A number of previous posts have considered the philosophical meaning of primary and secondary qualities. Essays by Boyle, Locke and Berkeley have all been considered. The current post summarises the content of these arguments by referring to five related questions that come up in the context of qualities.
- Are Things As They Seem?
When we see an object in front of us (say a red apple), does the object really exist or is our mind giving us the impression that something exists? Boyle and Locke would answer this by saying ‘it depends’. If we’re specifically talking about the roundness and the shape of the apple, because these are primary qualities, these are inherent properties of the object so really do exist. However, if we’re talking about the red colour of the apple, they would argue that the apple’s primary qualities give it the ability to convey certain secondary qualities. One of these is colour, which is perceived directly by the observer based on the secondary qualities. So these don’t strictly exist in the object itself.
Berkeley would contend that everything exists in the mind, both primary and secondary qualities. All we can truly know are ideas, which cannot be compared to anything else.
2. Are all Truths Scientific Truths?
This question is asking us to consider which is ‘truth’: the underlying scientific principles (chemistry and physics) behind an object, or how we perceive the object in an everyday, macroscopic sense? We can re-word this question in relation to primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities represent the scientific truths, while secondary qualities relate to perception. If one believes that colour and taste are just as real as shape and figure, then this person would believe that scientific truth only gives us a partial snapshot of reality. However, another person might claim that since only primary qualities really exist, then this suggests that scientific truths are paramount.
3. Subjective and Objective
Is it possible for an item to exist in an objective sense (free from any particular mind), or do objects only exist in a subjective sense (perceived by individual minds)? In other words, the objective sense relates to primary qualities, while the subjective relates to secondary.
Claiming that an objective sense does exist is similar to the claim for scientific truth. The person who believes in objective truth would reject any form of secondary quality as subjective only, as this is too dependent on the individual mind.
4. Is the World Mind-Dependent? (Realism vs Idealism)
A realist such as Locke would argue that primary qualities really do exist in the world, while secondary qualities come about due to a disposition of the item based on the motion of its particles. An idealist such as Berkeley would completely reject this, believing that everything only ever exists in the mind. Because an idea can be nothing but an idea, it cannot be compared to anything outside of itself. This means there can be no distinction between primary and secondary qualities as everything is just a product of the mind based on perceptions. So Berkeley would answer ‘yes’, the world really is mind-dependent.
5. Do we Perceive Things Directly?
This question asks us to consider whether we can perceive objects directly as they really do exist (the ‘direct realist’), or whether we can only understand something through a secondary medium (the ‘indirect realist’). Locke is more an indirect realist in that he too believes in the notion of ‘ideas’. We can only perceive an object via the idea it implants in our minds. So while we perceive our ideas directly, we do not perceive the objects themselves directly. This is known as ‘Representation Theory’.
Locke’s notion of resemblance is an important part of this theory. Locke asks us to consider the idea in our mind and whether it has any resemblance to the quality in question. If yes, then the quality is primary, if not, the quality is secondary. In both cases though, the perception has come to us indirectly through the mind.
Since Berkeley only believes in ideas and nothing else, he would answer this question ‘yes’. We do perceive things directly through our ideas, because this is the only ‘resource’ we have available to us.
As a result of both Locke and Berkeley, it is possible to come up with a composite theory which unites both philosophers. You could claim that items really do exist in the outside physical world, thus accepting Locke and rejecting Berkeley. However, you could also object to Locke on the basis that we can and do perceive the objects directly, and do not rely on the intermediate workings of an ‘idea’. Locke was keen to maintain a dualist approach in his theory, whereas Berkeley stressed that all our ideas are one and the same, and there is no distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘body’. But taking on a composite view, you could reject the notion of dualism.