Sunday, June 17, 2012

Locke and Berkeley

Does Locke or Berkeley give a better account of the primary/secondary property distinction?
I think neither Locke nor Berkeley give a wholly satisfactory explanation of primary and secondary qualities but tend towards Locke having a slightly more coherent view.

In favour of Locke, I can understand the distinction he draws between those qualities which are less prone to subjective "distortion". Physical extension, number, motion and even place in time seem to be "qualities" which are of a somewhat different nature from taste, smell, colour etc. Secondary qualities tend to be highly subjective and depend very much on the "point of view" of the subject.
I reject however, Locke's belief that secondary qualities are "nothing in the objects themselves". There is something (a physical quality) in objects over and above a "power" to produce certain sensations in sentient beings. I believe that our sensations are in fact caused by physical properties of objects and we directly perceive that quality, but the precise nature of our perception depends on the circumstances under which we perceive it.

Locke thinks that a sharp pin having the power to cause the idea of pain is analogous to a tomato having the power to cause the idea of red. I don't think these two example are really comparable in the way Locke does. Pain is not a quality of a pin - sharpness is the quality of the pin which compares to the redness of a tomato.

Berkeley does not make a convincing case for either his epistemological or metaphysical claims. I flatly reject his claim that we cannot abstract qualities. I also reject his proposition that all ideas are entirely dependent on minds. He thinks that ideas are caused by God whereas are more coherent view is that ideas are caused by the external world. Berkeley has no clear conception of what God is, and whether there is only one God or many. Since we cannot have an idea of what God is other than the cause of all ideas I think it makes more sense to replace God with an external world. I accept that in a very strict sense this is an assumption, but feel that the burden of proof lies with those that claim the external world does not exist.

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