In Lawrence Nolan (ed.), Primary and Secondary Qualities: The Historical and Ongoing Debate. Oxford University Press (2011)
Descartes and Boyle were the most influential proponents of strict mechanist accounts of the physical world, accounts which carried with them a distinction between primary and secondary (or sensible) qualities. For both, the distinction is a piece of natural philosophy. Nevertheless the distinction is quite differently articulated, and, especially, differently grounded in the two thinkers. For Descartes, reasoned reflection reveals to us that bodies must consist in mere extension and its modifications, and that sensible qualities as we conceive of them based on sense perception can pertain only to the mind. Just how we are supposed to arrive at this realization is, this essay will argue, a deep puzzle that brings us to the basic assumptions of Descartes' metaphysics. For Boyle, by contrast, while reflection can reveal the unique explanatory status of mechanism, and, thus, the primary/secondary quality distinction, only experience can confirm its truth. Our central focus will be on Descartes, and on the question: How does he intend to remove the sensible qualities from the physical world, how does he strip them from bodies? I will try to show that Descartes has an argument that he takes to show a priori that sensible qualities cannot be attributed to the material world (as foundational qualities, or, as we conceive of them based on sense experience). The argument fails, however, leaving him with at best a partly empirical case for removing the sensible qualities, based on the purported explanatory success of his physics.
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