Object (philosophy)

For other uses of Object, see Object.

In philosophy, an object is a thing, an entity, or a being. This may be taken in several senses.

In its weakest sense, the word object is the most all-purpose of nouns, and can replace a noun in any sentence at all. (In ordinary usage, the word has something like this effect, but not as extreme.) Thus objects are things as diverse as the pyramids, Alpha Centauri, the number seven, my disbelief in predestination, and your mother's fear of dogs. Charles S. Peirce succinctly defines the broad notion of an object as follows:

"By an object, I mean anything that we can think, i.e. anything we can talk about."

In a more restricted sense, an object is something that can have properties and bear relations to other objects. On this account, properties and relations (as well as propositions) are not included among objects, but are explicitly contrasted with them, as falling into a different logical category. Sets and universals are also perhaps not objects on this account.

In a further restricted sense, objects do not include abstract objects, but only physical bodies located somehow in space and time — minds and bodies, for instance. Numbers, ideas, and the like are excluded.

In further restricted senses, objects are often just the material objects (excluding minds), or even just the inanimate material objects (the protons, neutrons, and electrons we are made of, but not we ourselves).

Objects are often treated as types of particulars, but occasionally, philosophers see fit to speak of abstract objectsPlatonic forms would be an example. An abstract object is normally referred to as something that does not exist physically. It is rational to say that abstract objects exist psychically, as opposed to physically.


In ontology, objecthood is the state of being an object. Metaphysical frameworks differ in whether they consider objects to exist independently of their properties and, if so, in the nature of that existence.

In ontologies that include objects as a fundamental category of entity, the nature of objecthood determines the types of claims that can be made about objects in general. The following conversation illustrates two incompatible metaphysical schemes:

Philosopher A sees a white flash.
Philosopher A: What was that object?
Philosopher B: A bicycle.
Philosopher A: No, it was clearly a motorbike.
Philosopher B: Well, you are not really being objective.

Objects as properties and relations

One approach to defining objecthood is in terms of objects' properties and relations. Bodies, for example, have properties and relations. It seems that descriptions of all bodies, minds, and persons must be in terms of their properties and relations. For example, it seems that the only way to describe an apple is by describing its properties and how it is related to other things. Its properties may include its redness, its size, and its composition, while its relations may include "on the table", "in the room", and "being bigger than other apples".

The philosophical question of the nature of objecthood concerns how objects are related to their properties and relations. For example, ignoring relations for simplicity, the nature of objecthood includes the nature of the relationship between objects and their properties.

Problems of objecthood

The notion of an object is a primitive concept in some ontologies, that is, it is meaningful but cannot be explained in terms of anything else. Whether a metaphysical scheme includes objecthood as a primitive concept, and if so the specific nature the scheme gives objecthood, is what most differentiates the various ontologies. The properties of objecthood apply to all objects, by definition.

Theories of objecthood address two problems: the change problem and the problem of substance.

The change problem

Properties of an object are the attributes of it that can be experienced, e.g. its color, size, weight, smell, taste, and location. Objects manifest themselves as clusters of their properties. Those clusters seem to change in a regular and unified way, suggesting that something underlies the properties. The change problem asks what that underlying thing is. According to substance theory, the answer is a substance (that which stands under the change).

The problem of substance

Because substances are only experienced through their properties, a substance itself is never directly experienced. The problem of substance asks on what basis can one conclude the existence of a substance cannot be seen or scientifically verified. According to bundle theory, the answer is none, thus an object is merely its properties.

Some philosophies include theories of both bodies (physical substances) and minds (mental substances). So, the problem of substance arises in both the physical and the mental realms.

Substance theory vs. bundle theory

Whether objects are just collections of properties or separate from those properties appears to be a strict dichotomy. That is, it seems that objects must be either collections of properties or something else. The leading theories about objecthood are substance theory, wherein substances (objects) are distinct from their properties, and bundle theory, wherein objects are no more than bundles of their properties.


In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā Nagarjuna seizes this very dichotomy (that objects are either just collections of properties or that they are separate from those properties ) in a "Tetralemma" to demonstrate that both assertions fall apart under analysis. By uncovering this paradox, he then provides a solution (Pratītyasamutpāda - dependant origination ) which lies at the very root of Buddhist praxis.

Although Pratītyasamutpāda is normally limited to caused objects, Nagarjuna extends his argument to objects in general by differentiating Pratītyasamutpāda into two distinct ideas - dependant designation and dependant origination (18.2C_24:19). He proposes that all objects are dependant upon designation, and therefore any discussion regarding the nature of objects can only be made in light of context. The validity of objects can only be established within those conventions that assert them.

In value theory

Value theory concerns the value of objects. When it concerns economic value, it generally deals with physical objects. However, when concerning philosophic or ethic value, an object may be both a physical object and an abstract object (e.g. an action).


Limiting discussions of objecthood to the realm of physical objects may simplify them. However, defining physical objects in terms of fundamental particles (e.g. quarks) leaves open the nature of a fundamental particle and thus does what categories of being can be used to explain physical objects.


Symbols represent objects; how they do so, the map-territory relation, is the basic problem of semantics.


See also

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