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Is there a category even more general than "thing"? Or is "thing" the most general category there is? That is, does there exist an x such that x is not a thing? Personally, I believe that "thing" is the most general category. But I would love to read what philosophers have written about this topic.

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    This question is a thing in itself.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Jun 23 at 13:52
  • Yes. It's always the universe of discourse the thing belongs to. If you have a thing, then you have the thing that contains the thing, be it language or container. Intuitionistic type theory allows an arbitrary expansion of the universe discourse, as well, so one universe can belong to a category more than general; that is universes can be nested ad nauseum.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 23 at 15:45
  • I thinj @DavidGudeman's answer has it. The question seems more one of semantics than ontology or taxonomy. (But I don't mean pejoratively, as in "that's mere semantics". Your question is tugging on what is for me at leat an important thread.) I guess I could summarize like this: if the category "thing" turns out to be contained within a more general category called "thang" (say), then unless both are sufficiently well defined so as to carry useful semantic content, we could simply swap one for the other and we'd have lost nothing. Ergo, semantics.
    – tkp
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:16
  • 4
    Isn't this an English language question? Commented Jun 24 at 9:17
  • 1
    Not all terms and descriptions refer to things. Given any ontology, there are terms and descriptions that do not refer to any element of the ontology. But "concept" covers all terms and descriptions.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 4:50

10 Answers 10

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What you regard as the most general category depends on your preferred understanding of epistemology and metaphysics. For Berkeley and Hume, 'idea' is the most general category. For Leibniz it is 'monad'. For process philosophers such as Whitehead, it is 'process'. For many of the logical positivists it is 'phenomena' - meaning the direct object of the senses. According to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, the world is the totality of facts, not of things.

In Russell's version of logical atomism, 'things' are fundamental. The universe consists of things, and these things have properties and there are relations between things. This position, in one form or another, has come to be dominant in analytical philosophy. It is reflected in the way we do logic and corresponds pretty well to how scientists talk.

But it still leaves open various questions such as whether universals are things that exist in their own right, whether abstract objects such as numbers are things, whether minds are things, whether possible or potential entities should qualify as things, etc.

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  • +1 So my summary of your post: If things sit in ontologies then ontologies sit in ??? ?
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 23 at 8:02
  • @Rushi: people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 23 at 11:28
  • David Loy wrote a book called, "The World Is Made Of Stories", so it would be the most general story. "In the beginning..."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 23 at 11:31
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    @Rushi If things sit in ontologies then ontologies sit in ontologies, unless you're going to argue that ontologies aren't things.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:03
  • @Rushi "Then ontologies it on..." Turtles. It's turtles all the way down.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jun 25 at 13:54
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There isn't really a standard terminology although the word tends to be used that way. Philosophers typically use "object", "individual" or "particular" as the base sort of thing that exists or that can have properties or that can be predicated of or something like that. Those three words are largely interchangeable, although some philosophers prefer one and others prefer another. Based on how a philosopher defines object/individual/particular, there are sometimes arguments over whether anything isn't whatever that is, and for this purpose, the word "thing" is often used informally. But even then it's not always clear whether it is meant to be the most general category. Some philosophers don't even acknowledge the existence of a category that includes everything.

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  • I think I agree, since you seem (?) to be saying that this is more a question of semantics than ontology. Your answer itself even demonstrates the problem, with the phrase "a category that included everything". Depending on how the word is used that very category could be considered a "thing", by virtue of you even naming it (cf. this). The bottom line is, if category "thing" were contained within category "superthing", then unless "thing" is precisely defined, it really is just semantics.
    – tkp
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:06
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    @tkp, yes, I took it as a question of philosophical terminology since the question doesn't define "thing". Commented Jun 23 at 19:09
  • Many things aren't objects.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:05
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    @Rushi, the question had nothing to do with OOP. Why should my answer have brought in a completely unrelated topic? Commented Jun 25 at 17:15
  • At some point you have the problem of the category of all categories that aren't members of themselves.... Commented Jun 26 at 0:29
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For "thing" to be used in a maximally general way requires that "thing" have a functional meaning like "whatever is referred to by a noun, no matter if it's abstract or concrete, spatial or nonspatial, causal or noncausal, etc." Then it inherits its generality from the generality of "noun referent," and yet that phrase makes reference(!) to a more specific type of word and a more specific type of semantic operation.E

Or we might try out, "Things are answers to what-questions," like, "What is the sky?" or, "What is 1 + 1?" Then "thing" is as general as "what," which is quite general, but is it more general than, "Why?" or, "Which?" or, "Whether...?" Moreover, wh-terms are like variables, so have we come to the variable/constant distinction as equally general compared to "thing," or is "thing" supposed to still be more general?K

A "trick" option would be to take the phrase "that which is most generalized" as that which is most generalized. One might object, "But that phrase doesn't directly refer to anything!" But if we can work with "thing" despite its ghostly qualities, why not "that which is most generalized"? Or what if we thought up the term "pre-thing"? As if to say, "X is a pre-thing if X will become a thing at time Y," or "if X is more basic than what it will become at time Y." By contriving words like "pre-thing," "ur-thing," "quasi-thing," "meta-thing," and so on, we either undermine the generality of "thing," or we show that the question of maximal generality is itself a mirage.I


ESuppose X is the most general category, whatever that would be. Then X satisfies the description "the most general category," which is a less generalized description than "a general category." In other words, "the most generalized category" seems possibly self-contradictory (akin to "the first number not nameable in eight words").

KKant, for example, uses all three of these phrases: "things as they appear to us," "things in themselves," and "things in general" (we might also cite "things as objects of thought"). Until "thing" is modified by "in general," it is not as general as possible, in this connection.

IIs the generality-particularity ordering a single order, branching off from a single fixed point like "thing" or "object" or "this" or "it" or "existent" or "being" or whatever? Or is it possible that A might be more general than B, but there is also some C such that C is neither more nor less general than A, and is not as general either, but it is commensurate (in the G/P ordering) with some D, etc.? So that there is nothing that is just "as general as can be in general," but generality is relative to which G/P ordering one is considering?


EDIT: I found this in the SEP article on identity and individuality in quantum physics:

However, Barcan Marcus has offered an alternative perspective, insisting on ‘No identity without entity.’ (Marcus 1993) and arguing that although ‘… all terms may “refer” to objects… not all objects are things, where a thing is at least that about which it is appropriate to assert the identity relation.’ (ibid., p. 25) Object-reference then becomes a wider notion than thing-reference.

Barcan Marcus is a prominent figure in the modern history of modal logic, for what that's worth (as something philosophers have said on this topic).

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  • ""the most general category," which is a less generalized description than "a general category."" -- so what? This is a use/mention error. "X is the most general category" is not a claim that the phrase "the most general category" is the most general description--of course it's not, as it describes a category, not any old thing, and a specific category at that.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:20
  • "Until "thing" is modified by "in general," it is not as general as possible, in this connection." -- with no modifier, "thing" should be taken in its most general sense.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:23
  • "all terms may “refer” to objects… not all objects are things" -- surely this is backwards ... not all terms refer to objects. What objects do phlogiston and impetus refer to?
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:29
  • @JimBalter I have no idea what the German protocol for use of the word "ding" is, so for all I know, the generic use of the word is not meant as a general use so much as an abstract one, and there is nothing amiss with Kant's stipulations. As for Marcus, I would tend to see the simpler word "thing" as preferable to "object" (which is paired with "subject," after all), but otherwise I don't think there's any deep significance to using "thing" for what she uses "object" for, and vice versa. Commented Jun 25 at 6:59
  • Word salad that doesn't address my comments ... but end of the conversation for me.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 26 at 7:30
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“Thing” includes everything physical or abstract. But it doesn’t give true picture of reality. From Buddhist point of view “phenomena” would be a more appropriate and all inclusive term. It is interesting to note that , every “thing” is a “phenomena”.

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    If everything is a phenomenon then there is nothing that exists that is not perceptible by the human senses. I doubt Buddhism really holds that position. Commented Jun 23 at 19:04
  • 1
    Who said anything about reality? The most general category must include the non-real. As for the other comment, not all phenomena are perceptible by the human senses.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:36
  • @JimBalter right, just ask a dog.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 25 at 23:38
  • You can have noumena which are those things that are not phenomena, especially for Kantians or neo-Kantians... Commented Jun 29 at 4:39
  • @DoubleKnot There is nothing beyond six senses.. even God is perceptible through senses. This is a Buddhist position. Commented Jul 2 at 14:35
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'Thing' isn't a proper category. 'Thing' is more like a gesture: a 'thing' is whatever one happens to (literally or metaphorically) point at. It's the same reason that 'he' is not a category. 'Male' is a category, because there are defined inclusion/exclusion rules; 'he' is a pointer to a particular member of the category 'male'. There's no abstract category that I can think of such that 'thing' points to one of its members. 'Thing' is essentially a generic universal pointer, along with others like 'stuff' and 'crap'.

I mean, I suppose I could argue that 'stuff' is more general than 'thing' because 'thing' is necessarily singular while 'stuff' can be collective… But if I did I don't think I'd respect myself in the morning.

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  • "thing" is like "male" and (very) unlike "he". There is a set of males and a set of things--the latter purportedly being the broadest set--it contains everything (aka every thing). "he' is a pointer to a particular member", no, quite the opposite--it's completely context-dependent.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:39
  • @JimBalter: as I said, the category 'male' has distinct inclusion/exclusion criteria. That's what makes it a category. There are no such criteria for 'thing'. And yes, 'he' is a context-dependent pointer to a particular member of the category 'male', just like 'thing' is a context-dependent universal pointer. Commented Jun 25 at 17:09
  • I of course know what you said ... but it's obviously mistaken. Sorry, but some people just aren't very good at this, and I'm under no obligation to engage with them further. Over and out.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 26 at 7:33
  • @JimBalter: Hah <eye roll>! Works for me. Commented Jun 26 at 8:19
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OP: Is there a category even more general than "thing"?

Indeed there is such a category: Being. (In the quotes below, from Heidegger's Being & Time, things, or beings [Seiendes], are described as 'entities'.)

it has been maintained that 'Being' is the 'most universal' concept: τὸ ὄν ἐστι καθόλου μάλιστα πάντων.i lllud quod primo cadit sub apprehensione est ens, cuius intellectus includitur in omnibus, quaecumque quis apprehendit. 'An understanding of Being is already included in conceiving anything which one apprehends as an entity.'1, ii GA 2, H. 3

i. (H. 3) Aristotle, Metaphysica B 4, 1001 a 21. "for Unity and Being are the most universal of all terms"

ii. (H. 3 ) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1-11 Q. 94 art. 2. "The first thing to fall within apprehension is being, a grasp of which is included in everything that anyone apprehends"

  1. The word 'Seiendes', which Heidegger uses in his paraphrase, is one of the most important words in the book. The substantive 'das Seiende' is derived from the participle 'seiend' (see note 1, p. 19), and means literally 'that which is'; 'ein Seiendes' means 'something which is'. There is much to be said for translating 'Seiendes' by the noun 'being' or 'beings' (for it is often used in a collective sense). We feel, however, that it is smoother and less confusing to write 'entity' or 'entities'.

In the question which we are to work out, what is asked about is Being­—that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which [woraufhin] entities are already understood, however we may discuss them in detail. The Being of entities 'is' not itself an entity. If we are to understand the problem of Being, our first philosophical step consists in not μῦθόν τινα διηγεῖσθαιv in not 'telling a story'—that is to say, in not defining entities as entities by tracing them back in their origin to some other entities, as if Being had the character of some possible entity. Hence Being, as that which is asked about, must be exhibited in a way of its own, essentially different from the way in which entities are discovered. Accordingly, what is to be found out by the asking—the meaning of Being—also demands that it be conceived in a way of its own, essentially contrasting with the concepts in which entities acquire their determinate signification. GA 2, H. 6

v. (H. 6) Plato, Sophistes 242c.

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  • But couldn't Heidegger's "Being" itself be considered a "thing", at least as the latter word is normally used? For example, he himself quotes Aquinas, presumably by way of illustration, treating "being" as a thing, specifically: "The first thing to fall within apprehension" (emphasis mine).
    – tkp
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:35
  • @tkp No, it is necessarily not a thing, in order not to be simply 'telling stories' about things that originate other things. i.e. "The Being of entities 'is' not itself an entity [a thing]." (The verb 'is' is in quotes to acknowledge the limitation of language in talking about being, since the infinitive "to be" is a verbal substantive.) Commented Jun 23 at 19:36
  • Hmm. If you're referring to something akin to, say, the Thomist distinction between being and "a being" then I might be understanding you. So, a theist of the "classical" persuasion (and of sufficient philosophical sophistication) might answer the question "Does God exist", with "No. God is existence" (or something like that). Is there any mileage in that? Regardless, I'm saying that in the normal use of the word "thing", it covers...well, everything. That is, you name it, it's a thing, simply because that's how "thing" is used.
    – tkp
    Commented Jun 23 at 19:44
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    @tkp They're pointing at the same place, but Heidegger takes it somewhere different, e.g. "the aim of the existential analytic can be made plainer by considering Descartes, who is credited with providing the point of departure for modern philosophical inquiry by his discovery of the "cogito sum". He investigates the "cogitare" of the "ego", at least within certain limits. On the other hand, he leaves the "sum" completely undiscussed, even though it is regarded as no less primordial than the cogito." GA 2, H. 46 Commented Jun 23 at 20:01
  • Thanks. Interesting site. Yours?
    – tkp
    Commented Jun 23 at 21:53
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In the perennial tradition (originating with Plato and continuing through Augustine to Thomas to the present), thing is not a category, properly speaking. A category divides beings into different, shall we say, classes such that if a being belongs in one category then it may or may not be in another category. Thing, on the other hand, is called a transcendental because it transcends any such category of being. It is, so to speak, transcategorical and applies to every being necessarily. To stretch the expressive capabilities of language a little bit, it is absolutely necessary to say that anything and everything is necessarily a thing.

There is, in fact, more than one transcendental. There are the famous ones such as being, one, good, truth, beauty, and the not so famous ones such as thing and something (Latin aliquid) etc. (There may, in fact, be others that I can't recall at the moment since I am currently writing this off the top of my head. I may edit this later just to fill in citations.)

All of the transcendentals can be predicated of any and every being. Thus we say that they "extend" to every being or that they are equal in extension. In this sense, they are equally general. That in which they differ is their conception. To illustrate, the most general thing we can say about anything is that it is (Latin est from esse). Period. Full stop. Before we can say anything else, it first must be. In this sense, being is the most general. (I do not say exists because being and existence are not the same. How exactly they differ is a totally different question...)

But we can next notice, that a being is not many beings. It is a singular being. It is "undivided". Thus we arrive at a notion of one. Again we can see that a being is of a certain kind, for example, a human-being. That is, it has an essence or nature. Thus we arrive at a notion of thing. (This is precisely what thing is: being as specified by essence). And this is precisely why thing is a transcendental: because anything and everything has to be some kind of being (reread the previous paragraph, especially the bold, if this isn't obvious yet).

Similarly, for the other transcendentals we can specify a relation on being. For example, truth is being related to intellect, good is being related to will (or desire), etc. Something is a peculiar one in that it is precisely a relation of one being to other (distinct) beings.

Much, much more could be said about the transcendentals, but I think this sufficiently answers the OP.

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  • Illustrative remark: observe that one of the first things (and sometimes the only thing) that a mathematician can prove about a mathematical object is that it exists. Commented Jun 25 at 3:47
  • Mathematicians don't prove that objects exist, they prove that sets aren't empty: "there exists an x such that <description>" means that the set of things with that description isn't empty. This "exists" isn't even ontological, it's an abstract inference from a set of formal axioms.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:49
  • @JimBalter An abstract inference is a movement of reason, and an existence theorem proves whether a mathematical object exists. Here I understand existing as "being according to the mode proper to the object under consideration" which is here specifically mathematical objects. Ontology comes from the Greek ontos (being) and logos (word, concept, reason). I fail to understand how an existence theorem is not ontological. Perhaps there is an equivocation on "existing"? Commented Jun 25 at 18:25
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Is there a category even more general than "thing"? Or is "thing" the most general category there is?

  • Thing is the most general category, according to someone with a normal psychology.

In naive set theory the following statement is true.

  • ∀x[x ∈ U]

The symbol x is a variable, and the symbol U is a constant. Using the natural language of English, the meaning of the statement is that the set denoted by U contains every thing. Thus we can establish the following

Definition

X denotes a thing iff X ∈U

The set denoted by U can be proved unique, and is called the supremum genus, or the universal set.

Any set theory which precludes the existence/subsistence of the universal set is simply wrong.

Definitions

X is a compound statement iff there are statements A,B such that[A ≠ B and X = (A and B) or X = not(A and B)

X is a simple statement iff X is not compound.

Predicate Constants

In logic, any simple statement contains exactly one predicate constant.

In FOL we postulate an infinite number of 0-ary predicate constants, each of which is intended to be a simple statement.

For example, consider the simple statement

The sun is hot.

There is a 0-ary predicate constant, say A0, equivalent to the English statement. Thus

A0 = The sun is hot.

Attributes are represented by unary predicate constants. Thus the attribute of 'being hot', can be represented by the predicate constant

A1

We can form the propositional function of a single individual variable

A1(x)

So if s represents the sun, we can say

A0 = A1(s) = The sun is hot.

For a more complex example consider the simple statement

Jack sold his cow to the peddler for a bag of beans.

It is an instance of the propositional function 'x sold y to z for w' and can be symbolized as

A4(x,y,z,w)

It is clear that any instance of A4(x,y,z,w), is not a compound statement. Here, the symbol A4 designates a particular quaternary relation.

In higher order logic, you can quantify over individuals and predicates. So every thing that can be pondered using higher order logic is either an individual or a predicate. If we let I denote the set of individuals, and I' denote the set of non-individuals, then

U= II'

and

II' = ∅

As far as higher order logic is concerned, every thing that isn't an individual is a predicate. So let P denote the set of predicates. Then

I' = P

From Wikipedia

Up to a certain notion of isomorphism, the powerset operation is definable in second-order logic. Using this observation, Jaakko Hintikka established in 1955 that second-order logic can simulate higher-order logics in the sense that for every formula of a higher-order logic, one can find an equisatisfiable formula for it in second-order logic.

First-order logic quantifies only variables that range over individuals; second-order logic, also quantifies over sets; third-order logic also quantifies over sets of sets, and so on.

Consider the statement "1 ∈N."

It's an instance of the propositional function A2(x,y), where A2 designates a particular binary relation. Here, we are faced with a question. What kind of things can be instantiated for the variables x, and y? It is customary in first order logic, to restrict the domain of all variables to individuals, and to differentiate between individuals and sets. I prefer to treat a set as a kind of individual. Thus, in the expression A2(x,y), the variables x,y denote individuals, and the symbol A2 denotes the binary predicate constant "is an element of". By treating sets as a kind of individual, we can use FOL to discuss set theory, and we don't have to formulate new symbolism for the notion of a well formed formula.

Since predicates and individuals are kinds of things, inasmuch as 'thing' is the most general category, we can refer to the most general logic, and call it General Order Logic. All quantified variables must be instantiated by constants that denote things. So there is no need to specify the domain of discourse, it's necessarily U.

From Wikipedia

The term predicate is used in two ways in linguistics and its subfields. The first defines a predicate as everything in a standard declarative sentence except the subject, and the other defines it as only the main content verb or associated predicative expression of a clause. Thus, by the first definition, the predicate of the sentence Frank likes cake is likes cake, while by the second definition, it is only the content verb likes, and Frank and cake are the arguments of this predicate. The conflict between these two definitions can lead to confusion.

From this site we find

Aristotle’s Categories is an ontological piece attempting to differentiate between states of being. It is a short piece, broken up into fifteen chapters. The most basic component is the distinction between the subject and the predicate. The former is what the statement is about; the latter is what is describes.

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The question itself is somewhat vague. What is a category ? What is a thing ? And then the answer will depend on your epistemology and metaphysics, as Bumble already observed.

To the various philosophical viewpoints that are recalled, I would like to add briefly to the discussion the viewpoints of Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Jaspers and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. All of them would object to Russell's atomism (even though Russell's claim is primarily restricted to logics) but on different grounds. Hence it seems to me that all of them would answer negatively to the question. [And of course, Schopenhauer died before Russell was born, so the conditional/conjectural form "would" applies especially to him.]

Schopenhauer would contest that thing is the most general category not because it is not the most encompassing category but because, as he is famously known to have claimed, there is no object without subject and no subject without object. Since a thing for Schopenhauer is nothing without the knowing subject exercising his will, it is fair to say that he would not include thing as the most general category.

According to Jaspers, if the goal of metaphysics is to answer the question "what is being as being ?", all answers that pertain to atomism like water (Thales), fire, atom, spirit, etc., while venerable, are inadequate when they claim to be the unique answer. All these conceptions share the common idea that something inside reality and outside of myself is the source of all the rest. Against this, he claims that being cannot be neither an object nor a subject but "das Umgreifende" that manifests itself in the scission object-subject.

As a phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty would say that the world is not a "thing" (and not even a "big" thing) because man does not sejourn in a "thing" but in the world.

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There is a more general category: the Tao. ...Or something like that. Break down the unity of the Tao, and you have yang (things) and yin (flows). And "from two begot three, and from three the ten thousand things..." [Tao Te Ching, verse 42]

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