Is there any reason to imagine that abstract ideas exist when they are nowhere to be found except in language?

No more is known today, for example, about Platonic Forms than upon initial utterance some 2500+ years ago. Metaphysical speculations and justifications simply have not provided the conception with any heuristic merit and as of yet, not a one has been observed or confirmed.

As another example: all points equidistant from a single point upon a two dimensional plane, i.e. a Euclidian circle, can not be observed in the world (from all that we can observer between the scope of quantum decoherence to cosmological and epistemically opaque whole ("black holes"). There are, however, innumerable instances of things which can be described as circular. Be this a limitation of spacetime or due to the use and definition of "point", it seems to me that the only place a Euclidian circle can be found is in its description (language).

Unless we are to imagine that describing a unicorn amounts to invoking its "existence" in the same sense that the computer screens which you and I are viewing this on exist, I think the answer is plainly "no, abstract ideas are only to be found in language".

  • 4
    Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Your question is about the ages old problem of universals, and the position you favor is called nominalism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominalism The opposite position is called realism, there are various other approaches and no definitive answer. There is a vast literature on the issue to which we can't usefully add something here without a more specific question. See our help center on how to ask philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-ask
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2016 at 0:34
  • Thanks Conifold. I've always thought "realism" a funny way of expressing that view. I'd counter, however, that 1) I was addressing the ambiguity of the term "exists" and 2) that metaphysical views are irrelevant to philosophy. What can be known of abstract ideas except that they do not exist and are only to be found in language?
    – MmmHmm
    Oct 2, 2016 at 0:55
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    Sorry, I do not follow. Right after saying that metaphysical views are irrelevant you ask a question presupposing a metaphysical view. The ambiguity of "existence" was addressed many times over in the debate on universals also, so I still do not see what more we can add here.
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2016 at 1:14
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    I think you're exactly right -- it depends on your definition (or maybe just connotation rather than denotation) of "exist". Ideas, abstract or concrete, are ultimately "electrochemical patterns in your brain". So if you say that, e.g., a piece of paper cut into a circular shape means "circles exist", then ideas also exist. If not, then not.
    – user19423
    Oct 2, 2016 at 5:10
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    Without getting into generalities, denying existence of universals as entities, or asserting it for that matter, is a thesis about the "fundamental nature of being", and therefore is "metaphysical". I think this is more or less common usage, but I am not sure how it relates to the "categorical strategy".
    – Conifold
    Nov 8, 2016 at 21:48

3 Answers 3


I'll have to struggle with this for awhile, but let me get on with my initial agreement:

Abstract ideas are defined by the thinker who is capable of describing them. It is possible that this thinker may never use spoken language to share the idea but they must, in some form, use language to conceptualize it themselves. It may also be said that abstract ideas do not exist independently of their description. For example: physical objects, forces, and radiation all exist, but the words for them and the overarching term "Physics" does not exist independent of thought and language.

A part of me wants to say that some phenomena described by abstract ideas exist independent of their description. I just can't think of any examples right now -_-

  • Any further thoughts on the matter? I imagine that thought is a biologically causal process, but the idea thought of - is it in the neurons or just in the dalliance between utterer and audience?
    – MmmHmm
    Mar 15, 2017 at 2:56

One can visualize abstract ideas. So, at the very least they exist inside the mind. It does not require language to visualize a perfect circle. I don't have to have a language to describe it. If I never met another being, I would still have an image in my mind of circles. There are things which are circular. The image in my mind might be an average of all circular objects I have seen. The image might be a symbol, to myself for myself, and thus a language of symbols which I use to categorize objects in my mind. However, the perfect circle now exists as a symbol in my mind.


Is "the capability of the physical laws to build a machine that simulates Turing machines" an abstract idea? It sounds quite abstract to me.

It exists objectively, as there could be theoretically a universe without that. It has existed before human starts to think about that.

If you define that to be not abstract, it's quite likely you have defined "abstract" to be a specific type of the things not found outside languages. Then, by definition, it exists as an idea, and it doesn't exist physically, or anywhere that is not in languages. You can call that existing or not existing, but please choose in whatever ways the person listening to you could understand. Personally, I feel it quite awkward to say there is a processor that uses x86_64 instruction set while the instruction set itself doesn't exist.

  • And yet physical laws don't build machines.
    – MmmHmm
    Nov 8, 2016 at 16:48

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