John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities Term Paper

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¶ … Human Understanding

John Locke's work, an Essay Concerning Human Understanding, has received a great deal of attention and criticism partly because John Locke is a very famous man in the world of philosophy and his writings inspired Thomas Jefferson's participation in the Declaration of Independence. Locke's Essay also gets a lot of scholarly attention because he draws a provocative line between what he sees as primary and secondary qualities.

In his book, Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding, John W. Yolton begins to describe Locke's Essay by noting that the philosopher "appears to wander somewhat aimlessly from topic to topic, dropping one theme here, picking it up later," and as he continues in his narrative Locke is "mixing several questions together," adding a bit here and a bit there as they apparently come into his mind (Yolton 2).

Yolton later goes on (122) to address the distinction between Primary and Secondary qualities by saying first that "it is the non-primary qualities (both immediate and mediate ones) 'whereby we take notice of bodies and distinguish them one from another.'" and so, secondary qualities are those (quoting Locke in Yolton's narrative) "in which most" substances "serve principally to distinguish substances one from another."

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It is important to note that the division between primary and secondary qualities, in the view of Yolton, "does not quite coincide with that between the observable qualities of objects." By that he means the any object is but a "retainer to all other objects," and the qualities which objects themselves reflect are only observable "when they qualify objects large enough to be sensed." A microscope might be able to see a very tiny bug on a branch, but because the human eye cannot see it, it is therefore not observable, and hence it is a secondary quality. Hence, Yolton continues, there are three qualities of bodies in Locke's theory, and they are as follows (25):

Term Paper on John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities Assignment

A) "primary qualities which are non-relational and categorical properties"; (B) sensible qualities "which are powers that bodies have to effect our senses" in such a form that they affect our sense of smell, taste, eyesight (color); and - powers which are the abilities a body has "by reason of the particular constitution of its primary qualities [italics by Yolton]..." And those primary qualities have the potential to make changes in the "bulk, figure, texture, and motion" of another body.

Among the scholars who are impressed but somewhat puzzled by Locke's Essay is Reginald Jackson, who wrote a highly academic and investigative piece in the journal Mind in 1929.

Jackson assures readers that he has no problem with Locke's basic definitions, which identify "qualities" as belonging to "bodies," and "ideas" as strictly mind-dependent objects of perception "produced by qualities" (Jackson 59). But Jackson seems agitated by the fact that Locke is not consistent in his definition of Qualities and Ideas, or Qualities and Relations, and of how they are different. For example, the shape of any given table is by reasonable observation is reflective of the "quality of this table," Jackson writes (61). But by the fact that the table is in this room he is sitting in, Jackson also believes is a "relation because it involves something other than a table."

And a change in relation (moving the table to another room) doesn't change the quality (the shape), but the language gets confusing, even to a scholar whose professional career has embraced philosophical discourse. "Locke's definitions are complicated and embarrassed," Jackson writes (62); embarrassed by " attempt to take account of distinctions other than that between qualities and powers." By primary qualities, Locke means "not a [certain] kind of qualities, but all qualities," Jackson explains. He calls them primary to "distinguish them, not from other qualities, but from powers..." So what Locke is saying, Jackson continues, is that powers are not qualities at all, and "primary" should therefore be interpreted as meaning "in the strict sense" of the word. Confusion in Jackson's mind also exists over Locke's assertion that "primary qualities are like the ideas they produce in us, while secondary qualities are unlike the ideas they produce in us" (68). How can Locke have it both ways? Jackson wonders.

To illustrate the semantical confusion he is alluding to, Jackson quotes a passage from Locke's Essay: "Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the ears hear sound; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell; and all colors, tastes, odours, and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes."

When Locke qualifies " they are such particular ideas" he really should be saying "or rather the ideas which these powers produce," Jackson asserts. The bottom line in Jackson's conundrum is that Locke's alleged inconsistency leads to certain "irregularities" in the sense that primary qualities themselves "become ideas by being perceived." That assumption can be made, Jackson concludes, because Locke's "Quality" is actually defined as "the power to produce any idea in our mind." But on the other hand, when examining the passage quoted above, what Locke is also saying is that "Qualities" reflect "modifications of matter" - not strictly idea-producing stimuli.

A reasonably deep reading into the scholarship available in databases and libraries brings to light the fact that there is indeed a great deal of controversy regarding Locke's Essay, and there are sharp disagreements between academic writers in that regard.

To wit, in the John Yolton book (38) he writes that Reginald Jackson's 1929 article was "influential" but that "a number of Jackson's claims" can "quickly be rejected." For example, Jackson goes to great lengths (quoted earlier in this paper) to claim that Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities is also a way "...of distinguishing between qualities and powers." Jackson, though, is "textually wrong" when he identifies "primary qualities with the qualities of insensible parts," Yolton asserts on page 39 of his book.

Jackson believed that there was "an uneasy tension between what he takes to be two different features" of Locke's discussion of "quality," Yolton continues. Jackson wrote that there were two kinds of "talks"; one of those "talks" was that indeterminate qualities are the "defining trait of body, not of particular bodies," therefore these qualities could only be "imperceptible parts," Yolton explains. Another kind of "talk" is regarding "determinate and perceptible qualities." This can get confusing to a reader who has not been fully versed in all of the language and themes of a mad as deep as Locke.

But Yolton insists that Locke himself believed that everything that exists "is particular"; and if that is true, then even "imperceptible particles must be particular" - even the tiniest "thing" that nobody can see - and also those imperceptible particles must have a determinate motion, size, shape and so forth, Yolton explains. On page 40, Yolton takes on Jackson's statement that in the Essay there are "many passages in which bodies and their qualities are said or implied to be perceptible.' But lest we be encouraged," Yolton rebuts Jackson, "to suppose that these passages show 'the primary qualities themselves become ideas by being perceived,'" Jackson goes on to indicate that such a proposal is "inconsistent" with the doctrine of Representative Perception."

Zeroing in on secondary qualities for a moment, Yolton on page 129 says that Locke draws a "sharp distinction" between the "cause of a sensation and the sensation itself." Locke wrote that the "...idea of the cause of light, if we had it never so extract, would no more give us the idea of light itself as it is such a particular perception in us that the idea of the figure and motion of a sharp piece of steel would give us the idea of that pain which it… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities.  (2007, March 8).  Retrieved January 16, 2021, from

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"John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities."  8 March 2007.  Web.  16 January 2021. <>.

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"John Locke Primary and Secondary Qualities."  March 8, 2007.  Accessed January 16, 2021.