I am aware of the meaning of quality as an attribute of something, e.g. an apple has the quality "color". Most questions here on the site seem to be about quality in this sense.

But in everyday life, quality is frequently used to say that something is of "high quality". Wikipedia calls this Quality (business). I have trouble finding a good definition of what quality is in this sense. Defining it as "superiority" needs another object to compare our object to. Defining it as "free of defects" is part of it, but not the whole story. I can say that object A is higher quality than object B even if both have no defects at all. And I can certainly say something like "This heavy, glossy paper is very high quality, but it doesn't fit my needs, because I need a semi-transparent sheet of paper", so "fits the needs of the user" is not good enough either. "Fits the specification" is also not good enough, because we mostly don't carry in our heads specifications for the products we interact with, and still we make statements about their quality.

So, is there any theory (outside of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance) which defines the quality of an object?

Also, what criteria does an object have to fulfill to be able to have quality? Does it have to be inanimate? Non-sentient? Or do all objects have quality, but we just avoid to speak of the quality of humans (and animals) for ethical reasons?

  • What exactly are you looking for here? In passing it sounds like you might want to think about the history of economics -- almost all of classical economics is more or less about the theory of value
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 13:59
  • No, I am asking about quality, not value. These are two completely different concepts. They just happen to be correlated in many products (but not always). I am not aware of any economical theories of quality despite having an undergraduate degree from a faculty of economics. Business uses theories like 6-sigma, which use a very limited idea of quality and are not what I need here. I guess I can define what I am looking for as alternatives to Pirsig's theory of quality, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics_of_quality
    – rumtscho
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 14:29
  • It seems maybe a bit odd to say that they are entirely unrelated; at the very least I would think quality is one of the ways we evaluate commodities
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 16:12
  • @JosephWeissman they are not "entirely unrelated". They are like voltage and current: related, but still not the same concept. And their relation is more complex than Ohm's law. Basic economic theory (demand and supply balance at the point where marginal price equals marginal cost) has no place for neither quality nor value. Advanced economic theories, which can explain why people pay more for a MacBook than for an Acer laptop, will typically have some concept which is one of both or encompasses both, but are not specific enough for my purposes. I need a theory which explains quality alone.
    – rumtscho
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 13:08

1 Answer 1


Looks like quality is some kind of mix between conventional beauty(form, craftsmanship) and functional beauty (efficiency, mathematical beauty of underlying algorithms, inner engineering).

Like with any other beauty i think quality is synonymous to the word - outsanding. Thus giving it a very broad range of parameters in which it can outstand competitors.

Regarding your question - yes there are philosophical theories. In your search you found one of the sanest philosopher of all times. Who really wanted to help humans now. Karl Marx. His name is overshadowed by idiots, but he himself is very good.

He discusses what is value(quality, because quality affects value) in his great book Capital.

Get it right now and start reading or listening (there are audio versions). Right at the beginning of the Volume 1 he discusses your question.

Last but not least do not be afraid of him because of historical brainwashing - when asked by journalist Karl Marx said - "I am anything but Marxist!"

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