Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2003
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Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

What's in a Basketball

John Locke's Primary and Secondary Qualities

An Experiment with a Basketball: Let's try a slightly different tack. Perhaps there was something wrong with the penny. Let's try basketballs. You won't need a real basketball for this experiment; however, if you have trouble imagining a basketball, you may use a basketball. Now where does the idea of a basketball come from? It certainly did not spring sui generis into your head. Socrates never thought about basketballs. He did not even know that they existed; neither did Plato, or Aristotle or Aquinas or Descartes. Even Locke, Berkeley, and Hume were clueless about basketballs. And David Hume was smart. But he was not smart enough to think of basketballs before there were basketballs. It may be true that not all our ideas come from experience, but surel surely your idea of a basketball comes from your experience of basketballs, even though you may have never actually handled or dribbled a basketball.

Somehow, somewhere in the course of our living on the planet we - you and I - had a basketball experience. A basketball experience is not quite as vivid as a migraine, but it's an experience. And without the experience of a basketball or basketballs, we would have no idea or ideas of basketballs dancing in our heads. A basketball is not an innate idea; it is not something you or I were born with; if it were, Socrates might have known about basketballs, too. (For all his claims that he was ignorant, Socrates seems to have known a lot; but we know he knew nothing about basketballs). But (Socrates aside) whatever you and I might wish to say about basketballs, our idea of basketballs comes from experience. No? So now, think of a basketball.

A basketball has cerain qualities. We might also call these qualities "features." Whatever else a basketball is, it is not featureless or without qualities. It has a certain texture, a certain color, a given weight and when we handle a basketball we can feel these qualities. Just before taking a foul shot, you often see a basketball player, do all these things. He or she will weigh the basketball, holding the basket ball in such a way as to feel its weight or heft. Sometimes the basketball player will run his or her palms over the ball prior to taking a foul shot, feeling its texture and roundedness. Sometimes it almost seems as if the basketball player is trying to reassure himself or herself that the basketball exists. In any event whatever these rituals might signify, John Locke has called such features as the "feel," color and smell of an object its secondary qualities, and basketballs, whatever else they might have going for them, have these qualities, i.e., they have a "feel." color, smell, and, when dribbled, make a satisfying "slap" against the floor. They can smell, especially after they have been used in a practice or in a game, and especially when they are brand new. Basketballs can have a nice or not so nice leathery smell. They also have a color, a nice brown color and sometimes a color that resembles the color of a penny. Before practice a basketball can also feel cool, that is, cool to the touch.

But now are these qualities really "in" the basketball? "Of course not," you may very well say.

And that's exactly what John Locke said. These "secondary" qualities are not in the object. Thus, if all sentient creatures were removed from the vacinity of a basketball, there would not be brownness, a leathery odor, or coolness, although presumably there would be something. Our perceptions of a basketball's color and smell or the sound it makes when it is dribbled on a nice wooden floor, do not represent anything that is really in the basketball: its color and "feel" and the sound the ball makes when it hits the floor are just subjective qualities that only exist in our minds. Or so some, such as Locke, might argue.And so when we watch a basketball game or take a gander, actually look, at a basketball, the so-called basketball that exists in the world and outside of our minds is only a shadow of our idea of the basketball.

Indeed, if we take away all those things that we asscociate with basketballs, what's left? What's left would be an invisible, undetectable, intangible, unreachable, non-communicative, insensate something-or-other.

And how is it possible to have an experience of something like an invisible, undetectable, intangible, unreachable, non-communicative, insensate something-or-other?

Has anyone, ever?

So basketballs, if basketballs there be, must exist only in our minds.

So much for the basketball and basketballs.


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