Can concepts exist if humans or animals don't exist at all? Can't other things that have no mind make abstraction or concepts?

For example, I think abstract things such as redness (quality) and brightness (state) are all concepts. And of course redness or brightness can exist without humans and God and animals. (I mean I think concepts exist independently in other worlds such as idea as Plato says, but not exactly, I think nature, which has no mind, can make abstraction even though it's by coincidence or without intention).

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    It depends on your reading of "concepts": if they are Platonic forms, obviously they exist in God's mind and are independent of humans. If instead they are mind's abstraction they are human artifacts. Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 6:51
  • When you say 'things that have no mind…' can you Post some examples? Does that mean rocks, or what? If they hadn't needed people to make them, could it mean paper or scissors? If they had needed people, but no more people remained, could it mean paper or scissors? What if only those people remained who had not been involved in their making? Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 22:49
  • if you think that stones can make concepts and abstractions then i suppose you're a panpsychic or pantheist.
    – user67675
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 5:49

6 Answers 6

  1. To answer your question one has to discriminate between a concept and its referent, i.e. the object to which the concept refers.

    • One one hand, concepts live in the mind of people and some animal species. Hence the existence of animals, in particular of humans is a necessary prerequisite for the existence of concepts.
    • On the other hand, many referents of concepts do not presuppose the existence of humans. All natural inanimate objects are mind-independent.
  2. A quality like redness presupposes the visual system of a living being: Redness is a quale, i.e. a subjective experience of a living being. But a closer look shows that the quale originates from electromagnetic waves within a certain range of wavelengths. These electromagnetic waves exist independently from living beings.

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    Yes, 700 nanometer light (red) would still exist, but nanometers wouldn't.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 11:13

Concepts are generally defined as things that exists in the mind. In order to talk about existence of a concept, it must have been created/imagined. Concepts are created by living beings. Abstract concepts are deducted from reality or from other concepts, but someone must make this deduction.



I would argue concepts can exist without the thinkers (e.g. humans) who conceptualize them. If we take an abstract concept like the Number one (e.g. that something can have a singular countability) it is a concept which can be discovered by multiple independent thinkers.

If a concept was merely something which is created by individual thinkers, one would assume it unlikely that multiple independent thinkers would form the same concepts. But many concepts seem to be so universal, that they would be thought of by any thinker. Thus I would argue these concepts are universal and are discovered by thinkers rather than formed.

If all thinkers cease to exist and after a million years a new species evolves which discovers the same concept (e.g. the number one) this would imply to me the same concept still existed even in the time where nobody was alive to think it.

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    I like this explanation. It reminds me of the "if a tree falls in a forest" thought experiment
    – GammaGames
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 17:36
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    But if you extend that to something like languages, all those that are, have been, will be, and could be but never are, then this answer does't make much sense.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 2:11
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    @DKNguyen why not? A language is a collection of rules, conventions, words and concepts. Many parts of a language are common ideas and concepts, just collected in a unique combination called a language. One can think of all thinkable as existing and waiting to be discovered. - and you could write down the whole language and it could be recovered after our species died, existing even when nobody is actively thinking it.
    – Falco
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 18:21
  • @Falco I guess the problem with that is that it so broad so as to be nearly meaningless, as it includes all possibilities of existence, whether material or immaterial.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 19:17

When you refer to the perception of red, that is a quale, not an abstract concept. Your question is anthropocentric. Non-human, extra-terrestrial intelligence is possible. Panpsychism proposes that consciousness suffuses the universe. In this view, there is universal consciousness and consciousness at a fundamental level. So abstract concepts would exist.


Presupposing Aristotelian-Thomistic realism:

Considering concepts as universals being grasped by the intellect, no, though it requires discounting concepts in the mind of God and any disembodied intellects (angels). But the universals themselves will exist independently of the mind, instantiated as the formal causes of particular substances.

Redness and brightness will exist as universals instantiated by red and bright things but not as concepts.

Nothing which lacks an intellect can abstract universals from particulars. Non-rational animals only ever perceive particulars and thus are unable to form concepts (if they could they would be rational animals i.e. humans). Much less so non-conscious (🌳🍄 etc.) or non-living (🔥🪨 etc.) substances, which are unable to perceive anything. Thus "nature" can't form concepts unless it contains rational beings somewhere.

Side note: human literally means rational animal. So the question already rules out any non-angelic extra-terrestrial intelligence.


In classical notions of philosophy, what you are asking is whether concepts are internal or external to the mind. The two extremes are the realist position, most strongly embodied by Plato and his Forms, and probably anti-realist notions of radical postmodernists which argues all concepts are subjective fictions of the mind which begins as a blank slate. In between, there are positions that try to show there is a balance of concepts some of which are derived from the body and some of which are the products of imagination. Embodied cognition (SEP) holds concepts to be a product of the brain, for instance.

The exact nature of the relationship between mind and brain and body is somewhat contentious. There are many philosophers of mind who have staked out positions, and arguments tend to swirl around what is a real and what is not, and therefore the argument of concepts is derivative to meta-ontological theories. Nominalists (SEP) for instance hold that particular positions on abstract objects. Most scientifically minded folk generally believe in psychologism, which is that concepts and ideas are at least partially rooted in the mind and that the mind generally supervenes on the brain.

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