“Unlike mass, colour is not objective.” The views of Locke and Berkeley.

This question concerns the differences between the primary and secondary qualities of objects and how these differences relate to the idea of objectivity. According to Locke, mass is deemed to be a primary quality whilst colour is considered a secondary quality. Locke defines primary qualities as independent and necessary for existence; whereas secondary qualities are subjective. However, Berkeley defines primary and secondary qualities as interlinked and not existing outside of the mind. This distinction has implications for how certain we can be of the traits and characteristics that any given object within our environment possesses. I will explore both the views of Locke and Berkeley with regards to this issue whilst trying to determine what it is for something to be objective. I will argue that like mass, colour can be considered objective.

Firstly I will discuss what it means to be objective. A basic understanding of the word denotes something that is fact based, measurable, observable and falsifiable. These criteria are inherently related to the idea of a perceiving subject and an object that is being perceived: “The perceiving subject can either perceive accurately or seem to perceive features of the object that are not in the object.”(Mulder)

Furthermore “The terms ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity,’ in their modern usage, generally relate to a perceiving subject (normally a person) and a perceived or unperceived object. The object is something that presumably exists independent of the subject’s perception of it. In other words, the object would be there, as it is, even if no subject perceived it. Hence, objectivity is typically associated with ideas such as reality, truth and reliability.” (Mulder)

This definition can be applied to both colour and mass, we can say with confidence that mass exists outside of human experience because it still exists without humans there to observe it. According to this definition we can bring into question how far colour agrees with this. Colour on the other hand can be harder to determine seeing as there are many instances where people’s perceptions of colour vary quite drastically. One recent example that comes to mind is the dress illusion that was going viral on social media because people either saw it as white and gold or blue and black. Clearly our vision can fall foul of mistakes when perceiving colour. Nonetheless we are not trying to determine whether our vision is objective but whether colour can be. Thanks to advances in the scientific method we can now use instruments to precisely measure colour down to its essential components and have determined that a given wavelength of light denotes a certain colour regardless of our perception. This means that colour can be shown to be objective.

Moving on, Locke gives a very clear explanation of the differences between primary and secondary qualities:

“The ideas of primary qualities of bodies, are resemblances of them, and their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves; but the ideas, produced in us by these secondary qualities, have no resemblance of them at all. There is nothing like our ideas, existing in the bodies themselves.” (Locke, 1689, 2.8.15)

Further, primary qualities are intuitively objective and scientific qualities that are not defined in relation to minds. They are essential properties in the sense that an object could not exist without them and are not dependent on secondary qualities. Primary qualities include; solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, number, bulk (mass) and texture (structure). Secondary qualities, on the other hand, are intuitively subjective and non-scientific and are defined in relation to minds. They are powers to affect something else i.e. human perception, and are not intrinsic qualities of objects. Secondary qualities are dependent on primary qualities. They include; colours, sounds, tastes, touches and smells.

Based on this definition it would seem that Locke thinks that colour could not ever be considered objective since it is a quality that exists solely in the mind of a subject and not in the object itself. However his reasoning causes some problems. Locke states that secondary qualities and their powers to affect our perceptions are produced by an object’s underlying primary qualities. “This power is the result of the primary qualities of the object’s ‘imperceptible parts’ or as we would now put it, in terms of its atomic and molecular structure. Light, by which we perceive colour, can be explained in terms of the effects and activity of subatomic particles, smell in terms of chemical compounds, and so on. Physics and chemistry deal only with primary qualities – the size, shape, motion and so on of tiny bits of matter. Because an object has primary qualities, and its secondary qualities are the effect of its primary qualities, then we can say that objects have secondary qualities. Defined like this, secondary qualities are relational properties of objects.” (Lacewing, 2017, p.47) This would mean that secondary qualities actually exist independently of the human mind and would still exist if there was nobody to perceive them which is contrary to what Locke suggests.

Locke confuses qualities and ideas: “Qualities are powers in the object, and the causes of ideas; ideas are the effects of these powers on our minds. If colour is a secondary quality, then it is what causes our experience of colour – and this exists outside the mind.” (Lacewing, 2017, p.48)

Locke’s idea that there is an observable distinction between primary and secondary qualities seems somewhat counterintuitive. How is it that we can use our senses to discover objective primary qualities and yet when doing the same for secondary qualities this sense data can be called into question? Since most of the secondary qualities do directly relate to a given sense, by calling secondary qualities subjective, it would seem Locke is stating that our sense data as a whole isn’t accurate, therefore, how could we use the same sense data to arrive at an objective understanding of primary qualities? Yet we seem able to apply our sense data to the real world in ways that are accurate and consistent, for instance when building things.

On the other hand, Berkeley seems to deny any distinction between primary and secondary qualities however and contends that nothing could count as experience of a world of bodies which had primary but not secondary qualities:

“It is not in my power to frame an idea of a body extended and moved, but I must give it some colour or other sensible quality… In short, extension, figure and motion, abstracted from all other qualities, are inconceivable.” (Bennett, 1971, p.90)

He takes this one step further though by stating that “an idea can be like nothing but another idea” (Berkeley, 1710, Part 1, sec: 9). This is called the likeness principle and Berkeley uses it to challenge Locke’s view of indirect realism, namely that our ideas represent the external physical world. Berkeley thinks that no such representation occurs and that there is no connection between the external world and our ideas, he thinks what we perceive is entirely mind dependent and that there are no mind independent physical objects, in this way Berkeley is considered an Idealist. He argues therefore that primary qualities do not exist outside of the mind as Locke suggests they do.

This would seem to lead us to the conclusion that Berkeley thinks that nothing can be objective since there are no objects to perceive in the first place. This cannot apply to the real world because surely it is sense data about the external world that gives rise to ideas. We cannot have an idea without sensory input because there would be nothing to have ideas about. How could we justify the sense experience we do have without an external world, are we simply hallucinating of making it all up in our minds as we go? If that is the case it would seem highly unlikely that we could corroborate our knowledge about things as everyone’s mind would be creating a different subjective reality. For these reasons Berkeley’s argument seems inadequate as it raises far too much doubt over how we could know anything at all.

Overall it would seem to me that like mass, colour can also be considered objective. Locke is mistaken to think that secondary qualities exist only in the mind when in fact modern science has shown them to be just as much a part of physical reality as primary qualities. Locke suggests that secondary qualities are these mysterious powers that produce ideas in our minds but he fails to realise that these qualities essentially come from the base atomic structure of an object just like primary qualities.


  1. Mulder, D. Objectivity. Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (online). Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/objectiv/#H6 (Accessed 30/11/2017).
  2. Locke, J. 1689. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. eBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide Library (online). Available at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/locke/john/l81u/index.html (Accessed 30/11/2017).
  3. Bennett, J. 1971. Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Oxford University Press.
  4. Berkeley, G. 1710. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (online). Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4723/4723-h/4723-h.htm#intro (Accessed 30/11/2017).
  5. Lacewing, M. 2017. Philosophy for AS and A Level: Epistemology and Moral Philosophy. Routledge. Available at: http://www.alevelphilosophy.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Chp-2-Epistemology-Perception.pdf (Accessed 30/11/2017).

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