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Berkeley v. Locke on Primary Qualities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Barry Stroud
University of California, Berkeley


Locke was once supposed to have argued that since the colours, sounds, odours, and other ‘secondary’ qualities things appear to have can vary greatly according to the state and position of the observer, it follows that our ideas of the ‘secondary’ qualities of things do not ‘resemble’ anything existing in the objects themselves. And Berkeley has been credited with the obvious objection that similar facts about the ‘relativity’ of our perception of ‘primary’ qualities show that they do not ‘resemble’ anything existing in the objects either, so that both ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities exist only ‘in the mind’. The falsity of this view of Locke has been amply demonstrated in recent years, but no corresponding revision has been made in what remains the standard interpretation of Berkeley's criticisms of Locke. His objections therefore appear to be based on misunderstanding and to be irrelevant to what is now seen to be Locke's actual view and his reasons for holding it. I think this account of Berkeley, like the old view of Locke, is a purely fictional chapter in the history of philosophy, and in this paper I try to show that Berkeley's criticisms involve no misunderstanding and amount to a direct denial of the view Locke actually held.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1980

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1 Some of the many who attribute this method of argument to Locke are Jackson, R., ‘Locke's Distinction Between Primary and Secondary Qualities’, in Martin, C. B. and Armstrong, D. M. (eds), Locke and Berkeley (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 72Google Scholar; Aaron, R. I., John Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937), 117Google Scholar; Warnock, G. J., Berkeley (London: Pelican, 1953), 94Google Scholar; Cummins, P., ‘Perceptual Relativity and Ideas in the Mind’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24 (1963), 208CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomson, J. F., ‘Berkeley’, in O'Connor, D. J. (ed.), A Critical History of Western Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1964), 243Google Scholar; Bennett, J., Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 95, 112Google Scholar; Tipton, I. C., Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism (London: Methuen, 1974), 37.Google Scholar

2 See, e.g., Jackson, , op. cit., 72Google Scholar; Aaron, , op. cit., 117Google Scholar; Popkin, R., ‘Berkeley and Pyrrhonism’, Review of Metaphysics, 19511952, 234Google Scholar; O'Connor, D. J., John Locke (London: Pelican, 1952), 65Google Scholar; Cummins, , op. cit., 209Google Scholar; Bennett, J., op. cit., 95Google Scholar; and ‘Substance, Reality, and Primary Qualities’, in Martin, and Armstrong, , op. cit., 108109Google Scholar; Mackie, J. L., Problems from Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 12, 24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 The earliest and best account I know of is to be found in Mandelbaum, M., ‘Locke's Realism’, in his Philosophy, Science, and Sense Perception (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964)Google Scholar. See also Curley, E. M., ‘Locke, Boyle, and the Distinction between Primary and Secondary Qualities’, Philosophical Review 81 (1972)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alexander, P., ‘Boyle and Locke on Primary and Secondary Qualities’, Ratio 16 (1974)Google Scholar; J. L. Mackie, op. cit., ch. 1. For an account that agrees with many of the main points, often for different reasons, see J. Bennett, op. cit.

4 See, e.g., Aaron, , op. cit., 111113Google Scholar; Gibson, J., Locke's Theory of Knowledge and its Historical Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 260265Google Scholar; Mandelbaum, , op. cit., 115Google Scholar; Curley, , op. cit., 441450Google Scholar; Alexander, , op. cit., 5164Google Scholar; Mackie, , op. cit., 15Google Scholar. For Boyle's views see his ‘Experiments and Observations Upon Colours’, in Works, I (London: 1772)Google Scholar, and ‘The Origins and Forms of Qualities, According to the Corpuscular Philosophy’, in Works, III.Google Scholar

5 Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, viii, Fraser, A. C. (ed.) (New York: Dover, 1959), 9.Google Scholar

6 Locke, , op. cit., II, viii, 17.Google Scholar

7 For the idea that some such epistemological problem is at the heart of Berkeley's concern with primary and secondary qualities see, e.g., Popkin, , op. cit., 238, 246Google Scholar; Warnock, , op. cit., 99100Google Scholar; Bennett, , Locke, Berkeley, Hume, 114115Google Scholar; and perhaps Mandelbaum, , op. cit., 34Google Scholar. For a convincing exception see Ayers, M. R., ‘Substance, Reality, and the Great, Dead Philosophers’, American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1970), 4247.Google Scholar

8 Berkeley, G., Principles, Dialogues, and Correspondence, Turbayne, C. M. (ed.) (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965)Google Scholar. Section numbers in the text refer to the Principles. Page numbers refer to the Dialogues.

9 Some of the assumptions on which it might be thought to rest are discussed in Cummins, P., ‘Berkeley's Likeness Principle’ in Martin and Armstrong, op. cit.Google Scholar

10 Popkin, op. cit., claims that Berkeley in §14 is advancing an argument he found in Bayle, and that Bayle in turn got it from Abbé Foucher, a ‘sceptical’ opponent of Descartes and Malebranche. Certainly Foucher did not have Locke's Essay in mind, and it is not obvious that Bayle did. Locke and Bayle are squarely in the ‘atomist’ tradition and do not use epistemological arguments from the ‘sceptical’ tradition to support their views about colours, odours, etc. Berkeley shows in §15 that he is aware that these ‘sceptical’ arguments do not prove what Bayle wanted them to prove. See below, pp. 156–157.

11 If Berkeley admits in the Principles that an object's feeling cold to one hand and hot to another does not prove that there is no heat or cold in it, then why did he use so many similar arguments from perceptual ‘relativity’ to establish that esse is percipi in the Dialogues three years later? The question is raised and discussed by Tipton, , op. cit., 3941, 237240Google Scholar. I try to answer the question below, pp. 162–163, in discussing the Dialogues.

12 Further evidence that this was not his main concern is offered below, p. 163ff.

13 Locke would agree with this. See, e.g., Locke, , op. cit., II, viii, 13Google Scholar, where he speaks of God annexing certain ideas to certain motions, and of the possibility of God's acting otherwise.

14 Locke would agree. He thinks the structure and relations of the minute, insensible particles of a thing are causally responsible for the thing's having the qualities that it does, and for its producing the effects that it does, including those effects that are ideas in the minds of perceivers. But he admits that:

Impressions made on the retina by rays of light, I think I understand; and motions from thence continued to the brain may be conceived, and that these produce ideas in our minds, I am persuaded, but in a manner to me incomprehensible. This I can resolve only into the good pleasure of God, whose ways are past finding out (Locke, , ‘An Examination of P. Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing All Things in God’, in Works, VIII (London: 1794), 217).Google Scholar

15 He believes that increasing our knowledge of the ‘laws of nature’ is a way of increasing our knowledge and appreciation of the wisdom and beneficence of the Author of Nature (§66). Even such a committed ‘mechanical philosopher’ as Boyle would agree. See his ‘The Christian Virtuoso’ in Works, V, 514, 515.Google Scholar

16 Berkeley's objection is therefore based on something more complicated than a certain simple ‘view of the relation between philosophy and science’ favoured by ‘epistemologists’ who wish ‘to free philosophic questions from any direct dependence upon science’ (Mandelbaum, , op. cit., 34Google Scholar). What is at issue is, at least, the proper conception of causality, and how an ‘inactive’ thing could cause anything.

17 Berkeley, G., Philosophical Commentaries, Luce, A. A. (ed.) (London: Nelson & Sons, 1944)Google Scholar. Numerals refer to the entries as numbered in this edition.

18 Considerations of the ‘relativity’ of perception play no role in the arguments about odours and sounds, and only a minor role at one point in the argument about heat, but they are explicitly invoked in the arguments about extension and figure, motion, and solidity.

19 One reason why Berkeley uses arguments from the ‘relativity’ of perception here, and not the earlier considerations about pleasure and pain, is that he thinks pleasure and pain are not annexed to our ideas of primary qualities as they are to those of secondary qualities. This is offered as an explanation of why people are more willing to grant that secondary qualities exist only ‘in the mind’ than they are to grant it about primary qualities (see Berkeley, p. 131Google Scholar). This would suggest that Berkeley derived little or no pleasure from, for example, viewing sculpture or architecture.

20 The alleged view that we are never wrong in perception, that things are always exactly what they seem, is perhaps the position often described in text books and even in serious philosophical discussion as ‘naïve realism’. No such view is a serious candidate as an account of human beings' conceptions of their relation to the world, and its only connection with naïveté would seem to lie in the naïveté (if that is what it is) involved in thinking that actual human beings ever think that way.

21 Berkeley, , Philosophical Commentaries.Google Scholar

22 This is shown clearly in Turbayne, C. M., ‘Kant's Relation to Berkeley’, in Beck, L. W. (ed.), Kant Studies Today (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1969)Google Scholar, where Berkeley's position is compared with Kant's rejection of ‘transcendental realism’.

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