Locke’s qualities (IV)


The sober minded Englishman John Locke read the Frenchman Descartes’ work approvingly, finding the “way of ideas” especially edifying for his empirical pursuits into the question of what we can know. Just as we must first examine our instruments before we can attend to what the instruments are measuring, so, Locke insisted, we must analyze our perceptual apparatus before we can hope to grasp with any certainty the contents of our perceptual experiences. Despite Locke’s being an empiricist and Descartes a rationalist, it is of far greater importance that they shared the same point of departure. For them as for their contemporaries, nature was already disenchanted, and our mental lives were presumed to be distinct from physical reality. But if this is the case, how can mind and world become reacquainted with each other?

This disenchanted picture is most clearly on view in Locke’s crucial distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was written in 1690, presents us with an epistemic puzzle. On the one hand, Locke wants to save our common sense intuitions about perceptual experience. He wants to say that there are objects with sense properties; that we do indeed see the redness of balls, surely do touch velvety fabrics, do smell fragrant roses, can taste the oakiness of wine, and so on. On the other hand, he turns our intuitions on their heads by seeking to show how the qualities that we think are in the objects themselves are really not in them at all. Where, then, is this redness in the red balls we claim to perceive there? More generally, if not of redness and rounds, of what do material objects like red balls actually consist?

Locke’s reply is that material objects consist entirely of particles whose intrinsic properties are mass, extension, shape, and velocity. According to Locke, primary qualities are those properties that are intrinsic to as well as indispensable for the object. They are (1) those properties that are in the objects themselves (intrinsic properties), (2) those without which the object would not be what is (necessary conditions), and (3) those that in fact make it what it is (constitutive conditions). To say that an object has a certain mass is just to say that it has that mass in itself and hence independent of whatever observations we make or could make about it.

By contrast, secondary qualities are secondary or “derivative” by dint of their not being in the objects themselves; they are instead relational properties that arise in our apprehension of whatever objects happen to appear to our senses. Whereas mass is something that is universal and essential to material bodies, the sensation of warmth is neither essential nor universal. But why is so? Locke reasons that warmth is correlative with my proximity to an object—the closer I get to a fire, the warmer I feel—as well as with the sensitivity of my sense organs—at some distance D1 from the fire, I would likely report feeling hotter than you would were you stationed at D2. As a result, due to the impact of our presence on the object in view and due also to the particular sensitivity of our perceptual apparatus, we have good reason to believe that such a quality as being warm can only be felt relative to the way we happen to be.

To a large degree, Locke is saying that the property of warmth comes and goes while that of mass stays the same with the metaphysical implication that permanence is to be privileged over variability. He is saying this, but he is also saying considerably more.

The epistemic puzzle is not alleviated, however, by this distinction, since Locke leaves us to wonder how we are to understand how particles that do not appear to our sense organs nevertheless produce in us the form of red balls, bluish nights, and swaying ailanthus trees. Here, Locke appeals to the “powers” or “dispositions” of the object to produce in us the ideas of being red, being loud, and so on. Secondary qualities are, in his words, “nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us; and depend on those primary qualities.” Recall that Locke’s first blow to common sense involved smuggling colors and suchlike in through the back door by means of denying that colors exist in the things themselves. Now, color returns, albeit in neutered form, redness now a “power” or “disposition” within the object, a power to work on our sense organs. This line of argument rules out the thought that our idea of redness could correspond to the stretch of reality presently before us. But what in the objects produces these ideas in us, ideas that seem to bear no resemblance to mass or velocity? And by what mechanism? Locke’s answer: the particles themselves bring out these secondary qualities in us by means of a causal mechanism—or, more precisely, by means of efficient causality.

For those of us with a poetic spirit, the results of Locke’s empiricism are nothing if not unsettling. Nature, here bleached of attributes, awash only in particles, capable of strange “powers,” returns to us but only at a once remove. Worst still, our ordinary reality–those rocks and stones and trees of which Wordsworth writes so movingly–is either derivative or unreal but in either case much less interesting. For not only is the life of the natural world far less vitalistic inasmuch as seeds no longer ‘express’ themselves as trees, birds no longer greet their mates with song, and rivers no longer flow toward the sea; not only do our senses become passive and receptive, dull feelers of sensuous life; but–as we shall find in what follows–our aesthetic sense becomes attenuated, our sense of the face to face more opaque, the feel of experience less intense, less vibrant, more epistemically impoverished. In Locke’s picture of disenchanted nature, the distance between mind and world grows as vast as the distance between your face and mine, my touch and yours, our mouths and tongues and teeth. No longer do we know the world or each other by kissing; we know all, if we know at all, by analyzing mechanized bodies occupying space and time.

Kant, the greatest modern philosopher, has his work cut out for him, for he has inherited the disenchanted picture of nature from Descartes, Locke and others. Kant’s solution is to domesticate all his progeny: God will neither be proven nor disproven; man will be both apart of and a part of nature; teleology will return to nature in the form of the as if; and morality will be contrary to nature, raised to law, upheld by reason. Especially important to giving shape to modernity in general and to Kant’s system in particular was the emergence of a novel background assumption: the world functioned in accordance with an analogous set of laws. Just as nature followed physical law, so man followed moral law in ethics, general principles in psychology, the law of the marketplace in civil society, and positive law in politics. So we will see, particularly in the case of morality running contrary to nature.

Part V tomorrow: Kant’s tribunal…