The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Which one, what kind, how many, how much, whose ...

Quality is one of the many great ideas that exists in doublets, like good and evil or necessity and contingency. Quality’s doublet is quantity (though Adler’s Syntopicon nevertheless lists them separately).

The first obvious thing to say about qualities is that they don’t make sense: they exist, yet don’t exist at the same time. On the one hand, yes, they obviously exist. If you want to see the quality “red,” just shop for an apple or embarrass a teenager. But the red you observe is piggybacking on other things in order to exist, and if the teenager runs from the room or the apple rots to a black mush, the red goes away too. You can’t order up a lump of redness by itself; even a can of red paint could have been some other color (and if you know your chemistry, you might be able to change it into some other color). There are things that have red, so to speak, but redness cannot exist by itself except in the mind.

Color, like most qualities, is what Aristotelian philosophy calls an accident. An accident is an attribute that is “attached” to a substance (something that exists in its own right), but is not essential to it. This is a little like the distinction between adjectives and nouns; however, whether a quality is an accident can depend on context. As an example, take bachelors: their defining quality is not being married; being unmarried is therefore not an accident of bachelor-ness, but part of its substance. Having red hair, on the other hand, would be an accident for a bachelor. But, if we talk about redheads instead, red hair is not an accidental quality of theirs, while unmarried-ness is an accident relative to red hair.

Both the terminology and the exact nature of substances and accidents became vitally important during the Middle Ages and the Reformation, as the Catholic and Protestant doctrines of the Eucharist were hashed out. Nor was the discussion confined to seminaries or cloisters; it affected all of culture, producing everything from Scholastic philosophy to Arthurian romances to the treaties and treacheries of the Thirty Years’ War.

Speaking of the Medievals, certain qualities held a privileged status in ancient and medieval science. These were the “Four Contraries,” namely hot, cold, moist,* and dry. The four classical elements were composed of these four contraries. As inanimate matter sorted itself out from primordial chaos, what was hot and dry floated up and coalesced into fire; what was hot and moist became air; what was cold and moist became water; and what was cold and dry sank lowest and became earth, the literal ground of the rest. In the human body, the behavior of the four contraries was different, producing four fluids known as the humors: blood (a fusion of the hot and moist qualities), yellow bile (hot and dry), black bile (cold and dry), and phlegm (cold and moist). These were held to govern both physical and mental health.** Ideally the humors needed to be balanced with each other; everyone’s natural amount of each one differed a little, and a person’s own native balance was called his complexion or his temperament. Archaic phrases like “in a bad humor” or “show one’s temper,” as well as still-current phrases like “lose one’s temper,” all descend from this theory.

I have written as if Love were a thing in himself and not only an intelligent being but a corporeal being: which according to truth is false, for Love does not exist as a substance but as a quality in a substance.

But we have mentioned Aristotle in passing; and one does not merely mention Aristotle in passing. One of his most useful works is the Categories, part of the collection called the Organon or “Toolbox,” a manual of elementary logic. The Categories outlines the things that can be either the subject or the predicate of a proposition, i.e. an assertion that something is the case. Aristotle defined ten categories. The first was substance, or things in themselves; the other nine were the types of accidents that could apply to or modify substances:

  1. quantity (covering both number and size)
  2. quality (more on this in a moment)
  3. relationship (to some other substance)
  4. place
  5. time
  6. posture (e.g. upright versus prone)
  7. condition (a stable state caused by an action, e.g. broken)
  8. activity (action done by the substance in question)
  9. passivity (action experienced by the substance in question)

Aristotle here is using “quality” in a slightly more restricted sense than we have been thus far. Qualities in this sense are not just any properties at all, but properties that are naturally part of the thing in question, as opposed to being introduced to or imposed on it by some outside force or process. The redness of a red apple is an accident, because apples don’t have to be red; but its redness is something that grows from its apple-ness, as opposed to being a “condition,” caused by rot or getting painted.

Besides these niceties of ontology, quality is also an important element of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know things. There are roughly two sorts of epistemology—three, if we count “we can’t know anything really” as an epistemology, but let’s send Hume out of the room and try again. One group can be called the realist epistemologies; these tend to view qualities (and everything else) as independent of thought, and usually trace our knowledge to our sense experience. John Locke’s description of the human mind as a tabula rasa or “blank slate” at birth is a famous example. The other group is the idealists, who view reality as inseparable from the mind. Hamlet puts it very well: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”—which may sound at first like a denial that goodness and badness exist, but is actually subtly ambiguous; for, as many idealists will promptly point out, nobody said human minds were the only ones with thoughts. If there is some higher or absolute Mind, its thinking would presumably be exactly what makes the qualities “good” and “bad” to be so.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Timæus
St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of St. John XXVI
Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
George Berkeley, Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
C. S. Lewis, Miracles

**We use the term now as a synonym for sadness or even bittersweetness, but the word melancholia (from the Greek μέλαινα χολή, literally “black bile”) originally indicated debilitating sorrow or even insanity—as in Richard Burton’s 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy, a rambling study of depression: “It causeth oft times sudden madness.”
There was once a distinction here. To show one’s temper indicated showing one’s general disposition (which might or might not be by anger); to lose one’s temper was to be momentarily disrupted, behaving uncharacteristically.
The academic name for this is “skepticism,” and there are intelligent forms of it; the work of Montaigne is a good example. Unfortunately, the word “skepticism” is also popularly applied to a vague, generalized habit of not believing things.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He has a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Maryland, and lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our series of profiles of the names on our Author Bank, like Julius Cæsar, St. Bede, Blaise Pascal, George Eliot, and Friedrich Hayek. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored. Thanks for reading!

Published on 17th November, 2022.

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