Primary and Secondary Qualities

In my last post I discussed the distinction between the world of science and the “life-world” (Lebenswelt) of direct perception. The main point was that there are two ways of observing any phenomenon, and that both ways must be employed conjointly for the phenomenon to be properly understood.

This leads to the question of what is actually there when we observe something – something real, or something which we only designate as such with a word; something that is really part of the thing itself, or something that we only project upon it. Such is the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and, further, between real and nominal essences, and between realism and nominalism on the whole. Though at first glance these distinctions may appear to be of interest only to academic specialists, they do in fact have very important real-world applications, as we shall see.

The white cliffs of Rügen, Germany. The painter Caspar David Friedrich saw pretty much all of their secondary qualities.

There is an enormous body of literature, both original and scholarly, on the issues of primary and secondary qualities, and on realism and nominalism (Gassendi, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Wittgenstein, to mention only a small number of very prominent names). Briefly, the issue is this: The primary quality of an object, let us say a large cliff by the sea, is that it is a solid, that it weighs hundreds of tons, and so on. Its secondary qualities would include such things as its grey color, its beauty, and other such traits. The difference between the two groupings is that the latter, that of the secondary qualities, is more dependent on human perception, because some human observer might find the cliff brown rather than grey, and think that it is ugly, not beautiful (depending on how far one goes in this direction of subjectivity, one also speaks of tertiary qualities, but we may leave that aside for now). In parallel, the question raised by the distinction between realism and nominalism is whether certain abstract things actually exist or not. When I say that the cliff is beautiful, am I referring to actual beauty that really exists (realism), or is “beautiful” just a name (nominalism) that I give to my own impression? Optical science tells us that the cliff appears brown simply because its surface is such that it reflects a certain light and absorbs other light, but are we nonetheless entitled to say that the cliff really is brown? Why is this even important?

In many philosophical contexts I consider myself a nominalist (I do not believe that abstract things actually exist; rather, I believe that they are either simply names, or, if they do exist, that they are in fact material, not abstract). Nevertheless, something is to be said for the existence of secondary qualities, because – and this is why it is important – our understanding of the world will suffer if we reduce our perception to the scientific, primary level, and we will become poorer human beings; additionally, those philosophers who have explicitly or implicitly denied the existence of secondary qualities have often caused considerable harm in the world.

Mr. Marx: An extremely dangerous man.

As an example of the first instance, that we become poorer human beings, let us look briefly at sex, since it is sure to hold everyone’s attention. The primary quality of sex is biology, and that is precisely what a sexologist will tell us, reducing the union of bodies to sexual organs. Kant, whom in my post of July 25, 2014, I described as the philosophical father of the brainless bourgeoisie, in the Metaphysik der Sitten infamously describes marriage as a pact for the reciprocal use of the genitals, and says that sexual desire is a desire for the genitals of the other person, and nothing else. The secondary quality of sex is what the arts can illustrate in the form of poetry, music, sculpture, and the like, and what we can see ourselves in the act of union, that is to say, what sex can actually mean: care for another person, tenderness, a desire for the other’s happiness – in a word, love.

Yours truly at the ENS.

As an example of the second instance, that the denial of secondary qualities can make us not only poorer but cause considerable harm in a more widespread arena, let us look at the politics of justice. Many philosophers within the last century and a half or so have erroneously assumed that if the genealogy of a particular phenomenon or institution can be discredited, then the thing in itself must also fall. The main culprits in this regard are Marx and those inspired by him, especially the French postmodernists of the previous century gathered around the École Normale Supérieure (an institution at which, I am almost embarrassed to say, I was a guest researcher for a while), most famously Foucault. They like to think that if, for instance, it can be established that the laws of justice were set down by aristocrats in order to control the lower classes, then the laws of justice should be rejected. But there are two problems here: First, all human activity is interest-based, so that it should hardly be considered a special case if a particular action reflects a particular interest of certain people vis-à-vis those with opposing interests. Second, even though it is true that the laws of justice reflect a particular interest, we can nonetheless consider the laws of justice just. We can consider injustice a secondary quality of theft (the primary qualities being the physical deed, i.e. the furtive transfer of property from one person to another), even though theft was made illegal by someone merely wishing to protect his own property. There are countless examples of ideas that have been questioned for the wrong reasons by those thinkers I mentioned. We may question the laws of justice, of course, but when we do, we should question them on their own terms, which is intellectually far more difficult to do than to lazily dismiss them as part of a larger power structure. In this way, Marx and his acolytes have made many of us here in the West attack our heritage for the wrong reasons. As such, he has contributed to the fact that ever fewer people believe in the sanctity of anything anymore. If we recognize the importance of secondary qualities, we can work to correct this regrettable state of affairs.