Is Locke's Distinction Between Primary and Secondary Qualities Tenable

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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...
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