ontological categories

What kinds of things can exist? I have come up with six ontological categories:

  1. objects: rocks, airplanes, people, etc.

  2. events: wars, births, eating, etc.

  3. properties: color, position, temperature, etc.

  4. states: moving, living, running, falling, etc.

  5. abstractions: mathematics, love, time, etc.

  6. feels: pain, thought, emotion, etc.

First of all, I don’t mean to say that all these things exist as objective independent entities out there in spatiotemporal existence. What I mean to say is that these ‘ontological categories’ represent the different meanings we can attribute to the word ‘exist’. That is, to say that “X exists” determines the meaning of ‘exist’ only when it is determined what ontological category X belongs to. So for example, to say “cars exist” determines the meaning of ‘exist’ as “cars, as physical objects, occupy certain places out in the spatiotemporal world” but to say “mathematics exists” determines the meaning of ‘exist’ as “the subject we call mathematics is engaged in by human beings”. Or take the statement “pains exist” - this obviously means something to the effect that “pain is occasionally felt by sentient beings” - to exist in this case means to be felt.

It seems that, as divergent as these meanings for ‘exist’ are, we (perhaps surprisingly) typically have no trouble understanding the term’s proper use. It is never a question whether the statement “wars exist” is right or wrong. Everyone who isn’t insane or mentally defective in some way (or you’re not a philosopher :smiley:) knows that this statement is correct, that wars do exist. Yet it is equally never a question of what exactly ‘to exist’ means in this case. No one misinterprets the statement to mean that wars are physical objects sitting somewhere out there in physical space. We all know to interpret “wars exist” as “wars happen”. I don’t think there should be any reason not to carry this blatant common sense over into philosophy - the only prerequisite, I would suggest, is that we make clear (as it is one of philosophy’s primary functions to do) what this common sense understanding specifically says, and I offer the ontological categories above as one possible translation of what our common sense is telling us vis-a-vis the meaning of ‘exist’.

One question that has popped up for me is whether any one of the above ontological categories can be put in terms of any other. For example, we know that an event like war could be construed as a state - as in, the US and Iraq are in a state of war. Likewise, a state like war could be construed as an abstraction - war is, after all, intangible and immaterial (though it may involve tangible and material things - like guns, like soldiers, etc.). Also, I question whether certain properties (ex. red, temperature, solidity, etc.) can be put in terms of feels or mental states (ex. the sight of red, the feel of temperature and solidity, etc.). Physicalists, for yet another example, are in the habit of reducing almost everything (let alone mental states) to physical objects or systems. Even mathematics, with a real stretch, could be put in physical terms (whether that be the brain states of mathematicians when they do their work, or the symbols written in ink in mathematics text books, and so on). Besides these considerations, there is the consideration of whether certain categories depend on others. It seems to me, for example, that no property could exist unless it belonged to an object. The redness of my car, for example, could not exist without my car existing as a physical object. I might also consider whether properties could belong to abstractions (we do, after all, tend to talk about ‘abstract objects’) - for example, a war (as an abstraction) could be said to have the property of “being very bloody” or “being very long”. But I can’t imagine a property existing all by itself - that is, without something to have that property. Feels also come into question. Can a feel (ex. pain) exist without an object - that is, a body - to experience that pain? A theist, or dualist, might argue that it can. A soul that has left the body after death can go on to experience all manner of feels. Whether or not this is scientifically tenable (as many would argue it isn’t) is neither here nor there. The question is rather whether one can mean that a feel like pain or thought or emotion exists without having to presuppose some object (physical? abstract?) experiences that feel. A third consideration is whether certain categories ought to be classed together under one heading and distinguished only as sub-categories. For example, should the categories ‘objects’ and ‘abstractions’ be lumped together as ‘objects’ and under that category distinguish between (perhaps) ‘tangible objects’ and ‘abstract objects’. Or perhaps ‘material objects’, ‘immaterial objects’, and ‘abstract objects’ - that way, the theists would have a comfortable place to put God (i.e. as an immaterial object) for although they would all agree that God is not a material object, they would object to the notion that He is merely an abstraction. He certainly exists independently of our abstractions, they would say, but yet still in an immaterial way. On the other hand, Platonists might object to the bifurcation of ‘immaterial’ and ‘abstract’ since they tend to lump them together as the same sort of thing. Needless to say, there would be much to sort out if we went along with this idea of coming up with ontological categories.

Nevertheless, I think much in philosophy could be simplified if we could establish and agree upon a few basic ontological categories. It is often argued that because a thing is purely an abstraction (for example, time), it doesn’t exist. Whereas for others, this seems absurd - of course, time exists, they’d protest! Similar arguments over the existence of mental states have arisen. ‘Mind’ it is often argued, doesn’t exist - why? - because it is not an objective phenomenon subject to empirical observation (i.e. it is not a physical object). But again, this, from a different point of view, brings us into the absurd. If mind doesn’t exist, how is it possible for us to feel anything (for ‘feeling’ is quintessentially mental). I think the question of whether or not time, mental states, or any other entity whose existence is in question, exists is a misleading question. Rather, the question should be “which ontological category does it fall under?” Of course, what these ontological categories are is one of the questions I hope this thread will shed some light on (or whether the whole concept of ‘ontological categories’ is a bad idea). So I’d like for this to be one of the questions addressed in this thread. Others might be the questions I raised above - namely, about whether any ontological category can be restated in terms of any other, or whether any one depends on another, or whether any two (or more) ought to be lumped together and made into sub-categories. What would be the implications of this on the meanings we attribute to ‘exist’?

I’m afraid I haven’t read through your whole post to see if you’ve covered this already, but I’d include quantities, which might allow you to throw out mathematics as an abstraction. In fact, I’d look for ways to eliminate abstractions entirely.

Credit to you, though, for recognising that to say that something ‘is’ isn’t necessarily to say that it’s an ‘object’.

Sure, quantities might pass for an ontological categories, but I wouldn’t throw out abstractions. My rule of thumb is this: if there is some sense to saying it ‘exists’, then there should be an ontological category to which it belongs. An abstraction like, for example, music would not fall under quantity, but we nevertheless say it exists. The key question is what do we mean by this? I’m taking it for granted that abstractions in general, insofar as we say they exist, can be understood according to a common sense of the term ‘exist’. I might be mistaken in this, however, as for example I can’t off the top of my head think of a common meaning to the expressions “mathematics exists” and “music exists” - we might interpret the latter as “we often play music” or “we often listen to music”, but we don’t typically ‘play’ or ‘listen to’ mathematics - rather, we do mathematics (or study it, or some such). Can we attribute a single meaning to ‘exist’ in the expression “X exists” insofar as X can be any abstraction whatsoever (and that this meaning would be invalid for any non-abstraction)? If the answer is yes, then this meaning corresponds to an ontological category. If not, then maybe you’re right and ‘abstractions’ ought to be done away with as ontological categories.

To be honest, I hadn’t considered the activity of doing mathematics when I wrote ‘quantities … might allow you to throw out mathematics as an abstraction’ — I’d assumed you were talking about so-called ‘mathematical objects’, which I reject with bells on (if the question is whether they must exist for mathematical statements to be true). As for whether doing mathematics falls within the category of abstractions, why not place it in a category of actions, which would be a subcategory of your category of events?

How about the relationships between them?

Good points, both of you.

Rather than address them directly, I’d like to back up a bit and rethink this. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the proper approach is a Chomskian one. That is to say that the ontological categories can be determined based on the innate structure of language that Chomsky spent the greater portion of his life studying, and proposed we are genetically predisposed to use. Take, for example, the simple sentence “The brown dog sleeps.” The main grammatical components of this sentence are the noun (dog), the verb (sleeps), and the adjective (brown). The roles that words can play in our language (i.e. noun, verb, adjective, etc.) are what Chomsky theorized are universal across all languages and all people because of the common genetics that underly our brains and the way it constructs language.

What this has to do with ontological categories is the following: I noticed in thinking about this how no matter what the role played by a particular word (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), there is always a way of shifting these roles so that it takes the place of the noun. For instance, we could take the adjective ‘brown’ in the preceding sentence and turn it into a noun as in the sentence “Brown is a nice color”. Similarly, with the verb ‘sleep’, we could say something like “Sleeping is important for our health.” So what these ontological categories come from, it seems to me, is the manner by which any role a word may play can be converted to a noun. Nouns are ‘things’ we are disposed to think, and so ‘brown’, ‘sleeping’, ‘dancing’, ‘great’, ‘small’ all have a way of being thought of as a ‘thing’ and insofar as some things are brown, sleeping, dancing, etc., we can say (once we turn them into ‘things’) that they ‘exist’. What the meaning of ‘exists’ means, therefore, depends on what role the word played before we converted it to a noun. So, for example, words that are nouns to begin with are ipso facto ‘object’, and words that are adjectives would fall under the ontological category of ‘properties’, and words that are verbs would fall under the ontological category of ‘actions’, and so on.

The question now raised is, besides nouns, verbs, and adjectives, what other word roles are there such that we can posit other ontological categories (insofar as those words, like the former, can be converted to nouns). iambiguous suggested relations. On thinking of this, I first thought of the word ‘is’ - as in “The dog is brown”. Does the word ‘is’ in that sentence connote a relation? We could say so, but if we’re sticking to my Chomskian analysis above, the question we ought to ask is whether grammatists (is that a word?) have a special name for the function of ‘is’ in that sentence. Sure it denotes a relation, but is there formally a word role called ‘relation’ (i.e. akin to noun, verb, adjective, etc.)? I would guess that grammatists would call it a verb. It takes the same form as “John loves soup” - ‘loves’ in that sentence is obviously a verb, and I think ‘is’ plays the same kind of role in “The dog is brown”. On the other hand, I pondered over the sentence “John is to the left of Sam”. Is “to the left of” a relation? It is hardly a verb. For that matter, it is hardly a word, but more like a phrase. Is this how ‘higher-order’ ontological categories emerge? By playing the role in language of more complex phrases? Perhaps relations are of this sort.

Then I question how the difference between concrete and abstract objects come into play here. I’m not so sure this distinction is innate to language in general, for I can imagine, and it seems clear from introspection, that a culture might exist that doesn’t make such a distinction and lumps concrete and abstract objects together simply as ‘things’. It took Plato and Aristotle, after all, to mark out the difference, and one can only surmise that before that, thinkers paid little attention to the difference if they paid any attention at all. In other words, I think the difference, though authentic, is merely a philosophical one, and not one that we are genetically predisposed to automatically distinguish between in our language. Grammatists, after all, as far as I know, don’t distinguish between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ nouns (at least, not insofar as their analysis of the structure of language is concerned), and it seems clear from introspection that whether I’m talking about “the brown dog” or a “difficult mathematical problem”, both the ‘dog’ and the ‘problem’ are just nouns, and the concreteness of the one and the abstractness of the other seems not to figure into their standing as nouns or as any word type. So if anything, ‘concreteness’ and ‘abstractness’ might be better understood as different adjectives, or properties, that different objects may bear. Dogs are concrete objects. Mathematical problems are abstract objects. They are not ontological categories, but things that fall into ontological categories - namely, properties.

Also, why not come up w/ one kind of abstract entity the definition of which would entail all these other categories. Wouldn’t that be a bit more efficient?

You mean like ‘things-that-exist-in-some-sense’?

Sure, but we’d still be wanting for the myriad ways in which the ‘in-some-sense’ bit can be further dissected. I guess we could call those second-order categories (although second-order usually connotes greater generalization/abstraction, not less). Think of this exercise as resolving those second-order categories.

I prefer the scientific definitions

Mass & energy = material anything else = non material including God ,faeries and other bed time stories made up to keep children and idiots in line.

Material “objectively” true.

Desires and events are subjective and may ormaynot be “true” objectively.

Perceptions, qualia and statistical means, may be true and may be felt can be non material


Non material unless you are of course making love. :stuck_out_tongue:

Emotions are irrelevant, you will be assimilated, resistance is futile. :stuck_out_tongue:


Just a quick one — I haven’t time to do justice to your long post.

First, I think you’re starting in the right place in examining language. Language can reveal truths about our conceptual scheme, which determines how we categorise things. One of the few things of value that I can see in Kant is the recognition that metaphysical questions are conceptual questions.

Second, you should be aware that word classes are nowadays determined syntactically rather than semantically. In other words, what makes a noun a noun isn’t that it denotes (or fails to denote) something. Rather, it’s the role that the word plays in the structure of the sentences that contain it. So while it may be a useful rule of thumb to think of nouns as ‘thing’ words, it’s no guarantee.

Third, I reckon it’s useful to think in terms of (logical) predicates when it comes to phrases like ‘is red’. The phrase may consist of a verb and an adjective, but what it expresses could just as well be expressed by some ad hoc verb, e.g. ‘ruberises’. Both ‘is red’ and ‘ruberises’ are, logically, predicates.

By the way, the word you’re looking for is ‘grammarian’.


Yes, I too am aware of this. But it is because a word can fill the role of a noun that we sometimes feel comfortable/inclined to treat it as a ‘thing’. For example, ‘running’ seems like (and can be) a verb… unless used in the sentence “Running is good exercise” in which case it is a noun. What this does is it persuades certain impressionable, probably-not-too-bright metaphysicists to think that there is a thing (however intangible, immaterial it would have to be) out there called ‘running’ and it is embodied in particular acts of running. This is a mistake, of course, but I don’t think it’s a mistake to say “running exists” even though I believe our tendency to say this (and understand it as meaningful) is due to the same thing-like impression that nouns give off. I don’t think it is a mistake to think of it as a thing (in fact, I’m inclined to say we can’t help it), only to believe it is a thing. Only the naive metaphysicist would believe and therefore throw it into the ontological category of ‘objects’ whereas the rest us, conceding with good reason that running does in fact exist in some sense, would prefer to find the proper ontological categories (the one you suggested - actions - would probably be the best).

Right… which means predicates don’t necessarily determine the type of the words involved.

Ah, thank you.

I’d be interested to know whether this is because at primary/elementary school we’re taught the rule of thumb that nouns are thing-words, or because of something to do with the ‘feel’ of nouns. I wonder whether there have ever been any metaphysicians who haven’t been instructed in basic grammar, however informally.

I agree, more or less. I think it’s sufficient for ‘X exists’ to make sense that X is a thing, but I don’t think ‘X is a thing’ entails ‘X is an object’. As someone pointed out to me about a decade ago — when I was in the grip of reductionism — you can say that all things are objects if you wish, but that not only distorts the everyday concept of an object but also diminishes its usefulness. I’m perfectly happy to say that properties, for example, a) exist and b) are things but c) are not objects.

Just as an aside, can anyone explain to me how numerals are supposed to function if they do refer to objects? I’ve never quite got it. For example, in the statement ‘1 + 1 = 2’, do both occurrences of ‘1’ refer to the same object? If so, is the statement saying that if you add the number 1 to itself, you get the number 2? Or is there supposed to be an infinite number of number 1’s (snigger), one of which is referred to by the first ‘1’ and another of which is referred to by the second? As I said, I’ve never quite got it, and I’ve never seen it explained.

Atomic number wise it’s fairly simple to categorise them and sub-categorise them, depends what you mean.

I think you’re describing the product of senses.
When something reaches our awareness, we express it. The expressions fall into your six catagories.
The catagories could be 6, 10, 1000, 2, etc. That is a matter of perspective. But it is our natural
impulse to believe in our own senses. Therefor these senses become things and existences, to us.
Objectivity is a utility which came to us out of our own creation, in necessity.

that is nicely put, i think.


Well, considering I’m arguing this from a Chomskian perspective, I’d say it’s genetically hard coded into the brain (so nouns ‘feel’ like things).

I’ve actually thought about this very question myself, and I’ve had to conclude that there is only one ‘1’. My reasoning is that in order for there to be a multiplicity of things, there has to be some way of distinguishing between them, some quality or feature. If that quality/feature is not internal to the objects, it must be external. But the concept of an ‘external difference’ can only make sense for physical objects, for that external difference would be none other than their spatiotemporal positions (i.e. if they’re exactly identicle, then their only differences are their positions in space and time). But ‘1’ is not a physical object - it has no position in space or time - and since no ‘1’ has any internal differences distinguishing it from any other ‘1’, there can only be one ‘1’ (or ‘2’, or ‘3’, etc.).

I must agree with Dan~, here, which must not be a surprise. One could use as many categories as one wants. While yours may be useful to you, gib, and I strongly suspect thatbtyey are, I cannot see why they would necessarily be useful to anyone else.

To what use will you put these categories? Why, for instance, is pain not a state?

No reason it can’t be. If you read through the whole of my post(s), you would know this is one of the things I bring into question - that is, the interchangeability of these categories. I’m not really settled on this particular set of categories or any other. My intention in starting this thread was to bring it up for discussion in the hopes that (maybe) I could gain a bit more resolution on what the categories ought to be or if there is a basic set that’s more or less universal across all individuals. But the more I thought about it since I started this thread, the more arbitrary the categories seemed.

That is, until I decided to take a Chomskian approach (see my second post). Based on this approach, it seems there are at least three basic categories: objects, properties, and actions (corresponding to nouns, adjectives, and verbs) and perhaps others (only grammarians could tell us), though as I pointed out elsewhere, there is still interchangeability across these categories, but at least these three seem to be pretty basic and (if Chomsky is right) universal categories into which we can place ‘existent’ things.