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John Locke and His Epistemological View of Matter Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021

Knowledge is power. That is one of the most popular slogans in the modern world. There is a general understanding of what that means but the question remains how does a human being acquire knowledge. The deeper question when it comes to epistemology is not merely knowing the veracity of the first statement given above but on a more basic level how does a person acquire knowledge that makes him a thinking, rational being capable of understanding.

John Locke is a philosopher whose genius was demonstrated in many areas of study. But his brilliant mind was put into good use in epistemology – the study of knowledge. He advanced the theory that all material things have primary qualities (e.g. shape and chemical properties) but their secondary qualities (e.g. color and sound) exist in the mind of the perceiver.

This has led many to believe that “Lockean matter” has shapes but no color. This is not an accurate interpretation of Locke’s idea about material things. A much better interpretation states that primary qualities are irrefutable facts about an object but its color and sound is based on sense-impressions that reside in the perceivers mind. It is erroneous to think that everything is subjective; Locke did not mean to say that. He believes that there is something in an object that will produce the said sense-impression such as color, sound, taste etc.

This study will try to investigate why Locke proposed the abovementioned thesis. A basic overview of epistemology will suffice for this part of the paper. On the latter part, the proponent will attempt to refute the ideas proposed by Locke, specifically that material objects do not contain secondary qualities and that these secondary qualities are only byproducts of their primary qualities.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. How man acquires, perceives and retains knowledge is part of this branch of philosophy. It is very clear that John Locke’s theory about material things – understanding and perceiving them – is an attempt to contribute to the advancement of epistemology.

Before the modern world came to be, men like Locke set out to understand the mysteries of the universe. Ancient Greek philosophers preceding the Age of Reason laid the groundwork for future analysis into the microscopic and atomic levels of understanding matter. Placing oneself in the context or environment in which Locke breathe and live will make it easier for that person to appreciate what Locke was going through and why he was able to postulate such theories.

During the time of Locke, the Western world was undergoing a revolution of ideas. The intellectuals of his time steeled themselves to go against established ideas about the universe, human existence, and the material world they live in. Everyone was hyper critical of dogmas and will not accept information handed down from previous generations of policy makers and religious institutions. Everything must be tested, every body of knowledge must be overhauled to ascertain veracity and to prove once and for all that it was based on facts – that it ca be quantified using scientific laws.

Matter

There is no clear explanation as to how Locke was able to synthesize his ideas. No doubt he was influenced by his peers and also by the wisdom of the ancients especially from the Greek troika of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But one has to enter his mind to be able to fully grasp his insights into the material world. For this study the proponent will simply look at available facts try to picture what life was like in an era before computers, powerful microscopes, and space age technology.

Limited Resources

Locke was mistaken in assuming that there is nothing certain in this world except for the primary qualities of matter. He has argued that one can only be sure of things like shape, bulk, texture, and motion of the object but aside from that everything depended on the person who perceives such stimulus.

He did not go way overboard by saying that everything is subjective but he was not very confident to say that an object has fixed color or taste. In other words he is trapped between subjectivity and truth; he is in the gray area in the middle. For those living in the modern age, such claims may seem to appear ludicrous but one has to understand the contest from which Locke speaks of these things.

John Locke was a product of his surrounding and there is no doubt that he was influenced by what was going on around him. Still, his genius could not be denied because he was one of the few who were able to challenge the notion of perception and acquisition of knowledge. He was one of the few who were able to systematically present a way of knowing things. But his genius was limited by available knowledge and technology that would have helped him go beyond what he knew back then.

Simple Experiments

Now, allowing a bit of imagination and be transported back in time one can see the crude equipment available for testing scientific hypothesis. It would not be hard to imagine Locke sitting in his study or laboratory if he had one and facing him is a set of mortar and pestle. Inside this simple equipment is a seed of wheat. And then Locke applied vigorous force to crack the seed open and then continues to do so until the seed was grounded to powder.

A man of his genius can easily conclude that further simplification of the object by breaking it into thousands of pieces will reduce it to something that the eye cannot see. Locke then concluded that what remains faithful is the primary quality of the object but the secondary quality is not anymore verifiable.

Eye of the Beholder

At this point in time mankind has evolved into a rationale being that will not accept truth or knowledge based on vision alone. Men like Locke tried to go around the normal way of acquiring knowledge. Truth is truth even if it cannot be seen. Therefore, truth can be verified even without the use of the eyes.

Again, it would not be a stretch to imagine Locke closing his eyes, acknowledging that vision is limited and that truth is beyond what one can see. Perhaps he conducted an experiment using a coin. By touching it, Locke can feel the shape of the object. Its primary quality in terms of shape is round. He begins to feel the texture of the coin and could feel the image stamped on the coin. And probably he had a “eureka moment” in epistemology. If object had qualities then it follows that there are primary qualities and there are secondary qualities. The first one consists of those things that can be verified without sight. And the other qualities which are considered secondary are those that can only be perceived by a human being.

Clarification

It is now clear what Locke was trying to say. He believes that an object has two kinds of qualities. In other words there are two levels in which an object communicates its qualities to a human being. The primary quality is the most basic one and this quality exists even if there are no individuals around it to affirm its shape, texture, and motion. The second one is an innate quality that allows humans to describe the object in a more complex way by saying that this coin is round but it appears to be brownish in color. The brown color which is the secondary quality is a product of man’s perception.

This brings this discussion to the next level which is the realization that Locke was proposing for a separation between the objects primary quality and secondary quality. This means that the coin is round but the color is not inherent or part of the basic structure of the object. This can be elaborated further by saying that two people observing the coin – feeling it and touching it – can conclude that the shape is round but the color is between the range of brown and gold and that there is no certainty which is truth. If this is what Locke meant by his thesis then he is wrong.

Rebuttal

The separation of between the primary and secondary qualities of an object is not supported by scientific laws and available evidence. If Locke insists that only the primary quality is fact and the other one is based on a person’s perception will destroy an object beyond recognition. If the mind can will the separation of the two qualities then the object in question will disintegrate and disappear. Therefore, it is impossible to separate the two.

This can be proven by using objects in elemental form. Take for example a nugget of pure gold. The nugget usually comes in a rectangular form and it is yellow in color. Exposing it to extreme temperatures will melt the gold but it will retain its color. If Locke was correct then the changing of the shape should also result in the change in how a person perceives its secondary quality.

This is true for all elements. What is certain now is the realization that at the time of Locke the chemical properties of a material were not fully studied. They do not have the capability to extract elements from the earth and simplify it so that it will only appear in elemental form.

Another possible experiment that will refute Locke’s claims is the use of a red flower and subjecting it to a test to show that its shape and color go together as one and not separate entities the other fact the second a product of perception. A red rose can be used in the said experiment and what one can do is to crush the rose so that its petals will begin to “bleed” then place the rose on top of a white piece of cloth. After a while the red rose will stain the white cloth with a reddish color.

If the white cloth’s whiteness is due to its inherent structure then why is it that parts of the cloth changed to red when the rose was placed on top? The white cloth’s structure was not changed because it was not cut or burned or subjected to extremes in temperature and force. A red rose was simply placed on top of it and then it was stained with red. This simply means that there is something in the red rose that is as sure as the primary quality of shape because the same property can be transferred to another.

If the red color of the rose is just a byproduct of perception then the white cloth should not have been stained because the white cloth is made of different materials, far different from that of the red rose. In fact if a hundred crushed red rose will be placed on top a piece of white cloth then the fibers of the said material will be saturated with a reddish hue.

Light waves and Chemicals

At this point it can be argued that John Locke and his generation were not yet well versed in the principles of light waves and chemicals. The coin is color brown, the gold nugget is yellow in appearance, and the rose is red not because of how a human being perceives them but simply because of light waves. The phenomenon of light waves could not be fully explained in this paper but suffice it to say that light waves have different wavelengths and this difference in wavelengths is the reason why one can see different colors e.g. red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. And this is the main explanation why object have colors and not due to the perception of human beings.

The same can be said about the “secondary quality” called taste. A fruit has a distinct taste not because the person eating the fruit perceives it as such. The simple explanation is that the fruit has chemicals that allow humans to differentiate the taste of a banana from an orange. But it cannot be said that John Locke was entirely wrong. In a sense Locke demonstrated his ability to see beyond the ordinary. This will be expounded in the following pages.

Pure Genius

In a popular cartoon series, Wile E. Coyote was a wily animal who continually boasts of his resourcefulness and inventive power in his pursuit to capture the slippery Roadrunner. He has been known to utter the phrase, “pure genius” in describing his capabilities. Well, the coyote’s genius is debatable because as of this writing he has yet to capture the Roadrunner. But one thing is sure there is no doubting the genius of John Locke.

This paper may appear to be a bashing of Locke’s mental power. On the contrary the proponent of this paper will conclude the study with a heightened appreciation of Locke’s brain power. To this guy, one can appropriately say – he is pure genius. Going back to the facts of the case, Locke proposed that in truth there is no color, but the primary thing that can be verified and ascertained is the shape, texture, and movement of the object.

A closer look at his thesis reveals that Locke did not believe that a color of an object is subjective, that it changes from person to person. He was simply saying that the color reveals itself after a human being uses his senses to perceive. He then elaborated on this by saying that an object has color because something in its structure, something innate, allows humans to see the coins as brownish and the red rose as reddish. But in simpler form the object has no color.

John Locke lived in a time and place where supercomputers, powerful microscopes, and sophisticated equipment to study light waves are not yet available. And yet he was able to move closer to truth without the aid of those things. He was not 100 percent on target but he was very close to truth. This is because in truth an object has no color in itself but it acquires that property due to the reflection of light waves. John Locke’s only error is in the assumption that the color comes from within the object while in truth it is coming from an outside source – light waves. Yet, still how did he figure it out that in its most basic form an object has no color without external factors? His only error was that he attributed the external factors to human sensory organs. Still, the ability to see beyond the natural and into the sub-atomic world without the aid of instrumentation is the mark of pure genius.

Conclusion

In the time of John Locke a brilliant person is one part philosopher and one part scientists. John Locke is one of those men who trail-blazed the path of knowledge and almost single-handedly carried the whole Western world – that was plunged into darkness and ignorance – into the light of reason and truth.

Just like men of exceptional talent and formidable mental acuity he proposed ideas that were clearly ahead of his time. This is the reason that even in the 21st century, professors, students, and men of similar pursuits continue to study his words. One of the controversial ideas that he proposed was the theory on how men acquire knowledge, specifically pertaining to the material world.

Locke espoused the idea that in its basic form an object has two qualities. The primary quality includes shape, bulk, texture, and movement. While the secondary quality includes color, taste and sound. He reasoned that only primary quality can be ascertained to a certain degree and this fact can be considered as truth. On the other hand secondary qualities such as an object’s color are only a byproduct of a human being’s perception.

At first glance, those who are living in the 21st century can easily refute Locke’s thesis. This is because one look at his ideas will make one conclude the Locke separated the two qualities. It seems that Locke can believe in a material world that has primary quality but devoid of color. The proponent of this study made a counter-argument that if these two qualities will be separated then the object will be obliterated and disintegrated into something unrecognizable. This is because an object’s color is part of its signature.

This can be proven by experimenting on objects in its elemental form. Take gold for instance; there is no further reduction of the object either by grinding or melting it that can remove its color. God is already an element, an object in its basic form and removing its color will create another object that is not gold and simply because its basic quality includes the color yellow in its basic matrix.

Moreover, if Locke was right then the melting of the gold ingot from a rectangular shaped object into liquid form should have altered its color but it did not. This same experiment can be applied to other elements like silver, lead, tin, tungsten and there is no further reduction possible that will make its color a variable. This is because an object’s basic form includes color, it is part of its make-up.

Another experiment that was presented in the discussion was the crushing of the red rose and allowing its red pigmentation to stain a piece of white cloth. The red color from the red rose was transferred to the white cloth. If the rose did not possess the red color then it could not give it to the white cloth. In other words one cannot give what one does not possess. Therefore, the red color is part of the basic structure of the rose.

But the genius of Locke could not be denied. He was correct in saying that an object has no color. This part he was right on target. A closer analysis of light waves and its corresponding property will reveal that color is a result of the different light wavelengths and that an object acquires color not because it is actually possessing that color but it is composed of a material that can reflect and absorb light wavelengths.

Thus, a gold nugget absorbs all wavelengths but its unique physical and chemical structure allows it to reflect the wavelength that will result in the color yellow. The same applies to the red rose and the coin in the aforementioned experiment. This realization greatly increases the proponents’ appreciation of Locke’ talent.

It may appear at the beginning that this study is a bashing of Locke’s ideas but it turns out that the philosopher was able to demonstrate his genius even against the tremendous odds stacked against his favor. He was analyzing these theories without the aid of sophisticated equipment that could have aided him in perfecting his ideas. Yet even with those limitations he was able to lead his generation into a path that points them closer to truth. And that would make someone of his stature feel a deep sense of accomplishment.

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