Define Qualities

Define Qualities

Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



Without qualities, there would be no intelligibility. Understanding them, therefore, is fundamental.

In this post I review the relevant dialectic (back and forth of argumentation) and argue for a conclusion that may forevermore clarify and improve how you understand the world.  If so, that’s some really good work, so I encourage you to think this through carefully for yourself.

Our brains organize the dazzling welter of sensations into patterns that are composed of qualities (properties, features, characteristics).  Then they expect those patterns to recur, which is why our understandings contaminate our perceivings.

The problem of understanding the nature of qualities, namely, “How should the indistinguishability of two objects be understood?,” has often been confused with the problem of understanding the nature of generality, namely, “What do all objects of a certain kind have in common?”  Only the former problem is considered here.

Let’s consider a specific example.  Suppose that the color of spot A is indistinguishable from the color of spot B.  How should we understand that?

The recurrence of (at least) properties is a necessary condition for there being an intelligible world.  Recognising this, philosophers have proposed three alternative ways of understanding it.  Let me first state the three alternatives clearly and then consider the central reasons for and against each.

(1)     For “realism” there is one quality, called a “universal,” in the two individual spots simultaneously; in other words, the color of A is (one and the same as) the color of B.

(2)    For a “resemblance theorist” there are two exactly similar qualities; in other words, the color of A is not the same as the color of B but they exactly resemble each other.

(3)    For “Platonism” the color of A and the color of B both “participate” in the same “Form” that is an eternal (timeless) color.

The resemblance theory has simplicity going for it in the sense that it avoids the ontological categories of either universals or Forms.  It’s always best when explanations are as simple as possible.  (This is the principle known as “Ockham’s razor.”)

However, the description proposed by the resemblance theory is too vague.  Since any two objects resemble each other, the kind of resemblance must be specified if the resemblance judgment is to have a truth value.  So the relevant judgment becomes something like “the color of A resembles the color of B with respect to color.”  What, though, does ‘color’ denote here?  It seems obviously to denote a kind or category, which was what the resemblance theory is designed to avoid.  If so, it admits either realism or Platonism through the back door.

Platonism avoids the difficulty of having Forms go in and out of existence.  It’s true that individuals may go in and out of existence, but properties shouldn’t.  For example, if all individual blue objects went out of existence, would the judgment “blue is a color” cease to be true because there would be nothing for it to be about?  If so, that’s absurd.

Unfortunately for Platonists, as Aristotle (in effect) argued, Forms are unintelligible.  Forms don’t exist; they cannot be singled out.  Presumably, Plato posited their existence to explain predications such as “this spot is blue.”  The explanation would be that this temporary individual spot “participates” in the eternal Form Blueness.  But is Blueness blue?  If not, what is a non-blue Blueness?  If so, what explains the blueness of Blueness-another level of Forms?  Furthermore, the notion of participation is never clarified.

So, if there are three options and two fail, realism must be the correct theory.

However, a Platonist objects to the realist, unlike Forms, universals appear to go in and out of existence.  If so, they are changeable and unknowable.  (For Plato, only Forms are fully knowable.)

The realist response to this interesting objection should be that universals never go in and out of existence.

The argument for this response is instructive.  In order to claim that some universal (for example, a certain shade of blue) could cease to exist, it is necessary to single out that quality (because, otherwise, the statement would be unintelligible).  However, if singled out once, what could prevent its being singled out multiple times–either by one person or by multiple people?

Nothing.  Therefore, it is multiply singleoutable.  It is, in order words, an entity, an existent, the subject matter of a true identity judgment.  Therefore, all qualities are real.

If so, four interesting points are entailed.

First, it does not follow that all qualities are instantiated (had, possessed) by some individual or other.  There may be real but uninstantiated universals.

Second, this argument does not work for individuals-despite what some proponents of the ontological argument for the existence of God claim [unless God is nothing but a complex concept, in other words, merely an abstract set of universals].  Notice that, assuming divinity is a quality, it is real; however, it doesn’t follow that there must be a real individual who instantiates it.

Third, individuals, unlike universals, are concrete.  They have a natural importance to use that abstract universals lack.  The domain of uninstantiated universals may be of some interest to mathematicians and philosophers, but most humans infrequently, if ever, think about it.

Fourth, qualities do not begin to be nor cease to be.  If so, anyone who thinks that everything real was created has an incoherent position.

If this argument is sound, realism is the solution to the problem concerning the nature of qualities.  The color of A is the color of B.

Notice that realism is the natural view.  I have introduced thousands of undergraduates to this topic over the decades and, when given the three alternatives without the dialectic, nearly everyone was a realist prereflectively.

Also notice that the realist description is an identity judgment.  As it turns out, many fundamental issues become intelligible when understood as disagreements about how best to use the concept of identity.

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