Can abstract entities be destroyed, in a way analogous to smashing an object?

e.g. a musical composition, or a myth.

Clearly, they can be completely forgotten etc., but are there any other ways they can be destroyed?

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    It doesn't look like the author thinks of works of art as abstract objects. – Eliran Jul 7 '16 at 22:00
  • @EliranH i suppose not. i was just explaining why i asked. i think that an abstract entity like a symphony might be debased – user6917 Jul 7 '16 at 22:19
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    The nearest sense I can make of it is when some theoretical entities are discarded from ontology after a paradigm change. Were the sphere of fixed stars, phlogiston and ether "destroyed" in your sense? – Conifold Jul 8 '16 at 1:06
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    Historically, according to Aristotelians human soul was the "form" of the body, hence an abstractum, and according to some of them like Averroes (but not Aristotle himself) it is destroyed with the body people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/302/ibnrushd.htm Aristotle himself recognized abstract individuals like "this circle", of which he wrote in Metaphysics "when they have passed from the sphere of actuality it is uncertain whether they exist or not..." perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/… – Conifold Jul 8 '16 at 2:33
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    Basically, it depends on what is the "exact" meaning of destroyed: if we interpret it in a "physical" sense, then an abstract object has no physical existence... If we interpret is as "disappearing", then the answer may be YES, according to our ontology: if we think to abstract objects as mental or social "constructs", then their existence relies on human mind and society. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 8 '16 at 9:27

Interestingly, if all instances of an abstract object have been destroyed, we tend to use the word lost, not destroyed:

  • "Some of his works have been permanently lost."

We usually use destruction in the context of the instances, not the abstract object:

  • "The king ordered all copies of the text to be destroyed."

We talk about the destruction of abstract objects if they are shown as seriously flawed:

  • "Russell destroyed Frege's naïve set theory."

But does "destruction" (as you described it) make sense in this context? Probably not. The flaws were always there, just not discovered. And "destroyed" (in that sense) abstract objects are not necessarily "lost" (in the sense "all instances were destroyed"): We can still inform ourselves about Frege's naïve set theory. "Destroyed" theories might even still be "used" (if just as an example what can go wrong).

If we really want to talk about the destruction of abstract objects, as you describe it (analogous to physical destruction), at a minimum, it would require change of an abstract object.

But can we take change of abstract objects really serious? Sure, we talk about how chess changed over the centuries. But this seems to be just a manner of speech. In reality it says that people started to play a different version of chess.

So it seems abstract objects cannot be destroyed in a way that is even remotely analogous to physical destruction.


I don't see how they can be altered if they are outside of spacetime and material existence. But then again this question goes back to Plato; does an object instantiating a Form itself change the Form since it instantiates the Form? Does our interaction with abstract objects ever change the abstract objects? If not, they are presumed to not only be immaterial and hence unchangeable, and not only outside of spacetime and hence not accessible in spacetime, but eternal and permanent.


If we can agree that an abstract entity is essentially one of perhaps infinite possible combinations within the data medium in which the abstract entity may be instantiated (mind, file, painting), then asking whether such an entity can be destroyed is like asking whether the number 123 can be destroyed from the set of all possible multi-digit numbers. To destroy this type of abstract entity, we would have to modify the rules of the medium such that the combination of interest were no longer possible. For example, if our number system no longer contained the digit "2", then 123 could no longer exist. If we could permanently modify the physical rules of our reality such that the combination of data arrangement necessary to express such an entity were no longer possible, then perhaps that entity would be destroyed.

In short, to destroy an abstract entity, you may need to destroy those media which make it possible. For example in computer science, if you no longer wanted the number 500 to exist in your variable's possible values, you could use an 8-bit unsigned integer that maxed out at 255.


Abstractions are aggregated and well defined ideas of large quantities of experience. An abstraction in an individual can be smashed. If you are a child with an abstract believe about Santa Claus bringing gifts, that image of Santa Claus coming down the chimney can be smashed. It no longer has substance. Or if your parents divorce-- your image of a happy home is smashed. The image still exists in your mind, (not forgotten) but loses all substance or connection with anticipated or lived experience.

Cultural abstractions can be smashed. North Korean brain-washing successfully destroyed beliefs about American capitalism, etc., in American soldiers captured and tortured. Allegedly, they don't even think the same thoughts in your mind.

Of course, physically being hit on the head can mean you lose abstract thoughts, but that is more like forgetting.

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