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John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1470 words Published: 5th Jul 2017

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Locke, when presenting his theory of representative realism, focused on the differences that existed between the primary and secondary qualities. His work on this subject is basically a rectification of the naive mindset of the people. It is because of this naive nature that the people tend to confuse the two qualities together. Locke while explaining the human psyche said that the images of the items present in the real world are formed in our minds as ideas and are only symbolic representations of what is actually present. He is of the opinion that all the items and things present in the external world are analysed by our mind on the basis of having two types of qualities either primary or secondary.

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The primary qualities are the ones that have a direct relation to the object’s being. This means that if the object’s picture that is in our mind is not having the primary quality than the picture would remain incomplete and the true sense of the object would not be formed in the mind. Because of this integral relationship in between the primary quality and the object our mind visualizes the primary quality as the object itself. The example of primary quality would be mass and not weight. This is because mass is not dependent while weight depends on gravity.

The secondary qualities on the other hand are not that important for the visualization of the object in its true form. The secondary qualities are merely the additional features that add variety to the object if anything. Locke says that the secondary qualities only exhibit themselves when they come in contact with the primary qualities. The perfect example of a secondary quality is colour. Even if the colour of an object in our mind is different from the object’s colour in reality it would have no bearing on the physical being of the object. Thus, according to Locke colour is not a primary quality even though many people because of having a naive mind set think that colour is necessary for the visualization of the object in its entirety. Locke is of the opinion that size of an object is the primary quality and not its colour because our mind formulates the ideas that are blurry and have no structural form so that they might have an effect on our senses. Thus, a round thing which is red in colour would be visualized by our mind as a round figure without colour. The secondary qualities only have an effect on our senses and they do not play any part in the existence of the object.

Locke is very clear in his mind about the differences that are present in between the primary and the secondary qualities. He even has come up with classifications of the qualities in terms of being secondary and primary. In the secondary category he has listed the colour, sound and taste while in the primary category he enlists solidity, figure, size and number. This classification is not approved by all and many people have begged to differ from it. Firstly, people say that solidity is temperature dependent so it cannot be a primary quality. Secondly, number is not a quality of an object it is a man-made concept so its inclusion is baffling to say the least. Because of these disorientations, it is best to not focus on classifying the qualities in to secondary or primary but to just find an explanation if the qualities can even be distinguished as primary or secondary.

The causality law presented by Locke is at loggerheads with this resemblance issue. Locke opines that the perception of the objects made by our mind and the objects in real both are linked together in a causal way. The basis of his theory is that all the objects that are idealized by our mind are for any cause and it is this cause which is responsible for the object’s existence in the real world. Berkeley opposes this concept of Locke and says that if such a causal relationship would have existed then the independent analysis of the cause and effects would have to be made.

Locke’s ideas are not necessarily proven wrong if the ideas presented by Berkeley are taken in to account. The idea that Berkeley advocates is that there can be no causal relationship in between the ideas made by our minds and the objects that are real still it is a fact that there exists a causal relationship in between our ideas and God. Moreover, Locke in his theory of representative realism negates the idea that objects that we make perceptions of are not present in the real world. He just denies the idea that our mind can visualize an abstract thing that has no representation in the real world. Still this discrepancy of Locke’s theory does not make the entire theory flawed.

The concept of primary and secondary qualities is a little difficult to understand still if we look to other sources for the proofing of the concept we might find a better explanation to the idea. Locke not only used the method of variability in his studies to differentiate between the two but also employed the method of measurability. According to him, if the object is measurable then it definitely is a primary quality because only the primary qualities can be measured like the size and mass. But with the advancement of science we now know that even the colours can be measured through frequency and wavelengths measurement which are considered secondary qualities by Locke. Hence, the measurement idea is not true.

Because of the failure of the concepts of Locke in discriminating between the primary and secondary qualities it is best to look elsewhere for evidences that support the primary and secondary quality theory. Once we broaden our research and look away from Locke, we find that many other philosophers also have worked on the theory presented by Locke. Aristotle was the one who first presented the idea that there is a difference in between the objects that are concerned with a single sensory organ and those that have an effect on multiple sensory organs especially the eyes and the hands. This proves that Locke’s theory was not an original one but was in fact a derived one.

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Locke does not in any way point out this concept in his studies and has not mentioned it significantly. Still this concept serves as a perfect supporting act for the actual theory that primary qualities have an effect on all the senses while the secondary qualities only effect and are identified by a particular sensory organ rather than all the senses.

An objection to this theory which is made by Mackie is that it is not necessary that the secondary qualities would have an effect on only one sensory organ. He presents the example of sensory organs like nose and tongue responsible for the sense of smell and taste. He says that even though these senses are different from each other yet they perform as one and usually work together. Nevertheless, this objection is easy to rule out if we look at the sensory organs of smell and taste as a single unit as opposed to two different units. The reason for this singular approach is because the two senses are very closely related to each other and its functionality is dependent on the other.

Fortunately, the modern advancement has helped in realising the differences in between the primary and secondary qualities and the studies of Bennet are very helpful in this regard. He takes the route of exposure with the objects and the qualities rather than the visualization of them. He opines that the more a quality comes in contact with us the more it is a primary one and the less a quality comes in contact with us the more secondary it is. He gives the examples of colour-blindness and size-blindness to advocate his case. He says that a colour-blind person can live his life easily rather than a size-blind person because the interaction of colour in our life is limited while the interaction of size is extensive. Thus, colour is a secondary quality and the size is a primary quality. This explanation is very much understandable and appeals to the lay man’s mind.

In the end, it is evident that although the case put forward by Locke about the differences in between the primary and secondary qualities is very strong and has reasonable proofing accompanying it still it fails to connect with the audiences because of the complex nature of his explanation. However, if the case is viewed through methodical analysis, as is the case in this essay, the argument does become easy to understand. Furthermore, the Aristotle’s theory mentioned in this essay is also supportive of the idea presented by Locke.

The outcome of all the debate is that even if there is a difference between the primary and secondary qualities it is mighty difficult to determine the point of difference between the two.


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