SIGNS AND QUALITIES
"I'm a poor man, your majesty," the Hatter began, in a trembling voice, "and I hadn't begun my tea--not above a week or so--and what with the bread-and-butter getting so thin---and the twinkling of the tea---"
"The twinkling of what?" said the King.
"It began with the tea," the Hatter replied.
"Of course twinkling begins with a T!" said the King sharply. "Do you take me for a dunce? Go on!"
"I'm a poor man," the Hatter went on, and most things twinkled after that---only the March Hare said---"
from Alice in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll
Twinkling tea? Thin bread and butter? Can you guess which words in each of these phrases stands for a thing and which, for a quality? Go ahead--just guess. Put a T above each word you think might be standing for a thing and a Q above each word you think might be standing for a quality. Later on, you can check back and see how you did on your first try.
The word "quality" has been kicked around a lot in recent years--probably because (as most words) it can be understood from many different perspectives. Most people think of the word, quality, as refering to the goodness or badness of material goods (such as quality workmanship)--or of someone's character (such as a having the qualities of a good spouse).
However, the word "quality," as we mean it here, is a philosophical term that refers to much, much more than these limited meanings. Qualities are the properties (or attributes) of anything that is capable of being described. We use qualities to describe anything that exists, or might possibly exist (something that has not yet occurred or that we don't yet know about). We also use qualities to describe the characteristics of things that can never actually exist (like a dream or a fantasy). We use qualities to define abstractions, such as words, categories, ideas and concepts, as well.
So what, exactly, is a thing? And what, exactly, is a quality? And what possible difference could it make whether or not you understand which is which....?