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

color perception rods

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The dissertation investigates the conceptual developments behind the main accounts of the nature of perceptive qualities and how they have led to incomprehensibilities at the heart of the mind-body problem. Contemporary accounts of the nature of colors 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 or physicalism)
4.    dispositions that cause the respective perceptions (dispositionalism)

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 the distinction, 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 they share the same root: 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 The Crisis of the European Sciences, I distinguish four steps of mathematization:

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 philosophical misunderstanding of the results 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, this seems inconceivable because the results of mathematization techniques (primary qualities) are compared to something categorically different, namely experiential qualities (ideas of secondary qualities). While it would be futile to look for direct correlates, the genealogy of the development of the paradox shows a way to a differentiated understanding of the relation between experience and the scientific concept of the world.

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