John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable 1using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of those that can be measured. To treat someone as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke focuses on epistemology; a theory of knowledge.[1] His most important aim was to know what reality was really like. Like many other scientists and philosophers of his time (Montaigne, Galileo) Locke became fascinated with the idea that there is a difference between “reality” and the way we experience, or perceive reality. The fact that he identifies reality with physical reality only drives the rest of his conclusions and philosophical points.

Locke complains that we treat all “ideas,” which in his terminology means “immediate objects of perception,” as equal, when in fact, in his view, some “ideas” reflect the way things really are, and some do not. In this context he distinguished between what he called ideas generated by primary qualities and ideas generated by secondary qualities. Examples of primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, number and motion. These are all inherent in actual physical objects. Locke regards them as objective properties of physical objects which we then have corresponding “ideas” about, meaning solidity, extension, etc., as perceived properties of objects.

Examples of secondary qualities include all sensations derived from our sense organs, such as color, taste, touch, sound and smell. Ideas of secondary qualities are ideas generated in sentient creatures like us through the effect of the primary qualities on our senses. So, a table objectively has solidity, shape, extension. And to use modern terminology and notions, its molecules are arranged in a certain way. The way these molecules are arranged affects the light waves being reflected from the table’s surface. The length of the light waves is determined by the objective properties of the table. These light waves enter our eyes and through some mysterious transformation involving consciousness and minds, end up being perceived as color. Thus, on this view, color is not an inherent, or intrinsic property of the table itself. Instead, color is the result of the arrangement of primary qualities of the table, which in turn determine the secondary qualities we experience. The color of the table reflects the effect of the table on us. Color is not a property of the table itself. For this way of thinking, it does not matter how uniform the perception of color is between people. A modern person might associate the word “subjective” with something that arbitrarily varies between people, like “opinions,” but for Locke, color would still not be a property of objects if every last human being on earth agreed about it. Color is “subjective” in the sense that its existence depends on human interiority, on the subject, for its existence. Color is not “objective” because it does not reside in the object. It is mind-dependent on this view.

What exists objectively, measurably, is the table, and light waves of certain frequencies. 2Locke argues that color is no more in an object than pain is in the knife that cuts us. Pain is what a sharp knife does to us. Pain is not in the knife. Similarly, color is no more in the knife, or table, than pain is in the knife. Color is not out there in the world. It is all in your head.

Sometimes in high school science classes students are told that “green” is really frequencies of light from 540-610 THz. The teachers say that because those frequencies are objective and measurable, although this view is not sufficiently objective for Locke. All that really exists completely objectively is the light spectrum as a continuum. Scientists just break it up the way they do because this is how non-colorblind people perceive those frequencies.

3The world of a color blind animal has no colors. The world of a deaf person is silent. The world remains objectively the same. Objectively, there are sound waves as vibrations in the air. The frequencies of color are still there objectively. But sound and color as subjective experiences are nonexistent. The world is not objectively different for the deaf and colorblind, or just blind. It is just perceived differently.

Locke wanted to distinguish the world as it is consciously experienced, and how it really is. In perceiving the world we attribute to it properties related to the senses that only really exist in us, not in the world. The alternative, that is rather hard to conceptualize at this point in time due to the influence of Locke, is that the world really is a place of color, sound, taste, smell and feel. Trees really are green, and the sound of the wind in the leaves, is really there, and the flowing river beneath it feels wet and cold, has a certain taste, burbles, and our sense organs just allow us and animals to be aware of all those things. Our senses allow us to perceive these real features of the world. When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound whether someone is there or not. On Locke’s view, it does not. Only soundwaves actually exist,[2] and they are just vibrations in the air that our ears and minds turn into sounds when we perceive them.

Objective knowledge is knowledge of objects only and thus is highly restricted. It is low-4level and unspiritual. It has nothing to say about anything truly important like love, value, purpose, and meaning. Two people meet a third person. They might arrive at completely different views concerning him, but the least important aspects about him they can at least agree on – those things that can be measured, like his height and weight. Agreement is easy about things that do not matter and is harder on the important stuff. When the third person is considered as an object, he can be measured, including in a personality test. When viewed as a subject, it is necessary to enter into dialogue with him and find out about his mind which is far more essential to him. Interpretation and evaluation will be necessary. Jim is still Jim with an arm missing, but Jim is barely Jim at all with advanced Alzheimer’s. From this point of view, science is trivial, and philosophy which can handle interiority potentially profound.

Criticism of John Locke

Descartes made a firm distinction between mind and body – for philosophers “body” and physical reality are synonyms – think “heavenly bodies.” Descartes regarded mind as supremely indubitable. For Descartes, “I am thinking therefore I am.” He then derives his knowledge of external, physical reality, from this primary fact. Locke accepts this 5division but takes it in the opposite direction. He rejects the thinking subject, expelling it from reality, and chooses external reality as his paradigm of the real, probably because this is what science focuses on and the scientific perspective was the new, exciting “way of the future,” which remains a popular view for many today. This creates the odd situation described in Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver, namely that the human mind creates science and theories, and then this theory existing in the human mind is used to reject the existence of minds and their contents; including the very mind doing the theorizing; a very strange and contradictory state of affairs.

Much of what will now be said is not to be found explicitly in Locke’s philosophy. Some of the following criticisms are simply what are irrefutably the consequences of this way of thinking. They are not necessarily things that John Locke would subscribe to. But this just means that he may not like the logical implications, the consequences, of his own way of thinking. His only rational option, if this is the case, would be to abandon his own philosophy, just as a well-meaning moral relativist might not want to think of Hitler and Mother Teresa as morally equivalent.

Other philosophers have commented that the picture of reality that follows from Locke’s philosophy is that all that really exists are silent, colorless, tasteless atoms in the void. In other words, meaningless junk. This is consistent with nihilism – the notion that life is a pointless waste of time and that we would be better off dead.

Plato discovered noumenal reality; reality accessible to the subject, a person with an 6interior. Physical reality he regarded as having an inferior ontological and existential status. For Plato, life was a journey involving moral aspiration which includes a search for the divine and transcendent. The progress of the person was dependent on spiritual development and the love of wisdom. Wisdom is not mere knowledge, but includes all aspects of a person, his body, mind, will, and emotions. An anxious neurotic person is not wise. A wise person has deep insights into the nature of human existence, is ethical, and lives in accordance with those insights. Wisdom is essentially connected to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Kant also identified the noumenal and associated it with freedom; something Plato did not concern himself with. This addition gives preeminence to the interior, subjective, spiritual, and free nature of the Person, while the objective world of measurement is deterministic and oppressive, governed by various laws, both manmade and natural.

Locke’s epistemology abandons philosophy in favor of science. Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, only exists if wisdom exists; if the Good, the True, and the Beautiful exist. For 7Locke, the scientific perspective is the only one associated with reality and reality only concerns objects, not subjects.

The negative effect of John Locke’s philosophy is that by saying that only things that exist objectively (are quantifiable and measurable) are real, then everything we love about the world is deemed unreal. This encourages us to disparage everything worthwhile about our existence as unreal, when in fact there is no good argument why we should have to do this.

Thanks to John Locke and others like him, Montaigne and Galileo, we have been encouraged to equate “real” with the measurable. We are still in the grips of this mistake and the majority of college classes and high school classes continue to encourage students to despise everything they value most.

If only what is objectively measurable is regarded as real, then we would be pushed into some horrifying conclusions. Most people have too much common sense to do this – but only at the expense of being inconsistent with their claimed intellectual opinions.

If economics is approached from a purely objective perspective, it ignores morality, pain and suffering. Cost benefit analyses typically only include monetary losses as “costs.” Such analyses are nonproblematic so long as they are explicitly represented as utterly 8partial and are not exclusively relied upon in decision-making. Economics is a part of considering a marriage proposal, but nobody in his right mind would confine his considerations to just that. If a cost benefit analysis of the Vietnam War becomes the sole basis for deciding whether the war was a good idea or not, which does happen, then this is grossly immoral. Phosphorus was added to sticky napalm so it would penetrate deeply into the musculature and continue to burn day after. Napalm B continues to burn underwater if a little oxygen is trapped in your clothes. Flame throwers, which also used napalm, were also employed against people who had proved resistant to other forms of killing. Horror and misery has to be included among the actual costs of war.

Likewise, a family engaging in subsistence farming in Thailand contributes nothing measurable to the Thai economy. However, if one of the children is sent off to engage in childhood prostitution with visiting so-called sex tourists, then the family is contributing to GDP and benefiting the economy by bringing in foreign currency. If subjectivity as interior experience is not real, then the suffering and misery of the child prostitute cannot even be considered.

Locke is hardly alone in assuming this point of view, but he is particularly significant because he was one of the first to start thinking in this manner and is to a large degree responsible for a line of thought that culminated in the logical positivists and continues its influence on the general population to this day. Subsequent philosophers, like David Hume, merely made some implications of his thought more explicit.

Locke and Hume are known as “empiricists,” meaning that they claimed that knowledge came from the senses. Berkeley, another empiricist, pointed out that in actual experience primary and secondary qualities are always associated with each other. For instance, no solid figure with extension is devoid of color in actual sensory experience. We know about primary qualities just as much through the senses as secondary qualities and they are always commingled. If our senses are fundamentally poor guides as to what is real, claiming that all knowledge comes from the senses is going to lead to extreme skepticism concerning knowledge, which was Hume’s position. The supposed unreality of the subject implies an unreality to the knowledge of the object – for knowledge resides in subjects.

Logical positivism, which began in the 1920s, represents the final step in this hundreds of years long train of thought and takes it to its extreme. Like Locke, the positivists were 9committed to the claim that only scientific truths are true – abandoning philosophy in preference for science. The positivists considered most of the issues with which philosophy is traditionally concerned as meaningless pseudoproblems based on sloppy language. They claimed that only statements verifiable by observation-based procedures or logical proof were considered meaningful. This renders ethics and metaphysics meaningless and not worth discussing, containing only pseudostatements that are neither true nor false. Some logical positivists contended that assertions of moral goodness are the equivalent of “yum,” and assertions of evil, “yuck,” a theory called “emotivism.” In other words, good and evil are irrelevant assertions of taste, with no real content.

One huge problem with logical positivism is that empirical claims cannot be verified as universally true, as pointed out by Karl Popper. There is no way to prove that the laws of nature, for instance, admit of no exceptions. It would require searching every spot in the entire universe and even then the researcher might have missed something. Scientific claims like “there are no absolute vacuums in nature” cannot be verified. They can only be proven wrong, not right. Disconfirmed, not confirmed. If we start pointing at all the things that are not absolute vacuums we are not “confirming” the theory. Everything that, following Einstein’s theory, does not exceed the speed of light, is not evidence in favor of Einstein’s theory. Pointing at a snail not traveling at the speed of light does not prove that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. If it is claimed that all swans are white, then gesturing at a cat saying “yet another example of not a black swan” does not confirm that all swans are white. No matter how many white swans are found, it does not prove that there are no black swans. Disconfirming the assertion, however, is easy. A single black swan is all that is required, and there are plenty of black swans in New Zealand and Australia.  Since scientific claims cannot be verified as universally true, only potentially disconfirmed, then logical positivism would consider these claims to be meaningless, destroying science, the last thing they wanted to do. In addition, the verifiability criterion of meaning cannot itself be verified using some scientific observation-based procedure, making it meaningless by its own standards.

William Blake seems also to have had strong reservations about John Locke which he expresses in “I See the Four-Fold Man:”

I see the Four-fold Man, The Humanity in deadly sleep
And its fallen Emanation, the Spectre and its cruel Shadow.
I see the Past, Present and Future existing all at once
Before me. O Divine Spirit, sustain me on thy wings,
That I may awake Albion from his long and cold repose;
For Bacon and Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion: reasonings like vast serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.

I turn my eyes to the schools and universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire,
Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreaths folds over every nation: cruel works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other, not as those in Eden, which,
Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve in harmony and peace.



[1] I appeal to anachronistic things like light waves, and sound waves because I believe Locke would have appealed to them too if he had known they existed. Instead he refers to things like “insensible particles,” which you and I would now called photons. I am doing this to make it easier for us to understand him, and to make sure that we are making his case as well as possible before we criticize it.

[2] Again, the concept of “sound waves” did not exist in Locke’s time, but he would have no problem with them, and they help elucidate his theory.

20 thoughts on “John Locke – Quantifying Reality

  1. You and that hippie William Blake:

    I see the Four-fold Man, The Humanity in deadly sleep
    And its fallen Emanation, the Spectre and its cruel Shadow.
    I see the Past, Present and Future existing all at once
    Before me. O Divine Spirit, sustain me on thy wings,
    That I may awake Albion from his long and cold repose;
    For Bacon and Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
    Like iron scourges over Albion: reasonings like vast serpents
    Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.

    I turn my eyes to the schools and universities of Europe
    And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire,
    Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
    In heavy wreaths folds over every nation: cruel works
    Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
    Moving by compulsion each other, not as those in Eden, which,
    Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve in harmony and peace.

  2. Pingback: John Locke – Quantifying Reality | Reaction Times

  3. “There is no way to prove that the laws of nature, for instance, admit of no exceptions. It would require searching every spot in the entire universe and even then the researcher might have missed something.”

    And, as Hume saw, even that would only prove that there had never been exceptions up to now, not that there never would be; that the future will resemble the past and that any future event is more likely than any other are only special instances of the Uniformity of Nature. “Probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none; and therefore it is impossible this presumption can arise from probability (A Treatise of Human Nature Book 1 Part III Sect. vi).

    In response to Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum Locke rightly saw that this only confirms the thinking of this thought and produced the following tour de force might not the thinking substance which thought the thought “I did it” — the genuine thought of agent-memory — nevertheless be a different thinking substance from the one that could have had the thought: “I am doing it” when the act was done? Thus, he detached the identity of the “self” or “person” from the identity even of the thinking being which does the actual thinking of the I-thoughts.

    • Yes. The I doing the thinking is not to be identified with the thought. However, given what Locke does to secondary qualities, I can’t imagine that he has an adequate idea of self. Certainly science cannot deal with selves; just objects. Can you tell me what Locke’s idea of self was?

      • The term, “the Self” was not current in Locke’s day

        As Miss Anscombe points out in The First Person, “the self” is simply a misconstrual of the reflexive pronoun, under the influence, one suspects, of the Cartesian Ego.

        Thus, “self-consciousness” is assumed to be consciousness of a “self.” The self is then reified into something that some things (people, for example) are or have: a sort of mysterious, immaterial entity. How this self is connected with this particular living human body is by no means obvious, because it is a piece of nonsense. There is nothing at all mysterious about “He washed himself,” “She cut herself.”

        In reality, “self-consciousness” simply means “consciousness that such-and-such holds of oneself.” It goes without saying that here “oneself” is simply the indirect reflexive, the reflexive of indirect speech. Understanding indirect speech we know what the related direct speech is. That is all. “So-and-so holds of me” is not at all problematic; “me” refers to this living human body that is currently operating this keyboard and thinking these I-thoughts (and who, in distant childhood, learned to have them by being asked what I had done, was doing &c).

        Locke understood that. That is why he raises the question of re-identification. As Miss Anscombe points out, “it would be a question what guaranteed that one got hold of the right self, that is, that the self a man called “I” was always connected with him, or was always the man himself. Alternatively, if one said that “the self connected with a man” meant just the one he meant by “I” at any time, whatever self that was, it would be by a mere favour of fate that it had anything else to do with him.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Michael. Got it. No self. I think the Buddhists talk like that sometimes. That response seems in line with positivism. Sloppy language means sloppy thinking. The “me” as a living human body doesn’t remotely work for me. Comatose people are living human bodies. Who were you just talking to? A living human body. If you add, animated by a thinking, feeling, willing soul made in the image of God with connections to Freedom and the transcendent, then I have someone to talk to; a subject, not just an object. I’m guessing you are a determinist? Maybe a utilitarian too? I agree with Berdyaev that the English have never had any talent at philosophy – but have managed to produce Shakespeare and Wordsworth, no mean feat; drama and poetry, though not the greatest for novelists. And Newton, of course. As for New Zealanders, we’ve got a mountain climber and a scientist (Rutherford) and that’s it.

      • The soul does not really solve the problem of the reference of the First Person. As Miss Anscombe noted, “If the principle of human rational life in E.A [Elizabeth Anscombe]. is a soul (which perhaps can survive E.A., perhaps again animate E.A.) that is not the reference of “I.” Nor is it what I am. I am E.A. and shall exist only as long as E.A. exists.”

        Her ultimate conclusion in The First Person is that “I” is not a referring expression at all – Any more than “It” is a referring expression in “It is raining.”

        “I’m guessing you are a determinist?”

        Not at all. Determinism is an empty category; it cannot be used to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.

      • Hi, Michael – Oh, yes. You’re the “sequence of events” Michael that inspired a whole article “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?” That was great. Truly remarkable nihilism. As is “I” is not a referring expression. Reducing herself to her initials is very English and Oxbridge of her and helps the rhetorical move of her final disappearing act. No Thous, just Its.

      • “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense””

        I can imagine Miss Anscombe’s response, if I had put that question in an essay. She was my tutor at Oxford and I can hear her now:

        “’Metaphysical freedom’? What does that even mean?”

        Try this.

        “Why are you drumming your fingers like that?”

        “Oh! No reason.”

        Is this a different kind of answer from, “Was I? I didn’t realise I was doing it?”

        Hint: This is a question about the grammar of “intention,” about how we use the word.

        “Metaphysical Freedom” is an abstract, general idea. As St John Henry Newman reminds us in his indispensible Grammar of Assent, “Now there are propositions, in which one or both of the terms are common nouns, as standing for what is abstract, general, and non-existing, such as “Man is an animal, some men are learned, an Apostle is a creation of Christianity, a line is length without breadth, to err is human, to forgive divine.” These I shall call notional propositions, and the apprehension with which we infer or assent to them, notional. And there are other propositions, which are composed of singular nouns, and of which the terms stand for things external to us, unit and individual, as “Philip was the father of Alexander,” “the earth goes round the sun,” “the Apostles first preached to the Jews;” and these I shall call real propositions, and their apprehension real.” (Newman, too, was an Oxford man).

  4. Isn’t all this arch-scepticism self-negating? These nihilistic philosophers always make themselves the exception to their own rules, so that they can proclaim them from above. However, they’re in the same bind as the rest of us.

    • Yes. That’s very much my point of view, mickvet. And it’s funny how nihilists seem to think it important, and not nothing, that we come to share their notions. The honest ones keep silent,

      • Richard, perhaps I might be so bold as to suggest that you might elaborate on that point in another essay. Why do these people wish to force their utterly despairing worldviews down our throats? With an emphasis on the dishonesty you mention (I’ve long considered philosopher John Grey a fair example of the honest ones).

      • Thanks, mickvet. Nearly everything I write is anti-nihilist. Perhaps at some point I could have a go at speculating about their motivation. The most succinct and trite would be “misery loves company.” They have a certain kind of fealty to “truth” at least logically speaking but not to beauty or goodness. Psychopaths, I have read, tend to think they are superior to everyone because of their “honesty.” They think that the rest of us are faking having a conscience and thus are hypocrites. I imagine nihilists consider themselves to be honest and brave – bravely facing the truth. But then there is nothing nihilist about courage and honesty. It’s a fine mess they create for themselves!

        Come to think of it, my students might benefit from such an essay. Nearly everything I write is written with an eye for what my students might benefit from. The “level” I write at also has them in mind.

  5. Something about this post nagged at me, so i actually got a copy of Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and while I can’t claim to have read all of it, I noticed a few things:

    – I was actually quite impressed with his epistemology, which was quite practical, detailed, and thorough. Whether or not you agree with the metaphysical assumptions, its a brilliant piece of conceptual engineering. It is almost a computational model of mind, and while that might not be to your taste, it’s pretty impressive stuff for the 17th century.

    – He doesn’t use the terms objective or subjective.

    – He does talk a lot about what is real, and I can’t say I’ve absorbed all of it, but it includes this:

    All complex ideas, except ideas of substances, are their own archetypes. Secondly, All our complex ideas, except those of substances, being archetypes of the mind’s own making, not intended to be the copies of anything, nor referred to the existence of anything, as to their originals, cannot want any conformity necessary to real knowledge. For that which is not designed to represent anything but itself, can never be capable of a wrong representation, nor mislead us from the true apprehension of anything, by its dislikeness to it: and such, excepting those of substances, are all our complex ideas. Which, as I have shown in another place, are combinations of ideas, which the mind, by its free choice, puts together, without considering any connexion they have in nature. And hence it is, that in all these sorts the ideas themselves are considered as the archetypes, and things no otherwise regarded, but as they are conformable to them. So that we cannot but be infallibly certain, that all the knowledge we attain concerning these ideas is real, and reaches things themselves.

    This seems to quite plainly state that secondary ideas are perfectly real.

    So I think you might be misrepresenting him when you say:

    Locke complains that we treat all “ideas,” which in his terminology means “immediate objects of perception,” as equal, when in fact, in his view, some “ideas” reflect the way things really are, and some do not. In this context he distinguished between what he called ideas generated by primary qualities and ideas generated by secondary qualities.

    I don’t hear Locke complaining, I hear him constructing a plausible (for the time) theory of the connection between physical phenomena and mental phenomena. I don’t see what’s so horrible about that. In the area of color vision, we now know he was basically right, and the details have been filled in. That is to say, the question about the relationship between the wavelengths of light and the perception of color is no long a philosophical one, it’s a scientific/computational one, we know a good bit about how it works, and Locke was on the right track, if understandably wrong on many details.

    Both physics and perception are perfectly real, and understanding some of the physical basis of perception doesn’t take anything away from it.

    • Hi, a.morphous: You are welcome to find Locke impressive. Anyone who finds the computational theory of mind plausible should find Locke reasonably congenial. Flipping through some pages of Locke is not going to provide a good basis for rebuttal of what I have written. “Complex ideas” are not related to either primary or secondary qualities – they are “not intended to be the copies of anything, nor referred to the existence of anything” so they are off topic. “For that which is not designed to represent anything but itself, can never be capable of a wrong representation” – I find myself quoting back to you your own quotation as evidence that it is irrelevant to my argument. He is explicitly not talking about ideas from secondary qualities or primary qualities for that matter. The “things themselves” that you have in bold have nothing to do with physical reality or perception as Locke says himself.

      Concerning Locke, I am being as generous as possible by anachronistically attributing to him ideas about light waves, and the like, partly so students can see how it relates to modern thinking. The part that remains philosophical and not scientific is how all those physical corollaries of color turn into color. We have absolutely no idea how that happens. Some centuries ago there was a kind of gentleman’s agreement not to bring it up. Analytic philosophers refer to “qualia” which, to my mind, is a pathetic milquetoast term that concedes far too much, and basically accepts Locke’s ejection of ideas from secondary quality from reality.

      I did not say Locke used the words “objective” and “subjective.” His conceptual apparatus is inadequate for diagnosing what went so disastrously wrong in his thinking – for which modern civilization is still suffering – so I am attempting to put my finger on it. I explain what we now mean by “objective” and attribute it to a train of thought that Locke, Montaigne, and Galileo started.

    • You claim that I am misrepresenting Locke when I say:

      Locke complains that we treat all “ideas,” which in his terminology means “immediate objects of perception,” as equal, when in fact, in his view, some “ideas” reflect the way things really are, and some do not. In this context he distinguished between what he called ideas generated by primary qualities and ideas generated by secondary qualities.

      Here is the portion of Locke from which I am drawing, and you will find everything there just as I have stated:

      Book II – Chapter VIII
      Some further considerations concerning our Simple Ideas of Sensation

      1. Positive ideas from privative causes. Concerning the simple ideas of Sensation, it is to be considered,- that whatsoever is so constituted in nature as to be able, by affecting our senses, to cause any perception in the mind, doth thereby produce in the understanding a simple idea; which, whatever be the external cause of it, when it comes to be taken notice of by our discerning faculty, it is by the mind looked on and considered there to be a real positive idea in the understanding, as much as any other whatsoever; though, perhaps, the cause of it be but a privation of the subject.
      2. Ideas in the mind distinguished from that in things which gives rise to them. Thus the ideas of heat and cold, light and darkness, white and black, motion and rest, are equally clear and positive ideas in the mind; though, perhaps, some of the causes which produce them are barely privations, in those subjects from whence our senses derive those ideas. These the understanding, in its view of them, considers all as distinct positive ideas, without taking notice of the causes that produce them: which is an inquiry not belonging to the idea, as it is in the understanding, but to the nature of the things existing without us. These are two very different things, and carefully to be distinguished; it being one thing to perceive and know the idea of white or black, and quite another to examine what kind of particles they must be, and how ranged in the superficies, to make any object appear white or black.
      7. Ideas in the mind, qualities in bodies. To discover the nature of our ideas the better, and to discourse of them intelligibly, it will be convenient to distinguish them as they are ideas or perceptions in our minds; and as they are modifications of matter in the bodies that cause such perceptions in us: that so we may not think (as perhaps usually is done) that they are exactly the images and resemblances of something inherent in the subject; most of those of sensation being in the mind no more the likeness of something existing without us, than the names that stand for them are the likeness of our ideas, which yet upon hearing they are apt to excite in us.
      8. Our ideas and the qualities of bodies. Whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding, that I call idea; and the power to produce any idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein that power is. Thus a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round,- the power to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball, I call qualities; and as they are sensations or perceptions in our understandings, I call them ideas; which ideas, if I speak of sometimes as in the things themselves, I would be understood to mean those qualities in the objects which produce them in us.
      9. Primary qualities of bodies. Qualities thus considered in bodies are,
      First, such as are utterly inseparable from the body… These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.
      10. Secondary qualities of bodies. Secondly, such qualities which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but power to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e. by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts, as colors, sounds, tastes, &c. These I call secondary qualities…

    • Locke’s epistemology is deeply flawed. According to Locke, light refracted by an object stimulates the optic nerve and this produces an “idea” (an image or representation) of the object in consciousness

      1) How can we know this? The only way to judge whether a portrait is a good likeness is by comparing it with the sitter but, we cannot compare an image in consciousness with something that ex hypothesi is not in consciousness.

      2) It gets worse. Colours, sounds, textures &c are sensations. What conceivable resemblance can there be between a sensation and something that is not a sensation?

      3) Finally, whatever one thinks of Locke’s account as a description, it is certainly not an explanation; Locke cannot show, even in principle, how an event of one kind (stimulation of the optic never) can produce an event of a wholly different kind (an image in consciousness). In fact, Locke cannot show how any event can produce any other.

      Berkeley saw this. He realised that the fatal flaw in Locke was that he duplicates the world – the external world “out there,” going on “on its own,” whether we are thinking about it or not and the inner world of consciousness. Berkeley’s solution was to eliminate the external world. More sophisticated versions of his Subjective Idealism can be found in the Critical Idealism of Kant and in modern-day Phenomenalism. Eliminative Materialism applies the same solution to the dualist dilemma, by eliminating the inner world.

      • Thanks, Michael. Yesterday when I was digging up the needed passages in Locke I noticed he used the phrase “animal spirits” to “explain” the transformation of stimulus to conscious experience. I believe “hand waving” sums up that one.

    • re what Locke is actually saying: you may be right. In the sections you quote, I read him as distinguishing primary and secondary qualities, but not denigrating one over the other. But there are indeed other passages where he says only primary ideas are real. Elsewhere he suggests otherwise. He seems to be inconsistent about what he calls “real”.

      re color vision, you said: “The part that remains philosophical and not scientific is how all those physical corollaries of color turn into color. ” But that’s simply not the case. What you probably mean is that we don’t have any scientific explanation of the experience of color, which is true enough. But we do know a lot about how wavelengths of light get turned into neural signals and brain patterns and categories. We make use of this knowledge all the time, for instance in building color computer displays. It’s scientific, practical, and objective as anything. And while it doesn’t explain the experience of color, it doesn’t detract from it either.

      I’m reading Locke as a precursor to these kind of theories about how cognition works – he is inventing ideas like primary and secondary concepts, which have a sense of cognitive engineering to them, or of biological functionalism. Naturally he got a lot wrong, but he was going in a productive direction, in terms of understanding how the mind works.

      You on the other hand seem to take thought like this as a threat to the very reality of mind and all mental qualities. You trace every sort of ill from the Vietnam War to child prostitution back to this kind of theorizing, just as Blake viewed it as a source of all manner of darkness and evil. (I see you added my Blake quote to your article, you’re welcome!).

      I don’t think I’m likely to convince you otherwise; my own interest comes from admiring both Blake and the works of Locke, Newton, Bacon, and science and rationality in general. Reconciling these incompatible tastes is my problem, not yours!


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