Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Primary–secondary distinction

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N077-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

The terminology of ‘primary and secondary qualities’ is taken from the writings of John Locke. It has come to express a position on the nature of sensory qualities – those which we attribute to physical objects as a result of the sensuous character of sensations they produce when they are perceived correctly by us. Since our senses can be differentiated from each other by the type of sensations they produce, sensory qualities are what Aristotle called ‘proper sensibles’ – those perceptible by one sense only. Colours, sounds, scents and tastes are always regarded as proper to their respective senses. What are the proper sensibles of touch, and whether there is similarly a single family of them, is a matter of controversy; but temperature at least is standardly regarded as proper to this sense. It is such sensory qualities that are candidates for being given the status of secondary qualities.

To regard sensory qualities as secondary is to hold that an object’s possession of one is simply a matter of its being disposed to occasion a certain type of sensation when perceived; the object in itself possesses no sensuous character. Primary qualities, by contrast, are those which characterize the fundamental nature of the physical world as it is in itself. They are always taken to include geometrical attributes, and often some space-occupying feature; Locke’s candidate for this latter was solidity. Although the terminology dates from the seventeenth century, this general doctrine goes back to the Greek atomists.

Citing this article:
Smith, A.D.. Primary–secondary distinction, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N077-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles