Abstract and concrete

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Abstract and concrete are classifications that denote whether the object that a term describes has physical referents. Abstract objects have no physical referents, whereas concrete objects do. They are most commonly used in philosophy and semantics. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta (sing. abstractum) and concrete objects are sometimes called concreta (sing. concretum). An abstract object is an object that does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing—i.e., an idea, or abstraction. [1] The term abstract object is said to have been coined by Willard Van Orman Quine. [2] The study of abstract objects is called abstract object theory.

Object (philosophy) Technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject

An object is a technical term in modern philosophy often used in contrast to the term subject. A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. For modern philosophers like Descartes, consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject—which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts—and some object(S) that may be considered as not having real or full existence or value independent of the subject who observes it. Metaphysical frameworks also differ in whether they consider objects existing independently of their properties and, if so, in what way.

A referent is a person or thing to which a name – a linguistic expression or other symbol – refers. For example, in the sentence Mary saw me, the referent of the word Mary is the particular person called Mary who is being spoken of, while the referent of the word me is the person uttering the sentence.

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?


In philosophy

The type–token distinction identifies physical objects that are tokens of a particular type of thing. [3] The "type" of which it is a part is in itself an abstract object. The abstract-concrete distinction is often introduced and initially understood in terms of paradigmatic examples of objects of each kind:

Type–token distinction distinction that separates a concept from the objects which are particular instances of the concept

The type–token distinction is the difference between a word referring to a class of objects and the same word referring to an individual instance of an object. For example, the sentence "A rose is a rose is a rose" could be said to contain three words, the word types "a", "rose", and "is"; or to contain eight words, the word tokens "a", "rose", "is", "a", "rose", "is", "a", "rose". The distinction is important in disciplines such as logic, linguistics, metalogic, typography, and computer programming.

Examples of abstract and concrete objects
TennisA tennis match
RednessRed light reflected off of an apple and hitting one's eyes
FiveFive cars
JusticeA just action
Humanity (the property of being human)Human population (the set of all humans)

Abstract objects have often garnered the interest of philosophers because they raise problems for popular theories. In ontology, abstract objects are considered problematic for physicalism and some forms of naturalism. Historically, the most important ontological dispute about abstract objects has been the problem of universals. In epistemology, abstract objects are considered problematic for empiricism. If abstracta lack causal powers or spatial location, how do we know about them? It is hard to say how they can affect our sensory experiences, and yet we seem to agree on a wide range of claims about them.

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

In philosophy, physicalism is the metaphysical thesis that "everything is physical", that there is "nothing over and above" the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical. Physicalism is a form of ontological monism—a "one substance" view of the nature of reality as opposed to a "two-substance" (dualism) or "many-substance" (pluralism) view. Both the definition of "physical" and the meaning of physicalism have been debated.

Metaphysical naturalism is a philosophical worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. Methodological naturalism is a philosophical basis for science, for which metaphysical naturalism provides only one possible ontological foundation. Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.

Some, such as Edward Zalta and arguably, Plato in his Theory of Forms, have held that abstract objects constitute the defining subject matter of metaphysics or philosophical inquiry more broadly. To the extent that philosophy is independent of empirical research, and to the extent that empirical questions do not inform questions about abstracta, philosophy would seem especially suited to answering these latter questions.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

In modern philosophy, the distinction between abstract and concrete was explored by Immanuel Kant [4] and G. W. F. Hegel. [5]

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

Gottlob Frege said that abstract objects, such as numbers, were members of a third realm, [6] [7] different from the external world or from internal consciousness. [8]

Gottlob Frege mathematician, logician, philosopher

Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege was a German philosopher, logician, and mathematician. He is understood by many to be the father of analytic philosophy, concentrating on the philosophy of language and mathematics. Though largely ignored during his lifetime, Giuseppe Peano (1858–1932) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) introduced his work to later generations of logicians and philosophers.

Consciousness state or quality of awareness or of being aware of an external object or something within oneself

Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness or of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined variously in terms of sentience, awareness, qualia, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood or soul, the fact that there is something "that it is like" to "have" or "be" it, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."

Abstract objects and causality

Another popular proposal for drawing the abstract-concrete distinction contends that an object is abstract if it lacks any causal powers. A causal power has the ability to affect something causally. Thus, the empty set is abstract because it cannot act on other objects. One problem for this view is that it is not clear exactly what it is to have a causal power. For a more detailed exploration of the abstract-concrete distinction, follow the link below to the Stanford Encyclopedia article. [9]

Quasi-abstract entities

Recently, there has been some philosophical interest in the development of a third category of objects known as the quasi-abstract. Quasi-abstract objects have drawn particular attention in the area of social ontology and documentality. Some argue that the over-adherence to the platonist duality of the concrete and the abstract has led to a large category of social objects having been overlooked or rejected as nonexisting because they exhibit characteristics that the traditional duality between concrete and abstract regards as incompatible. [10] Specially, the ability to have temporal location, but not spatial location, and have causal agency (if only by acting through representatives). [11] These characteristics are exhibited by a number of social objects, including states of the international legal system. [12]

Concrete and abstract thought in psychology

Jean Piaget uses the terms "concrete" and "formal" to describe two different types of learning. Concrete thinking involves facts and descriptions about everyday, tangible objects, while abstract (formal operational) thinking involves a mental process.

Concrete ideaAbstract idea
Dense things sink.It will sink if its density is greater than the density of the fluid.
You breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.Gas exchange takes place between the air in the alveoli and the blood.
Plants get water through their roots.Water diffuses through the cell membrane of the root hair cells.

See also

Related Research Articles

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

Existence The ability of an entity to interact with physical or mental reality

Existence is the ability of an entity to interact with physical or mental reality.

In philosophy, idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to materialism, idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

In metaphysics, the problem of universals refers to the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what they are. Properties are qualities or relations that two or more entities have in common. The various kinds of properties, such as qualities and relations, are referred to as universals. For instance, one can imagine three cup holders on a table that have in common the quality of being circular or exemplifying circularity, or two daughters that have in common being the female offsprings of Frank. There are many such properties, such as being human, red, male or female, liquid, big or small, taller than, father of, etc. While philosophers agree that human beings talk and think about properties, they disagree on whether these universals exist in reality or merely in thought and speech.

In the philosophy of language a proper name, for example the names of persons or places, is a name which is ordinarily taken to uniquely identify its referent in the world. As such it presents particular challenges for theories of meaning and it has become a central problem in analytical philosophy. The common sense view was originally formulated by John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic where he defines it as "a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about but not of telling anything about it". This view was criticized when philosophers applied principles of formal logic to linguistic propositions. Gottlob Frege pointed out that proper names may apply to imaginary and inexistent entities without becoming meaningless, and he showed that sometimes more than one proper name may identify the same entity without having the same sense, so that the phrase "Homer believed the morning star was the evening star" could be meaningful and not tautological in spite of the fact that the morning star and the evening star identifies the same referent. This example became known as Frege's Puzzle and is a central issue in the theory of proper names.

In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of "chairness", as well as greenness or the quality of being green; in other words, they share a "universal". There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds, properties, and relations. These are all different types of universals.

The philosophy of mathematics is the branch of philosophy that studies the assumptions, foundations, and implications of mathematics, and purports to provide a viewpoint of the nature and methodology of mathematics, and to understand the place of mathematics in people's lives. The logical and structural nature of mathematics itself makes this study both broad and unique among its philosophical counterparts.

German philosophy, here taken to mean either (1) philosophy in the German language or (2) philosophy by Germans, has been extremely diverse, and central to both the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy for centuries, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz through Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein to contemporary philosophers. Søren Kierkegaard is frequently included in surveys of German philosophy due to his extensive engagement with German thinkers.

Edward N. Zalta philosopher

Edward N. Zalta is a senior research scholar at the Center for the Study of Language and Information. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1980. Zalta has taught courses at Stanford University, Rice University, the University of Salzburg, and the University of Auckland. Zalta is also the Principal Editor of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Frege's puzzles are puzzles about the semantics of proper names, although related puzzles also arise in the case of indexicals. Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) introduced the puzzle at the beginning of his article "Über Sinn und Bedeutung" in 1892 in one of the most influential articles in analytic philosophy and philosophy of language.

A trichotomy is a three-way classificatory division. Some philosophers pursued trichotomies.

<i>The Foundations of Arithmetic</i> book by Gottlob Frege

The Foundations of Arithmetic is a book by Gottlob Frege, published in 1884, which investigates the philosophical foundations of arithmetic. Frege refutes other theories of number and develops his own theory of numbers. The Grundlagen also helped to motivate Frege's later works in logicism. The book was not well received and was not read widely when it was published. It did, however, draw the attentions of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who were both heavily influenced by Frege's philosophy. An English translation was published by J. L. Austin, with a second edition in 1960.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Abstract particulars are metaphysical entities which are both abstract objects and particulars.

In the philosophy of mathematics, formalism is the view that holds that statements of mathematics and logic can be considered to be statements about the consequences of the manipulation of strings using established manipulation rules. A central idea of formalism "is that mathematics is not a body of propositions representing an abstract sector of reality, but is much more akin to a game, bringing with it no more commitment to an ontology of objects or properties than ludo or chess." According to formalism, the truths expressed in logic and mathematics are not about numbers, sets, or triangles or any other contensive subject matter — in fact, they aren't "about" anything at all. Rather, mathematical statements are syntactic forms whose shapes and locations have no meaning unless they are given an interpretation. In contrast to logicism or intuitionism, formalism's contours are less defined due to broad approaches that can be categorized as formalist.

The Frege–Church ontology is an ontology, a theory of existence. Everything is considered as being in three categories, object, name, or concept (sense). The ontology was developed by Alonzo Church based on ideas of Gottlob Frege to resolve some paradoxes. The ontology is related to certain modal logics.

Meinong's jungle is the name given to the repository of non-existent entities in the ontology of Alexius Meinong.


  1. Abrams, Meyer Howard; Harpham, Geoffrey Galt (2011). A Glossary of Literary Terms. ISBN   0495898023 . Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  2. Armstrong, D. M. (2010). Sketch for a systematic metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 2. ISBN   9780199655915.
  3. Carr, Philip (2012) "The Philosophy of Phonology" in Philosophy of Linguistics (ed. Kemp, Fernando, Asher), Elsevier, p. 404
  4. KrV A51/B75–6. See also: Edward Willatt, Kant, Deleuze and Architectonics, Continuum, 2010 p. 17: "Kant argues that cognition can only come about as a result of the union of the abstract work of the understanding and the concrete input of sensation."
  5. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Science of Logic , Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 609. See also: Richard Dien Winfield, Hegel's Science of Logic: A Critical Rethinking in Thirty Lectures, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012, p. 265.
  6. Gottlob Frege, "Der Gedanke. Eine logische Untersuchung," in: Beiträge zur Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus 1 (1918/19), pp. 58–77; esp. p. 69.
  7. Cf. Popper's three worlds.
  8. Rosen, Gideon (1 January 2014). "Abstract Objects". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  9. Rosen, Gideon. "Abstract Objects". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  10. B. Smith (2008), "Searle and De Soto: The New Ontology of the Social World." In The Mystery of Capital and the Construction of Social Reality. Open Court.
  11. E. H. Robinson, "A Theory of Social Agentivity and Its Integration into the Descriptive Ontology for Linguistic and Cognitive Engineering", International Journal on Semantic Web and Information Systems 7(4) (2011) pp. 62–86.
  12. E. H. Robinson (2014), "A Documentary Theory of States and Their Existence as Quasi-Abstract Entities," Geopolitics19 (3), pp. 1–29.