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The Paradox of the Primary-Secondary Quality Distinction and Husserl’s Genealogy of the Mathematization of Nature

The dissertation investigates how the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is foundational to the mind-body problem and the nature of perceptive qualities. The point of departure are contemporary accounts of the nature of colors. They hold that colors are either

  1. in the mind, projected upon reality (projectivism)
  2. confused concepts that do not straightforwardly correlate to anything in reality (eliminativism)
  3. qualities of worldly objects (naive realism)
  4. dispositions that cause the respective perceptions (dispositionalism)

These theories seem to be radically different for they contradict each other ontologically. Under the surface, however, they share the same root. The dissertation shows that all four theories have been discussed since the time of Galileo. They are the result of a distinction philosophers have widely agreed on thenceforward, namely the distinction between what Locke calls “primary” and “secondary” qualities.

According to it, experiences or ideas of secondary qualities must be produced by configurations and movements of particles constituted of primary qualities. In spite of subscribing to this claim, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke also claim that the connection between primary qualities and ideas of secondary qualities is inconceivable. The combination of these two claims is the “paradox of the primary-secondary quality distinction.”

The philosophical disputes around the distinction usually ignore the “hard problem” of inconceivability and instead circle around the above described four different types of explanations of secondary qualities in terms of primary qualities. These explanations contradict each other ontologically, but nevertheless share a common origin: the view that the empirical world is mathematical.

Edmund Husserl claims that this conception entails a profound confusion. He sets out to explain the confusion through a genealogy of the “mathematization of nature.” In an exegesis of Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences, four steps of mathematization are distinguished:

  1. generalization
  2. idealization
  3. formalization
  4. symbolization

The combination of these steps leads to, in Husserl’s assessment, a confusion of theoretical entities with the experiential world. Contrary to what is often thought, the concept of the lifeworld is not simply a belated response to Heidegger, but Husserl’s ultimate expression of his lifelong study of the relation of mathematics and experience. He contends that the incomprehensibility of the connection between original experience and the scientific world leads to a crisis of the foundation and significance of philosophy and science. The recovery of original experience is for Husserl thus not only a way to avoid the philosophical misunderstanding of science, but also an answer to a profound crisis of meaning.

Husserl’s genealogy of mathematization allows for a neat explanation for why the paradox seems unavoidable. Ideas of secondary qualities are not directly mathematizable, and therefore it seems that they must be produced by primary qualities. Yet, the connection between them is inconceivable because the results of mathematization are compared to something categorically different, namely experiential qualities. Whether we agree with Husserl’s own account of lifeworldly experience and crisis or not: his genealogy of the development of the paradox reveals the need to reconsider the role of experience in the scientific concept of the world.