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A quality (from Latin qualitas[1]) is an attribute or a property. Attributes are ascribable, by a subject, whereas properties are possessible[2]. Some philosophers assert that a quality cannot be defined[3]. In contemporary philosophy, the idea of qualities and especially how to distinguish certain kinds of qualities from one another remains controversial.[2]


Aristotle presented his idea of qualities in his Categories. According to him, qualities may be attributed to things and persons or be possessed by them. There are four Aristotelian qualities: habits and dispositions, natural capabilities and incapabilities, affective qualities and affections, and shape.[4]

Locke presented a distinction between primary and secondary qualities in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For Locke, a quality is an idea of a sensation or a perception. Locke further asserts that qualities can be divided in two kinds: primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are intrinsic to an object—a thing or a person—whereas secondary qualities are dependent on the interpretation of the subjective mode and the context of appearance.[2] For example, a shadow is a secondary quality. It requires a certain lighting to be applied to an object. For another example, consider the mass of an object. Mass is intrinsic to an object since it relies solely on the amount and type of atoms contained, thus making it a primary quality. Weight is a secondary quality since, as a measurement of gravitational force on said collection of atoms, it varies depending on the distance to, and mass of the Earth (or other body) as described by Newton's law of universal gravitation.

Specific qualities related to philosophy include qualia and quality of life.

A Post-Pragmatistic Conception of Quality

Philosophy and common sense tend to see Quality as related either to subjective feelings or to objective facts. The subject-object in question might be

  • a concrete and functional (e.g. Aristotelian) value to be learnt and applied (a and b), or
  • a psychic (e.g. platonic) ideal to be apprehended and represented (c).
  • A third view tends to see Quality not as a secondary value that something has, rather a primary truth which comprises apparent subjects and objects (d).

So the Quality of something depends on the criteria being applied to it. From the neutral point of view, the Quality of something is simply the inseparable sum of its essential attributes or properties and the Quality of something does not determine its value (the philosophical value as well as economic value).

Subjectively, something might be good because it is useful, because it is beautiful, or simply because it exists. Determining or finding Quality therefore involves an understanding of use, beauty and existence - what is useful, what is beautiful and what exists. The usefulness aspect is reflected in the common usage of quality. In common vernacular use, quality can mean a high degree of excellence (“a quality product”), a degree of excellence or the lack of it (“work of average quality”), or a property of something (“the addictive quality of alcohol”).[5]

Robert M. Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, studies the Metaphysics of Quality, and examines the distinctions and relationship between classical and romantic Quality, seeking to reconcile the two views and understand how they stand in relationship to each other.

In this context the two aspects of classical object-oriented and romantic subject-oriented Quality roughly parallel aesthetic Quality and functional Quality. The resolution of the book points to a view of Quality which relegates this subject-object dualism to a product of a non-dualistic Absolute.


  1. ^ Morwood, J. (Ed.) (1995). The Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford
  2. ^ a b c Cargile, J. (1995). qualities. in Honderich, T. (Ed.) (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford
  3. ^ Metaphysics of Quality
  4. ^ Studtmann, P. (2007). Aristotle's Categories. in Zalta, E. N. (Ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008). Stanford
  5. ^ The third meaning echoes Aristotle, who defined quality as that by virtue of which a thing is such and such. Cited by: Reese, William L. (1996). Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781573926218.  


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