Primary and Secondary Qualities in Locke's <i>Essay</i>

Michael Ayers

in Primary and Secondary Qualities

Published in print April 2011 | ISBN: 9780199556151
Published online May 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191725548 | DOI:
Primary and Secondary Qualities in Locke's Essay

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Is Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities just a lesson, now outdated, drawn from seventeenth-century mechanistic corpuscularianism, or does its still significant appeal mark it out as a distinction independently available to reflective common sense without regard to any particular physical theory? That is the main question that this chapter sets out to answer, taking off from the apparent tension between Locke's approval of corpuscularianism and his denial that we can know the essence of any substance. Difficulties in his argument are recognized, such as the wide differences between the qualities he lumped together as 'secondary'. But it is concluded that, wrapped up with a limited endorsement of corpuscularian physics, Locke gives expression to a conception of observable reality and of the mechanical interactions of bodies with which any philosophical account of the relation between physical theory and pre-theoretical experience and thought needs to come to terms.

Keywords: Locke; corpuscularianism; primary qualities; secondary qualities; ideas; real and really; scepticism; matter; mechanism; common sense

Chapter.  12799 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy

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