Locke on Primary and Secondary Qualities


For Locke, an idea is ‘the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding’ (§8).1 Perhaps this is something like a concept: he goes on to give examples of white, cold, and round, which look like they have some representational content. What do these ideas represent? Locke defines a quality: ‘the power to produce any idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein that power is’ (§8). The natural thought is that these ideas represent some quality of the object, which quality just is the power that the object has to produce that idea in us. Though the idea is in us, the power or quality is clearly in the object. Sometimes, it is true, we speak loosely and refer to the quality of the object by the same name that we use to refer to the idea in us, and talk of white being in the object, for example. Locke cautions that when we speak like this, we should ‘be understood to mean those qualities in the objects which produce them [the ideas] in us’ (§8)

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Antony Eagle
University of Adelaide


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