Distinction between Primary and Secondary Qualities

A generalized theory of knowledge, according to Locke, would have to make distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Because knowledge rests on validated propositions, the object of understanding must be a reflection of sensory experience. Images, constructs, ideas, and concepts are realizations of experience. In short, knowledge is derived from sensory experience.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities is founded on the principle of variety. Sense experience is not entirely dependent on the activities of a single sense. Senses work simultaneously, producing simple ideas. Now, complex ideas are found in the rubric of the active mind. Simple ideas become the building blocks of complex ideas  in short, when simple ideas are interrelated, its consequences are in general the effects of complex ideas. Having defined the essence of sensory experience, there is now the need to differentiate primary and secondary qualities.

Now, primary qualities are those attributes that are intrinsic to the object itself  that is, inseparable from the objects material existence. These attributes convey certainty. They do not rely on subjective judgment for validation. Secondary qualities, on the other hand, are attributed to the mechanisms of the sense operator. They are attributes which are conceptually inessential. In short, primary qualities are attributes which are readily sensible, while secondary qualities are attributes distinguished by the senses (for example, color and taste).

Examples of primary qualities are as follows solidity, extension, motion, rest, and number. Examples of secondary qualities are as follows smell, taste, temperature, sound, and color.

According to the professor, Lockes distinction between primary and secondary qualities is an insufficient framework for validating all given propositions. For example, consider the concept of space. Epistemologically, there is no such thing as space because it has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Space has no dimension, character, and perceptible qualities. However, space is part of the scientific dictum because it draws a wedge between two different objects. If Lockes framework is used, then space would be considered an invalid concept. In short, Lockes distinction between primary and secondary qualities is incomplete.

Berkeley offered devastating criticisms against Lockes theory of knowledge. Berkeley was a non-Catholic bishop of Ireland who proposed that it is impossible to know the real object itself. According to Berkeley, when an individual speaks of the real object, it is essentially the perceived object that such individual seeks to define. In short, the existence of an object is dependent upon the receiver.

Berkeleys argument is a general reference to indirect realism. According to him, it is impossible for an idea to approximate the real object. Only ideas can be directly perceived and not the objects themselves. Now, the properties of an object do not resemble the properties of the real object.

Now, for Locke, primary qualities come from secondary qualities, as sensations resemble objects. Berkeley objected to this proposition (sensations do not resemble objects). There are objects which are deemed invisible or imperceptible. It would be contradictory to assume that what is imperceptible cannot exist independent of the perceiver. As what the professor argued I experience blue in different ways, but is blue actually invisible (light).

According to the professor, Berkeleys attack on primary qualities was supported by two major arguments. First, it is impossible for matter to exist without divine intervention, as matter itself is dependent on continual creation. Second, if there are indeed primary qualities, then it would be impossible for the mind to determine its efficacy because they are not dependent on the receiver (the one who interprets the sense experience).

Berkeley argued that if primary qualities are continuously created by God, then primary qualities would cease to exist. The implication existence is dependent on God whether there is a receiver or not. Now, the efficient cause of matter is also independent of the receiver (for example, the concept of space does not depend on perception for its existence). Therefore, existence is not dependent on the person receiving the sensory experience.

According to the professor, Locke failed to defend his theory because he believed in the existence of God. The concept of God is a barrier to his theory because it presupposes the eternal existence of a Being which cannot be perceived by human senses. If, for example, God is taken out of the equation, Lockes theory of knowledge would be a good approximation of reality. The conception of the world is the consequence of sense experience.


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