The first move made in Meillassoux’s book is to attempt to retrieve the viability of ‘primary properties’ as a philosophical concept that can do serious lifting. The origin of the explicit ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’ properties distinction is in Locke – although he uses the term ‘qualities’ rather than properties – and it’s core problem is perhaps found in Berkeley. Locke posits primary properties of an object as those which, we might say, are in the object itself and secondary properties as those which are in the perception of the object 1. The former might be extension, solidity and motion whilst the latter might be colour, taste and smell. Berkeley’s objection to the distinction is to the primary property as being ‘in the object itself’ – for Berkeley all we have are ideas and even if there is a distinction among our ideas of an object that matches the ‘primary/secondary distinction, this is still a distinction only amongst ideas and has no necessary bearing or connection on anything outside the mind.
There has been debate over what exactly might be listed under the category of ‘primary property’ but in the initial outlining of the distinction the primary properties are those that are divisible. “Take a grain of Wheat, divide it into two parts, each part still has Solidity, Extension, Figure and Mobility; divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible, they must retain still each of them all those qualities.” The crucial move here – ‘and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible, they must retain still …’ – indicates the presence of a non-empirical principle. The necessity that these particular qualities must exist in any object whatsoever, no matter how large or small, is not something that we extract from experience but something with which we organise or understand experience. Primary properties, then, are what belong to the objects themselves as objects not as perceived objects. The existence of these properties does not depend on any subject, any observer, discovering them – they are properties in the object itself.
The debate between Locke and Berkeley is in a sense ‘resolved’ in Kant, at least for much modern philosophy. If Berkeley’s objection to Locke is, roughly speaking, that we cannot know whether any of our ideas accurately corresponds to the object because we have no way of accessing the object outside of our ideas of it, then Kant ‘resolves’ the problem by arguing that getting our ideas to correspond to an object is to get everything the wrong way round – it is objects that correspond to our ideas. Kant ‘refutes’ Berkeley’s idealism in favour of what some suggest is best understood as a reconfigured version of Locke2. It is not that we make objects up, that we imagine the world into existence but rather that we cannot help but see the world in terms of the framework of our representations of the world. If Berkeley got rid of the world and made everything mental then Kant returns the world to us, but inside a screen. We cannot, for the Kantian, step outside the limits of our representations. The difficulty has always been, however, that this just seems like a sophisticated version of Berkeley – within Kant we can no more be sure the world is as our representations present it than we could in Locke. Instead we are told to forget this problem, stop worrying about the accuracy of our representations and instead examine the structure and limits of those representations. We stop looking at the world and begin examining the way we look at the world. We retreat indoors, as though we were anthropologists who had somehow decided that instead of going out into the field to examine the human relations they were going to investigate they would instead sit in front of the TV examining representations of the human relations. The argument would be that since going outside only offered a different set of representations – there is no ‘real thing’ over and above these representations – it is perhaps better to watch human relations on TV than in the field since if we are in the field we might contaminate those relations in a way we cannot do if we watch them on screens.
These arguments and many that are far stronger and more sophisticated, because they are developed in more depth and detail and rigour than in this short account, offer compelling problems for anyone engaged in philosophical investigations. It seems like everywhere we turn the ‘naive’ materialists like Locke are to be ‘learnt from’ but only in terms of their mistakes and the sophisticated modern philosopher has to simply accept the fundamental framework first put forward in detail by Kant and later developed in various forms by numerous other thinkers. This is the problem that Meillassoux is reacting against and this is why he is attempting to recover a sense to the concept of a ‘primary property’. It cannot be the case, he argues, that we can both accept that we are locked inside a representational space with regard the world and accept the truth of some very basic statements of science. If we are locked inside our own representations of the world, this includes our scientific representations, our mathematical representations and any other damn representation we might conceive. Either science and maths are just more stories amongst stories, perhaps useful but no more true than any other story or we do have direct and true knowledge of the world, albeit in a perhaps limited way.
The crucial statement in these opening pages of After Finitude, noted by numerous commentators on Meillassoux, is that “all those aspects of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully conceived as properties of the object in itself”. This is a very typical philosophers statement, couched as it is in a wording that enables its defence against opponents – notably the idea of being ‘meaningfully conceived’. Yet it is also intended as a straight forward rejection of the retreat to the screen indoors, the ‘transparent cage’ and is the motivation for what Meillassoux will claim is needed inside philosophy, which is a ‘return of the Great Outdoors’3. Here we get some sense of exactly the role that the concept of a ‘primary property’ is intended to play – it offers us access to the Great Outdoors by locating an absolute, that is, a true statement that is not relative to anything, that stands on its own in the sense that it does not depend on the observer, the subject or some human accessing it. It might seem easy to reject this absolute nature of the mathematical statement by referring to the need to express it in some form but this is liable to descend into sophistry, begging the question of whether there are primary properties by surreptitiously declaring that any fact is dependent on the human language game, conceptual framework, mode of understanding or mind of some human or rational agent. It is vital, if Meillassoux’s argument is to be read and not simply caricatured, that this seemingly easy rejection of the absolute is avoided, at least until the argument has been further developed. It is, however, difficult to grasp quite how mathematical statements somehow grasp ‘the object itself’. Meillassoux will not directly address this, he does not engage in a philosophy of mathematics. In order to understand what he does it is important to remember the dichotomy he poses – either the sense of the mathematical statement is governed by a ‘deep structure’ of the correlationist framework in which its real meaning needs to be cashed out properly by adding some clause such as ‘as we see it’ or the statement is simply true or false.
1. See John Locke, An essay concerning human understanding, Clarendon Press 1988, Book 2, Chap VIII (p.134-135). It is important to note that Locke also spoke of ‘ideas’ since he used that term to refer to “whatsoever the mind perceives in it self, or is the immediate object of Perception, Though or Understanding”. He locates the core of the concept of the primary property or quality, however, in its power to produce ideas and thus distinguishes between ideas not in terms of their content but in terms of their genesis. This power is not located in its relation to ideas – it is not a ‘power to produce ideas’ but rather a causal ‘power to produce’ that effects objects in general, as can be seen from Book2, Chap.VIII, Section10 – “the power in Fire to produce a new Colour, or consistency in Wax or Clay by its primary Qualities, is as much a quality in Fire, as the power it has to produce in me an new Idea or Sensation of warmth or burning”.
2. See Yashuhiko Tomida, Locke’s ‘things themselves’ and Kant’s ‘things in themselves’: the naturalistic basis of Transcendental Idealism, in Studies on Locke: sources, contemporaries and legacy, ed.s Hutton and Schuurman, Springer 2008, pp261-75 – available online at https://sites.google.com/site/diogenesphil/lk, accessed 16/07/2011.
3. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Continuum 2008, p7