'Thing' seems like a special word since it can be used to refer to almost anything. Is it an undefined term, or have philosophers tried to define it? If they haven't analyzed it, is there a similar term that they have analyzed? Is there a field of philosophy that studies things?

So, do philosophers analyze the term 'thing', and what are some of the definitions of a 'thing'?

  • Edits are suggested to stave off closure. Feel free to rollback.
    – J D
    Nov 21, 2023 at 18:59
  • i remember reading a long time ago that it was the most general term in ontology: everything is a thing
    – user67675
    Nov 21, 2023 at 21:28
  • 2
    Heidegger's What Is A Thing?, i.e. where? Nov 21, 2023 at 23:47

3 Answers 3


Many philosophical theories don't explicitly riff on 'thing'. However, in analytical language philosophy and natural language philosophy, 'thing' is essentially the same as 'object'. It is related to the psychological process of reification.

'Thing', in natural language, is an extremely vague term. Hence, it tends to be used like a pronoun in the sense that it is endophoric. Thus, the term 'thing' is an ontological point of interest because it can refer to, well, "anything" before (anaphora) or after (cataphora) in the text, or perhaps even to an act of ostension or observation.

But indexicality aside, in philosophy, the closest term we can come to 'thing' is 'object'. In fact, the Stanford Philosophy of Encyclopedia has an entry called Object. The question of whether an object is real or not is then open to a certain number of interpretations, such as nominalist thinking (SEP) that might assert that 'thing' and 'object' are words, and as such, have no inherent existence independent of their status as tokens or types in language. Even then, however, after one understands 'thing' and 'object' as types of references, one still has to contend with to what they refer, the referent. All of this is covered by the philosophical notion of sense and reference.

Going down that path then leads one to a variety of topics related to types of object:

And so on. Once, one starts wrangling over the definition of objects, one is dealing with meta-ontological theories such as ontological commitments, natural language ontology (SEP), and quantifier variance.

That should get you started on a reading list. When you're done with that, you might consider reading Berto and Plebani's Ontology and Metaontology which provides a survey of Carnap, Quine, Meinong, and others and how they tackle ontology.

  • 1
    Amazing! (impressed by the details) Nov 21, 2023 at 21:32
  • @IoannisPaizis Far more impressive is all the material actually IN the references which I would be lying through the gap in my teeth if I said I fully grasped. ; ) Hopefully I'll be alive for the next few decades to make sense of it all. :D
    – J D
    Nov 22, 2023 at 20:30

Philosophers, starting from ancient Greece were interested in the being ( "ον" ) thus the term ontology. The being can be considered as the "thing" you say, but with a behavioural aspect.

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. It investigates what types of entities exist, how they are grouped into categories, and how they are related to one another on the most fundamental level.

I cannot see how "things" as inanimate objects - without a behavioural aspect - could be of interest to philosophers, except as abstract entities, for example numbers etc.


Thing theory draws on Heidegger's distinction between objects and things. An object becomes a thing when it ceases to fulfil its common function. Kant refers to das ding an sich, the thing in itself, or noumenon. In the context of materialism, we experience only phenomena. Noumena, things in themselves are beyond our experience. Panpsychism proposes that the fundamental stuff of the universe is matter-consciousness. Fundamental particles are noumena, things in themselves.

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