Continuing on Book II (through ch. 20) of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689).
What are the simple ideas that Locke thinks we acquire, and how do we acquire them? First, pain and pleasure, which are not so much just those sensory feelings as any sense of welcome or uneasiness that accompanies virtually any thought we may have. Maybe he’s thinking like Epicurus that these more subtle experiences always cash into vivid, physical pains and pleasures, but I don’t think so; this is too important in Locke’s theory of human motivation and ultimately ethics. Even something like curiosity, which causes us to look at one thing rather than another, is a matter for Locke of the pleasure which hangs on certain perceptions and the (relative) aversion attached to others. Without these prompts, we’d have no motivation to do anything at all.
Pain and pleasure also serve as great pre-cursors to considering primary vs. secondary qualities, the distinction for which Locke is perhaps most famous. We don’t think just because fire causes pain in us that it’s a painful thing, that the pain is in any sense in the fire. What we learn from being burnt is that fire is the kind of thing that can cause that sensation in us (along with blackening our fingers, making our eyes water, etc.). We’re learning about some power that the fire has. Well, think about perception like this. When we perceive something, what we’re really learning is that the thing has the power to cause such perceptions in us. Locke then wants to move beyond this to do some metaphysics, and posits that in the case of some sensory ideas, like color, the color itself is not in the causal object any more than pain is. Fire is not yellow or red; it merely has the power to cause those sensations in us. We can as shorthand call the fire “yellow,” but Locke called that a matter of convenience; the color should be considered a “secondary quality” of the fire.
However, Locke’s theory has a different story when it comes to qualities like shape, or size, or motion. Those qualities, Locke thought, are actually in the objects themselves. How do we know this? Well, for one, we can get the ideas of them from more than one sense: I both see shape, but can also feel it (and if I could echolocate, I could perhaps hear it). And what in the object causes my perception of color? Fine details in its texture, i.e. in its shape. Even if there were no perceivers, according to Locke’s theory, there would still be shapes and motions, but not any colors, sounds, or tastes.
This was a point that subsequent empiricists disagreed with, on skeptical grounds: If we only have knowledge because of sensation and reflection, how do we know that there are shapes out in the world? Locke’s treatment of the metaphysics of substance (which is what we’d need to answer this objection) doesn’t co me until the second half of book II, so we’ll come back to this in our next episode.
So what about time? According to Locke, we get the idea of time not through our senses, but through reflection on the passage of our ideas. In fact, we don’t even need to perceive motion or change out in the world. We first get the idea of duration through a reflective experience on one of our ideas passing away, replaced by another, etc. This is a fundamental structure of our experience that even a fetus would have. We need this idea of duration in order to make sense of movement that we subsequently witness out in the world. We further abstract from duration by cutting it into equal pieces by comparing it to recurring things like sunrise, and from there we get time as cut into measured units. This is all very different from the account of a subsequent phenomenologist like Henri Bergson, but we debate a little whether Locke actually had a view of experience as atomistic (this does seem to be implied by his use of ideas as the individual elements in the mind) or whether this idea of duration is of a flow which we then subsequently carve up.
Mark: I think we’re gonna want to go forward to the most famous thing here, this primary versus secondary quality thing, and spend a lot of time on that in the second half. Can we sum up what some of the content is on the way to there? So, for instance, there’s a long… really an argument with Descartes. We’ve been talking just, kind of, what the mind is. And if the mind is equivalent to thinking, then you might think that if you’re not thinking, then the mind goes away. And so he argues for way too long that no, you could have a dreamless sleep and your mind is still there. So that seems like a historical artifact that nobody is really going to take the… I don’t even know if that’s really Descartes’ position that the mind disappears. You know, it seems to follow from the idea that the essence of the mind is thinking that there’s no thinking there. There’s nothing going on. So let’s jump forward maybe to… I guess, there’s one thing before we get to primary-secondary qualities, Chapter 7- of simple ideas of both sensation and reflection. He’s talking here about pleasure and pain.
Wes: He’s giving examples of different, simple ideas that are just a matter of sensation and just a matter of reflection, right? So we’ve talked about sensation and then simple ideas of reflection include, for instance, volition or perception or thinking. Those are ideas that we’re able to actually be reflectively aware of. And then now he’s going to say that there are ideas that involve both sensation andreflection, beginning with, you know, it’s gonna be pleasure, pain, power, existence, unity, but beginning with pleasure and pain. And that’s because the element of reflection there is just that it’s within experience itself. It’s almost arbitrary. But some sensations are gonna be accompanied by pleasure, and some sensations are gonna be accompanied by pain. And we know that’s just hardwired right. There’s no way to explicate that within experience itself and to say why eating is pleasurable, for instance, or why getting stabbed is painful. Those are just brute associations within experience.
Dylan: By pleasure and pain. I would be understood to signify whatsoever delights or molests us; whether it arises from the thoughts of our minds or anything operating on our bodies.” It’s not just a physical thing, it’s just uneasiness, as one thing. And he anticipates the Humean point, just recognizing something is good is not enough to do it. You have to have associated with some aversion, some uneasiness to turn away from it, some pleasure or anticipation of pleasure or delight to turn towards it.
Wes: Maybe we should try and explain more why he’s saying that pain is a matter of both sensation and reflection.
Mark: Yeah, it seems very sensory. It doesn’t seem reflective at all.
Dylan: It seems like we’ll get some clarity on what we were talking about earlier, as well, about the relationship between experience and ideas. It seems like there’s experience of sensation that would be… out of experience comes pain and pleasure, broadly speaking, out of a sort of categories of experience, that the experience, in the way he‘s talking about experience, renders as those ideas that the understanding acts on.
Seth: So I think part of what’s going on here is that pain and pleasure are not inputs, and we’ll get into this more in primary and secondary qualities, and the way pain and pleasure are the sort of the paradigms of secondary qualities where we know pain and pleasure aren’t out there in the world. It’s not like, “Oh, look, there’s some pain running around there. I’d better avoid that.” We have particular sensations like yellow, for instance, or whatever. And then, oddly enough, we get these piggyback ideas, pain and pleasure, which he thinks, Locke thinks, accompany pretty much every sensation to some degree or another. So we get these reflective, meta-level piggyback ideas that go along with all our qualia, all our sensory ideas. And that’s the reflective element. That’s how pain and pleasure are… sort of cross straddle this line.
Mark: So the yellow being ugly, or just the fact that I’ve seen too much yellow recently and I’m just sick of yellow, that there’s usually some affirmation or rejection in some degree that goes with almost every idea that we have.
Seth: Yeah or too much lighter. Light being pleasant up to some degree and there being too much and being painful, and the same thing with being there fire it’s warm and pleasurable up to a point, but if there’s too much heat, it becomes painful. A lot of it we don’t really notice, you know, sitting around, that our visual experience is always, to some degree, pleasurable, as I think Locke thinks. We understand it more if we walk into a museum and we’re looking at paintings and we’re attuned to the aesthetic, it’s more obvious. But I think Locke would say, “Yeah, it’s there always. There’s something just naturally pleasurable about sensation.”
Mark: Right. It entirely explains our motivation. This is in Section 3, Chapter 7. Uh, he’s talking about the perception of delight: “If this were wholly separated from all our outward sensations, and inward thoughts, we should have no reason to prefer one thought or action to another; negligence to attention, or motion to rest. And so we should neither stir our bodies, nor employ our minds, but let our thoughts (if I may so call it) run adrift, without any direction or design, and suffer the ideas of our minds, like unregarded shadows, to make their appearances there, as it happened, without attending to them. In which state man, however furnished with the faculties of understanding and will, would be a very idle, inactive creature, and pass his time only in a lazy, lethargic dream.”
Wes: Yeah, that’s great. I love that passage. Actually, I enjoy Locke’s writing.
Mark: Yes, there’s a lot of cool imagery in the parts that are most skippable [laughter] because it’s usually an illustration or just kind of a pithy way of putting something. But like it’s not the core of the theory. The core of the theory is rather boring. But I like Dylan’s idea that this says something about the baking into primary experience of reflective characteristics, that there’s gotta be some pain and pleasure that’s simply served up to us without any prior thinking about it, like that’s how we get introduced to the terms in the first place. But clearly so often the uneasiness that we have about something. He has actually this Spinoza-like rundown of the various emotions. So it’s much later in the book, I think it’s in 20 or something like that. If you remember, like a half of Spinoza’s ethics, a good chunk of it, was going through each emotion and talking about how it was some sort of permutation of pleasure and pain and thinking about it that, like love, is the anticipation of pleasure, like that is in Locke, in a very short way, because it’s all about how these more complex emotions are sort of raw pain and pleasure plus judgment. And that’s what we’re getting in here, that we, again, our judgment, I guess, though I don’t think he brings this term back in, in this context, reconstructs are simple… what we might take to be simple perception, our raw experience, so that based on our past experience with sharks, then thinking about a shark in the future might make me uneasy or whatever the thing is.
Wes: Before we move on, I want to retract some of what I was saying because it’s very misleading, which is: we understand our faculties by reflecting on them like so perception is an idea of reflection, not in the sense that it’s reflective itself, it doesn’t mean perception is reflective. It’s just that when we think about perception we’re engaged in reflection. So I did that with pain and pleasure by suggesting that there’s something reflective about them. When what Locke is saying is that we grasp them both through subjective sensory experience and through reflecting on them. I don’t know if that clarifies anything.
Dylan: It does, and I would just add in they’re simple ideas, still, So they’re simple in the way that other simple ideas, like bitter and sweet are, but they have the extra component, as you articulated, of in addition to having a component that is based in sensory experience, has a component based in reflection.
Seth: Well, it’s also the case that pain and pleasure can have a measure of anticipatory… an anticipatory element to them. So you might be tormented by the possibility of loss or the thought of loss without direct experience of pain. And that requires reflection and memory in the ability to understand, to anticipate the future and things. There are modalities of pain and pleasure, which are not simple experiences of pain and pleasure, like “this tastes good” or “this is bitter” or “that hurts.”
Wes: Are we ready for primary-secondary?
Mark: Let’s go to Chapter 8 – some further considerations concerning our simple ideas. This does not sound like it’s gonna be the most important chapter.
Wes: I always think of the influence of Lucretius here, on the early modern era, because it’s Lucretius, right, and Epicurious and atomism, that we get all this stuff. We get the idea that certain qualities and things are… So in Lucretius it’s that when you look at color, that’s an emergent property, and it’s emergent on atoms and atoms that themselves don’t have color. They just have shape and motion. And then, according to Locke’s theory, we can explain away an idea like color is not having a correlate it in the world, which is the real in the sense that it resembles our experience of color. What color amounts to is the reflection of light off of objects into our eyes. And all of that can be explained in terms of space geotemporality, in terms of motion and number and dimension and the actual subjective feel, the qualia itself. Yellow, as we experience it, is not something that is, strictly speaking, out there, except insofar as objects have the power to cause it in us. So when we talk about the quality of yellow as a property and the object, we’re talking about the power of the object to produce the qualia in us through a causal mechanism. But we’re not talking about yellow being out there and our idea of yellow resembling the yellow that’s out there. That’s not the way it works. For secondary qualities. For primary qualities, right, to have the idea of the speciality of something, the dimension of something that really is out there, and our ideas really do resemble quality of speciality or dimension.
Seth: This is another one of those sections where my experience of reading it now versus way back in the day is very different. But there’s a couple of different ways that he characterizes it, that we can think about that primary qualities of objects are non relational, meaning they are what they are, whether anything is interacting with them or perceiving them. And secondary qualities are relational in the sense that you can think of them… in some cases, he characterizes them as effects… the effects that the object can have on another thing, the point being that secondary qualities don’t come into question until the object interacts with another object and oftentimes in a very specific way. That’s one way you could think about as relational. And another way, this is very anthropocentric, and he is talking about human understanding. So you could think of this as distinguishing between… primary qualities are qualities that things have when human beings are not perceiving them, and secondary qualities are qualities that they have when perceived by human beings.
Wes: Well, except insofar as there’s the potentiality, the power in the object to cause it, should a human being come along. So we can still think about something real in the object, if we think in terms of power or potentiality.
Wes: Rather than the yellow being out there, it’s the power to cause yellow that’s out there.
Seth: [laughter] Right. So the gold is not yellow. It’s got a certain extension and hardened solidity and all this kind of thing. And then it has the potentiality to manifest as yellow in human experience.
Mark: Because it has a texture… it has… there are some primary qualities that through whatever alchemy that we, you know, part of the black box, somehow, when we interact with it, translates to a secondary.
Seth: Right and it’s actually not just the interaction of the gold with us but it depends on the light source, because the light is going to dictate what kind of yellow or what yellow it actually… there’s a third term as well.
Wes: Should we read a little bit? Is that what you were gonna do, Dylan? Sections 9 and 10 or…
Dylan: I wasn’t gonna read it. I just… I was only gonna voice my own stumbling over the use of the word power.
Wes: Let me read, because this will actually come out in the reading and then you can respond to that. So Section 9: qualities thus considered in bodies, are first such as are utterly inseparable from the body. In what a state so ever it be, “such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself be perceived by our senses: for example a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility.” One of the interesting things about primary qualities like solidity and extension, and so on is that when you divide objects up, we imagine that those properties are still maintained and, by contrast, secondary qualities… to just reading a little bit from 10 now: “secondly, such qualities, which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities. For example, the bulk figured texture and motion of their insensible parts as color sounds, tastes, etcetera.” These I call secondary qualities, right. Secondary qualities don’t persist with the subdivision of matter in the same way, and also we don’t imagine they’re there under the same conditions. So if you look at porphyry in different kinds of light, it looks different, or if you grind up in almond, it changes color. So these are the forms of evidence that lead us to think that we can’t grind the spaciality, the solidity or extension out of an almond but we can grind the color out of it. So that’s one example of how they’re distinct.
Mark: Can I just pick on this “persist and maintain” that those are fundamentally ambiguous words that when he’s saying that the figure persists clearly it changes to a different figure, is just that it has some figure or other, and we hypothesize, even when it’s too small for us to see, we imagine that those things still have some shape or other. Why can we just rule out that even when you grind the almond really, really fine, when you said the color changes, well, change is not enough. It has to be that when it gets below a certain point, there literally is no color. Whereas, couldn’t you imagine just because, you know I can’t perceive the figure when it’s too small? Maybe there is a color there. I just can’t perceive it. But if I were a small enough creature, but that yet still had somehow eyes to take in color, that I would still have some color or other, he has to be saying something fundamentally about what a color is, actually referring to a qualia term, whereas these primary qualities are referring to something about the object. I’m just not sure, unless you have a distinction like that, why you could just rule out… It seems a little arbitrary to say that these primary qualities are maintained in subatomic particles, yet secondaries are not.
Wes: It’s interesting because we know that Lucretius, right, made this argument that at the bottom it has to be colorless atoms that explain our perception of color. Our perception of color is not to be explained in terms of atoms of color that doesn’t provide a legitimate explanation. But now that you raise this objection, I can’t immediately remember what the argument for that is. Except the power of atomism as a scientific conception of the world.
Mark: Yeah, and I don’t think Locke is relying on that here.
Wes: I think he is. It was mechanistic. The scientific worldview and atomism, and he’s thinking of particles of light bouncing off objects and going into the eyes. And those particles don’t themselves have color. They explain color in terms of their relation to us.
Dylan: A lot of these secondary qualities are transmitted via things that don’t possess that feature, so the particles that transmit, smell or taste don’t smell or taste themselves. So the steak tastes in a certain way. Because of the transmission of particles between the steak and your taste buds.
Wes: It doesn’t really make sense to think that you could change the color of something by changing its texture. If the color is inherent in the object, why would breaking it up change its color if color is inherent in the object? But if color is a product of interaction with something extended, then we could see how breaking it up would change color. So I had that wrong. I was taking the almond example for something that it wasn’t.
Mark: I find the other criterion of… If something is a primary quality, then you can get it through more than one sense. I find that more persuasive because we likewise, like Dylan, was saying, we get ideas of color through non-colored objects. Well, we get ideas of shape through… Okay, fine, the particles that are bouncing to our eyes when I see a square, they have some shape, I guess, but they’re not the shape of the square. They’re likewise, but also you’re supposed to be able to get at shape through touch. And so the fact that you can get at both the same thing through two different modalities, that’s supposed to give you something that proves that it’s objective. I’m not sure what I think of this because he does acknowledge that the qualia of shape via sight and shape via touch are different, because if you had somebody who was blind, who learned shape by touching, suddenly has a sight restored, the question is when you show him something that he’s touched a square, that he’s touched before, or let’s say a cube, is he going to recognize it as a cube just by sight? And he says no.
Seth: I love that passage. I’m glad you brought it up. The idea is that if you had somebody who’s blind, who learned what a cube was through touch and learned what a sphere was through touch, he says, if they were suddenly granted sight, would they be able to identify a cube and a square visually? And he says no, that their experience of the visual field would be turning back to what we talked about before. Just like it would be just pure manifold. They would be seeing a two dimensional colored field without any concept, because you have to learn over time visual space and dimension and all this. And I… I mean, I don’t even know how to make sense of that. But I just thought, as philosophical thought experiments go, that was certainly a creative one. But to your point, Mark, I guess the question is, does it require both senses to generate the concept? Because it seems like he’s saying you could generate it with just a single. Is it richer? Or is it fuller? Or is it the actual concept? Could you have a concept of a cube without sight? Can blind people have a full rich, complete idea of shapes?
Wes: So he brings us up right in on the chapter on perception, the next chapter, Section 8. And he’s trying to say that the ideas we receive by sensation are often altered by judgment. Our judgments of things can alter the ideas and the same thing with, you know, our interpretation of two dimensional… what we get is simply something two dimensional on the eyes. We turn that into three dimensions through habituation of our judgment to interpret it that way. Mark, you are making a connection of that to primary-secondary qualities. What’s that connection?
Mark: So it seems like that, whether we’re talking about a primary or secondary quality, there’s something about our qualia relating to that, that is qualia are subjective. The question is, what is the relation of that qualia to the thing that causes the qualia? And he emphasizes that there has to be a resemblance between the qualia and the objective body in the case of primary qualities, but that there is not in the case of secondary qualities. Again, the analogy is by pain or pleasure. The fact that a knife causes me pain doesn’t mean that my pain resembles the knife [laughter] in some way, the sharpness of the knife. And likewise, we shouldn’t expect the yellow to resemble the cause, which is a fine textural component of the body, whereas with space there still is a difference. It’s not like that I’m, through touch or through sight, directly perceiving the shape. It’s that my idea of the shape resembles the shape out there in the world in a way that is not the case with pain or color.
Wes: Are you objecting to that?
Mark: Only insofar as I remember, Barkley, who denies that you could have any kind of resemblance between an idea or an object. But I’m not sure I like Barkley. [laughter]
Wes: I mean, this is what the idealists will say. I mean, and this is right, this is what Kant will say too, you know. You want to do primary-secondary qualities, how about everything is a secondary quality? How about space and time are just intuitions? And that has to be the way it is, because we need all that to construct experience in the first place. So you could radicalize the primary quality thing and become a full on constructionist about space and time. Just as much about yellow, and…
Mark: I guess I am willing to go with Locke here, that there really is a useful distinction here. It’s just that I thought of the distinction as more… that we’re actually perceiving the shape in the world, whereas we’re not perceiving the color in the world because the color is not in the world at all. But in both cases we’re actually perceiving the idea, and it’s just a question of what relationship it has to the thing in the world. That’s the thing I would want to keep in mind. But why not? I mean, it doesn’t trouble me that my visual take on shape should resemble the shape in the world and my tactile take on shape, idea of shape, should resemble the shape in the world. It’s just that they obviously must resemble it in somewhat different ways? I’m not sure I can make that clear, given his thought experiment about the blind man, that we were just talking about. The whole idea of resemblance, and this is just what is problematic about…
Wes: Yeah, resemblance is problematic. It’s not like we’re comparing a picture that we perceive to the world that we perceive. You know, our typical ideas of resemblance don’t apply because what are we claiming resemblance to? We don’t have the in-itself there present to us and say, oh, you know, our ideas resemble this other thing that is non-idea. So there’s something fishy about the notion of resemblance. What we could say is we know that our ideas are systematically related to the world in some way, and that systematic relation reflects something that’s true about the world.
Dylan: Did you read enough of the Rutledge? This is the only secondary source I delved into this time.
Wes: I read all of it, actually,
Seth: Then we shouldn’t think of Locke as saying that we perceive our own ideas. We should use it… adverbially? That I’m perceiving the thing in the world through an idea. I’m perceiving it “yellowly” or something like that. And I’m having trouble: I did not take notes on that, such that I can sensibly bring that account back to solve the problem that we’re currently having with Locke.
Wes: Well, this is the big criticism of Locke, right. The traditional criticism is that… and when we had Saralon, he made the same sort of criticism and I objected to it because I wanted to give a more charitable reading of these early modern guys. But this whole idea that to say that we perceive the idea that Locke literally means that that functions in the same way, that we typically think of perceptions so that we now have the idea in the mind as an object, and then the perceptive faculty and then we have to re-explain perception all over again. So we get into this infinite regress so that it’s really not helpful and also that it leads inevitably to idealism. It creates this veil of perception. You know, we don’t really have contact with the world. We’re not perceiving things in the world, we’re only perceiving our own minds. There are all sorts of problems. It becomes entirely solipsistic, right. Nor do we even communicate or think about a real world. And so that’s the contemporary way to talk about the more charitable reading. I think there are other ways to think about it, but I think I do prefer more charitable reading than just saying that Locke was mistaken.
Mark: I remember enough to say the question is, do you perceive the yellow idea in my mind or am I perceiving the yellow object in the world “yellowly”? That’s what that means, but that gets rid of the obvious problem of inner Cartesian theater.
Wes: The other way of putting it is just that perception means two different things in those cases. So if Locke wants to say that our perception of the world depends on perception of our ideas in the mind, and whatever (quote-unquote) “perception” is going on in the mind is not like perception of the world. Otherwise we get the infinite regress and it doesn’t explain anything. So we’re better off talking about the presence of ideas in the mind, ideas being immediately present to us so that we don’t get this strict disentanglement of subject and object within the mind replicating the one between us and the outside.
Seth: Let’s look at section 16 of Chapter 8. I´ll read a quick piece and then I’ll talk. So “Flame is denominated hot and light; snow, white and cold; and manna, white and sweet, from the ideas they produce in us. Which qualities are commonly thought to be the same in those bodies that those ideas are in us, the one the perfect resemblance of the other, as they are in a mirror…” blah, blah, blah. “And yet he that will consider that the same fire that, at one distance produces in us the sensation of warmth, does, at a nearer approach, produce in us the far different sensation of pain, ought to bethink himself what reason he has to say—that this idea of warmth, which was produced in him by the fire, is ACTUALLY IN THE FIRE; and his idea of pain, which the same fire produced in him the same way, is NOT in the fire.” Is there a point at which we’re devolving into not a discussion about qualities of objects, but potentialities for the way that they can act on us? That this whole thing just breaks down and becomes nonsensical to even talk about secondary qualities that, say, like there’s a secondary quality of my pet turtle to cause me a headache if somebody were to pick her up and throw her at my head. It seems ridiculous to me to talk about that as being a quality of the turtle. There’s the way in which objects interact. I think he’s… in a certain sense, it’s the right philosophical move to make. In the same modality one object can have two completely different effects on a second object and that that should tell us something about the way we think about the nature of those two objects. But I think what it does is point us away from talking about anything relating to qualities of an object. The quality of fire to both burn and warm to basically heal and hurt is not a function of fire. It’s a function of the way in which it’s employed or the relationship that it has to the object that it’s… and then it starts to get out of control if you start talking about potentialities. And there’s something else going on here, that’s in the relation.
Mark: It seems like the potentiality thing has to be a matter of… there is reason to think that we would habitually enter into this relationship where the potentiality would be actuated. It’s not clear that the turtle being thrown at your head is not something that’s very likely to happen. But if everybody was just so into throwing turtles that other people’s heads, then you would start seeing, just like a gun and or a knife, it’s potentially dangerous. That the turtle is likely… also has this potential. It’s just that, you know, it’s a pragmatic thing, whether we call it a potential or not.
Seth: I think the point I’m trying to make is that this idea that… the sort of what… let’s call them the standard types of effects that objects have on human beings (in this case could be animals, too. Animals could get burned and…) But you think of something like fire. Fire can be put to so many different uses for so many different things, and it can be destructive and productive at the same time. It’s all a function of the object that’s in relation to the fire and the way in which it’s in a relationship to it, that it just seems to me not particularly helpful to talk about the quality of fire, to be able to boil a liquid to produce… what’s the word? Could be gas or what’s left in, you know, the solids that air left in titrate. I can’t remember what that’s called. So there’s something that’s fundamentally getting me about this, that I can’t… and this has always been the case. I do agree that ultimately, if one thing is a secondary quality, that everything is a secondary quality, I do agree. But just this distinction between primary and secondary, I’m not even sure I even know how to make sense of that as talking about it in terms of the quality of the object.
Wes: I think the way to think about this is the idea that you explain the world by explaining its microstructure in the way that modern science would explain it, in terms of the spatio-temporal qualities of things and the forces, that kind of forces that are at work, the ways in which things move each other in space, and once you’ve explained that, you… that’s what it really means to explain why it is that fire is painful, why it is that fire can have these various different effects, or why it is that light will cause us to have a sensation of yellow. You explain those things by talking about the primary qualities. So, yeah, it’s weird, ultimately, to say the quality of yellow is just this capacity of the object to cause yellow in us. It almost sounds Aristotelian and unhelpful until you spell that out, until you say, well, what we really mean is that you explain its (quote-unquote) “scientific” properties, its material properties and chemical properties. And those are the things that explain why it would have such and such an effect on us or why it would have such an effect on anything, you know, like the nature of fire. And I think scientifically, you do look at what it does to things. You know, that’s part of what experimentation is, you look at how different phenomena interact with each other, the powers to use Locke’s word, that they have over each other, or, in other words, you’re looking at… always at causal processes and they are relational. So it sounds kind of weird.
Mark: I guess it should be obvious that we made the move in moving to this topic from psychology to metaphysics, that I’m just thinking about, again, Chalmers list of… Here’s all the facts that we would have to have about everything, so what’s the bare minimum set of facts that you could then just combine them and make more things? Well, even in the case of shape, seeing shape and touching shape are different qualia. They’re not reducible to each other, but yet the thing objectively in the world that causes them… This is, you know, the metaphysical claim about causation. There’s only one thing. There’s just the shape that causes both of those things, and likewise, color is just caused by shape. So there’s just, metaphysically, only one thing that’s causing all three of these qualia but yet there are three different qualia. The fact that we could have all these different uses and different ways that something could affect us, that the same shape, if thrown at my head, could also cause me pain by saying something has different capacities and powers, were not loading it up ontologically. We’re just saying, it’s just the shape, it is what it is, and there’s all these things that it could do, but that doesn’t complicate the physical picture. I think it does complicate if somebody actually has those experiences. Yes, okay, that’s more qualia. Qualia multiply, like crazy, you know, with experience, but the physical stuff does not.
Dylan: The turtle example that you… the turtle gets thrown at your head, and it causes you pain and gives you a headache. It seems weird to attribute that to the turtle. And I think that’s right. It’s weird to attribute that to the turtle. It’s not the turtle as the entity, but you would attribute it to probably a variety of primary and secondary qualities of the turtle not as turtle, but as heavy hard object that has the capability of being moved and that the generation of the headache has to do with… you’re gonna break down that result into a series of causal interactions that are a chain of interactions that are characterized by primary and secondary qualities. And that’s gonna be sort of your account of how that happened and what part of that account in the case that you use, that Seth used, is that the turtle as the manifestation of those primary qualities and secondary qualities will be incidental to the headache.
Wes: Do you mind if I make a segway here?
Mark: Yeah, we should just do an episode sometime on disposition of properties like, you know, in philosophy of science, because we’re not gonna get any deeper on this through Locke. So please, Wes, move on.
Wes: I thought we could actually make a connection here that would get us to time as an idea of reflection. It occurred to me here that he doesn’t seem to make time a primary quality, which we might think would go along with space. He goes… he talks about solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, which seems to imply time and then number. But it’s not until later on, in Chapter 14, where we get duration and time. It’s not even an idea of sensation, right? It’s an idea of reflection, he says. It’s not a matter of perceiving things that are moving. It’s actually looking at our ideas as they move in our minds. That’s how we get time. We understand… well, really its duration. Time, he thinks of, is the way we measure duration. But duration itself is a matter of looking at the succession of our ideas and thinking in terms of there being some kind of what he calls distance between different ideas. So more or less distance and how we measure that gets complicated.
Mark: Yeah, duration is a fleeting extension that we get from the reflection on the train of our ideas. And so, for instance, if you are just fixed on one thing, if you’re meditating, then you do not perceive the passage of time at all.
Seth: I don’t know if I buy that.
Wes: But it makes complete sense to me. The only way you would have a concept of time would be through transformation, through some kind of motion. You’re gonna have to perceive motion.
Mark: It’s backwards. Section 6, he says, so it’s… succession is what we get from looking at our own procession thoughts, and we need succession in order to perceive motion. It’s not that motion gives us the idea of succession, because you could have the idea of succession just closing your eyes and the fact that different ideas come into your mind one after another. As long as you’re attending to that It’s a reflection. It’s not just something… This is what again makes it weird that, as Wes was saying, it seems like we get time, like your suggestion, Dylan, by looking at stuff out in the world and, like I perceive that there are changes happening, that there’s motion happening, and that’s what we give you the idea of time. But he says, no, that actually, you have to have this reflective thing before you can make sense of what’s out in the world. Is that right?
Wes: Yeah, we don’t even perceive motion except as a derivative product of our sense of succession and reflective sense that our ideas succeed each other.
Seth: That seems wacky, because that means that unless a creature has self reflection that it does not have a sense of time at all.
Dylan: Does not have a sense of time or doesn’t perceive motion? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Mark: Right! Exactly! Who doesn’t have a sense of time and therefore cannot sense motion. So he does talk about dogs and things, you know, animals. And I guess because he has this notion that whenever you have thought or perception at all, you also have the reflection. You always have self knowledge of perception, which is, I think, how many of us would make the cut off between people and animals is that, of course, animals perceive things and they perceive motion, and they perceive even differences between things. But they don’t reflect that I am having a perception now because they don’t…
Dylan: But is that how reflection works?
Wes: The word reflection means two different things, and that’s why I was getting confused about pain. So I think I should probably even retract my retraction [laughter] concerning pain. So there is the reflection of being a philosopher and saying, “Oh, I’m going to talk about volition. Now I’m going to talk about understanding. These air ideas of reflection.” But he’s using it differently here in a way that I think you could say that animals would have this type of reflection. So he’s… maybe. So he’ll say, “It’s evident to anyone who will but observe what passes in his own mind that there was a train of ideas which constantly succeed one another in his understanding, as long as he is awake. Reflection on these appearances of several ideas one after another in our minds is what furnishes us with the idea of succession.” And then later on we get duration from succession, so we have no perception of duration, but by considering the train of ideas and their succession essentially. So, I don’t think it’s that, you know, you have to be a self conscious human being to do this. It’s just that it is kind of this meta-level faculty… we’ll leave this other word faculty. It’s not something that comes indirectly through sensation, but it’s more about some meta- level thing that we get from the structure of ideas. Like what I was saying earlier on in the episode about ideas aren’t just… they’re haphazardly, they’re structured in certain ways, and part of our experience is the product of reflecting on that structure, (quote-unquote) “reflecting”, but experiencing that structure well, so we experience a succession, we experience duration, reflectively.
Mark: Even a fetus would have that. If the fetus can have warmth, can have pleasure, as these other things, as long as there’s like multiple things in a row and they’re coming close enough, then the fetus would observe… the fetus would be, not be able to put this into words, but aware that it is thinking… awareness of the thoughts amounts to awareness of the succession of the thoughts. And so that’s all you need. And so when motion comes along, it will be able to make sense of that.
Wes: For the idea is to be structured in relation to each other is for us to have the reflective experience of that structure.
Dylan: What’s lurking behind this is the idea that all perception is in a kind of snapshot mode. So when we start using the language of motion is perceived as a succession rather than motion is perceived as its own thing and then broken apart into a succession, means that we’re building it up, that the primary thing is something that is just called a snapshot. And then we have an activity that goes on and says, well, at this snapshot, and then the next one, and the next one, and then I have an activity that’s saying, well, these are alike, you know that they’re the same thing that goes along. Then I say, well, if I have the duration between those successions small enough, then they’re the same thing, that’s lurking behind, and I’m wondering about that it’s sort of presupposing the answer regarding the primacy of motion or not. In that account, you’ve already said that motion isn’t a primary thing.
Mark: Well, the alternative account, right, is there’s a similar way where you would just say, look, there are forms out there, and their structure out there. It could be motion, it could be other sorts of forms, they’re in the objects. And we’re just, you know, thinking back to our animal episode, we’re just so structured ourselves as to be immediately receptive to that structure. But ironically, it’s atomism and a vision of the world that seems more in accord with contemporary science that wants to lead us to not do that holistic Aristotelian thing, but to say that we’re getting inputs, we’re getting stimuli. And then we have to build up the world from those little nerve inputs and…
Dylan: And in fact, that the world is made up of things that have motion, rather than movements that have properties. It’s really hard to even talk about it this way, because Wes is exactly right. It’s the way this confirms at least some important truth about the way Locke talks, is that we think in terms of ideas. And so our way of thinking about the world is deeply infected, constrained by what amounts to the roots of early modern science, that is, a world of things in motion. And so therefore you say, well, how is that thing moving? And now I start talking about motion. Is this thing going from here to there?
Mark: So you’re channeling Bergson. I will refer, folks, to our… the duration is the fundamental thing in our experience and it’s only after that that we abstract out. I was pleasantly surprised by… I don’t think that our perception of succession is atomistic. We make a further abstraction from the flow of our experience. I mean, you could say that we get succession not because I have distinct qualia idea of pleasure and then distinct quality idea of warmth, know that there is a flow and the flow is the idea of succession. And then we, by abstraction, break that down like, how could we measure this flow? Can we cut it into individual pieces and are there things like the re-occurrence of the sun every day, you know, that we could then use to cut things up. So it’s not that the scientific notion of time is actually primary. There is, like a more phenomenologically accurate… I think this idea of succession, that is primary and that we make it atomstic through this additional operation.
Wes: What’s the distinction between succession and motion?
Seth: Succession is over ideas. One idea succeeds another. We infer motion in the outside world from those successions.
Wes: So you break it down for me: I see a dog running across the road? What’s the succession account of that?
Seth: So I have an idea of dog place A, and an idea of dog place B, idea of dog place C. First I get duration from that, a concept of duration. And then once I have that duration, then I can talk about place over time. I can talk about.. distance over time, I mean. I could start talking about motion, because I can’t talk about motion till I get time.
Dylan: So in succession I hear duration and space as being primary, that they then come together to form motion and that I have an experience of duration and succession ties the sequence from sequence into a sequence of events that are tied by a duration. And the change of the shape in that duration is a consequence of the spatial part that I’m putting onto my experience and by considering those two together, then I get motion out of it.
Mark: He’s really broken it up in Newton. I mean, he’s straight up broken it up as Newton.
Wes: And I think there’s an objection to this, which, Mark, I thought you were getting at. I’m not sure, but you can think about all of this is okay. He’s saying that… he’s thinking this is like a film reel, right? We get all the different snapshots, we get all the different frames on the film reel and these are all different ideas. And because there’s one after another, we can start thinking of extrapolating into duration and then into time. And then we can interpret the film, once we’ve done that, as showing motion, something in motion. But you can say what gives you the ability to interpret the different frames in the reel as succession? Isn’t that already temporal? Why aren’t they just all co-present, at once? It seems to me the succession might already imply time.
Dylan: Time and space.
Seth: To extend the metaphor. What gives you the right to atomize the frames?
Mark: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t think Locke actually does.
Seth: 24 frames per second, 60 frames per second. Like your phenomenological experience of the world is not a flickering film really. It’s contiguous. I’m not seeing… computer now – computer now – computer now – computer now. It’s like…
Wes: But you could do an experiment that will make you realize that you’re seeing it that way, right?
Wes: You have a frame rate that your brain is processing it at.
Dylan: Is that true?
Mark: Yeah, and it’s…
Wes: I think there’s a frame rate which you’re not gonna be able to see it.
Seth: So doesn’t Locke refer to that…
Wes: Oh right. Locke brings that up. Yeah, right.
Mark: Yeah, well, this is why we don’t get the idea of time from motion because there’s a lot of motion that we don’t perceive. At all. Like if it’s too slow. If the minute hand is moving too slow, we don’t perceive it as motion. If something moves so fast, like you know, light, then we don’t perceive it as motion. Even though clearly motion happens, our notion of motion is relative. He talks about the notion of place, so clearly our whole planet is hurtling through the galaxy, and we don’t perceive that at all. Motion is something that is more abstract than succession.
Dylan: It’s more abstract than succession, but like we’re talking about, if you get away from the earth, hurtling through the universe, and light, and all the things we can’t perceive, the only way to perceive motion is to have a notion of space and have a sense that something is in one place and then it is in another place and somehow got there from… right? I mean…
Wes: That’s what Locke says, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily… this topic right here, by itself, would be a whole podcast.
Mark: For sure.
Wes: Just talking about motion.
Mark: With a different reading. [laughter]
Wes: Without this reading. But yes,
Mark: I feel like I said the relevant thing about memory already, which is that talking about memory is a lot of everyday… Yes, sometimes we remember things better when we pay attention to them. Sometimes you could have a brain injury and you don’t remember things as well, like things like that. But just, you know, that what was remarkable to me is that memory is not strictly a part of the mind, which is the blank slate it is… The thing is disappeared, but yet we have the capacity to recall it, and the more you recall it, the more readily it will be recalled. It’s, you know…
Seth: There’s a couple of really fascinating things about what he has to say about memory. So the first is when he talks about the concept of attention and experience, and basically… we mentioned habituation earlier. But this idea that there’s tons of experience is happening to you all the time that you’re just not paying attention to. And one of the things I think he gets wrong is he’s… the suggestion, at least in the texts, that the more you pay attention to something, the more it will be solidified and imprinted into your memory. The reality is, right, we have lots of unconscious mechanisms, and we record tons of information which is very firmly embedded in our memory. But what I found fascinating was this idea that memory is not like deep storage or repository, where the idea sits latent and unused and inactive, and then when you recall it, it’s somehow you’re springing it to life. He suggests that it’s the act of recollection which really creates the idea. So in other words, you don’t bring the idea out of memory like a dead thing and bring it back to life. But in fact, it’s the act of recollecting that then you re-create the idea anew in some way, just prompted by the memory.
Wes: Paint them anew on itself.
Dylan: That account actually has a nice richness to it, because it would inform the way in which our memories are modified over time, by our successive remembering of them and bringing the things that we currently have in our mind to affect on them.
Seth: That’s funny, Dylan. You say that… that’s interesting. If you think about it, if you generate, let’s call it, the original memory from an experience you have once, but over the course of the lifetime, you re-live it a hundred times, is the original experience primary, or is the having of the hundred times of engaging in a reflective manner, which he equivocates between perception and reflection, right, in the sense that I don’t think he thinks that your sensation of external objects is any more or less vivid and real distinct, then your reflection on your own internal experiences. You could have as vivid and as real and as durable an experience of a pain, breaking your arm, as you do of, you know, going to see you, too. But the fact that that can only happen once and then it becomes an object for recollection and reflection, and you can re-live that broken arm a hundred times. What is that? Do you modify it? And every time it goes back to the storehouse, it’s modified? Or does it stay in its original form? And just your experience at the time changes your recollective experience of it. I don’t know. I find that really interesting.
Mark: It is interesting that he has so many perceptive things to say about memory, but I don’t think he addresses… I don’t recall what you’re talking about, how memories change over time. Like he talks about them degrading and how you could lose it entirely, or how it could be hard to get at it, but not, like, actually remember something falsely. They say how bad witness recollection is, and I even have a vivid memory of having a bad memory. This is as… you know, I witnessed somebody like he was stealing my phone services some… Anyway, I didn’t get a good look at the guy’s face, but he looked enough like somebody I knew, that even when I was trying to tell the police about this, I could only picture the guy that I knew. Like, I don’t want to describe that guy exactly. That very familiar thing. It seems like, yeah, if you’re recreating it anew every time, there would be so much room for that kind of shenanigans.
Seth: Another interesting aspect of it. This is one of the things I feel like… We have talked about bagson but the role of memory in just the operations of the brain and its philosophical importance. You can’t exercise almost any of your mental operations without a capacity for memory. And so if you want to compare two experiences of things that are similar and then you want to do a comparison… boom! you need memory. You wanna abstract… you need memory. And by the way, yes, you could have a physical experience of two yellow things side by side and or two similar things side by side and you could point out the similarities and give a name too. You could have a vivid activity of mental abstraction on two present things, to be able to say like, “Oh, they’re both yellow. I’m gonna give that name of…They’re both square, they’re both flat. They’re both…” you know, whatever. But the reality is is that you are almost always in any mental activity comparing a present to a not-present or, more importantly, you’re comparing the idea of an immediate present to a not-present because you’re rarely staring at a thing while you’re trying toe compared to something else, you’re usually reflecting on two absent things. And so having a nuanced idea or a nuanced account of how memory works to provide things to the understanding for the purposes of activating all of these activities is really critical, because this is the mechanism by which you’re gonna build your foundation of knowledge. And at least he pays some service to it. And he has an interesting, if not particularly fleshed out version of how it works. That doesn’t make it computer memory. I mean, the fucking metaphors that we live with in the computer age are just so terrible. Everything is neural nets. But they always talk about data storage. You know, it’s like… like our brain is CPU, memory, I-apps, and storage. Like that’s just so impoverished. Sorry, I just got off on a tangent. I’ve been very disappointed with technology lately. I’m just going to tell you so.
Mark: Well, you would have all these subroutines and things like… you have faculty psychology. He’s very… I think we’ll get into this next time that he’s… If you wanna talk about different capacities, that’s fine. But once you start talking about faculties, that’s different. Distinct agents doing stuff which I think modern psychology is actually okay with. It’s like it’s a useful thing, and definitely in computer science if you’re running, you know, if it’s not strictly linear, if you have dual processors or whatever, then you have all these multiple things going on at the same time. And maybe that’s what we need to explain, like how memory works in a real way, rather than Locke’s one dimensional picture of the mind. I have a final passage I wanted to read to wrap us up here to add to the… you know, we already know about the tabula rasa. But did you know about the dark room? I didn’t know about the dark room.
Wes: Oh, that’s right. Yes.
Mark: Uh, this is the end of Chapter 11 – section 17: “I pretend not to teach, but to inquire; and therefore cannot but confess here again,—that external and internal sensation are the only passages I can find of knowledge to the understanding. These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this DARK ROOM. For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: would the pictures come into such a dark room they but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.” So just that it’s almost like Plato’s cave. I don’t know [laughter] without the shadows
Wes: Can be very misleading, though, because, right, he says external and internal sensation. So what’s coming into the dark room? Where is it coming from? Some of it is coming from inside. [with a mysterious voice] …coming from inside the house.
Seth: Yeah, but not through the sensation of vision. Or touch, for that matter.
Mark: I was connecting to what we just said about memory, is that even though he’s saying that they lie so orderly on occasion, that’s not referring to all of memory. Most of memory is outside the room. It’s more just like mail slots into the dark room that maybe you could fish around and try to grab the thing that you’re trying to find, a bag of holding at the edge of the dark room.
Dylan: So this is a version of the cave where, instead of all you have to do is turn around and you go, “Oh, shit.” They were just casting shadows on the wall you have to experience over time and very slowly piece by piece, you can widen the crack in the door until eventually the door is wide enough, where you fully eliminated what’s inside and you can walk out and escape. It’s very much how…
Mark: I don’t know, man. [laughter] I think this is more bleak than that…
Dylan: …that crack, how the light gets in.
Mark: There’s no getting out.
Seth: No!, he says. Listen, “not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without” the picture’s coming to alert him, “stay there, sorry, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And so I’m just saying, developmentally, I’m expanding on his metaphor to say that developmentally, you would start with just a little tiny sliver. But then you would gradually open the door and more and more, and you get more and more light, more and more experiences, more and more ideas. They would illuminate more things internally. Everything inside would become more transparent to you and more visible until you achieve perfect self-knowledge, clarity and you emerge, you come out of the closet.
Wes: But I think you guys are getting at something important, which is this fear that we somehow get cut off from the world, right? This is the fear involved in epistemology, and it’s accentuated by modern science, when… because when we start thinking of our perception of things as involving invisible particles hitting the eyes and producing these ideas and in the mind, we wonder what connection that all has to the external world. And, you know, we get into this whole primary-secondary quality thing. It’s a worry that goes way back, right? So for Plato… Plato is concerned that the world of becoming is not enough to supply us with objects of knowledge with actual structure, with actual ideas in the platonic sense. So what Locke has here, though, is a really innovative solution to the problem, right? This is what the nativists were concerned by, and their whole solution is that, say, there’s certain ideas already in the mind. Locke’s solution, in my opinion, is reflection. And, ironically, for the purposes of knowledge and science, what’s more important than the particular bits of data are the relationships between those data. And Locke is saying, because our ideas are ordered, because they’re structured, we have immediate… in the mind, we have immediate reflective access to that structure and that structure, knowledge of that is knowledge of the external world in some weird sense. Strangely enough, I think reflection actually gets us closer to the outside world than anything because it gets us at structure.
Mark: I think this is what we’re gonna be dealing with in the next episode. More on the philosophical problems that are brought up by complex ideas that it’s kind of like we’re in the dark room. But yet we’re building all these contraptions out of our ideas. It’s not just that they’re laying in orderly fashion and we’re discovering, but we’re creating these great complexes and using those to make us think that we’ve opened the door farther and are getting at the world. But maybe we are. Maybe we aren’t. [laughter] You know, it depends how good your scientific theories are. You know, he thinks if you’re making your big complex out of a bunch of components that you don’t see clearly and distinctly, then you’re making a giant. I’m thinking of the close encounters – mountain of mashed potatoes. [laughter] You’re making a giant. This is the mechanism. I’ve applied the mechanism that I made. [laughter] No, it’s just a mountain of mashed potatoes, but we’ll have to explore that next time. Folks should of course, tell us what you like about this more detailed treatment of our tasks, because we, you know, we’re for sure going to do one more episode. But that’s only getting against through half the book. Should we keep going? Should we take a break and do other things and then come back to this. Or should we just say, forget Locke until, you know, years from now. I’m kind of enjoying the sticking to it. We’re certainly not letting ourselves in these discussions get too channeled into merely parroting what he is saying such that it seems like Oh, more seeing me, seeing me, seeing me as last week. It’s gonna be the same next week with the fact that we’re bringing so much to bear and can maybe read more in the Rutledge or you know, other things for next week. If we have time. I don’t know. I’m not against this. Spending some more time on this book.
Wes: I like it as well.
Mark: Goodnight, everybody!
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