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Abstract and concrete

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In philosophy, an important distinction is whether an object is considered abstract or concrete. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta (sing. abstractum) and concrete objects are sometimes called concreta (sing. concretum). An abstract object is an object which 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.

In philosophyEdit

The type-token distinction identifies physical objects that are tokens of a particular type of thing. The "type" that it is a part of, 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:

Examples of abstract and concrete objects
Abstract Concrete
Tennis A tennis game
Redness The red coloring of an apple
Five Five cats
Justice A just action
Humanity (the property of being human) Humanity (the human race)

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. 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.

Abstract objects and causalityEdit

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.[3]

Concrete and abstract thinkingEdit

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

Concrete idea Abstract idea
Heavy things sink. It will sink if its density is greater than the density of the liquid.
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.


Further information: Noun#Concrete nouns and abstract nouns

In language, abstract and concrete objects are often synonymous with concrete nouns and abstract nouns. In English, many abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes ("-ness", "-ity", "-tion") to adjectives or verbs. Examples are "happiness", "circulation" and "serenity".

See alsoEdit


  1. (2011-01) A Glossary of Literary Terms. URL accessed 18 September 2012.
  2. Armstrong, D.M. (2010). Sketch for a systematic metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Abstract Objects at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

External linksEdit

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