Quality Redux

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A reflection on Aristotles On Interpretation

In a previous reflection I attempted to examine the concept of quality (see on Quality) – but having read further, I think it is now appropriate to return to the subject and examine it more thoroughly. In particular – I have come to increasingly accept the relative standpoint from which an individual observer interacts with the physical world – and with this realisation, I want to more effectively deal with the concept as we progress in this discourse upon reality.

Firstly, if we accept the delineation of physical and mental objects as laid down in my previous reflection (see on Reality), then we must accept that physical quality, when assigned to an object, is a relatively experienced phenomena based upon physical experience. A stone is ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ when compared to the relative experience of an observer. Similarly, the colour of said stone – green, grey, black or blue – is relative to the faculties of the observer, imagine the difference in observation between a human and a bee which can visually comprehend radiation into the ultraviolet spectrum. Similar observation on the weight and shape of the stone are relative to sensory faculties and previous experience of the subject. The important thing to note is that – despite this physical quality being experienced very differently by differing observers – this sensory experience is based upon the underlying physical reality. This specific reality is something which if pursued with scientific instrumentation and dedication we can comprehend as a closer representation of physical reality (although never entirely clearly – as even the units we use to quantify and comprehend the universe are artificial divisions on the universal material and temporal fabric).

However, if we cut off the discussion of quality at physical quality, we leave out the more contentious issue of metaphysical quality. This is where we assign qualities to an object, not based on upon its physical properties, but rather upon the actions that it has undertaken. An example is when we label an person as good or bad, courageous or cowardly, honest or deceitful. Because these descriptions are based upon our experience of an objects actions, we generally apply them only to objects which we perceive as capable of a conscious decision – an agent. As previously stated, I cannot fathom within my current understanding of modern science some particulate matter whose concentration in an object would render it ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Thus, I would suggest that metaphysical quality is rather an act of reference that the cognitive function embedded in a physical object – and thus providing a linkage to the metaphysical domain – which embodies the quality of a metaphysical object: i.e. goodness.

There is another interpretation of this problem. Without a metaphysical fabric from which attributes such as good and evil could be fashioned, a nihilist would argue that these words merely refer to convenient social conventions which allow for the enforcement of taboos and norms. This is dependent again on the interpretation that cognition is nothing more than an illusion caused by the physical phenomena of the brain – explainable as merely the cocktail of chemicals swilling about in our skulls. Once again, I reject this interpretation – for rather than liberating humans from oppressive norms it also removes from them the reason for that self-liberation, for why would it be better to be free or a slave if there is no true freedom for the mind? Besides this pragmatic decision – inventing good in the absence of goodness – I would argue that such an interpretation relies on a reductionist understanding of cognition, something hopefully I will understand better as I delve deeper into the cognitive and brain sciences.

Original text

Aristotle’s On Interpretation


Vincent van Gogh, Garden at Arles, 1888

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