Locke on powers, etc.

I’ve been pouring over Locke’s Essay.  One reason for doing so is that while straight-up passivists are usually (either expressly or deep down) Humeans, less overtly passivist positions in/elements of the contemporary powers-related discussion are, in key respects, recognizably Lockean.  But more on the nature of the developing literature another time.  For now I just want to say, for the record – though I’m sure that I am not the first to come to this conclusion – that Locke’s own account of what he calls a power (and those aspects of his metaphysics to which it is related, no pun intended) is fraught with problems.

Locke says that a power is a relation.  (Notice that that phrase rolls off of the tongue, but that it is nevertheless not at all clear that that is what a power is.)  A relation, in turn, is an idea — a “complex idea,” Locke says.  Unlike a complex idea such as that of a substance with properties, which just is an amalgam of (simpler) ideas, a relation is the idea of there being a connection between two (or more) ideas, be those ideas simple or not.  The mind, Locke says, can bring (ideas of) things together, considering them jointly.

Okay, good.  So relations are ideas, not objectively real entities, or real features of bodies.  And note that we don’t yet know just what the content of the idea “power” is; we just know that it’s the kind of composite idea that involves bringing ideas together but without amalgamating them into a unity, as one does when one forms the complex idea that is that of a substance of one kind or another.

Hold that thought.

Now let’s register some other things that Locke says.  (1) Locke says that material bodies have a small number of properties that really do inhere in them, or can properly be said to be had by them.  One of these is motion.  (2) In addition to having a small number of real or primary qualities, as Locke calls them, material bodies also, according to Locke, have (i) secondary qualities and <wait for it> (ii) powers.  Only, since properly speaking they don’t actually have these features, not really (I will remind us why in a minute), it would be more accurate to say that, in Locke’s view, material bodies “have” – i.e., appear, to us, to have – the properties (or apparent properties) that he calls secondary qualities and powers.

Moving on.  (3) Re: (i), what “secondary qualities” – i.e., properties that things only appear to have – what secondary properties really are, says Locke, are ideas in the mind of a human subject.  “Whiteness” is a real live idea, but it is not actually a property had by my tea mug.  This said, (4) even though my mug does not have a property of “whiteness,” the idea of “whiteness” is caused to be in my mind by the properties that my mug does have.  (5) Re: (ii), I’ve already said what a “power” is, according to Locke — or at least enough to make it clear that it is not something that is actually had by an object to which it might nonetheless be ascribed.

Here is where the trouble starts.  Or, at least, the trouble that I want to talk about now.

Let’s try to fill out the rest of what Locke says about what a power is.  What is it to cause something, for Locke?  “Cause and effect” is an instance of just that type of idea that Locke calls a relation — again, the bringing together of two ideas, by the mind, into a complex idea in which the component ideas are not amalgamated but rather are considered jointly in one way or another.  In this case (unlike the case of the relation “taller than,” say), the way in which the relata are considered jointly is that one is thought to be the source of alteration, as Locke puts it, in the other.   Thus: (6) “a thing being the source of alteration in another thing” turns out to be the content of Locke’s idea of an active power.

But now we really have a problem.  Actually more than one.  Locke says that we get the complex idea “power” from two sources.  We get it from reflection on the operation of our mind, and we get it – though less distinctly – from our experience of external material objects.  (Indeed, Locke opines in Bk. II, ch. 21 that it “may well be” that the idea “power” is actually a simple idea, not (after all) a complex idea.  This matters in some ways, though being a simple idea is not enough to tell us that the idea refers to an actual property of things; “white” is a simple idea, and yet, inasmuch as it is a secondary quality, it doesn’t refer to a property of “whiteness” that is or could be had by anything.)

Here are at least some of the problems, as I see them.

One problem involves circularity.  First, insofar as we take Locke at his word, and assume that “cause and effect” is a relation, then for a given cause x to be the source of alteration or change in y can only be for the idea that represents x conceptually to be brought together, by the mind, with the idea that represents y.  Brought together … how?  In a way that involves the idea of “being the source of alteration.”  But if that is so then we are back where we began.  Moreover, the very ideas that are being related in the “source of alteration”-way, are themselves said by Locke to be “caused” by the real or primary qualities of things.  This is so (according to Locke) whether the ideas in question are of primary qualities or of (“of”) secondary qualities.  But for the moment let’s attend only to the case of secondary qualities being ideas that are caused by real or primary properties.  Here too, if we assume Locke’s definition of “cause,” what is actually happening when the mug’s real or primary qualities cause my idea of whiteness is that the idea of “whiteness” is being related, by me, to some one or number of the mug’s real or primary qualities.  But this requires us to posit the very idea of whiteness the genesis of which we are supposedly explaining.

We can plug both of these points back into Locke’s claim that in addition to secondary qualities, things have (“have”) powers (i.e., can be sources of alteration), in order to plot out what such a claim can and cannot actually amount to ontologically.  (Of course, the same circularity will also figure in the simpler case of real or primary qualities causing our ideas such qualities.

A different problem involves coherence.  There is really no question, it seems to me, but that Locke thinks that active mental powers, at least, involve the actual doing of something.  The only real property of things to which the idea of “doing” could refer is that of motion (or being in motion).  But Locke’s discussion of active mental powers clearly involves activity that does not reduce to, and cannot be reduced to, mere motion.  Of course, we can deny that either of Locke’s broad categories of powers, mental or physical, do refer to actual doing.  In that case, the mental activity of “bringing together” will simply add an additional layer of circularity, to the conceptual scenario set out above.

These points about Locke are interesting for their own sake, for some of us.  But I think that they are worth working through even if one doesn’t find them inherently interesting, just as mental exercise for thinking well about powers.

Comments welcome!






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4 Responses to Locke on powers, etc.

  1. Hi Ruth
    Interesting to find someone digging into Locke. I hope you don’t mind me offering a different interpretation. I think that generally the received view of Locke—and I think your reading is close to, or influenced by, the received view—fail to adequately distinguish between Locke’s ontology of properties, and his account of how we acquire ideas about them. In fact, some make no distinction between the two, believing that Locke was a sceptical empiricist like Hume, when in fact he was much closer to the rational realist tradition. Locke belived we could gain knowledge of an external reality, although he thought we relied more on our senses than most rational realists, and thus were more limited in what we could know (but not as much as Hume thought we were).

    My own view about Locke’s ontology is that he thinks (i) that there is an external world of objects with properties (qualities), (ii) that all the qualities really are powers, and (iii) that his distinction between primary and secondary qualities is between the qualities that any material object whatsoever has to have because they are essential to what it is to be a body (solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number), while the secondary qualities are derivative (higher order) qualities grounded in “the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts” (VIII: sect. 10). The insensible parts, then, are the primary bearers of the primary properties. I think he is very explicit about all of this is Chapter VIII.

    Basically, Locke assumes—along with the natural philosophers of his age—that all material bodies we identify in perception are really unities of corpuscles too tiny to affect our senses individually, and which are the fundamental bearers of primary properties. However, when corpuscles make up compounds, the compound has the sum of the primary properties of the corpuscles, while still having features that the individual parts have not, e.g. the compound may have a shape that each part has not, and a surface texture that each part lacks individually. If some parts have the ability to absorb some wavelengths of light, and others have the ability to reflect some other wavelength, the result is an overall ‘texture’ that only reflects a particular wavelength. The distinction is really between essential and accidental properties, as they were drawn by the atomists; corpuscles only have essential properties while compounds also have some accidental properties.

    As for the claim that Locke considered all qualities to be powers, then he says that “the power to produce any [ANY!] idea in our mind, I call quality of the subject wherein that power is” (VIII: sect 8). He then continues to give examples of such powers, and offers both secondary and primary qualities: (1) “Thus a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round [shape, or figure, is a primary], —the power to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball, I call qualities; and as they are sensations or perceptions in our understandings, I call them ideas (VIII: sect. 8). A little later he particularly mentions primary qualities: “These I call original or primary qualities of body, which I think we may observe to produce simple ideas in us, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number” (VIII: sect. 9). I have been unable to find anywhere in the Essay a contrast drawn between quality vs. power (plenty of talk of all kinds of qualities being powers), but there is a contrast between on the one hand qualities and powers as belonging to the object, and on the other the sensible ideas of quality and power as they are in the mind. In Lock’s view, the sensible ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities. An idea of sphericity is like objective sphericity. However, the sensible ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble the secondary qualities they represent. An object appears red but in reality has a surface texture that absorbs some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The latter is something the phenomenal quality of redness gives us no information about so can’t really resemble it.

    I don’t think Locke says objects have primary and secondary qualities and powers in addition, as you suggest. He does say that the secondary qualities are nothing but the powers of a compound entity to produce a sensation in us in virtue of the sum of primary qualities belonging to the component parts + those to do with the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of the compound as a whole. But for that to be possible, the primary qualities must be powers too. He only says that the primary qualities belonging to each corpuscle are too weak to have any effect individually, so they only produce a discernible effect on us when acting in bulk. But of course they can only add up in bulk if they are powers to begin with; the threshold of influence is set by us, and not the powers themselves.

    The idea among commentators that secondary qualities don’t belong to the object, is—I believe—derived from the claim that the content of the sensible ideas that represent secondary qualities do not resemble the qualities of the object. Locke admittedly says that “ideas of the primary alone really exist” (VIII: sect 17), which may be interpreted as saying that only primary qualities belong to the object. But, if the phrase is actually interpreted literally as a negation, then it really says that IDEAS of secondary properties don’t exist. That is a reading that would contradict everything else he says about the existence of sensible ideas of secondary qualities.

    What I think he means is that it is only the content of the primary ideas that correctly represent anything existent. The content of the ideas of the secondary do not accurately represent what secondary qualities are really like, but still secondary qualities obviously exist. Consider that section 19, in which Locke discusses whether porphyry has the quality of redness, makes no sense unless we ascribe to porphyry the secondary power of being able to reflect red light even in the absence of light: “It has, indeed, such a configuration of particles, both night and day, as are apt, by the rays of light rebounding from some parts of that hard stone, to produce in us the idea of redness, and from others the idea of whiteness; but whiteness or redness are not in it at any time, but such a texture that hath the power to produce such a sensation in us”. To my mind, Locke is here describing porphyry as having the secondary power to reflect light (texture) even when in fact there is no light to reflect. This secondary power is of course derivative of the primary properties of the parts + configuration. What he is denying is that this power/texture resembles the content of the sensible idea that it gives rise to when the light it reflects stimulates our visual apparatus (it does not resemble the phenomenal quality), and that in that sense alone does porphyry not have ‘redness’ or ‘whiteness’ while it still has the secondary quality of being able to produce such ideas in the right circumstances.

    Now, qualities are powers and they are intrinsic to the object. What is then all the talk of powers as a relation in Chapter XXI of the Essay? I think we must make a similar distinction here between Locke’s ontology of powers—which is simply that qualities are powers—and Locke’s account of the content of our concept of power. It is only when he is discussing ‘power’ as a concept, or the content of the concept of power, that relations creep in. So, the concept of power, in Locke’s view, is relational, but I don’t see him say anywhere that qualities are relational in that sense.
    The idea seems to be really that since the content of our concepts generally is that what is provided by the senses, then everything must be made sense of in terms of a relation to our senses, or between ideas of sensation. So, our conceptualisation of powers is relational, but it isn’t clear that the nature of the powers we thus conceptualise is necessarily relational.

    All the best, Valdi

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Hi Valdi!

      Thank you so much for your lengthy and thoughtful comments. I am always hoping that people will reply, so that we can get a conversation going; I really appreciate your responding in such careful detail. I am impatient to reply, so forgive me if what I say isn’t as tight as it might be.

      With respect to the straight-forwardly textual issue, of whether or not Locke gives us two terms (viz., primary and secondary qualities) or three (those two plus “powers”), my claim that he gives us all three (though this tells us nothing about the ontology of any of them, or how they might overlap) is based upon Ch.8, Sec. 23.

      I’ve got it as: “23. Three sorts of qualities in bodies. The qualities then that are in bodies, rightly considered, are of three sorts.” The first, he says, “I call primary qualities.” Second, he says, are what is “usually the called sensible qualities.” These, he says, are the “power that is any body, by reason of its insensible primary qualities, to operate after a peculiar manner on any of our senses, and thereby produce in us the different ideas of several colours … etc.” Third, he says, are what are “usually called powers.” These differ from sensible qualities in that these are powers (“in any body, by reason of the particular constitution of its primary qualities”) “to make such a change in the [primary qualities] of another body, as to make it operate on our senses differently from what it did before.”

      He then goes on to give an epistemic gloss on this in 26., calling the second of the three sorts of qualities (ie., what just above he calls “secondary qualities”) “secondary qualities immediately perceivable” and the third (just above called “powers”) “secondary qualities mediately perceivable.”

      That he expressly and repeatedly specifies, here and again in 24-26, that there are three items in question is decisive (if it is) only with respect to whether or not he does indeed do so. :-) Beyond this, what is important is what he is actually saying, what the actual ontology is. You should know that I am – what? – an intellectual control-freak, or something, when it comes to reading canonical thinkers — I care not a whit about what the leading interpretation is; I don’t tend to read secondary sources in advance, unless the thinker is really, really, hard, and in the end I have to try to figure it out for myself. So at least you can rest assured that, for better or for worse, I’m responsible for my Locke. :-) (Though apparently I agree with Walter Ott in some important ways.)

      So what is he actually saying, and where do you and I disagree about it?

      I think that Locke himself is ambiguous in his prose about (a) whether or not he wants the second and third sorts of qualities “had” by bodies to be real — though certainly the ideas that they “cause” and the relations of which they are the relata have a real ground – and about (b) where, exactly, he wants them to be located. Some passages sound more like your reading – secondary qualities are both real and in the object – others sound more like my reading (for example, in 8.22, where he distinguishes between “real” qualities and “imputed” qualities. We seem to differ in our readings (and perhaps in our metaphysical proclivities generally) in that my sense is that, as Locke has it, “whiteness” (for example) is not actually a property had by any object. I think that, given what he tells us about what non-primary (I will fudge whether these are of one or of two kinds) qualities are, he is right to stipulate that they are “imputed” properties rather than real ones — and I think that he means it.

      I’m not sure why you think that I am conflating the epistemic and the ontological. They do come together in Locke, I think, in the sense that concepts are said to be in the mind (which one might take to be an epistemic issue) in virtue of being “caused” to be there by objects, which forces us to think through the metaphysics of “caused.” What I took myself to be doing was to be applying what Locke tells us, as a matter of ontology, about what a relation is, and about what the concept of cause maps onto (if not is) — applying this to both his conception of cause itself, and his account of non-primary properties.

      Is that any better?

    • rgroff2013 says:

      ps. He does say that powers just *are* relations.

  2. Dear Ruth
    I am very happy you disagree with me. That way we can push each other’s interpretation a bit further towards clarity (hopefully). Don’t worry about lack of ‘tightness’, I should have warned you of my own lack of it. Also, I hope you are sensitive to my difficulties in striking the right chord immediately in writing like this, when we don’t know beforehand each other’s quirks of writing and reasoning. So, what you need to know about me is that I don’t mind being shown to be wrong, that I don’t think I have seen the divine light of clarity in the interpretation of Locke’s texts, and that when I say I think others are wrong, that just means that in the moment I am writing I lean towards another view.

    As for the details of your reply, I agree completely that “Locke himself is ambiguous in his prose about (a) whether or not he wants the second and third sorts of qualities ‘had’ by bodies to be real — though certainly the ideas that they ‘cause’ and the relations of which they are the relata have a real ground – and about (b) where, exactly, he wants them to be located”. I am sure he is struggling with the same confusions we are still struggling with about properties and their relations to ideas.

    And I have to grant you being right about him making a tripartite terminological distinction between primaries, secondaries, and powers, in section 24. However, he doesn’t really consistently stick to the use of ‘powers’ merely for the third kind of quality, does he. Why is that? I can suggest it is because he isn’t really thinking of the distinction between the primary and secondary qualities, on the one hand, and the powers on the other, as a distinction between properties that lack and have a causal role. He thinks they all have causal roles, and therefore all are powers in some sense.

    I think he is thinking about the third kind of qualities in a similar way that later philosophers came to associate with the term ‘dispositions’, i.e. the sense presupposed in the categorical/dispositional distinction; as the unobservable properties we ascribe to an object in order to explain some or other observed change. But, I don’t think he is thinking of either the first or second kind of qualities as inert qualities (i.e. not as categorical properties). My reasons for thinking this is that he is constantly reminding us of the ability of the primaries to produce ideas in us. As far as I know, the idea of qualities as causally inert qualities simply wasn’t in vogue in Locke’s time.

    I suggest Locke is inclined to predominantly use the term ‘power’ for the non-primaries, and particularly for the third kind, in order to agree with the common use of the time. But, in as far as he describes the difference between the three, then they do not have to do with having/lacking a causal role, but whether they are essential to being a body, or if they only arise out of constellations of corpuscles, or with the degree in which our ideas about the qualities resemble any real qualities in the object.

    Indeed, for all the ambiguity about whether or not he wants the non-primaries to be real, then I think it is clear that in so far as he can stretch himself to consider them to be real, then it is in virtue of how far he can stretch his belief that they are grounded in the powers of the primaries. They are nothing but, if anything at all, the sum of the ability of the primaries to affect collectively. So, really the distinction between being real and imputed qualities have to do with the degree to which the imputed qualities can be considered as powers that are grounded in the powers of the primaries.

    About “whiteness” (and other sensible qualities). My reading is that Locke thinks “whiteness” is, and is not, in the object. Let me explain. It is IN the object in the particular sense that there is a real quality in the object that produces sensations of whiteness—the sensation of white indicates the presence of a real quality—but it is NOT in the object in the particular sense that the real quality does not resemble the phenomenal quality that we are acquainted with in perception. In other words, the phenomenal quality represents a real quality without resembling it, in the very same way the term ‘banana’ represents a real object with real qualities without resembling a banana in any way.

    So, my take on what Locke says in section 24, i.e. “The first are resemblances; the second thought to be resemblances, but are not; the third neither are nor are thought so” is this:
    Primary qualities are in the object and our sensible ideas about these qualities (the way these qualities appear to us in sensory perception), resemble the qualities. An object really has the shape it appears to have. Secondary qualities are in the object as derivatives of the bulk, figure, etc. of the corpuscles bearing the primary properties, and they produce in us sensible ideas (colours, tastes, sounds) that refer to or denote the secondary qualities but the content of these ideas do not resemble the qualities as they are in the object. So, an object looks red, but really has a surface texture that absorbs and reflects light in some particular way (see section 25 in VIII for an account of this). The third kind of qualities are, I think, really secondary qualities too and in the object in the same way as qualities of the second kind, and derive from the primary qualities in the same way, but they do not produce in us sensible ideas. Their power is towards other kinds of changes. We have to infer their existence in the object on the basis of changes in those secondary qualities that do affect our senses (the sense of ‘mediately perceivable’, see VIII: section 26). Examples I would give of properties of the third kind are ‘fragility’, the dormitive virtue of morphine, etc.; basically the kind of properties that are unobservable in an otherwise visible object. So, here we have the popular distinction between, say, shape (primary quality), colour (secondary quality that turns up in perception), and fragility (unobservable power that only can be inferred by changes in sensible ideas about other qualities). Part of the ambiguity of whether second and third kind of qualities are in the object or not, may have to do with uncertainty in our knowledge of which ideas refer and which do not; really, whether we have a third hand account of whether they do refer or not. So, some of our sensible ideas may not be anything but a hallucination (science will have to tell us), and some of our inferences about bare powers may be false (dormitive virtues, caloric) while other are true (fragility, brittleness, etc)

    In a way, I am suggesting that Locke’s distinction between a quality and a power is not based on whether the properties have or lack the ability to affect or be affected generally, but only on whether they produce sensible ideas in us. However, I think many contemporary readers take for granted that whenever Locke uses the term ‘power’ he is invoking some categorical/dispositional distinction.

    I am aware of an alternative interpretation. This is that Locke distinguishes (or semi-distinguishes) between the qualities of an object, and the influence that the object exerts in virtue of that quality. The exercising of an influence would be what Locke calls ‘bare power’, and that would in a way represent the causal role of the primary or secondary quality. This would make sense of his discussion of how we acquire the concept of power. But, even on this reading he cannot be said to make a categorical/dispositional distinction, because one would have to find him argue that the qualities have their causal roles contingently. I haven’t seen him do that.

    This alternative interpretation would also fit with the fact that, as you point out, Locke says at one point that powers are relations (as in “19. Powers are relations, not agents”). However, I find that he is ambiguous on this issue, because he does describe the qualities as powers, and as abilities whether or not they are being exerted or not. It is clear however that he does think we acquire the concept of power by “The mind being every day informed, by the senses, of the alteration of those simple ideas it observes in things” (XXI: 1), and thus as a result of establishing a relation between two simple ideas. And then he says elsewhere that power INCLUDES relation of some kind (not that it IS relation): “I confess power includes in it some kind of relation, (a relation to action or change,) as indeed which of our ideas, of what kind soever, when attentively considered, does not?” (XXI: 3). But here again he is considering the sensible idea of power and not the primary or secondary quality itself that ultimately is the cause to the idea. Indeed, if we read him as making a claim about the qualities themselves, then he seems to be saying that there really are no purely non-relational qualities at all, because even our understanding of qualities understood to be intrinsic and primary involve a relation. I find it difficult to attribute this view to him.

    Now, it may be true that rather than you being guilty of conflating the epistemological with the ontological, then I am inventing a separation that isn’t really in Locke. I would have to admit that this is very probable, at least to some degree. Even so, it seems to me that this would be a fruitful way of speculating about what Locke was on about; to understand the sources to some of the ambiguities we discern in his writing; and to glean from it something of use to contemporary metaphysics of properties.

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