Locke’s Primary and Secondary Qualities
When reading Lock’s Book II “Of Ideas”, one comes to a state of boredom, while reading about things that should seem obvious to an adult. These ideas are mainly trying explain to the reader that a person can not think about something without experiencing it with some sort of sensation first. But then, all of the sudden, one does a double take after reading Lock’s thoughts about an object’s primary and secondary qualities, which he begins to discuss in chapter eight. Locke states that qualities such as color, smell, and heat do not lie within an object, but are more like powers that an object possesses. This essay will make Locke’s points regarding primary and secondary qualities of objects clear, and will discuss why these qualities are important to Locke’s philosophy.
Locke describes a primary (real or original) quality, as something an object has within itself. Any other object need not sense these primary qualities in order for that object to really exist. This is because whether something else perceives that object or not, it is still an entity. This object has bulk, figure, number, and motion. Motion can be classified as movement from one location to another, or that the object is at rest. Take for example a block of ice. Thoughts probably come to mind of something very cold, smooth, and semi-transparent. Notice that these are all sense orientated, because that is what sticks out in the mind about a block of ice, our past perceptions of examining a block of ice. If one was not able to touch, sense it’s coldness, or see, one would not be able to perceive these phenomenon of the objects secondary qualities. One would only be able to realize the objects relative size, shape, number, and movement (whether it is as rest or in motion). One might say that if one does not perceive an object that is within close vicinity, how does one even know that it exists? Locke explains this with the idea of force. In this situation the only way to know if the other object exists would be to collide into it, obstructing both objects motion.
Secondary qualities (sensible qualities) do not lie within the object itself, rather secondary qualities are produced when one perceives an object’s unique primary qualities. These secondary qualities are things such as smell, color, texture, taste, etc. These secondary qualities along with it’s primary qualities can be sensed by other beings. Secondary qualities are emitted from the object, because of it’s primary qualities. Take fire for example. It has a primary quality of molecules moving so quickly that it can be perceived as having extreme heat (relative to healthy human being).This varies in degree of perceived heat as one draws nearer or further from it. Two different people might perceive the heat level differently or not at all, depending on the primary qualities of the perceiver. So the secondary qualities of pain or warmth are not really a part of the fire, they are just our perceptions of the fire. Our thoughts have linked warmth and pain with fire for so long, that our mind subconsciously links them together. In reality pain is no more a real (primary) quality of fire than pain is a real quality of a donut.Another example of a secondary quality is the color of a car that is in a garage with no natural light, with only one lamp in it. If the lamp is off, one can sense that the car is there because of it’s mass, but one can not sense the color he might have perceived if the light were on. In order to see the color of the car, light would have to bounce off of the car’s primary qualities and then strike the perceiver’s eyes; eluding one of the car’s secondary qualities, the color red.
These ideas regarding how one perceives his surroundings are much a part of Locke’s philosophy. Locke states that no ideas are innate within us, but that we have “innate faculties”. The mind has the ability from birth to perceive, remember, combine ideas that come from outside the mind, desire, celebrate, and will. These activities are in themselves a source of new ideas.So, Locke has two types of experience within his philosophy. That of experiencing one’s surroundings and that of experiencing his own mind, which Lock calls “reflection”. Thus once one begins to sense the world around him, he can begin to form ideas. Whether this is by combining perceptions of the outside world (i.e. combing the feel of a sphere with the look of a sphere at point of contact), called a simple idea or by reflecting on past perceptions, or past ideas which Lock terms as a complex idea. This idea makes sense because if one did not sense the surrounding world, he would not be able to create ideas because he would only have his innate faculties, which must perceive (or have already perceived) in order to function. One must also remember that since secondary qualities of objects can be perceived differently, ideas between different beings can also be formed differently.
One of Locke’s more interesting points concerning primary and secondary qualities, is with regard to the science of bodies. He argues that since it is impossible to link an object’s primary and secondary qualities, the science of bodies has no merit. For how can one study something without using his own sensations (perceiving the body’s secondary qualities)? One can not. If one takes Locke’s philosophy to be true, this is a very valid point. The word science usually has math associated with it, and the two are often thought to be perfect or at least near perfect. If this is so, how could one possibly create a “science” of bodies, when it will most definitely not be perfect because the secondary qualities emitted from an object are different depending on who is perceiving them. Since this is the case, this “science of bodies” would only for work for the person who created the science. Locke goes further in stating that this connection will never be made, so this “science” should not no longer be pondered over.
John Locke’s philosophy allows his readers/pupils to view the world, as they might not have before. It teaches one that others may perceive an object differently than you do, and thus their ideas may very well differ than that of your own. This lies very close to the phrase, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. After reading Locke’s views on perception, one also starts to think about how awesome this gift of perception really is. It is incredible that our individual senses communicate with each other through our brain allowing us to perceive in our own way. Almost as if the world around you is yours, and yours alone.
1. Cahn, Steven M. (1999). Classics of Western Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc.
2. Collins, James D. (1967). The British empiricists : Locke, Barkley, Humes. Milwaukee: Bruce Pub.