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What Are Qualities?

Stephen L. Talbott1

The celebrated geneticist, Barbara McClintock, was well-known—and considered rather eccentric—for cultivating what has been called a "feeling for the organism". A life-long student of corn and its genetic organization, she would observe every plant she studied, starting when it was a tiny seedling. "I don't feel I really know the story if I don't watch the plant all the way along, so I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them" (Keller 1983, p. 198).

McClintock's biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, tells of the geneticist's meeting with a group of graduate and postdoctoral biology students at Harvard University. The students were responsive to her exhortation that they "take the time and look", but they were also troubled. Where does one get the time to look and to think? "They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn't leave time. There's always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance".

McClintock went on to tell the students how fortunate she had been for having worked with a slow technology, a slow organism. Other researchers disliked corn because you could only grow two crops a year. But she found that even two crops a year were too many. If she was really to observe her plants adequately, one crop was all she could handle.

McClintock had little patience for her many colleagues who were "so intent on making everything numerical", and who therefore missed much of what could be seen. Because of her commitment to the whole, qualitative organism,

her own method was to "see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable." She felt that her colleagues, in their enthusiasm for "counting," too often overlooked that single, aberrant kernel.
Through such oversight, those colleagues sacrificed the potential richness of science. "Things are much more marvelous than the scientific method allows us to conceive" (Keller 1983, pp. 198-207). As for McClintock herself, her "slow" attention to the qualitative nuances of individual corn plants led eventually to discoveries for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Expressing the Rain Forest

It happens that another researcher attuned to the qualities of things was fascinated by a particularly slow organism. Craig Holdrege is a biologist with a predilection for what he calls "whole-organism studies". In his research he struggles to arrive at a unified picture of an organism by approaching it from all sides: morphological, physiological, behavioral, ecological, and so on. The knowledge he arrives at in this way is irreducibly qualitative.

Before we look at Holdrege's sketch of the three-toed sloth, here is some basic information about this creature of the South American rain forest:

  • The sloth spends much of its active life hanging upside down from the branches of trees. It sleeps or remains inactive for the greater part of every day.

  • The sloth has less muscle mass than most mammals. It also has a higher percentage of retractor (pulling) muscles, and its muscles react more slowly than in other mammals.

  • The sloth makes use of smelling more than seeing or hearing.

  • Its body temperature varies more with the ambient temperature than in other mammals.

  • The fur coat of the sloth is often covered with algae. Also, beetles and moths and various other insects, as well as mites, may inhabit the fur, sometimes with the individuals of a particular insect species numbering a hundred or more.

  • Gestation period: four to six months.

  • Teeth: continually growing; not pre-formed, but shaped by use.

  • Eyes: can retract into their sockets.

  • The sloth descends from the trees to the ground about once per week to defecate. Its feces are only slightly decomposed after six months. In defecating and urinating, the animal may lose more than a quarter of its bodily weight.

  • The sloth is relatively non-reactive to pain and injury.

There you have a collection of facts about the sloth. But you hardly have a coherent picture of the sloth. Based on these facts, viewed in mutual isolation, you can say little about the distinctive qualities of the animal. But now let me briefly summarize a part of Holdrege's discussion of the sloth as a "whole organism". (The balance of this section is drawn from Holdrege 1999.)

What first of all strikes one about the sloth is, of course, its "slothfulness". It is indeed a slow creature, spending the greater part of the day sleeping or otherwise inactive. It will sometimes cling so stubbornly to a given position that a tree limb must be sawed off in order to remove it. When it does move of its own accord, it pulls itself slowly along the tree branches from which it hangs "by all fours", drawing leaves to its mouth with its front limbs and eating them. When it descends from the tree to urinate and defecate on the ground, the process is so deliberate and gradual that the wingless moths who have taken up residence in the sloth's fur have plenty of time to crawl off the animal and lay their eggs in the fresh dung.

But "slothfulness" is much more than a mere habit of movement. It qualifies every aspect of the animal. For example, the sloth's digestive processes, about which its life seems to be centered, are remarkably slow. According to one researcher, "after three or six days of fasting, the stomach is found to be only slightly less full". The stomach is four-chambered like the cow's, but digestion takes about ten times longer than in the cow.

With its reduced muscle mass, the sloth generally performs about ten percent of the physiological work typical of similar-sized mammals. "All metabolic processes are markedly measured in tempo. Sloths use little oxygen,breathe slowly, and the respiratory surface of their lungs is small". Further, a four-to-six-month gestation period compares to a little over two months for the similar-sized cat. And even the sloth's dung may be only slightly decomposed after six months—this amid the intense decompositional processes of the rain forest. This is thought to help slow down the high nutrient recycling rates for certain trees, helping to stabilize some components of the ecosystem. In sum,

The sloth brings slowness into the world. This is not only true of its reactions, movements and digestion. It also develops slowly in the womb and has a long life span for a mammal of its size.
Clearly the sloth is not a creature of rapid or pronounced change. In this it expresses features of its environment. The tropical rain forest is a place of great constancy—days of equal length throughout the year, the air warm and humid with little seasonal variation, the light levels always low beneath the dense forest canopy, afternoon rains every day.
The uniformity of light, warmth, and moisture—in intensity and rhythm—mark the rain forest. And it is hard to imagine a rain forest dweller that embodies this quality of constancy more than the sloth. From meters below, the sloth is sometimes described as looking like a clump of decomposing leaves or a lichen-colored bough.
But there are many ways an animal can reflect its environment. The sloth exhibits a certain passive, yielding character so that it is, in a sense, "formed from the outside". For example, in a way that is extremely unusual for warm-blooded animals, the sloth's internal temperature varies considerably—and does so less in accord with its own activity than with the ambient temperature. (Unlike other mammals, the sloth cannot actively raise its temperature through the muscular activity of shivering.) Similarly, the sloth does not so much overcome gravity as yield to it. With its skeletal structure loose and flexible rather than fixed, and with retractor (pulling) muscles dominant, it lacks the ability to push against gravity and raise itself up. Placed upright on a smooth, flat surface, its legs will splay out and it will be helpless to move unless it can find toeholds (clawholds) for pulling itself along. It spends much of its life either curled up in a ball or hanging by its hook-like claws from tree branches.

In maintaining the balance of its life, the sloth does not strongly counter external forces and conditions with its own activity.

This, perhaps, makes it less surprising that the sloth is so oddly nonreactive to experiences of pain or injury. Pain occurs where the boundary between self and world is violated, but the sloth seems to have no vivid sense of this boundary. It will cling stubbornly to the very object that is injuring it. One researcher who kept sloths in his home tells of an animal burning and smoking as it sat on a light bulb in a lamp. But upon being rescued, it only protested and tried to cling to the lamp. Another researcher describes a sloth that acted "normally for a long time after it had received a wound which practically destroyed the heart". As part of its receptivity to the world, the sloth (Holdrege writes) "seems not to live as intensely in its body as other mammals, being quite insensitive to pain".

Even in its digestion the sloth shows its passive and nonreactive character. Although its stomach is four-chambered like the cow's, this stomach "is more like a vessel that needs to remain full than a place of intensive muscular activity, secretion, mixing and breaking down, as it is in the cow". Or, again, the sloth's teeth are not pre-formed with crown cusps and ridges as in other mammals (and especially grazers); rather, they emerge as simple cones and are shaped through their engagement with food. In this sense, the sloth's teeth are formed from the outside.

So we see that in many ways the sloth does not so much respond to the rain forest environment as receive its imprint. Even the sloth's fur, which soaks up water "like a sponge", is often green-tinted from the growth of algae. So it assumes some of the appearance and character of its surroundings. And this fur provides a little rain forest habitat of its own, being the home for numerous beetles, moths, and other insects, as well as mites. (Like most mammals, sloths do occasionally groom themselves, but, as one pair of researchers reports, the grooming effort is so sluggish that moths "may be seen to advance in a wave in front of the moving claws of the forefoot, disturbed, but by no means dislodged from the host".)

Fully consistent with this image of an animal that receives the environment into itself rather than actively projecting itself outward, Holdrege recognizes in the sloth "a primary gesture ... of pulling in or retracting". We have already noted the predominance of retractor muscles along with the manner in which the sloth pulls itself along a branch and brings leaves to its mouth. The head itself is a picture of this withdrawn and in-drawing manner of being. Lacking the protruding snout of most grazers, the skull is extraordinarily round and the head is not clearly separated from the rest of the body. The sloth's ears are tiny and do not project out into the environment. Its eyes can retract into their sockets. Both sight and hearing are, in the sloth, quite weak; smell—the one sense whereby part of the environment is drawn deeply into the organism—is the primary sense. Imagine yourself living in a world of wafting smells: no distinct boundary between self and other is given through this sense.

Slowness and constancy; receptive openness to the environment; a passive, somewhat withdrawn character; a gesture of pulling in or retracting rather than projecting outward; being formed from the outside—each of these phrases emphasizes a slightly different side of a unitary way of being. We can, with inner effort, bring all the sloth's traits into a coherent picture that "holds together". And when we do this, claims Holdrege, we find that "every detail can begin to speak 'sloth'". That is, we can recognize a "slothness" that shines through all the details and makes them into a single whole.

Of course, Holdrege's own description is much more organic than this haphazard, fragmented, and incomplete summary. But, in comparing the list of facts offered at the beginning of this section with the attempt to weave these facts into at least the bare skeleton of a connected fabric, perhaps you can begin to glimpse the meaningful unity that a qualitative approach to the sloth might make available. The qualities are, so to speak, recognized between the facts. As we will see later, only by virtue of this bridging function of qualities can we apprehend the unity of an organism or of any natural phenomenon.

But what are qualities?

A World of Qualities

To pursue a line of thought suggested by the student of language, Owen Barfield: imagine a geologist who, one thousand years from now, uncovers a statue of a human being. Assume further, and quite fantastically, that this geologist has never heard of sculpture. We can, therefore, imagine him contriving various explanations based on geological, hydrological, and meteorological processes to account for the remarkable shape of the statue. But, of course, if he should subsequently learn about sculpture, at least some of his explanations would assume a radically different form.

The difference is instructive, and points us toward what it would mean for science to become qualitative. The key here is not that the geologist would now account for the existence of the work of art by referring to the sculptor's purposes and material activity. Rather, it is that any adequate attempt even to describe the statue requires use of a language quite unlike the conventional terminology of physics or geology.

Here, for example, are some descriptive phrases applied to statues by the art historian, Ernst Gombrich (1989): "an expression of bold defiance"...."gesture of lassitude and resignation"...."air of dignity and repose"...."expression of pain"...."shifting of guilt". Such phrases point to that interior or psychic domain where expressions and gestures arise. An expression, we could say, is an inner movement of consciousness with its own peculiar "shape" or quality. I wave my arm in a threatening way, and you recognize in the contours of the movement a particular inner stance. I wave again, signifying that I was joking, and the inner gesture evident in my arm's motion invites you to enter an altogether different psychic context from the one you were in a moment ago.

Everyone, regardless of philosophical beliefs about psyche, consciousness, or soul, reads the body—and above all the human face—as the expression of an interior that is doing the expressing. When a beloved one smiles, we do not normally occupy ourselves with analyzing the structural features of muscle and bone "explaining" the smile. We explain it with reference to an inner world we share. If we did not do this kind of thing moment by moment, day in and day out, we would find ourselves adrift in society, unable to weave our own meaningful activity into the larger fabric of the world in which we live.

My arm is part of my physical body, and as such its movement is the external embodiment of an inner expressing. But the human arm itself, apart from its movement and fully as much as the motionless limbs of the statue, is the result of a sculpting—in this case, a sculpting by the complex life process sustaining the physical organism. No less than the statue's arm does this sculpted organ of flesh and bone and blood bear an expressive freight, whether it is the arm of a blacksmith or scribe, queen or scrubwoman, infant or octagenarian. We read something about the inner life, character, and circumstances of the person by observing the gestures "frozen" into the bodily form.

With this bare introduction, then, here is what I want to suggest about qualities:

  • Qualities consist of that inner movement which we might call an "expressing" or "gesturing". The "shape" of the movement, when outwardly embodied, is available for others to read—as a smile or scowl, dismissive wave, come-hither invitation, recoil of surprise, and so on. They achieve this reading by reproducing within their own consciousness the inner movement that is imaged in the outer form.

  • This same interior expressive character is what we find embodied in the world, so far as it is qualitative. In cognition, the qualities of the world light up within consciousness as our own inner gesturing, which is at the same time a gesturing of the world. Our interior is one with the interior of the world (Talbott 2003b).

  • The only world we have consists of nothing but qualities. It is not at all clear what a non-qualitative reality might be. The measurements we abstract from phenomena are always measurements of something and have no significance for the material world apart from this something. The something is irreducibly qualitative.

  • Because there is no content to be had beyond qualities, a mechanistic science aiming to rid itself of qualities inevitably empties itself of content. We see this emptying, for example, in a physics that reduces itself almost entirely to mathematical formalisms, with little ability to speak meaningfully about the reality to which these formalisms apply.

I will not set down a strict definition of qualities, beyond what I have already offered. I will simply proceed to speak about qualities. The reasons for this will emerge in due time.

Two Ways of Looking

Every naturalist is familiar with identification keys. An aid for identifying species, the key typically presents you with a series of yes-or-no questions. For example, in trying to identify a particular tree, you might be led through the following dialogue, where each succeeding question follows a "yes" answer to the previous one:

Is this a broad-leaved plant with simple rather than compound leaves?
Are the leaves opposite one another on the branches?
Is this an erect tree or shrub?
Are the leaves toothed?
Are the leaves also lobed?
Are the twigs neither red nor hairy?
Are the buds red and blunt with several scales?
Is the trunk bark rough and not flaking?
Then this is a red maple.
The key, in other words, presents you with a neatly logical framework consisting of a set of crisp, yes-or-no forks in your path of inquiry. Such guides are essential for every field naturalist.

Nevertheless, experienced naturalists do not often use a guide of this sort. The recognition they normally rely on in the field is, as zoologist C. F. A. Pantin has pointed out, strikingly different from the laborious, step-by-step logical exercise demanded by the key. "Our recognition of species in the field is commonly instantaneous. We do not consciously traverse a series of dichotomous alternatives, excluding one possibility after another before we arrive at the answer. Indeed it is difficult to believe that we do anything of this sort even unconsciously".

Pantin also notes that the errors committed in what he calls "aesthetic recognition" (and which I will here call "qualitative recognition") differ from the wrong turns we take when traversing a logical key. The latter mistakes are "as disastrous as an arithmetical error in calculation". It is not hard to see why. Taking the wrong fork of a path whose divergences are designed to be clear and unambiguous quite naturally lands you in territory that is clearly and unambiguously the wrong territory. Every fork you take after the first wrong turn only confirms your lostness.

An error in qualitative recognition, on the other hand ("For a moment I thought you were your brother") is less clear-cut. In general, Pantin suggests, there is truth in such errors. We were not altogether wrong. The mistaken impression was more or less like the thing we were really after. "You really do look a little like your brother. In taking you for him, I was truly recognizing in you certain aspects of him".

This relates to another feature of qualitative recognition, which is that it is not analytical. "It seems to depend on the whole available impression", and this totality is liable to various associative connections. Pantin illustrates this with wonderful examples:

Even a statement such as "The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of Chippendale about them—whilst that one looks Hepplewhite" may be significant. And if, when we are collecting Rhynchodemus bilineatus together, I say, "Bring me any worms that sneer at you," the probability of your collecting the right species becomes high.
In this case, not only is the probability of correct identification high, but the collection rate will be much faster than when the students are directed to look for the various separate anatomical features that might be analyzed out of the "sneer". Moreover, because the whole impression is an impression of the whole, it does not arbitrarily discard the greater part of what we can recognize in the organism. By contrast, once we have run through our list of yes-or-no features, "a very great deal of the impression which the organism makes upon us still remains 'unused'. This residue is undoubtedly important in our recognition of species even though it cannot be analyzed in just this [yes-or-no] way" (Pantin 1954).

We Cannot Escape Qualities

The idea behind the identification key is straightforward and valuable: break the task down into discrete steps so that each one can routinely and reliably be executed. We arrive at simple, yes-or-no choices by reducing them to the terms of more-or-less unproblematic givens. When, in his famous experiments laying the foundation for modern genetics, Mendel counted violet-flowered and white-flowered peas, he did not puzzle over this or that peculiar shade of violet. Or, if he did, the fact is not reflected in his final tabulation of results.

Similarly, the analytical key aims for judgments that can be automatic and sure-fire: "This is that"—this pea flower is violet, this tree has red buds. But it is crucial to notice that the simple, yes-or-no question does not deliver us from the need to recognize qualities. It merely removes our attention from the recognition. It treats qualities as fixed and obvious, so that we need only count their instances. When we say, "This is that", we increment our count without feeling any need to characterize either this or that.

In slightly different words: the analytical key requires us to recognize qualities without asking questions of them. The demand is, "Have you counted another instance of this quality or not?" rather than "By the way, what is this quality? Please describe it". Adequate recognition is simply assumed. This is well and good, since we would be of little use in the world if we were required ceaselessly to contemplate or re-examine every feature we routinely recognize and take for granted.

But if we are interested in science, two considerations become decisive here. One is that we always have to do with qualities, whether we are paying attention to the fact or merely counting instances. The other is that paying attention—and doing so by asking questions—is what science is all about. You will recall how Barbara McClintock strove to "see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable". By doing so, she was led to the principle of genetic transposition (Keller 1983). This in turn helped to loosen the logical structure of genetics, which had become rigid and brittle. If Mendel's important discoveries had provoked as much interest in the qualities of his violet and white flowers as in his neat arithmetic ratios, we would likely have a far richer and more balanced discipline of genetics today (Holdrege 1996).

As McClintock knew so well, a quality always participates in the whole to which it belongs and is therefore revelatory of the whole. The analytical key collapses this revelatory potential down to a single yes-or-no value, or a group of such values. Such a narrowing of focus and restriction of insight serves many practical purposes. But if this "analytical collapse" of the world remains the sole or primary cognitive movement of the scientist, then the world begins to disappear and science verges upon a kind of formal emptiness disguised by formidable technique. Qualities alone can fill this void.

The Unity of Cognition

The point needs emphasizing: we can never escape qualities. It is easy to contrast propositional knowledge—the kind of knowledge that comes through analysis and results in sharply articulated, logically well-structured statements of "atomic fact"—with recognitional or qualitative knowledge. The contrast is essential, but even more essential is the understanding that the contrast occurs within the unity of cognition. There can be no analytic insight without qualitative recognition, just as there can be no qualitative recognition without analytic insight.

The difference between the two is perhaps more readily experienced than their unity. To use an example given by Ron Brady: you find yourself engaging in one sort of activity when trying to recognize an old friend in a crowd, and quite a different activity when struggling to identify a stranger in the same crowd by proceeding through a list of discrete features (Brady 2002).

You already have an overall impression of your friend—one sufficiently rich in its expressive potential to enable nearly instantaneous recognition of him even in postures or activities you have never witnessed before. As you scan the crowd, there are countless possible gestures of form or movement that might tip you off to the presence of the person you are looking for. Each one of them bears the expressive signature of the same individual. That is, they are all shone through by the same unifying whole—a fact demonstrated by your ability to recognize numerous outward, novel manifestations as nevertheless being those of one individual.

In the analytical approach, by contrast, you are reduced to identifying, one by one, a set of low-level features described in unexpressive and rather more literal terms. Given a set of successful recognitions, you say, "This must be the person"—but you still do not recognize him in the way you would a friend. Time and familiarity are required before you can experience the inner, expressive unity that raises the particulars into a coherent and multi-dimensioned whole.

Yet, despite these differences, we cannot consider the two strategies of cognition apart from each other. You cannot, after all, proceed through your analytical key—your list of discrete features relating to a single individual—without first being able to recognize human beings as distinct from, say, trees or rocks. Then, too, each of the features you are looking for—a long, straight nose, curly brown hair, a prominent wrinkle—while analyzed out of a larger whole, in turn expresses its own unity and must be recognized as such a unified expression. If you needed to learn to identify a nose (and all the other particular features) with the help of yet another analytical key, then your search would be hopelessly slow. And, even then, the effort to identify a nose would depend upon yet further "givens" that you would have to recognize.

The aim of the analytic approach is to make the necessary recognitions so simple and unproblematic that they are absolutely reliable, or nearly so. It is, of course, always necessary to strive toward reliability, and analytic methods are important to this striving. But any one-sided resort to these methods is itself highly problematic, for two reasons: first, it encourages reliance upon habit—upon recognitions so routine that we need no longer question or deepen them; and second, because it beguiles us into the belief that real knowledge is of a simple, yes-or-no sort, and that we do not have to deal with the qualities of things. Since this ignoring of qualities is an impossible ideal to achieve, we end up relying on qualities that we have unconsciously projected into the phenomena we are studying, as when we think of subatomic "particles" as solid little balls.

Qualities are the World's Content

When Jung began his training among schizophrenics in a psychiatric clinic, he felt driven to understand the meaning of speech and gestures that were dismissed as demented by his colleagues. He would spend long periods reproducing the peculiar gesture of a patient and trying to penetrate its meaning. For example, he talks of a woman who had been hospitalized for fifty years, and who was noted for making odd rhythmical movements with her hands and arms. She was taken to have a catatonic form of dementia praecox [schizophrenia], but, Jung writes, "that meant nothing to me, for these words did not contribute in the slightest to an understanding of the significance and origin of those curious gestures".

Eventually, Jung learned that the woman had made shoes, and that these movements were characteristic of the shoemaker's craft. When she finally died, her elder brother came to the funeral and Jung asked him about his sister's case. It turned out that she had been in love with a shoemaker and when he rejected her she had "gone off". So, as Jung puts it, "The shoemaker movements indicated an identification with her sweetheart which had lasted until her death" (Jung 1965, pp. 124-28).

Jung, in imagining a patient's characteristic movement and bringing it alive within himself, needed to attend to every aspect of the patient's life. The quality or meaning 2 of the movement could be understood only in the context of that life, and in turn serves as an expression and therefore a revelation of it.

But there are other ways to view a given movement. We could, for example, abstract it from the expressive context of a particular person in a particular situation and instead consider its expressive potential "in general". We might do this (however fruitless the exercise) when compiling an encyclopedia of gestures for use, say, in ballet choreography. Or, continuing as far as possible along this path of abstraction, we could remove the movement altogether from the human context and indeed from every expressive context. We could then describe it merely as a mathematical trajectory in space and time. In this case our description would, for all practical purposes, have been purged of all qualitative content. It would not express anything. A set of numbers or equations by themselves (that is, in their merely quantitative aspect and without reference to the reality they were abstracted from) mean nothing. Only when we translate them through activity or in imagination back to qualitative form do we gain content.

Considering the two ends of this continuum, we can say that the highly individualized human movement is concrete; it is richly contextual, expressive, and multi-voiced. At the opposite extreme, the mathematically conceived movement is abstract, unambiguous, decontextualized, and defined without reference to expression—which is another way of saying that it lacks content. We arrive at it through an analytical collapse of the world.

Both ends of the spectrum have their virtues. There is nothing wrong with the mathematical representation. As a characterization of an actual movement, it is as close to being simply true as you can get. But it has sacrificed content, or depth of expression, for the sake of its single-voiced clarity (Talbott forthcoming-a). No understanding, and no science, can be merely quantitative. What makes it possible to think otherwise is our habit of referring the numbers, without critical reflection, to the expressions from which they were abstracted. We import into our thinking the content to which the numbers apply, but without always paying attention to this fact or reconciling it with our ideal of a perfectly quantitative science.

When we acknowledge what we are really doing, we will recognize that our science has content only by grace of the world's qualities. The qualities are the content. Without the qualities we have no world.


I began by suggesting that the qualitative is the expressive and gestural. In trying to apprehend the quality of, for example, a wave of an arm or even the form of a statue, we find ourselves engaged in an inner activity. We are trying to reproduce within our own consciousness a movement corresponding to and elucidating what we have seen in the world. The movement is not simply a replaying of the outwardly observed movement, but rather an inner re-expressing of the outward movement. A motion of the arm may be serene or agitated, inviting or repulsing, questioning or answering, joyful or despairing, graceful or awkward, confused or assured .... In each case an inner way of being finds embodiment in an outward form. Even outward non-movement, in a human being or animal, is the expression of a kind of inner movement—a rock may simply not move, but a deer holds still (Brady 2002).

The role of qualities in cognition—and the way we can minimize (but not eliminate) that role—is evident in the contrast between the trained naturalist's field recognition and the novice's employment of analytical keys. The naturalist identifying a tree or insect makes use of the entire impression and reads it as a whole, whereas the user of the key goes through a step-by-step logical process focused on details. The analytical reduction of the overall impression to a set of isolated features allowing crisp, yes-or-no answers gives us a more or less reliable procedure while leaving out of the picture the kind of in-depth recognition the experienced naturalist relies on. This omission, when insisted upon with one-sided fervor, results in what I have called the "analytical collapse" of the world.

Nevertheless, as we saw, even the key requires qualitative recognition for its use. The key for trees will hardly be of much use if we have not already learned to recognize trees and the various parts (leaves, veins, buds, vascular bundles, flowers, stamens) referred to in the key. We may try to reduce everything to mere counting ("I have found an instance of this feature"), but we can know what we are supposed to count only by recognizing qualities.

So the qualitative and analytical approaches are not separable. We can only recognize—certainly we can only consciously recognize—how a group of parts articulate an expressive unity if we have previously specified the parts through analysis. And we can analyze a whole into its parts only by recognizing each part as itself possessing a significant unity or wholeness.

Finally, I have suggested that the qualities of a phenomenon are its content. If we engage single-mindedly in an analytical reduction of the arm's gesture, we may finally arrive at a set of numbers. But without reference to the qualities from which they were abstracted, the numbers mean nothing. Only by virtue of the qualities can we give the numbers mean or say what they refer to.

Images and Wholes

Much of the foregoing can be summarized by saying that qualities are pictorial or imaginal, and that images as images have a mutually influential, dynamic character. "It is characteristic of images that they interpenetrate one another" (Barfield 1977a). We are dealing with such interpenetration whenever we experience qualities. This is why Pantin could cite the value of association. ("The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of the Chippendale about them".) It is also why I can see something of you in your brother. X can be meaningfully like Y without being Y. The relation between qualities is not a this-or-that, yes-or-no question.

So, too, this is why profoundly meaningful (and therefore qualitative) language is so often metaphorical—one thing is revealed through another. And it is why the painter can achieve a unity among all the elements on a canvas; the unity is possible only because the qualities of one part shade into and modify—"qualify"—the other parts. This is true even of very basic perceptual elements. It is well known that how we see a particular patch of color—what color we actually see—depends on the surrounding colors.

What all this means is that without the interpenetration of qualities there can be no wholes. Only by virtue of qualities can a whole shine through all its parts and the parts participate in the whole. Otherwise we have nothing but externality—things sitting side by side. We do not overcome this externality by placing one thing "inside" another spatially. Unless there is qualitative interpenetration, the parts remain external to each other—an aggregate rather than a unity.

Brady is getting at this same idea of interpenetration when he remarks that in aesthetic (qualitative) recognition we are "not summing but integrating the parts". This is possible only because "the parts are plastic to the recognition of the whole" (Brady 2002). When we recognize a whole, we find that its expressive qualities help to give form and content to each of the parts, which in turn express something of the whole. The detached arm of a statue, experienced in isolation, cannot begin to express what the exact same arm does in its proper context. And what it conveys in one context might be very different from what it conveys in a different context. Similarly, an isolated word, as defined by the dictionary, does not begin to express what the same word can when situated in a particular text.

There is a polar tension between the interpenetration of qualities and the logical structure we can discover in them. Things do not only flow into each other but also preserve themselves as distinct unities. It is true that every unity, every context, is but part of a larger unity or context, extending outward until we have a "unity of all". But at the same time, our only hope of understanding the world lies in our ability, not only to grasp unities, but also to analyze particulars out of wholes. The analysis carries us in a direction that is the polar opposite of the imaginal quest for unities. In speaking of images and their characteristic interpenetration, Barfield goes on to say that this

is just what the terms of logic ... must not do. There, interpenetration becomes the slovenly confusion of one determinate meaning with another determinate meaning, and there, its proper name is not interpenetration, but equivocation.... (Barfield 1977a, p. 100).
Knowledge is born of the integral cooperation of these polar opposite cognitive movements. Consistent with what we have already seen, the analysis, or splitting apart, of things into mutually external, side-by-side, logically well-behaved parts is not in any absolute sense an alternative to the imaginative grasp of unity through interpenetrating qualities. Neither movement of cognition can proceed without the other. (This truth of "polarity" will remain implicit throughout the balance of this paper. I deal with it explicitly in "Living Opposites"—Talbott forthcoming-a; see also Talbott 1995.)

In sum: the pictorial or imaginal character of the world testifies to its unity. A picture catches up its details into a whole. Barbara McClintock professed to an "exceedingly strong feeling" for the oneness of things. "Basically, everything is one. There is no way in which you draw a line between things. What we [normally] do is to make these subdivisions, but they're not real. Our educational system is full of subdivisions that are artificial, that shouldn't be there". The descriptive task of the scientist as well as the artist is to "ensoul" what one sees, attributing to it the life one shares with it (Keller 1983, p. 204).

Yet we must draw the lines and make the distinctions, which is the task of logic. The critical thing is to realize with McClintock that the lines are "not real". They are distinctions within reality, not divisions of it. They are provisional, serving our own temporary cognitive needs. They are our act. And if they serve their purpose well, then they lead us to that "ensouling" McClintock refers to, whereby the expressive unity of a phenomenon is realized in our own cognitive gesture.

The Limits of Definition

I said at the outset that I would not try to define "quality" in any precise way. Now we can see the necessity for this reticence. The attempt to define a word in general, outside any particular context, is rather like the attempt to define the gesture of an arm detached from its statue. We lose expressive content—an unavoidable consequence when we must specify what is common to all uses of the word in all contexts, and when we must do so in the most unambiguous and logically fail-safe manner possible. The dictionary, as a kind of analytical key for words, attempts to nail down every word in its distinctness and separation from every other word—and, like the key, it tries to do so using only terms whose meanings we can take for granted.

So through the very effort to define "quality" or specific qualities, we can't help denying the thing we are trying to define. We can get exact about meanings only in the way a mathematical trajectory gets exact about a gesture. The qualitative aspects of things are those aspects lying at one end of a continuum whose opposite end is the destination we arrive at through the decontextualizing and abstracting process of definition. We define by fleeing ambiguity, interpenetration, multivalence—which is to say: we define by ignoring the qualitative.

You can recognize the face of a friend in a crowd. But if you were asked to define exactly what was recognizable, you might have great difficulty. Suppose, however, that you tried. You would then be driven to analyze the friend's face, and to isolate particular features that you could reasonably describe—roman nose, black eyebrows, and so on. Your definition, in other words, would move you away from the qualitative and toward the analytical. The classical endpoint of such an analysis, if you were to go that far, would be a description of featureless particles from which all the qualities of the face had disappeared entirely.

You could, of course, choose instead to employ metaphor, as when Pantin spoke of sneering worms. But this is not what we usually mean by "definition". And whatever you call it, it does not nail the matter down in the same way as the analytical approach. Metaphors do not give us a neat, either-or, but rather the ambiguity of yes-and-no. This is why we cannot convey a quality we are experiencing to someone else—not in any automatic and reliable way. But we can suggest the quality. And with someone who is ready and able to perform the requisite inner work of imagination, the suggestion can prove fertile.

The One-Sidedness of Reductionism

All this helps to explain the fruitless dialogue between reductionists and their various opponents. The reductionist asks, "What is it about the face that is not ultimately and precisely definable in the quantitative terms of reductionist science?" But this "what is it?" is essentially a demand for a definition or analytical specification of some feature, which means that the non-reductionist is being asked for a contradiction, since the qualities he is concerned with are at the opposite pole from such specification. And the reductionist is absolutely right: there is nothing within our knowledge that we cannot approach analytically.

It is rather as if we were to take a bar magnet with north and south poles and say, "What does this bar have beside northern magnetism?" The question is justified in this sense: you can point to any place on the bar, no matter how close to the south pole, and rightly claim that it is really "northern". To prove your contention you can cut the magnet in two at exactly that location, and you will be able to show that it is indeed the north pole of one of the two pieces you are left with. Clearly the location does have a "northern" character. But unfortunately for the northern enthusiast, exactly the same logic shows the original magnet to have "nothing but" southern polarity, since the identical location of the cut turns out to be the south pole of the other fragment.

Likewise, anyone who insists on seeing only the cognitive movement toward analysis and precise definition will find nothing to dissuade him from his one-sidedness. Just as you can find no point in a bar magnet that cannot be shown to participate in the northern polarity, so, too, there is no content of cognition that you cannot begin to reduce to analytical elements of one sort or another. All that is necessary in order to retain your one-sidedness is to ignore the progressive loss of content as you pursue the analytic process further and further toward the endpoint of absolute precision about nothing at all (or else to ignore your continual importation of "illicit" and unacknowledged qualities into your scientific descriptions of things).

A decisive requirement for science today is to realize that there is no escape from qualities, which are the prerequisite for all analysis. It is bizarre that a body of researchers so committed to open-mindedness and fearless exploration of the unknown should for so long have covered their eyes and refused to consider those qualities of the world that the early pioneers of science decided to ignore. Even as a few churchmen were refusing to look through Galileo's telescope, Galileo himself was declaring qualities unworthy of scientific assay 3. The churchmen subsequently reconciled themselves to the telescope, but nearly four hundred years later most scientists have yet to look at qualities, whether to begin reckoning with them or to dismiss them in a conscious and principled way.

The Qualitative Science of Color

When scientists do finally begin reconciling themselves to the inescapably qualitative foundations of their undertaking, they will face a daunting task. After centuries of trained insensitivity to the qualities of things, we are hardly in a position to deal with qualities in a disciplined and revelatory manner. The true artist, of course, might teach us something about the necessary discipline, but science parted ways with art long ago; a rapprochement will not be easy 4.

The trained insensitivity I referred to is evident in the study of color. Most of us can scarcely be said to see colors. We simply register the fact that we are now looking at a color identical to one we have seen on certain other occasions and given a name to—say, "light green". But what is light green like? What is its content?

Given our prevailing cognitive habits, this question is immediately short-circuited by the pseudo-scientific response: "This light green is (or is caused by) electromagnetic waves of such-and-such a wavelength". Unfortunately, this is not even remotely true. Whatever quality we experience in seeing green, this quality cannot be described as a wavelength. Nor do we have any idea what it might mean for a perceived quality to be caused by a wavelength—not if we mean by "cause" anything like the standard scientific notion relating to physical forces and material interactions. Certainly we can (and should) talk about various conditions for seeing particular colors, but this is not at all the same as specifying causes.

Moreover, even the idea that waves of a certain length are the condition for seeing the "corresponding" color is misconceived. Noting the widespread opinion that "an unambiguous relation exists between color and wavelength", the physician and professor of physiology, Herbert Hensel, pointed out a disconnect between "fundamental physical quantities" and "immediate sensory experience":

... the experience of the color yellow is phenomenally unambiguous and simple—that is, unable to be reduced further. Yet, one cannot at all reproduce it unambiguously in the language of physics by means of a simple quantity. A specific shade of yellow can correspond to a single wavelength (for example 589 nm), or, in accordance with the laws of so-called additive color mixing, a combination of wavelengths (for example 671 and 537 nm). The phenomenal appearance of yellow does not reveal which physical situation is present in the individual case. And even these conditions are not yet sufficient, for the phenomenal appearance of yellow can arise also as a successive contrast after the presentation of violet [in afterimages] or as simultaneous contrast, as in the case of colored shadows. (Hensel 1998, p. 73)
Yet the colors, considered solely in their own terms, are susceptible to scientific investigation, upon which they yield to systematic ordering principles. Goethe was the pioneer of such studies, and one of his results was the color circle. (Figure to come.) "The structure of this ordering of the colors", writes Hensel, "is valid regardless of whether one is dealing with surface colors, the colors of light, after-images, or hallucinations". But this circle does not correspond to a scale of wavelengths, and "neither its self-contained structure nor the complementary colors have adequate correspondences within that scale" (Hensel 1998, pp. 78).

Goethe was convinced that a proper science of color would remain within the sphere of perceptible color phenomena and would be irreducibly qualitative. This, however, does not mean that the science must lack a theoretical or conceptual basis. In fact, Goethe rejected the "extremely odd demand ... that empirical data should be presented without any theoretical context". Anticipating the thought of our own day, he held that all disciplined observation entails reflection and an ordering of our perceptions, so that "we theorize every time we look at the world". He asked only that we "avoid the pitfalls of abstraction" (Goethe 1995, p. 159). We can do this by relying on concepts that make the phenomena we are observing stand out more vividly—concepts that order the phenomena and bring them into coherent relation with one another. What we cannot do is to explain colors or identify their causes by resorting to qualitatively emptied concepts such as "photon" and "electromagnetic wave". Where, by this means, do we bridge the causal gap between our imagined physical entities and our qualitative experience of color?

But how, you may ask, do colors illustrate my contention that qualities are gestures—forms—of consciousness? It's one thing to talk about the gesture of an animal or human being, but quite another to apply such language to the basic qualities of the inorganic world. Can the expressive content of a color—green or red—be described as activity in the way a smile or movement of the arm can?

Don't forget, however, that the reason qualities such as red were originally ignored by scientists is precisely because they are "infected" by inner activity (and therefore are less easy to nail down than quantities 5.) So the interior, gestural nature of qualities should hardly be considered a radical point.

We often speak of red, unlike blue, as a "warm" color. The idea of warmth or warming already suggests a kind of movement. But Hensel reminds us that red is also experienced as "advancing spatially", and may be a "loud" or "shouting" color. He goes on:

The "sensory-moral" effect of colors has been described at all times and by the most various researchers in an astoundingly similar way. Thus, in a publication of the Modern American Color Association edited by F. Birren, red (signal red, medium red), is characterized as "passionate, exciting, fervid, active." When we penetrate to the hidden functions and energies of red as they are expressed in the imagination of the painter, in color psychology, in language, and in color symbolism, a new and richly articulated qualitative world opens up to us in the unity of sensory red. (Hensel 1998, p. 79)
The eminent neurologist, Kurt Goldstein, remarked that "Patients may present descriptions of their experiences occasioned by color, which show an extraordinary agreement with those of Goethe and Kandinsky" (Goldstein 1995, p. 210).

Many scientists (unlike artists!) will be inclined to dismiss all this as vacuous. This is unfortunate, since the "gesturing" of colors is objectively demonstrable. Already in the first half of the twentieth century Goldstein reported many unconscious bodily responses that correspond in a systematic way to color experiences. Green color stimulation, for example, has opposite effects upon muscle tension from red stimulation. Also, if a patient is asked to raise his arms forward into a somewhat unstable position, "green and blue stimulation lead to a change of the position of the arms in the opposite direction as that induced by yellow or red stimulation"—in the one case the arms move closer together and in the other wider apart. And, further, color stimuli

affect a diversity of other performances and events in the body; for example ... color influences the volitional movements. Under red and green lights, movements are carried out at a different speed, without subjectively experiencing the change in speed. Likewise, the estimates of traversed distances vary as to length; seen and felt distances, time intervals, and weights are judged differently under the influence of different colors. (Goldstein 1995, p. 211)
It may not be so strange after all, then, when Goethe says that "colors are the deeds of light, what it does and what it endures" (Goethe 1995, p. 158). Every quality in the world is a gesturing or expressing.

Resisting a Qualitative Science

An odd and perhaps revealing ambivalence seems to afflict some of those modern scientists who look back upon Goethe's color researches. In his introduction to a 1970 translation of Goethe's Theory of Colour, Deane B. Judd, informs us at the outset that "Goethe's explanation of color makes no physical sense at all". One wonders, then, why the translation was undertaken in the first place. In partial answer, Judd appeals to "the beauty and sweep of [Goethe's] conjectures ... this book does not have to be studied to be enjoyed".

A rather backhanded compliment for a work purporting to be scientific! But then Judd begins to backpedal. He, like everyone who studies Goethe's notebooks and laboratory equipment, marvels at the systematic, disciplined, and phenomenologically revealing work of the German poet. "Goethe had a passion for careful observation and accurate reporting". While "most of Goethe's explanations of color have been thoroughly demolished", it remains true that "no criticism has been leveled at his report of the facts to be observed; nor should any be".

Many modern scientists might vainly hope for as much. But it never becomes clear what Goethean "explanations" have been demolished—a puzzle all the greater given that Goethe made a point of refusing even to offer the sorts of explanation Judd and other color scientists of our day typically resort to. What Goethe said of his morphological research was true of his scientific work as a whole: "its intention is to portray rather than explain" (Talbott 2003a). But, as we saw earlier, his idea of observation and portrayal was intimately linked to the goal of conceptual elucidation. He tried to portray in such a way that the observations became transparent to the concepts that could illumine them.

Everything in the realm of fact is already theory .... Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena—they themselves are the theory. (Goethe 1995, pp. 57, 307)
He refused to appeal, in pretended explanation, to a realm of fact, or supposed fact, incommensurable with the phenomena he was trying to understand. A wavelength and the quality of green are just such incommensurables.

But Judd's backpedaling is not finished. He goes on to say, "A reader who attempts to follow the logic of Goethe's explanations and who attempts to compare them with the currently accepted views might, even with the advantage of 1970 sophistication, become convinced that Goethe's theory, or at least a part of it, has been dismissed too quickly".

And finally, the position of the competing "explanations" almost seems to be reversed:

Remember that if an observer is in a room illuminated entirely by light from the long-wave [red] extreme of the spectrum, he ought, by the wavelength explanation of color, to see nothing but objects having colors intermediate to red and black. The observable fact is, however, that he sees, in addition to these, pink, yellowish red, purplish gray, and deep greenish blue objects. Again, if the room is illuminated entirely by two kinds of spectrum light, middle-wave and long-wave, he ought, by the wavelength explanation of color, to see nothing but black, red, green, and mixtures of them including various kinds of yellow. Actually he sees objects having colors of all hues including blue. The blue is said by adherents of the wavelength theory of colors to be caused by chromatic contrast, a subjective phenomenon; and this is another way of admitting that wavelength is not all there is to color. Goethe knew all about chromatic contrast. Whenever we try to predict what colors will be perceived to belong to objects under non-daylight, we are likely to find that the wavelength explanation of color falls down badly.
The conclusion? "Perhaps, after 160 years, Goethe's mystical theory may come to be recognized as foreshadowing, however dimly, the next important advance in the theory of color" (Goethe 1970, pp. xi-xvi).

Goethe's mystical theory? There was no one for whom mysticism was more anathema or more in conflict with those rigorous methods of scientific procedure Judd applauded, than Goethe. By contrast: just a few pages after Judd's introduction, the book's translator, Charles Lock Eastlake, cites the opinion of Sir John Leslie as follows: "When Newton attempted to reckon up the rays of light decomposed by the prism and ventured to assign the famous number seven, he was apparently influenced by some lurking disposition towards mysticism" (Goethe 1970, p. xxxii). Here was exactly the kind of a abstract imposition upon the observed phenomena that Goethe would never have countenanced.

In general, the search for explanations in a realm disconnected from the phenomena one is trying to understand seems closer to the spirit of mysticism than does Goethe's insistence upon staying close to the observations, with their essential qualitative content.

Meandering Toward an Understanding of Water

In his book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, Theodor Schwenk pursues with striking observational prowess the view that "water is more than a mere flow of energy or a useful means of transport." He struggles to grasp its expressive gestures, its "archetypal forms of movement," which turn out to be curvilinear—spiraling, gliding, meandering, oscillating, rhythmically ebbing and flowing, going forth and returning. Even in the straightest and smoothest pipe, flowing water insists upon spiraling, and over time it will impress its swirling tendencies even upon the solid material of its channel.

But Schwenk is not content with such broad-stroke characterizations. He traces the flowing forms in delicate detail, and brings out their lawful and expressive interrelatedness. The structures of the human organism itself, right down to the bones, are found to be (as Novalis suggested) the result of partially arrested streaming; our organs are gradually shaped as the patterns of flow in the fluid embryo are materially "filled in."

I can scarcely hint at the full range and richness of Schwenk's treatment, but this brief mention may suffice to raise the obvious question. Where Schwenk speaks of the archetypal circular or curving motion of water, the physicist tells us that all matter naturally moves in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. Water is a form of matter, so who is right?

They are both right, for they are saying quite different things. The physicist's truth is an act of high abstraction, whereby it is discovered that certain mathematical treatments of moving objects gain their greatest simplicity when we juxtapose the idea of movement in a straight line with that of a disturbing force. Important as this achievement was for certain practical, mathematical manipulations, it entailed a studious ignoring of the qualitative nature of whatever object was doing the moving. And it is this nature with which Schwenk concerns himself.

The problem arises when the physicist takes issue with Schwenk's claim to be approaching the true nature of water, and dismisses as "Aristotelian" the argument that we virtually never see objects moving in perfectly straight lines. This is to forget that mathematical parsimony does not automatically equate to parsimony in the full understanding of phenomena, and that for the latter what we see (and perceive with our other senses) is exactly what matters.

One either ignores the expressive face of nature, or else attempts to read it. The often highly effective abstractions we arrive at through the ignoring are not always helpful when it comes to the reading. Mathematics always strives toward universality; reading gives us concrete meaning and content—something for our mathematics to be about. We should not complain if what the mathematics is about turns out to be more than just mathematics!

To attempt an analogy: in some contexts it proves easiest mathematically to treat the circle as a collection of infinitesimal straight lines. This does not mean that the expressive potential of the circle is identical to that of the straight line—as any dancer will doubtless be happy to remind us. It is this expressive potential that Schwenk is trying to get at—an expressive potential manifested in a dance that is neither private nor subjective, but the demonstrable reality of the phenomenal world wherever water flows.

Figure 1. On the left: typical meandering flow of a river. Even when a river is hemmed in between solid walls—or when a flow of water is contained within a pipe—the water contrives to move within these limits in a meandering fashion. As Schwenk writes, "Not even the strongest walled banks can hold out indefinitely against this 'will' of the water and wherever they offer a chance they will be torn down". On the right: meanders may increase until they form a nearly complete loop, upon which a flood may complete the process, bypassing the loop and leaving it "orphaned". Illustrations from Schwenk 1965.

Figure 2. Train of vortices caused as the water flows left to right past a rod set vertically in the water to the left of the picture (from Schwenk 1965).

Figure 3. Spiraling muscle fibers at the apex of the heart (from Schwenk 1965).

Figure 4. Schematic representation of the spiraling heart fibers in the left ventricle of the heart (from Holdrege 2002). Regarding the relation between the flows in the heart and the structure of the muscular organ itself, Holdrege writes: "Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct "currents" through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the "still water zone" between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives the parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow of blood" (p. 12). The spiraling fibers of the heart muscle that help to direct the blood in its flow are themselves a congealed image of the swirling vortex of blood within.

More Resistance

Schwenk's pioneering work on water has produced the same odd ambivalence among those oriented toward conventional science as Goethe's pioneering work on color. In his bestselling Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick calls Sensitive Chaos "a strange little book". Yet Gleick acknowledges that Schwenk "observed flawlesly. He laid out a multitude of natural flowing shapes with an artist's eye. He assembled photographs and made dozens of precise drawings, like the sketches of a cell biologist peering through his first microscope. He had an open-mindedness and a naïveté that would have made Goethe proud".

Gleick's description of Sensitive Chaos is worth quoting at length:

Flow fills his pages. Great rivers like the Mississippi and the Bassin d'Arcachon in France meander in wide curves to the sea. In the sea itself, the Gulf Stream, too, meanders, making loops that swing east and west. It is a giant river of warm water amid cold, as Schwenk said, a river that "builds its own banks out of the cold water itself."

Within currents, he knew, there are secondary currents. Water moving down a meandering river flows, secondarily, around the river's axis, toward one bank, down to the riverbed, across toward the other bank, up toward the surface, like a particle spiraling around a doughnut. The trail of any water particle forms a string twisting around other strings. Schwenk had a topologist's imagination for such patterns. "This picture of strands twisted together in a spiral is only accurate with respect to the actual movement. One does often speak of 'strands' of water; they are however not really single strands but whole surfaces, interweaving spatially and flowing past each other." He saw rhythms competing in waves, waves overtaking one another, dividing surfaces, and boundary layers. He saw eddies and vortices and vortex trains, understanding them as the "rolling" of one surface about another. Here he came as close as a philosopher could to the physicist's conception of the dynamics of approaching turbulence. His artistic conviction assumed universality. To Schwenk, vortices meant instability, and instability meant that a flow was fighting an inequality within itself, and the inequality was "archetypal."

But while he seems to appreciate all this observational richness, Gleick runs into difficulties:
Schwenk did not believe in coincidence. He believed in universal principles, and, more than universality, he believed in a certain spirit in nature that made his prose uncomfortably unanthropomorphic.
And above all, Gleick stumbles over Schwenk's "fatal" lack of mathematics—which is why he refers to Schwenk as a "philosopher" rather than a "scientist", and stigmatizes him as a "mystical forebear" of today's truly scientific researchers in chaos theory. Gleick worries about the "Platonic" view that "behind the particular, visible shapes of matter must lie ghostly forms serving as invisible templates. Forms in motion". He disparages the fact that "Schwenk argued by analogy. His case—spiritual, flowering, encyclopedic—finally came down to a display of similarities" (Gleick 1988, pp. 197, 198, 202, 211).

Gleick's complaints should by this time ring a few bells. Anthropomorphism? Yes, if by this one simply acknowledges that the only hope of our understanding the world depends upon our being able to discover within ourselves gestures that reveal a content of the world—a hope that by no means requires more faith than the hope that the mathematical concepts we find within ourselves will prove helpful in revealing the world.

Form in motion? Yes, this is exactly what we should look for if we would grasp the content of the world's phenomena. It is in fact what all scientists deal with if and when their equations are removed from the sphere of pure mathematics and given a content of the world.

Analogy and the display of similarities? As we saw earlier, this is just what we find in the scientist's full-fleshed—as opposed to abstract, key-driven—recognition of significant unities. Such recognition is the starting point of all science. To ignore what it entails is to build science upon a foundation of ignorance.

But why should the gestural qualities giving us significant unities be denigrated as "ghostly Platonic forms"? They are, after all, right there in front of us in the phenomena we observe, and we rely on them every time we recognize, for example, a rose bush as a rose bush—that is, every time we encounter a recognizable form. Is the mathematical law of gravity a mere ghostly form, or is it in fact a verifiable aspect of the world's reality? The law, you could say, is "merely" conceptual, but it is a conceptuality we properly ascribe to the world, as when we say that things adhere to the law of gravity. If we have no choice but to say this, then on what grounds shall we condemn as ghostly the forms of movement from which all mathematical laws, including the law of gravity, are abstracted? Can the abstraction be more solid and real than the phenomenal reality we obtain it from?

Despite his advocacy of a "new science", Gleick is unable to let go of the comfort factor that comes with the precise certainties of mathematics. He fails to realize that these certainties come at the expense of the fulness of reality. The high abstractions of the chaos theory he celebrates derive for the most part from extremely narrow, constrained, and artificial experimental set-ups—or computer simulations (Talbott 2002; 2001). The resulting mathematical laws may at times be found in widespread phenomena, but this discovery no more substitutes for or invalidates the exploration of form or gesture than the discovery of grammatical rules substitutes for or invalidates the exploration of a text's meaningful, expressive content. Expressive form is the prerequisite for mathematical laws; to dismiss the form as Platonic or mystical is all the more to remove the abstract laws derived from this form to some Platonic realm.

The appreciation of qualities is not a matter to be left to poets. The cost of ignoring qualities within science and engineering can be enormous, as the long history of "river taming" in the U.S. shows. Following the Flood Control Act of 1936, the Army Corps of Engineers modified 16,000 miles of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The natural course of a river, as Alice Outwater reminds us, is not fixed in time; it "writhes like a snake, throwing off oxbow lakes as meander loops slip downstream." But the Mississippi, "dammed, channeled, and leveed, doesn't move much anymore. The rafts of logs and the alligators are confined to remote backwaters, the great fish that the river was once renowned for have slipped into legend, and the indigenous mussels, which once filtered the impurities from the water, are just about gone." The cost of the rationalization of our water systems, as Outwater points out, has been great:

In a 1960s study of the Tippah River, the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission found before channelization a total standing crop of 877 fish per acre, weighing a total of 241 pounds. After channelization, 99 percent of the fish were darters, shiners, and minnows. The total standing crop had nearly doubled—to 1,498 fish per acre—but the total weight per acre was only 5 pounds. In studies across the country, stream productivity was seen to crash when the streams were channeled. (Outwater 1996)
In straightening, channeling, canalizing, and otherwise harnessing the nation's river systems, the engineers blithely assumed what they learned from Newton: the most natural thing in the world is for things to move in a straight line with all obstacles removed. Yet, left to its own devices, water has an oddly persistent way of raising obstacles for itself whenever they are not immediately found—through its own direct action, and, for example, through the urgent reverberation of its murmurings in the water-attuned consciousness of the beaver (who feels driven to plug every opening and stop every gurgling sound of moving water)—as if the "inefficient" circulation through meander and swamp, through beaver pond and subsurface reservoir, through eddy and whirlpool, were expressions of its own nature. And when artificially coerced into unnaturally straight lines, a river system begins to die.

The equation-wielding scientist may find it easiest to say that water's natural tendency is to move in a straight line unless "forced" to do otherwise. The statement is unexceptionable in its own emptied terms. But it tells us little about how the entirety of the world we live in—the complex unity of all its substances and powers—comes to distinctive expression in water. For the past few hundred years scientists have ignored the qualitative reality as peripheral, phenomenal, poetic, subjective, reducible to more convenient terms, and irrelevant to the progress of their quantitative dreams. Qualities may actually be more or less irrelevant to those particular dreams. But it is not at all clear that the world we actually live in can survive another few hundred years of the same neglect.


Consider the sequence of leaves up the stem of an herbaceous plant (Figure 5). With a little work of the imagination we can bring these into movement, starting at bottom left and smoothly transforming each leaf into the next one until we arrive at bottom right.

Figure 5. Leaves from the common buttercup, Ranunculus acris. Leaves are ordered from the bottom of the stem (lower left) to the top of the stem (lower right).

Now, it is possible (for example, with computer "morphing" software) to take any set of arbitrary forms, no matter how unrelated, and construct a smooth series of transitional images between each successive pair of the set. But if the latter were in fact arbitrarily chosen, then the nature or "direction" of the transition between one pair would not necessarily have anything in common with the transition between the next pair. With the cycle of leaves, on the other hand, we can recognize an organic unity governing the entire series of transitions. There is a single, overall, complex gesture. The movement between any two leaves is a natural extension of the movement between the preceding leaf pair.

Moreover, we can readily see that this overall expressive continuity differs from the continuity evident in the leaf cycle of a second species (Figure 6). We could, if we wished, speak of the unique expressive gesture of each species as constituting the ideal leaf of the species. But this ideal leaf is not just one more leaf in the sequence, and in fact is not any actual leaf; it is the gestural movement capable of generating all the leaves on the actual plant—and countless other leaves that might have been there had the plant grown under different conditions.

Figure 6. Leaves up the stem of a field poppy, Papaver rhoes, arranged from lowest to highest (from Bockemühl 1981).

With a strict, analytical, yes-or-no approach to the actual leaves, all we can say is that no leaf is the same as any other. Or, we can say "this leaf is exactly the same as that one in some respects, and is not the same in other respects". In each detail we get either absolute sameness or absolute difference. What we can't get in these yes-or-no terms is the sort of likeness permeating the details that makes them into diverse expressions of a single unity—the sort of likeness that results from the participation of different parts in the same quality. Why? Because the yes-or-no cognitive filter is designed to exclude qualities from view. As we have seen before, only through a consideration of qualities can we arrive at the unity in which disparate parts are caught up. This unity is expressed in all the parts, but is not itself just another part. It is prior to all the parts.

But why do we need to speak of such an immaterial, ideal form as part of our science of the plant? Simply because we discover it when we approach the plant as part of the observable world. It is just a fact that we can recognize the distinctive gesture in the leaves of any particular species. We do this, with more or less consciousness, all the time. Clearly, the difference between two species is there to be recognized, and it is real enough to enable us to determine, in the case of leaf cycles such as those shown above, whether additional leaves we are presented with belong in a given cycle or are foreign to it.

How would we judge a leaf in this respect? Brady notes that we can do so by using the overall movement as our criterion for accepting or rejecting a new member. More specifically, by inserting the new leaf at various places in the series, we see whether the impression of movement is made smoother and less discontinuous (as if we had taken snapshots of the movement at finer intervals), or else is weakened. The decision is made based on how well the new leaf fits into, or is an expression of, the ruling movement. The more leaves we are given to begin with—and the smaller the "interval" between them—the easier it is to fit a new leaf into the series (or else to reject it).

Brady goes on to observe that, in the context of the overall movement, each individual leaf of the series

appears to be coming from something as well as passing to something else, and by so doing represents, to our mind, more than itself, since each form can no longer be separated from its before and after. Indeed, its only distinction from these moments lies in the conditions of arrest—that is, we see it caught in the act of becoming something else. Each visible form now emerges as partial and becomes a disclosure of another sort of form.
In short, we're dealing with metamorphosis, "which is not the outward alteration of one form into another but the differing outward expressions of an inward idea" (Brady 1998). The movement up the stem of the plant, as Henri Bortoft remarks, "is not made out of the sequence of organs [that is, leaves], but the organs are 'made out of' the movement" (Bortoft 1999).

We can, of course, say that the individual leaf has its own form and quality. But here, too, it would mislead to identify the quality with what is fully given in the leaf we see at the moment. The leaf grows, and in doing so metamorphoses. Qualities must always be understood as forms of movement. Even of a mountain we can say, without being figurative, that it is reaching upward; geology informs us that the Everest we admire today is but the frozen image of a grand, upthrusting movement—countered, of course, by other movements such as those produced by the eroding powers of water and ice.

No matter how static the gesture we observe, we can apprehend it as gesture only by bringing it into movement. This is true even of the statue's arm. The art of the sculptor is the art of suggesting movement in a fixed medium.

There's an important point here that I have not yet addressed. It is always a mistake to equate a particular, outward form—even an outward form of movement—with a quality. Qualities are always "alive". They express a generative potential. While the quality of form we see in the growing leaf or in the leaf cycle is concretely expressed in exactly this leaf or this cycle of leaves, it is not exhausted in them. The same species quality might have expressed itself, under other conditions, in quite different leaves. A plant species can sometimes undergo dramatic transformation when moved, for example, from one climate to another. Yet we can recognize the two different forms—and all the transitional forms obtainable between the two climates—as part of a coherent "cycle", a cycle which is a further expression of the unity we found among the leaves up the stem of a single plant.

So while it is perfectly legitimate to speak of the particular quality of a species' leaves under one set of conditions, and the different quality under a second set of conditions, it is also possible to recognize the two plants as the same species. In other words, we can recognize the qualitative unity of the two plants. And, of course, the same sort of thing holds when we move from the species level to a broader grouping: different species can be seen qualitatively as the realization of the expressive unity found in the larger group.

In this we encounter again the interpenetrating and generative character of qualities. The essence of qualitative "movement" is nonspatial; it is an inner, expressive form, an activity of consciousness. The expressive potency of such activity is never exhausted in a single outward form or movement, and is never wholly alien in relation to other expressions.

The failure to understand this lies behind the claim that qualities have no objective reality. I vaguely remember hearing of a beloved sacred melody (by Mozart?) that, it turns out, the composer also used in a bawdy tavern song. How, one may ask, can the supposedly sacred quality of the melody have been real given that the same melody was so readily adaptable to the tavern setting?

But this is the way it is with all qualities. We can use a single word in utterly dissimilar contexts. All its qualitative connotations may be "shown through" by the qualities of the particular context it is in. This, however, does not mean that the word has no meaning and no range of potentials—no expressive powers—uniquely its own. Like the plant species, it gives rise to distinctive, but unitary, expressions in different environments. If it could not do this, it would not be a bearer of qualities. The conviction that a melody could not have objective qualities fitting it for sacred use if it also lends itself to bawdy use reflects the yes-or-no thinking that simply misses all qualities.

Qualities Must Be Experienced

As I indicated earlier, there is no way to define "quality" precisely or to prove that qualities are dynamic forms of consciousness—gestures with their own distinctive character. But perhaps you noticed that, while reading the preceding section, you had a choice: to interpret my discussion of leaf qualities in terms of various abstract notions you already possessed, or else actually to experience the quality or cognitive process I was speaking of by reproducing it within yourself. And if you did the latter, you will have noticed also that it required effort. There was work, and therefore something dynamic was going on. There was inner movement.

Qualities require us to experience them. If a certain red color indeed has a peculiarly forceful, qualitative character of its own, we can know it only by experiencing that character within ourselves as the particular gestural potency it is. We must become capable of consciously producing the inner gesture as a fitting cognitive response that succeeds in elucidating what we see. If we were to do this, for example, with the red that affects the speed of bodily movement (see "The Qualitative Science of Color" above), presumably it would be a matter of making conscious the quality that tends to move us in the given way. By contrast, analysis drives toward what can be grasped and communicated with (almost) no experience. Analysis can be carried out via relatively automatic procedures, whereas grasping the character of the thing we are analyzing requires difficult inner work.

Their refusal of experienced qualities is why scientists prefer to deal with observation statements rather than observations. Yet "without experience no observation statements could be made" (Brady 2002).

We can get at the difference between the relatively passive process of analysis and the active appreciation of qualities by recalling the interpenetrating, pictorial nature of qualities. It is not that qualities first exist as independent "things" and then relate to each other in a pictorial way. The relating and interpenetrating are the very being of the qualities. This or that quality would not be what it is apart from the way other qualities shine through it or qualify it. The mutual qualifying makes qualities what they are. And if work is required in order to experience the qualities, it is because relationships as such are not passively given in perception. As Brady remarks, "we must think them if we are to take them in" (Brady 2002).

Given the work required to recognize qualities, and given the "official" decision early on to ignore qualities as much as possible in science, it is no surprise that most of us hardly experience the world's qualities in any conscious way. Ignore something long enough, and eventually you will lose awareness of it. The active gesture of, say, a color thus becomes for us something almost "supernatural" or a "ghostly Platonic form"—and therefore is easily denied—simply because we have for so long been unreceptive to it. Artists, of course, find that they must learn to move internally with the expressive movement of the color if they are to employ it successfully.

If I am altogether ignorant of music, I cannot even conceive of the worlds that would open up to me, were I to spend the necessary years studying and performing so as finally to gain an appreciation for the expressive achievements of Mozart. Similarly if I am ignorant of the expressive relationships of color and form on the artist's canvas. Only experience can give us an appreciation of qualities; qualities are the content of experience. I can certainly attempt to analyze the mathematical and logical relationships of the musical notes or painted forms, paying no heed to significances that cannot be expressed quantitatively. But the fact is that every such act of reduction begins with an experiential recognition of significant form, however impoverished. I have to recognize something in the world before I can set about finding quantitative relationships in it.

Precision, Predictability, and the Fulness of the World

No self-imposed restriction upon the scientist could have been more fateful than the resolve to ignore qualities as the shaping gestures of the world around us. This was, in the end, a resolve to ignore the full presence of the world.

The ignoring results from a drive to apprehend the world solely in terms of those concepts we can most easily manipulate in a precise and unambiguous manner. We seem to know exactly what we are talking about when we speak of a wavelength of 589 nm; it is a particular mark on a measuring rod or a point on a dial. But what is yellow? (Never mind that we would be equally hard put to say what actual content of the world is signified by the number 589. It is comforting to be exact, even if we are unsure what we are being exact about!)

Similarly, we find it easiest to study the movement of a galloping horse by freezing its motion in a series of snapshots. How does one grab hold of movement? The freeze frames, by contrast, give us unambiguous data points. (Never mind that the frozen data points are not the movement.)

Snapshots can be invaluable aids to understanding. But (in the case of the horse) only when we can, in imagination, overcome their falseness by bringing the dead instants back into motion—and only when we can feel the working of the muscles and joints, the resistance of gravity, the solid support of the earth—do we begin to know its galloping.

The quest for precision reflects not only a preference for what can be grasped easily and reliably at this moment, but also for certainty in saying what will happen in the following moments. We want predictability, and we gain it through our flight from qualities. We fail to recognize that our gain in predictability comes only at the cost of disconnection from the world we are trying to predict. The predictability, in other words, is an artifact of careful isolation, controlled conditions, closed systems—just different names for the disconnection. But there are no perfectly closed systems, and neither is there perfect predictability. The predictability we do get is in direct proportion to the denaturing of the world we are predicting.

When we bring the qualitative substance of the world back into our scientific picture, we never get predictability in any absolute sense. Instead we get understanding and powers of recognition—which are the fulness of the knowledge we needlessly constrict with our quest for one-dimensional predictability.

A reckoning with qualities convinces us that there will always be regularities and lawfulness in the world. They are the prerequisite for qualitative expression. Lawful regularity is the syntax underlying the world's semantics; it is the logic preventing a dissolution into chaotic formlessness. But this lawfulness or syntax or logic will always be implicit in the phenomena we observe, and will never by itself rule the phenomena. Law, as I suggest in "Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?" (Talbott 2004), is the result of real being or substance expressing itself. And the point of the foregoing has been that to understand the being and the expressing is to understand qualities. Further, the place to begin this understanding is with our own being and expressing—which is not other than the world's being and expressing. We ourselves do, after all, belong to the world.


1. Stephen L. Talbott is a Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York, and editor of the online NetFuture newsletter. This paper first written and circulated in 2003.

2. I use "quality" and "meaning" in an overlapping way. The qualitative is also the meaningful, but "quality" tends to have a more narrow and specific focus, while "meaning" tends to refer to broader and more complex significances.

3. In The Assayer, Galileo wrote:

... I must consider what it is that we call heat, as I suspect that people in general have a concept of this which is very remote from the truth. For they believe that heat is a real phenomenon, or property, or quality, which actually resides in the material by which we feel ourselves warmed. Now I say that whenever I conceive any material or corporeal substance, I immediately feel the need to think of it as bounded, and as having this or that shape; as being large or small in relation to other things, and in some specific place at any given time; as being in motion or at rest; as touching or not touching some other body; and as being one in number, or few, or many. From these conditions I cannot separate such a substance by any stretch of my imagination. But that it must be white or red, bitter or sweet, noisy or silent, and of sweet or foul odor, my mind does not feel compelled to bring in as necessary accompaniments. Without the senses as our guides, reason or imagination unaided would probably never arrive at qualities like these. Hence I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated. But since we have imposed upon them special names, distinct from those of the other and real qualities mentioned previously, we wish to believe that they really exist as actually different from those. (Galilei 1957, p. 274)

4. The basis for such a rapprochement has been laid out with wonderful effectiveness in "Perception: Connections Between Art and Science" (Brady 2002).

5. Over time this reticence about qualities was reinforced by the Cartesian assumption that qualities belong merely to the subject and not to the world as well. For discussion of this highly problematic assumption, see Talbott 2003b and Talbott forthcoming-b.


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Talbott, Stephen L. (forthcoming-b). [Untitled epistemological paper]

Copyright 2003 Stephen L. Talbott

Steve Talbott :: What Are Qualities?

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