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An abstract object is an object which does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing (as an idea, or abstraction). 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). The type-token distinction identifies that physical objects are tokens of a particular type of thing. The "type" that it is a part of is 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
Abstracta Concreta
Tennis A tennis player
Redness An inscription of the word "red"
5 Five cats
Justice A court
humanism A human being



Philosophers disagree over just what makes the items in the first column abstract.



One well-known proposal is that an object is abstract if and only if it lacks a location in space. Thus justice is abstract because it has no spatial location. One potential problem for this proposal is that certain typically abstract objects, like the game of tennis, arguably do have a sort of spatial location (e.g. "Tennis is alive and well in New York City"). Another problem is that some arguably concrete mental objects (e.g. Michael’s pang of concern for his eldest daughter) perhaps do not have spatial location.

Causal power

Another popular proposal for drawing the abstract-concrete distinction has it that an object is abstract if it lacks any causal powers. A causal power is an 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.

In philosophy

Abstract objects have often garnered the interest of philosophers because they are taken to raise problems for popular theories. In ontology, abstract objects are considered problematic for physicalism and 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 specially suited to answering these latter questions.

Concrete and abstract thinking

Piaget uses the terms "concrete" and "formal" to describe the difference 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...

The transition to abstract thinking is not inevitable. About 30% of teenagers naturally make the shift without help. While there are a range of approaches which can help pupils with ordinary learning, to assist with the concrete/abstract transition the learner has to be presented with a problem which cannot be solved without abstract thinking and then be assisted to construct the concept for themselves.


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 also

External links


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