Needless to say, John Locke’s political philosophy has been tremendously influential, especially in the United States. In this post, however, I want to focus on Locke’s epistemological views, i.e., his empiricism and his distinction between primary and secondary qualities. An examination of his views on these matters introduces us to interesting questions on the nature of human knowledge and perception, and beyond this, I believe, fruitful questions about the nature of our religious perceptions.
Unlike Descartes, who is a rationalist, Locke believes that the fundamental source of all human knowledge is experience derived through the senses. Descartes claims that after he had doubted his senses, he could still experience his own thought, and secondly, was also still aware of the concepts of perfection and eternity. Since he is not perfect or eternal, Descartes reasons that a perfect and eternal being, e.g., God, who must have placed those ideas in him.
In other words, according to Descartes, prior to experience, humans have knowledge of certain basic concepts, i.e., perfection and eternity. Plato, another rationalist, argues that we do not learn certain basic concepts through experience. The concept of “equality” (or justice and the good), for example, rather allows us to make sense of our experiences, that is, make judgments of same/not-same or equal/not-equal.
Locke denies a priori knowledge by arguing that the claim to innate knowledge is really based on the assumption that there are certain principles and beliefs that are universally assented to by humans. Locke argues this is the not the case, observing that even for a basic principle like the law of non-contradiction, there are large classes of people who are unaware of it, e.g., infants, children, and the intellectually disabled.(1)
Furthermore, he claims that he can provide an alternate account of how humans acquire knowledge. According to him, human minds are originally blank slates (tabla rasa) and all knowledge is a posterori, i.e., the product of sensations and reflections upon those sensations. Locke claims,
“The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it does not receive from one of these two. . .we have nothing in our minds which did not come in one of these two ways.”(2)
Unlike Descartes, Locke also has no insecurities about the basic trustworthiness of his senses; there is no ink spilled on refuting such a kind of skepticism. With that said, Locke makes an important distinction that prevents him from a naïve empiricism that assumes a perfect correlation between the ideas he’s derived from his senses, and the world as it is; the “ideas or perceptions in our mind”, Locke notes, are “modifications of matter in the bodies.” This distinction is crucial so “we may not think (as perhaps it is usually done) that they are exactly the images and resemblances of something inherent in the subject.”(3)
Locke goes on to distinguish between primary and secondary "qualities."(4) A quality, Locke explains, is "the power [of an object] to produce any idea in our mind." Primary qualities are "utterly inseparable" from the object, while secondary qualities, “are nothing in the objects." Rather it is the power an object has to “produce in me a new idea or sensation. . .”
Let’s examine an illustration used by Locke to clarify these distinctions. Take a snowball. There is the idea of the snowball in my mind (Snowball B) and the actual snowball (Snowball A), i.e. a “body” in the world external to my mind. Furthermore, in my mind, associated with the idea of a “snowball” are other ideas, e.g., “white”, “cold”, “round”, etc., ones I take to be properties of the actual snowball. The causes of the ideas in my mind are the “qualities” of the actual snowball.
Locke’s striking claim is that some of the the properties I associate with my mind's snowball (Snowball B) are not properties in the actual snowball (Snowball A). “Coldness” and “whiteness” are not primary qualities, rather ideas in me, produced by the snowball (Snowball A). Similarly, Locke writes
“what I have said concerning colors and smells may be understood also of tastes and sounds, and other like sensible qualities; which, whatever reality we by mistake attribute to them, are in truth nothing in the objects themselves.”(5)
The primary qualities of an object are its mass, size, shape, speed, and number. In these areas there is a one-to-one correlation between idea and object. So, one can affirm, if one sees this, that “there really are two round snowballs, weighing one pound each, and six-inches in diameter, flying toward my ahead at sixty miles per hour.”(6) One should not be so certain, however, that these same snowballs are “white” or “cold.”
Locke’s distinctions are not as outlandish as they first seem when we consider the phenomena of color-blindness or the experience many of us have had of eating and assessing a meal. My wife and I used to debate about the color of a favorite sweater of mine. I would insist it was brown. She insisted it was olive green (and I was colorblind.) Similarly, personally, I think that kimchi is “delicious.” I have friends, however, that think it “unfit for human consumption”; it “stinks” and is “too spicy.”
So which is it?
Aside from raising interesting questions about the nature of human knowledge and perception, Locke’s distinctions have me thinking about the other kinds of perceptions we have, namely religious ones. If he is on to something with his distinction between primary and secondary qualities, there’s a gap between our perceptions and the ways things really are. Relatedly, if his empirical account of knowledge is right, what we consider “knowledge”, as individuals at least, is shaped by our previous experiences and our reflection on those experiences. This “knowledge” inevitably goes on to shape our perceptions and judgments.
Think about the different ways people have responded to sermons in church. We can listen to the same message, and get something different from it. What did the preacher really say? Similarly, the same song or worship service can be assessed by some as being appropriate, and others as being apostasy. Which is it? We can interact with the same person and label that person “fundamentalist” or “liberal” (whatever these terms mean), or a member of the “lunatic fridge.” Who are they really? Lastly, and perhaps most uncomfortably, many Christians read the Scriptures as “simply saying” this or that. What does it really say?
How much of what we attribute to a sermon/song/person/the Bible is really shaped by our own limited experiences?
Locke helps us to be sensitive to these issues, and appreciatively reading him prevents us from prematurely declaring our own perceptions and preferences to be the way things really are, or the way God wants it to be.
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University.