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Berkeley

From secondary to primary qualities.

One question we should consider is why Berkeley gives all these arguments about secondary qualities at all? Why does he have Hylas maintain the reality independent of the mind of what philosophers from Galileo to Locke had called secondary qualities? These philosophers had denied the independent reality of secondary qualities. So, in effect, Berkeley makes Hylas start out holding the position, not of the "modern" philosophers, but of the Schools. The Schools (sometimes called the Scholastics) were the dominant force in the Universities. They held an Aristotelian view of perception which claimed that all qualities are real and exist independent of the mind. Galileo, Descartes, Boyle and Locke all rejected the Scholastic view, and were at pains to show that this is not true of a whole set of qualites -- the set of qualities which Descartes calls "sensible qualities" and which Boyle and Locke refer to as secondary qualities. Berkeley is repeating the arguments of these philosophers and perhaps going into even more detail than they do in making these arguments. Since he agrees with them about the nature of these qualities, why recapitulate the arguments in great detail? The answer has to do with the nature of dialogue. I suggest you consult the section on "Dialogue" in the OSU Philsophy Department Writing Philosophy Papers: A Student Guide for an explanation.

Primary qualities

On Pp. 233-4 we get to the heart of what the first dialogue is all about. Hylas is at last forced to make the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and Philonous tells him the strategy he is going to follow to show that the distinction is not tenable. Berkeley is going to show that the same kind of arguments which show that the so called secondary qualities are mind dependent apply to the primary qualities as well, and so no distinction can be drawn between them --at least on the basis of empirical evidence. Here we have, at least in part, the justification for the detailed arguments going to show that secondary qualities are mind dependent. They are going to serve as the model for showing the same result applies to primary qualities. And the beauty of it is, that the other side, Descartes, Boyle and Locke -- all of whom make the distinction to which Berkeley objects, all accept the arguments in the model! Here is what Berkeley writes:

Phil. You are still then of the opinion, that extension and figure are inherent in external unthinking substances.
Hylas I am.
Phil. But what if the same arguments which are brought against secondary qualities, will hold proof against these also?
Hylas Why then I shall be obliged to think, they too exist only in the mind
So, there it is, that is the main conclusion which this whole first dialogue is aimed to establish.

On Pp. 234-236 Berkely deals with figure and extension together. On Pg. 236 he takes up motion, then on Pg. 237 (towards the bottom) returns to extension, when Hylas makes a distinction between "absolute and sensible extension" and which leads to a discussion of abstraction and the ideas of "extension in general and motion in general." This discussion continues up to Pg. 240. There Hylas makes yet another distinction, between the sensation of something and the object which causes the sensation. This leads (Pg. 241) to a distinction between two elements in perception, active and passive. This ends towards the bottom of Pg. 242. Hylas then makes another distinction, between qualities and modes, on the one hand and substances or substratum on the other. The substratum or substance is necessary to support the qualities. Philonous finishes with this on Pg. 244. Hylas then (at the bottom of Pg. 244) makes the suggestion that the problem is that Philonous took the qualities separately, rather than together. This continues until the top of Pg. 246. Hylas then introduces some new problems. The first of these is the claim that we see objects at a distance. Philonous finishes with this on Pg. 248. Hylas brings up the causal or representational theory of perception. This finishes on Pg. 251.Philonous then concludes that he has demonstrated from Hylas' principles that Hylas is a skeptic. Hylas admits that while he is not entirely convinced, for the present he is silenced. They agree to meet again the next day to reconsider the matter.

So, it turns out that the actual analysis of primary qualities is much more brief than that of the secondary qualities. The arguments about extension, figure and motion go for about three pages. Then Hylas starts make distinctions which lead to the discussion of abstraction, of the active and passive elements in perception (with the conclusion that perception is purely passive), and the discussion of the doctrine of substance and substratum. (Here we have an attack on Locke's account of material substance, using Locke's own doubts about the cogency of the concept to conclude that it is incoherent! Yet Berkeley believes in immaterial substances!) The discussion of whether qualites together can exist outside of the mind leads to the assertion of one of Berkeley's most fundamental claims, that to be is to perceive or be perceived, and that no thing can exist unperceived. Then we get the discussion of seeing at a distance. If we actually immediately see things at a distance, that suggests that extension exists independently of the mind. Berkeley had dealt with that problem in his first book A New Theory of Vision, and his conclusion is that we do not immediately perceive distance, we infer it. Finally, he takes up the representational or causal theory of perception and demonstrates some fundamental problems in it, at least interpreted in the way in which he interprets it. In effect we get the problem of the "veil of perception" -- that because we see ideas, we do not see objects, and hence there is no basis for saying the ideas resemble the objects which cause them. In fact, in principle, we cannot experience such objects. Nor do we have any reason to say that they exist.

 

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