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.
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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.
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