10 Oct 2016

Peirce (CP1.422-1.426) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol1/Bk3/Ch4/§2, 'Quality', summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are mine. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos.]



Summary of


Charles Sanders Peirce


Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce


Volume 1: Principles of Philosophy


Book 3: Phenomenology


Chapter 4: The Logic of Mathematics; An Attempt to Develop My Categories from within


§2: Quality [1.422-1.426]





Brief summary:

A quality is not, as the conceptualists see it, something that only exists in sensation. Suppose the lights go out while seeing a red thing. The conceptualist says that it is not red any more. This means either that the thing becomes indeterminate with regard to the color or it takes on the opposite quality, namely, the capacity to absorb rather than transmit the light waves of the color. It does not help the conceptualist argument to say that  it takes on the opposite quality, because there is no evidence of this and anyway it would still be taking on an unperceived quality, which the conceptualist says it should not be doing. Consider instead the claim that the thing becomes indeterminate with regard to the unperceived qualities. Since most qualities of a thing go unperceived, that makes things be largely indeterminate while the qualities remain the concrete contents of the world. So were the light to go out, the thing would vary while the qualities would not, and thus it would still have to be red even if it were not seen. For, were the qualities to disappear, then the real substantial parts of the world would come and go simply on account of changing conditions of the object’s presentation, which is absurd. And even if the conceptualist argues that there are two types of qualities, the real mechanical ones and the non-real sensed ones, with the non-real sensed ones varying according to conditions of presentation, then we still have unperceived qualities, namely, the real mechanical ones. The nominalist argument that qualities exist only in the objects exhibiting them also does not hold. For, were that so, there would be no laws governing the future, because laws cannot manifest immediately by means of the qualities of the presently existing things. Thus the future would be completely unpredictable and indeterminate in relation to the present, which seems unlikely, and there would only be the reality of the present instant. Yet, it is highly questionable that there could be no more in physical reality than a simple present instant. No, instead, qualities are monadic and indecomposable parts of the world primarily and of our experience secondarily when we sense them. As such, they are pure possibilities until being actualized, but this will involve sensation, which is a matter of dyadic relations.








[Peirce will define a quality first in terms of what it is not. It is not, as conceptualists hold, something that exists only in sensation and only when it is sensed. For them, a red thing when the light go out is no longer red. But there are three ways the conceptualist may defend this claim, and all fail. It cannot be that the object takes on opposing qualities, like absorbing long light waves rather than reflecting them, when the lights go out. There is no evidence of this, and it also asserts that there are unperceived qualities that exist, namely the new opposite ones, but that goes against their basic claim. It also cannot be that the object becomes indeterminate with regard to the unperceived properties. Since most properties are unperceived, that makes the object itself highly indeterminate and thus not concrete, unlike the qualities, which end up being the real substantial content of the world, as they are the determinate content. But this means that when the qualities go unperceived, part of the real world disappears, which is absurd, so really this position in the end would have to concede that the qualities remain even when unperceived. The third option is related to the second. It says that there are two types of qualities, mechanical qualities, which are real, and sensible qualities, which are not real. This also simply concedes the point that there are qualities that exist unperceived, namely, the real mechanical ones. This view makes the mistake of thinking that the potentiality for quality to be perceived is nothing more than its real actualization, when in fact qualities can exist potentially and later become actualized through sensation of them. Qualities also do not, as nominalists hold, exist nowhere and at no time else but when they actual inhere in something. This would mean that laws, which determine future events and thus do not inhere in things now, could not exist and the future would be entirely undeterminable. That would furthermore mean that only qualities that are found in the instantaneous present exist. But the instant is a highly questionable concept.]


[Peirce will begin his discussion of quality by saying what it is not. For something to be a quality, it cannot depend on anything else for its being. (For similar discussion, see section 1.305.) This means it cannot be understood on the basis of a mind in terms of sense or a thought. Its being what it is also does not depend on whatever physical object has that quality. Peirce then notes different schools of thought which have conceived of quality erroneously. The conceptualists think that quality is dependent on sense. (I am not familiar with this idea. It might be that qualities are not real things in the world but only arise by means of our sensing things and are also somehow to be understood in terms of concepts rather than as real properties of things.) The mistake that nominalists make is to say that qualities are dependent upon the subject in which it is realized (in other words, in the object exhibiting it). (Note, Peirce discusses nominalism and realism in sections 1.15-126.) Instead, quality should be understood “as a mere abstract potentiality”. (Recall how Peirce characterizes qualities as “may-bes”. They are what they are regardless if they are thought to inhere in some object or subject. In other words, they are “not necessarily realized” ((see section 1.304 and also section 1.310, and sections 1.328-1.329).) These other schools make the mistake of thinking that quality, which is potential or possible, is “nothing but what the actual makes it to be”. (I am not certain, but the idea here might be that these other schools think of quality as being whatever the mind or subject takes it to be, and in that sense it is a matter of actuality. Instead, the quality should be understood independently of how a mind or subject would experience or regard it. In other words, the actual circumstances in the world that would affect the reception of a thing’s qualities along with the actual circumstances of one’s own physical and mental situation are what determine the quality, rather than it being something really existing on its own independently of these other conditions that affect the reception of it.) Peirce then restates the problem “It is the error of maintaining that the whole alone is something, and its components, however essential to it, are nothing”. (In this case, I do not know what the whole and the parts are that he is referring to, since qualities as I understand do not have parts. Perhaps the whole would be the overall situation of the thing’s presentation and the person’s reception, including all the factors that modify the presentation and reception. So maybe the error Peirce is referring to is the mistake of saying that the real qualitative features of a thing are secondary to ones that arise through the combined factors of its presentation and reception.) Peirce says we can refute these schools’ positions by noting that “nobody does, or can, in the light of good sense, consistently retain it” (the “it” here is the position the school takes.) The conceptualist would say that the quality of red depends on someone actually seeing it. Thus in the dark a red thing is no longer red. To dispute the conceptualist position, Peirce asks the conceptualist, “do you really mean to say that in the dark it is no longer true that red bodies are capable of transmitting the light at the lower end of the spectrum? Do you mean to say that a piece of iron not actually under pressure has lost its power of resisting pressure?” (So we see that for the conceptualist, the red object is not red in the dark, and the iron stops having the quality of resisting pressure when it is not receiving pressure.) Peirce then addresses a couple of ways the conceptualist might answer this question. (We might here note that to say ‘no’ may mean that they have given up their position.) The first is to say ‘yes’ to these questions. In that case, they have two further options. One is to say that the objects acquire the opposite properties under these conditions which make their original properties no longer evident. So when in the dark, the red object will absorb long waves of the light spectrum rather than transmit them. (Also, the iron would gain the capacity to condense under small pressure rather than have the capacity to resist pressure. This example is less clear to me, because originally the difference was between the iron being under pressure and not being under pressure, where here it is under small pressure. Peirce might be saying that under this view, the iron would be said to obtain the ability to shrink were pressure applied to it, whenever no pressure is applied, but it does not actually shrink then. It only obtains that opposite capacity.) Peirce says that this reply will not work, for the following reason. There is no factual basis to make this claim, and also, it still claims that there are unperceived qualities in the things (the quality of absorbing long light waves rather than transmitting them, for example). So we cannot answer yes to the questions and assert that objects take-on the opposite qualities when conditions make them unperceived. The other way to say yes to these questions is to say that the bodies which possess the qualities that go unperceived under certain conditions become indeterminate with regard to those unperceived qualities. (I am not sure what this means, but the idea might be that for example in the dark whether or not the red object is still red is something indeterminate in those conditions.) Peirce says that if this is what we argue, then we are thereby claiming that generals (qualities) really exist but concrete things do not. (The reasoning for this seems to be the following. Peirce notes that most of the qualities of bodies are not perceived. This perhaps means that objects are for the most part indeterminate with regard to their qualities. And perhaps further that means that the qualities, or generals, are what do exist determinately, but bodies do not.) This means that the concrete things in the world are the qualities, which we believe to exist, and the non-concrete things are the bodies, which we do not believe to exist. (I am not sure why something indeterminate would not be seen as existing, however. Perhaps the idea is that only concrete things can exist, as they have determinate features, but when something does not have determinate features, it is somehow intangible and not real.) Peirce then says that in order to be consistent with this position, we need to conclude that red things still have color in the dark. (I am not certain how to conceive that, but perhaps Peirce is saying that this is an absurd result of the position in question. However, I am not sure why one needs to conclude that the indeterminate object is still red when it is dark, given the reasoning we have considered so far. Maybe the idea is that as something real, and especially as something more real than the red object itself, the redness cannot just disappear under certain changes which alter the unreal thing that it inhabits. For, that would make the object more real than the quality, which we already said was not the case.) Peirce then notes a way someone taking this view might avoid the problem we just observed. Someone might say that there are two kinds of qualities, real ones, “mechanical qualities” (perhaps meaning ones structurally inherent to the objects) and not real qualities, sensible ones that vary depending on the conditions which make the object indeterminate or determinate with regard to certain sensible qualities. (I am not sure however if the sensible qualities depend on the mechanical ones.) But, Peirce observes, this is consistent with the opposite point that this view is trying to take. For, this view wants to say that qualities do not exist when they become unperceivable, but now it is saying that there are such qualities, namely, the mechanical ones. Peirce then adds that modern psychology would say that this distinction does not hold anyway (but Peirce does not explain why). Peirce next notes that for a realist, a quality is a possibility of sensation. So while a sensation is needed for the quality to come to light, it remains a possibility even when it is not actualized by sensation. And this possibility is the being of the quality. (The conceptualist makes the mistake of seeing the actually perceived quality as being that quality itself rather than being what has arisen out of the actualization of its possibility of coming to light.) (So one cannot take the conceptualist view and say that qualities only exist when they are sensed.) Peirce then turns to the nominalist view, and he says we can make a similar answer to their position. (Peirce seems to be saying that nominalists hold that qualities only exist when they actually inhere ((and not just potentially inhere)) in some body.) The claim that a quality only exists when it actually inheres in a body leads to inconsistencies. Suppose it were true. This means that only individual facts can be true. (Perhaps he means that only the real actualized conditions of the world can be true, as no other qualities or situations can exist beside them). Laws, then, as things which determine future events, would not be real or true, because they do not involve things as they are but rather as they will be. And if laws do not exist, the future is entirely indeterminate, leaving reality to be no more than an instantaneous state. But an instant is something whose reality is already highly questionable. (So since there are laws, qualities must exist as potentialities, and thus the nominalist position is wrong, as it holds that qualities only exist when actually inhering in bodies.)]


What, then, is a quality

Before answering this, it will be well to say what it is not. It is not anything which is dependent, in its being, upon mind, whether in the form of sense or in that of thought. Nor is it dependent, in its being, upon the fact that some material thing possesses it. That quality is dependent upon sense is the great error of the conceptualists. That it is dependent upon the subject in which it is realized is the great error of all the nominalistic schools. A quality is a mere abstract potentiality; and the error of those schools lies in holding that the potential, or possible, is nothing but what the actual makes it to be. It is the error of maintaining that the whole alone is something, and its components, however essential to it, are nothing. The refutation of the position consists in showing that nobody does, or can, in the light of good sense, consistently retain it. The moment the fusillade of controversy ceases they repose on other conceptions. First, that the quality of red depends on anybody actually seeing it, so that red things are no longer red in the dark, is a denial of common sense. I ask the conceptualist, do you really mean to say that in the dark it is no longer true that red bodies are capable of transmitting the light at the lower end of the spectrum? Do you mean to say that a piece of iron not actually under pressure has lost its power of resisting pressure? If so, you must either hold that those bodies under the circumstances supposed assume the opposite properties, or you must hold that they become indeterminate in those respects. If you hold that the red body in the dark acquires a power of absorbing the long waves of the spectrum, and that | the iron acquires a power of condensation under small pressure, then, while you adopt an opinion without any facts to support it, you still admit that qualities exist while they are not actually perceived – only you transfer this belief to qualities which there is no ground for believing in. If, however, you hold that the bodies become indeterminate in regard to the qualities they are not actually perceived to possess, then, since this is the case at any moment in regard to the vast majority of the qualities of all bodies, you must hold that generals exist. In other words, it is concrete things you do not believe in; qualities, that is, generals – which is another word for the same thing – you not only believe in but believe that they alone compose the universe. Consistency, therefore, obliges you to say that the red body is red (or has some color) in the dark, and that the hard body has some degree of hardness when nothing is pressing upon it. If you attempt to escape the refutation by a distinction between qualities that are real, namely the mechanical qualities, and qualities that are not real, sensible qualities, you may be left there, because you have granted the essential point. At the same time, every modern psychologist will pronounce your distinction untenable. You forget perhaps that a realist fully admits that a sense-quality is only a possibility of sensation; but he thinks a possibility remains possible when it is not actual. The sensation is requisite for its apprehension; but no sensation nor sense-faculty is requisite for the possibility which is the being of the quality. Let us not put the cart before the horse, nor the evolved actuality before the possibility as if the latter involved what it only evolves. A similar answer may be made to the other nominalists. It is impossible to hold consistently that a quality only exists when it actually inheres in a body. If that were so, nothing but individual facts would be true. Laws would be fictions; and, in fact, the nominalist does object to the word “law,” and prefers “uniformity” to express his conviction that so far as the law expresses what only might happen, but does not, it is nugatory. If, however, no law subsists other than an expression of actual facts, the future is entirely indeterminate and so is general to the highest degree. Indeed, nothing would exist but the instantaneous state; whereas it is easy to show that if we are going to be so free in calling elements fictions an instant is the | first thing to be called fictitious. But I confess I do not take pains accurately to answer a doctrine so monstrous, and just at present out of vogue.






[We turn now to the features of qualities with respect to their place among the two other sorts of phenomena, facts and thoughts. We will examine how qualities are apprehended and what is given in those apprehensions.]


[Now having explained what qualities are not, Peirce will now try to say what they in fact are. We know that phenomena are of three categories: quality, fact, and thought. Peirce will try to define quality in terms of this division. To do so, we need to examine the way that qualities are apprehended and the “point of view” from which “they become empathic in thought”. While conducting this analysis, we must observe what is revealed to us in this mode of apprehension.]


So much for what quality is not. Now what is it? We do not care what meaning the usages of language may attach to the word. We have already seen clearly that the elements of phenomena are of three categories, quality, fact, and thought. The question we have to consider is how quality shall be defined so as to preserve the truth of that division. In order to ascertain this, we must consider how qualities are apprehended and from what point of view they become emphatic in thought, and note what it is that will and must be revealed in that mode of apprehension.






[When we attend just to the content of our experiences without regard for the relations between those contents, we become aware of the qualities, which as singular and unrelated to anything else, are monadic.]


[Peirce then says that there is a way for the world to appear to us as no more than sensible qualities. For this, we must “attend to each part as it appears in itself, in its own suchness, while we disregard the connections”. So things like red, sour, and a toothache, each on their own are of their own sort and are indescribable (perhaps because we need to appeal to other qualities to describe one.) (The next idea seems to be that general qualities can be discerned in specific ones. So if we imagine all different sorts of pains, thinking just of the impressions they give us and not of the imaginative content involved in them, we will obtain the idea of a general quality of pain.) Peirce next notes that quality is thus a monad with no reference to its parts or to anything else beside it. (Here he might be thinking of a quality as a monad in the sense of “__ is red” ((see CP3.465)). Under such a conception, no things are being related, but potentially the quality can be instantiated depending on if something exhibits that quality. In sections 1.289-1.290, Peirce says that what makes a phenomenon monadic, dyadic, or triadic has to do with its valencies. So what makes something monadic is that it has a valency of one, meaning that by itself it can only form a relation with one other thing. In sections 1.346-1.347, we saw examples of how these valencies work in a way to combine relations together. But I am not sure if these two sorts of monads, the sentential kind and the phenomenal valency kind, are the same. For example, I do not know how for example two qualities could be connected by means of an empty argument place. Would we have: “ ‘___is very hot’ is painful” or something like that?) Qualities should not be conceived in terms of whether or not they exist, because this requires we place them within “the general system of the universe” (and thus in relation to other things, rather than have them considered independently). And since it is by itself in its own world, it is therefore simply potential. (Perhaps this is because it would for some reason require a relation to other things to exist in actuality ((but I do not know why)) and so without anything else, it can only be a potentiality ((which could be actualized when entering into relation to something else. Perhaps this would happen when the argument place of the monadic relational structure is filled, as with “the apple is red”)).)]

There is a point of view from which the whole universe of phenomena appears to be made up of nothing but sensible qualities. What is that point of view? It is that in which we attend to each part as it appears in itself, in its own suchness, while we disregard the connections. Red, sour, toothache are each sui generis and indescribable. In themselves, that is all there is to be said about them. Imagine at once a toothache, a splitting headache, a jammed finger, a corn on the foot, a burn, and a colic, not necessarily as existing at once – leave that vague – and attend not to the parts of the imagination but to the resultant impression. That will give an idea of a general quality of pain. We see that the idea of a quality is the idea of a phenomenon or partial phenomenon considered as a monad, without reference to its parts or components and without reference to anything else. We must not consider whether it exists, or is only imaginary, because existence depends on its subject having a place in the general system of the universe. An element separated from everything else and in no world but itself, may be said, when we come to reflect upon its isolation, to be merely potential. But we must not even attend to any determinate absence of other things; we are to consider the total as a unit. We may term this aspect of a phenomenon the monadic aspect of it. The quality is what presents itself in the monadic aspect.





[Phenomenal experiences may be complexly and heterogeneously composed. However, the qualitative component of any experience is singular and indecomposable.]


[A phenomenon can be complex and heterogeneous, and yet this will not affect it qualitatively, and if anything, will (somehow) make it more general. (Perhaps Peirce is saying that there can be many different components to a phenomenal experience, but qualitatively it will be singular. Maybe this is because the qualitative element is somehow the synthesis of all the components, but I am not sure.) Whatever quality is involved in the experience, it is indecomposable (unlike the experience itself, which can be complex) and sui generis (because it cannot enter into relations with anything else, including relations of comparison which might place it under a broader category). Peirce next says: “When we say that qualities are general, are partial determinations, are mere potentialities, etc., all that is true of qualities reflected upon; but these things do not belong to the quality-element of experience”. (Perhaps he is saying that these features of qualities are not apparent while experiencing them, but they come to light secondarily upon reflection.)]

The phenomenon may be ever so complex and heterogeneous. That circumstance will make no particular difference in the quality. It will make it more general. But one quality | is in itself, in its monadic aspect, no more general than another. The resultant effect has no parts. The quality in itself is indecomposable and sui generis. When we say that qualities are general, are partial determinations, are mere potentialities, etc., all that is true of qualities reflected upon; but these things do not belong to the quality-element of experience.






[Qualities are monadic elements of the real world primarily, being potentialities of experience, and they are actualized secondarily through sensation, which also involves a dyadic structure of interaction with things in the world.]


[Quality is not just something that is only a part of our experience. Qualities are the monadic components of the real world. They are possibilities of sensation. But when we begin taking into consideration the fact that we must respond to these qualities in the world to sense them, we move into dyadic structures.]


Experience is the course of life. The world is that which experience inculcates. Quality is the monadic element of the world. Anything whatever, however complex and heterogeneous, has its quality sui generis, its possibility of sensation, would our senses only respond to it. But in saying this, we are straying from the domain of the monad into that of the dyad; and such truths are best postponed until we come to discuss the dyad.







Peirce, C.S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol 1: Principles of Philosophy.  In Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce [Two Volumes in One], Vols. 1 and 2. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1965 [1931].






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