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Object is a technical term used in epistemology, a branch of philosophy concerning itself with the study of knowing. Aristotle had said,[1] "All men by nature desire to know." René Descartes expanded this knowing into the grounds of certainty with cogito ergo sum, typically translated as "I think therefore I am." The thinker cannot be certain of his thinking and his existing unless he knows it; that is, the very act of thinking delivers self-knowledge to the thinker. Descartes formulated this grounds as an answer to the dream doubt, which questions whether anything can be identified as real and not a dream. However, one cannot dream without thinking.

Consciousness therefore is an act of cognition that takes in the self, which can never be doubted, as it would have to be the self who doubts, and some doubtable notes, which philosophy calls objects, which carry with them the understood possibility of being in error. If not in error they are granted the status of objectivity, or reality, and are believed to exist without reference to the subject. Bertrand Russell updated this classical term with one more in use by science: the fact:[2] "Everything that there is in the world I call a fact." Facts, objects, are opposed to beliefs, which may be errors on the part of the knower; as their source is he, and he is the subject (who is certain of himself and little else), they are subjective.

This framework of presumptions is termed the Theory of the Real.[3] One cannot even doubt it without implying it, as all doubt implies the possibility of error and therefore admits the distinction between subject and object, subjectivity and objectivity. The knower, whether considered mind, soul, thinker or some other subject, is limited in his ability to discern fact from belief, objects from true objects. An individual engages in reality testing, an activity that will result in more or less certainty regarding the reality of the object. According to Russell,[4] "we need a description of the fact which would make a given belief true" where "Truth is a property of beliefs." Knowledge is "true beliefs".[5]

Until that distinction can be made, every object must be viewed as possibly true; that is, a quasi-object. This credibility extends even to the notes that are known to be subjective; that is, the population of knowers (or thinkers, etc.) or individual knowers may agree or determine to create a logical or rational entity to be treated as quasi-real; for example, a corporation, a fund, a population of elves, etc. These are typically the subjects of cultural anthropology.

Where object in a strict sense is used to refer to independent being, in a general sense it is any entity subjective or objective. Thus objects are things as diverse as the pyramids, Alpha Centauri, the number seven, a disbelief in predestination, and the fear of dogs. The pragmatist Charles S. Peirce defines the broad notion of an object as anything that we can think or talk about.[6]



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
  • 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 dichotomy (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 - dependent 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 - dependent designation and dependent origination (MMK 24-18). He proposes that all objects are dependent 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.[7]

Other applications

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 question of what is the nature of a fundamental particle and thus asks 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.


  1. ^ Metaphysics, Book I, Section 1 (Paragraph 980a)
  2. ^ Russell 1948, p. 143.
  3. ^ Taylor 1903, pp. 16-17
  4. ^ Russell 1948, pp. 148-149.
  5. ^ Russell 1948, p. 154.
  6. ^ Peirce, Charles S.. "Object". University of Helsinki. Retrieved 2009-03-19.  
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies pp296-297 - Karl H. Potter, Harold G Coward


See also

External links


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