effect relationship of experiences, then the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is tenable even in light of Berkley’s idealism. Although the distinction may seem tenable as an idea in the mind, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the distinction is inconceivable and therefore extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend.
The primary qualities of shape, space, size and extension are not possible to conceive of without any of the secondary qualities to also occupy the object. How can we possibly know that something has a shape and space without something to fill the space? We have no experience of how particles could fill a hypothetical space and therefore do not have the ability to conceive of the distinction. However, Locke tries to establish the distinction on the grounds that secondary properties are subject to variation and subjectivity and therefore cannot be the grounds for our experience.
Lute warm warmer can feel both hot and cold to a person dependent on their bodily temperature, primary qualities on the other hand are consistent. On a Macro level Bertrand Russell points out the same table can appear different to many people depending on how they perceive it. However, arguably the same determinate can account for many determinables – the table may appear rhombus shaped when it is rectangular, Locke gives the example of a pan which is circular in shape and can appear elliptical to the eyes that perceive it.
However, on the atomistic level, even the secondary properties of colour are directly dependent on the particles of the primary qualities. The different perceptions of the table are the product of how the light is affected by the particles in the table and then interpreted by our eyes. Likewise, the different motion of the particles in lute warm and my hand will directly constitute whether I feel the water to be hot or cold. Ultimately, the distinction assumes the superior reality of particle and attempts to create a relationship with the ideas in our minds.
O’Connor describes Locke’s theory as “scientific truths dangerously elevated to philosophical doctrine”. It is not possible to conceive of a distinction between secondary and primary qualities on the Macroscopic or the microscopic level and therefore the distinction is not tenable. To conclude, Locke’s theory presupposes the authenticity of Boyle’s crepuscular theory in order to satisfy his dualist views. Locke explains why we are inclined to be direct realists but this is not enough to justify the distinction he makes.
Wittgenstein argues that our own language relates to reality. When we speak of objects we generally refer to the object in itself and not the way we feel about the experience. Despite the difficulty in explaining our experience through the secondary and primary distinction Locke persists. However, when we consider the distinction closely it is not possible to make any more headway than are common use of language allows. This distinction is not tenable as we cannot conceive of the properties separately from each other.
The primary property of size is inconceivable without a texture inherent in the object to accommodate the size and enable measurement. Locke’s dependence on the materialistic theory may seem to satisfy his dualist views, however, the dependence on a scientific idea is more suited to the idealist stance held by Berkley. Regardless of whether the distinction is held in the mind or between the mind and the objects of existence it is not possible to consider primary qualities a part from their secondary counterparts and therefore the distinction must be deemed untenable.
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