Você está na página 1de 8

John Locke and Perception – Is the Colour Red Actually on the Surface

of a Tomato?

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding1 John Locke (1632-1704) makes the

claim that colour on objects is no more than an illusion, an error in perception that

goes unnoticed – although we may perceive a ripe tomato as red, the colour is not

actually on the fruit but is instead an “idea” in the mind of the observer. In this essay I

will examine Locke’s argument, discuss some inconsistencies related to primary and

secondary qualities, and examine his contribution to the study of the perception of

colour.

It is important to understand Locke uses the word idea in this context with the sense

that “objects of sensation are one source of ideas”2 – thus, it can be taken to mean a

direct sensory perception of an object in the outer material world. Unlike the

immaterialist George Berkeley 1685-1753), who believed that everything consisted of

ideas in the mind of the observer, and that matter did not exist, Locke is convinced

that a material world does exist beyond our individual experience of subjective

reality; and that it contains tangible physical objects with observable qualities which

he classifies within the divisions of primary, secondary, and tertiary.

The primary qualities of objects include solidity, extension, figure (shape/form),

mobility, number (quantity) and texture. These are the unalterable properties that

belong entirely to objects themselves; he argues that any changes to these bodies, or

1
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996.
2
Ibid. p. 33.
forces that act upon them, cannot modify the qualities that they “constantly keep.”3

Primary qualities truly convey something about an object that is consistent with how it

really is, or what he calls “resemblances of them.”4 Locke argues that if something

like a wheat grain is divided into pieces, each fragment still retains the qualities of

solidity, extension, form and mobility etc. A tomato contains all primary qualities, and

although it is soft and mushy, it must be understood that Locke defines solidity as the

capacity to fill space; having distinctness from space; and “differenced from

hardness.”5

Secondary qualities include colours, sounds, tastes, smells, sense of pain, and sense of

hot and cold. There is no inclusion of the sense of touch, which he otherwise

associates with the primary quality of solidity.6 In my view it is not included because

texture is problematic – it could also qualify as a secondary quality, and like all sense

perceptions susceptible to illusion.7 The issue of texture will be raised again in

subsequent paragraphs as it is related to the tone and colour of the tomato.

Locke claims that secondary qualities are “nothing in the objects themselves but

powers to produce various sensations in us.”8 But what are these powers? What sort of

intermediaries could cause nothing in the objects themselves to trigger a response in

the senses? Locke’s answer is that powers operate through “the operation of

3
Ibid. p. 49
4
Ibid. p. 51
5
Ibid. p. 43
6
Ibid. p. 42
7
Hayward, Vincent, A brief taxonomy of tactile illusions and demonstrations that can be done in a
hardware store, Brain Research Bulletin, 2008, Vol 75, No 6, pp 742-752.
8
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996, p. 51
insensible particles on our senses…smaller than particles of air or water.”9 When

referring to colour he adds “that a violet, by the impulse of such insensible particles of

matter of particular figures, and bulks, and in different degrees and modifications of

their motions, causes the ideas of blue colour…to be produced in our minds.”10 The

particles to which Locke refers, clearly originate with Democritus (circa 460-370

BCE) who postulated that “thin layers of atoms, are constantly sloughed off from the

surfaces of macroscopic bodies and carried through the air”11 entering the eyes. The

Cartesians had accepted the classifications of primary and secondary qualities12 yet

rejected the notion of atoms and particularly space. But Locke had a close associate in

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), an early chemist/alchemist who had developed an atomist

theory based on corpuscles ‒ these were infinitesimally small particles (surrounded by

space) with the properties of solidity, form, and mobility. They were posited to be the

building blocks of matter. Boyle also expounded13 that the qualities of objects split

into primary and secondary categories, and so we can speculate that Locke’s

“insensible particles” are most certainly Boyle’s corpuscles.14 This leads to two

contradictions: (1) how can these particles be classified by Locke as powers, when

they are clearly objects that express primary qualities, viz., solidity, form, mobility?

And (2), if they emanate from matter, corpuscles (as powers) do not qualify as

nothing in objects themselves.

9
Ibid. p. 50
10
Ibid.
11
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/#3, sourced 23rd October 2010.
12
Jackson, Reginald, Mind, New Series, Vol. 38, No. 149, (Jan., 1929), pp. 56-76, Oxford University,
1929.
13
Boyle, Robert, The Origin of Forms and Qualities, 1665-7, The Works of Robert Boyle, Vol. V, Ed.
Hunter, Michael & Davis, Edward B., Pickering and Chatto, 1999.
14
Alexander, Peter, Ideas qualities and corpuscles: Locke and Boyle on the external world, Cambridge
University Press, 1985.
Locke’s principle argument against colour existing in objects is based on the

observation that different levels of light change tone and value. Using the example of

a reddish igneous rock named porphyry, he questions: “Can anyone think any real

[colour] alterations are made in the porphyry by the presence or absence of light?”15

At first glance this argument appears sound, but it fails to explain why similar things

like green and red tomatoes manifest different colours when exposed to the same

light. And how is it that the other examples he refers to, snow and wax, undergo a

shift in colour with a change in state from solid to liquid? Unless light arbitrarily

varies its effect on objects, the differences in colour can only be explained by qualities

that exist within objects themselves. If texture, deemed a primary quality, affects the

perceived tonal shading of an object according to the quantity and angle of light, then

I suggest Locke made an error in not conceiving that there was another (chemical or

structural) quality in objects that modified colour. This contradicts for a third time

Locke’s claim that: “the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no

resemblance of [objects] at all.”16

We understand today that light has dual wave-particle nature and that some

wavelengths of light are absorbed by matter whilst others are reflected back. In the

case of a ripe tomato, red is reflected and the other colours absorbed, and if the tomato

is green, a reciprocal process takes place. Locke was remarkably advanced in

claiming that visual perceptions were caused by “insensible particles” entering our

eyes (albeit particles of light and not matter-based corpuscles), but he failed to reason

15
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996, p. 52.
16
Ibid. p. 51.
that there were qualities inherent in objects that conditioned their colour and tone. I do

not wish to enter a discussion on tertiary qualities, but it is important to understand

that Locke defines them as: the ability of one body to affect another, such as the sun

melting wax. Light operates in exactly this way, but its spectrum of wavelengths is

divided between the object and the observer. Colour is rightly claimed a secondary

quality of perception, but the ability of objects to absorb certain wavelengths of light

and thus condition which colours will be perceived, must qualify as a primary quality.

In another passage where Locke refers to light, he claims that when we see a change

of colour in a body we cannot say it resembles anything in the sun because we do not

find “different colours in the sun itself.”17 Isaac Newton (1643-1727) lectured

between 1669 and 1671 on the prism and colour spectrum, and he also presented a

paper on his work to the Royal Society in 1672.18 Either Locke disagreed with

Newton or was somehow unmoved by his work – Boyle was a member of the society.

As for the mechanism of mental perception Locke suggests that the imperceptible

bodies absorbed by the eyes “convey to the brain some notion, which produces these

ideas.”19 Like René Descartes (1594-1650), Locke is a proponent of substance-

dualism but he cannot offer an explanation as to how secondary qualities connect the

brain to the non-material mind-soul.

17
Ibid. p. 55.
18
Rouse Ball, W.W., A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 1908 - 4th Edition, Dover
Publications Inc., 1960.
19
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996, p. 50.
Locke’s secondary qualities approximate the modern definition of indirect realism or

representationalism: “the view that the immediate objects of experience represent or

depict physical objects in a way that allows one to infer justifiably from such

experience to the existence of the corresponding “external” objects.”20 But in the case

of colour, how do we know sense-perceptions are accurate renditions of the external

world and real parts of objects? Locke argues that colour cannot exist unless there is a

perceiver,21 and this makes perfect sense – a person who is born blind, cannot see

colour, and another who suffers from colour blindness cannot tell the difference

between specific colours. Science now confirms that colour is not really within or on

the surface of objects because it is a construct of the brain based on perceived

wavelengths of light.22 But Locke reasons why we erroneously attribute colour to

objects by employing two premises: (1) secondary qualities are not in objects

themselves; (2) but secondary qualities like colour, are commonly mistaken to be

primary qualities in objects. Because we are accustomed to viewing the world in

terms of primary qualities, we easily accept that secondary qualities are in objects

themselves.23

Despite the errors I have discussed, Locke is correct in claiming that the colour we

associate with objects is an “idea” in the mind of the observer – today’s

20
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-episprob/, sourced 29th October, 2010.
21
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996, p. 52.
22
Kandel, E., Scharwtz, James, H., Jessel, Thomas M., Principles of Neuroscience, 4th edition,

McGraw-Hill, 2000, Chapters 25, 29.


23
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler, Kenneth, Hackett
Publishing company, Inc., 1996, p. 52.
neuroscientific understanding of vision adequately confirms his remarkably predictive

view, and he deserves genuine acknowledgement for his 17th century insight.

Evolution may now better explain why we need to associate colour with objects,24

but Locke’s thoughts question the very basis of what we assume to be reality. When

next I encounter a tomato, I will face a dilemma: is it more real to associate the red

colour with the surface of the fruit, or more real to see it as a product of my mind?

24
Kandel, E., Scharwtz, James, H., Jessel, Thomas M., Principles of Neuroscience, 4th Edition,
McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Bibliography

Alexander, Peter, Ideas qualities and corpuscles: Locke and Boyle on the external
world, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Boyle, Robert, The Origin of Forms and Qualities, 1665-7, The Works of Robert
Boyle, Vol. V, Ed. Hunter, Michael & Davis, Edward B., 1999, Pickering and Chatto.

Hayward, Vincent, A brief taxonomy of tactile illusions and demonstrations


that can be done in a hardware store, Brain Research Bulletin, 2008, Vol 75, No 6,
pp 742-752.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/#3, sourced 23rd October 2010.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-episprob/, sourced 29th October, 2010

Jackson, Reginald, Mind, New Series, Vol. 38, No. 149, (Jan., 1929), pp. 56-76,
Oxford University.

Kandel, E., Scharwtz, James, H., Jessel, Thomas M., Principles of Neuroscience, 4th
Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689, Ed. Winkler,


Kenneth, 1996, Hackett Publishing company, Inc.

Rouse Ball, W.W., A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 4th Edition, 1960,
Dover Publications Inc.

Interesses relacionados