Recently, a question has been circulating both the internet and, as I have experienced firsthand, my school, a question which is truly vital and which concerns mankind at its core. The question: Is water wet? I know what you are thinking. I will admit, the question is absurd, nonsensical, and, one might point out, fairly simple to answer. Yet many are torn up and in knots because of this simple question regarding an element with which we come in contact every day, one of the essential components of life. Some argue water is wet, others that it is not; and both have their reasons. What many of my peers neglect, however, is that this question is much more complex than it appears. Indeed, the question of whether or not water is wet is not a trivial, everyday question; rather, it is something for the armchair philosopher to ponder—yes, the question of whether or not water is wet is, at its core, philosophical. And it is this critical perspective which is missing, which could illuminate the problem. All philosophical problems, declared Wittgenstein, are ultimately reducible to language problems. That is, a philosophical problem is really just a miscommunication, a squabbling over terms, terms that are not properly defined. As such, my approach to the question of whether or not water can be said to be wet requires that it be examined philosophically, and this involves an understanding of what exactly we mean by “water,””wetness,” and how exactly the one can be related to the other. By the end of this, I hope to provide an aqueous solution to this conundrum with the help of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and John Locke (1632-1704).
What exactly is water? Scientifically, I can say that water is the molecule H2O, made up of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. While I can explain it through chemistry, describing how it is the way it is, its interactions, or its properties, I cannot properly understand water thereby. All we need to know is that water is a liquid and for this reason that its shape is fluid and that it cannot be compressed into a solid. But this does not answer the question of what water is. Essentially, water is a substance. Substances, wrote Aristotle, “are the entities which underlie everything else, and… everything else is either predicated of them or present in them.”¹ In other words, substances are bearers of qualities; they are things that can be described. Like the subject of a sentence, a substance is that around which the sentence revolves, and it receives a predicate, or that which is said of the subject, which involves the verbs and adjectives. The substance can be described, as it takes descriptors but cannot itself be one. Just as a noun cannot be an adjective, so a substance cannot be a quality. As that which is being described, the substance can also contain within it qualities. Water, then, is a substance, because it can be described, it has qualities, it is that which bears qualities. One type of quality, the affective quality, modifies a substance by being present in it. Affective qualities produce, or affect, a sensation in the substance based on what the quality itself is. For example, the quality of wetness is an affective quality because it produces an effect in its perceiver, and when wetness is present in a substance—say, water—the substance is said to be wet since it has that quality in it. Accordingly, it is wetness which makes water wet. Water as a substance is amorphous. It has no definite shape, but can conform. Is being fluid a quality? No, argued Aristotle. To be without resistance, to be fluid, is not to have that quality, but to be that shape. Despite its lack of shape, fluidity is how a substance’s parts are interrelated so that they appear formless, but really are. Unlike affective qualities, the fluid, amorphous shape of water is necessary and essential to it. Water is distinctively fluid. Although water can be said to be “distinctively wet,” I will discuss it later. Another important term to know is accident, which is a quality that applies to things contingently, i.e., unnecessarily. Wetness is not essential to water. In its essence, water can be imagined dry, not to mention the fact that it is able to take two other forms of matter. From Aristotle, we have learned that water is a substance, which means it has qualities, whereas wetness is an accidental affective quality, which means it is unnecessary and descriptive, but by no means defining.
Locke was an empiricist of the 17th century. He believed that all human knowledge was derived from the senses and not at all innate. All information is made up of ideas, which are everything from thoughts to perceptions to sensations. Every idea we humans have is made up of simple ideas, individual sensory data that comes from the senses. They can come from one sense or two, becoming a single idea in the end, though. A specific smell, like honey, for instance, is a simple idea: it is derived from a sensory organ, the nose, and is singular. These simple ideas, once gathered, stay in the mind as if it were a warehouse, and can from there be made into complex ideas, which are aggregates, or combinations, of ideas. It is impossible to experience a complex idea, for they are made up of simpler ones—one cannot get 3 without first adding 1 and 2. Based on this, water is a complex idea to the extent that it is made of many simpler ideas, namely its color (or lack thereof), smell (or lack thereof), texture, etc. When combined, all these sensory experiences add up to the individual idea of water. Concerning qualities, Locke said there were three: Primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary qualities are necessary. They are actually found in external objects themselves. When we look at an object, we form a representation of it in our minds, and their primary qualities carry over, making them unchanging, absolute, non-relative. These primary qualities correspond to the physical makeup of the object—its corpuscles, which were the Early Modern conception of atoms. Each atom has extension, solidity, mobility, and figure, all of which therefore apply to the object itself. No matter where or when they are, objects retain their primary qualities. In contrast, secondary qualities are unnecessary in that they are not found in the objects themselves; instead, they are relative and illusory, mere creations of the mind. When Locke said they are not real, he meant they were not in the atoms themselves, but were an effect produced by them. Secondary qualities are vested in power, power to produce ideas. In effect, secondary qualities are not qualities in and of themselves, but are capable of making them. Wetness is wet, water is wet, but water is not wetness. Water does feel wet, but the wetness is not to be found in the water, but is produced by it. Locke said of secondary qualities that they are “nothing in the objects themselves but power to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities.”² Thus, they are not sensed by themselves; they are caused by the arrangement of primary qualities, to which they are actually reducible. When we look at water, our visual sense organs, our eyes, come in contact with it through waves, and the unique physical configuration of water is such that it produces the sensation of being clear, or lacking color. Color is not real. Water has no color because it is not inherent in the water, but is produced by it. So with wetness. Furthermore, secondary qualities are perceivable in two ways: through immediate and mediate perception. In the first, we the agents come in contact with the object, giving us a subjective experience of it. In the second, we experience the object coming in contact with another object. With wetness, we can experience it for ourselves as when we touch water, or we can see water wash upon a rock and get it wet. Either way, the quality of wetness is secondary. However, Locke also identified a tertiary quality, one which makes “a change in the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of another body.”³ To summarize, tertiary qualities have the power to change primary qualities. Wetness being the absorption of a liquid, it can affect an object’s mobility, texture, and figure by hindering, smoothing, and eroding.
In conclusion, water is wet, yet water is not wetness. Water is a fluid, amorphous substance, or bearer of qualities, of which one, wetness, is accidental—i.e., inessential—and not inherent to water itself, but rather a sensation perceived by the mind alone, completely illusory and artificial, a result of the physical configuration of water, by which we mean that the perception of wetness is neither within water nor exclusive to it, but one of many ideas which constitute the complex idea of water, which, it must be stressed, is not essentially wet, yet which nonetheless produces the sensation of wetness, albeit contingently, an adjective, an add-on, something predicated or said of the water. Moreover, wetness, qualitative of water, is not intrinsic insofar as it is a particular, not a universal. Wetness, because it is not exclusive to water, because it is widely applicable to other liquids, is not irreducible; in fact, it has already been said that wetness is reducible to primary qualities. When we look for the essence of something, its quiddity, what makes it it, we are looking for something eternal, unchanging, and irreducible—something so simple and essential, that it is independent; but as we have learned, wetness cannot be alone, for it requires an object, a noun, a substance, something onto which it can latch, something to be wet, meaning wetness itself is not essential, but accidental in nature. Bluntly, lava can be wet, yet what applies to water applies, too, to lava; lava is wet, but it is not wetness, because wetness is not essential to it. Precisely because wetness is not essential to water—or any other liquid, for that matter—it is not wet. Water has wetness, making it wet, but is not itself wetness. Through an eidetic reduction, whereby the essence of a thing is revealed from its accidents, water is discovered to not be wet, as water is essentially not wet, and it can exist in three states by itself. And as wetness is not a substance per se, but a quality, it cannot stand by itself.
Water is wet in virtue of its wetness, which is not necessarily so, from which we deduce that water is not wet in virtue of its wetness.
Are you convinced? What do you think—is water wet? Leave your arguments below!
¹ Aristotle, Categories, 2b15
² Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.8.10
³ Id., 2.8.23
For further reading: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1990)
A Critical History of Western Philosophy by D.J. O’Connor (1964)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
Philosophy: The Classics 3rd ed. by Nigel Warburton (2008)
Socrates to Sartre by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)