Realism about an object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. Does that mean that if I am thinking about an apple, the concept of the apple is in my mind, and the real apple is on the table, that there are two separate things, a conceptual apple and a real apple?

What would be the correct terminology for them? A concept and its instantiation? Would you say there is a correspondence between the two?

Where can I find information about this? Is it called the philosophy of perception? Or the philosophy of mind? Does anyone know any good books or websites about it?

  • 4
    Denotation and connotation in Mill, sense and reference in Frege. In modern semantics both are often used interchangeably. However, the "conceptual apple" as a reified ideal sense is specific to Frege, while Mill's connotation was psychological, the difference is metaphysically crucial and goes back to the nominalism/realism debate about universals. Of course, it makes little difference for linguistics.
    – Conifold
    Sep 21, 2017 at 0:05
  • Thank you very much for your responses. If there is an apple on the table and I'm thinking about it, would a realist about apples still be able to say, 'the apple exists in my mind and in reality'?
    – Rob Hv
    Sep 21, 2017 at 0:12
  • What exists "in the mind" would not be an apple on most views, to say that apple exists "in the mind" is more like Berkeley's subjective idealism. Realist would have to say that apple exists in reality, as to what concepts amount to semantically opinions differ, there are schools of thought that it is not properly described as either an abstract "thing" or a mental formation, but is rather of actional/instrumentalist nature. See SEP's Theories of Meaning
    – Conifold
    Sep 21, 2017 at 0:18
  • Much of this depends on your metaphysics, but the word "represents" is a weird choice if you're a realist about objects but not about concepts.
    – virmaior
    Sep 21, 2017 at 2:42
  • I think you are looking for Philosophy of Language. I would suggest Anscombe for the distinction between a brute fact (the thing we call an apple) and an institutional/social fact, an apple, where 'apple' is a label. From there you might also be interested in Searle's philosophy of institutions. Dec 20, 2017 at 10:28

4 Answers 4


Consider the question:

What are the correct terms for a concept and the real thing it represents?

This answer won't attempt to provide "correct terms" since philosophers may differ about what is correct. Rather I will focus on how Gottlob Frege defines these concepts in On Sense and Reference.

Frege is concerned about equality and knowledge:

Equality gives rise to challenging questions which are not altogether easy to answer. Is it a relation? A relation between objects, or between names or signs of objects?

He starts off with "signs" or "names" and expresses equality by a=a or a=b.

Now a=a can be established a priori, but a=b may not and because of that may offer "very valuable extensions of our knowledge".

What the sign refers to Frege calls its "reference". On a superficial level the answer to the OP's question may be simply that the "concept" is called the "sign" and the "real thing it represents" is called the "reference".

However, there may be more that needs clarification especially if one is also interested in what equality means and how we may extend our knowledge. Different signs may have the same reference. He provides an example of this by using the midpoints of triangles:

Let a, b, c be the lines connecting the vertices of a triangle with the midpoints of the opposite sides. The point of intersection of a and b is then the same as the point of intersection of b and c. So we have different designations for the same point, and these names ('point of intersection of a and b', 'point of intersection of b and c') likewise indicate the mode of presentation; and hence the statement contains actual knowledge.

In that example there were two ways to designate the same referent that at least in their mode of presentation are different. He calls these designations the "sense of the sign":

It is natural, now, to think of there being connected with a sign (name, combination of words, letter), besides that to which the sign refers, which may be called the reference of the sign, also what I should like to call the sense of the sign, wherein the mode of presentation is contained. In our example, accordingly, the reference of the expressions 'point of intersection of a and b' and 'point of intersection of b and c' would be the same, but not their senses. The reference of 'evening star' would be the same as that of 'morning star', but not the sense.

So we need three terms to connect a concept and the real thing it represents.

  1. The sign we use in our language.
  2. The sense of the sign.
  3. The reference which the sense points to which may have many senses and signs which can be connected by an equality relationship offering us extensions of our knowledge.


Frege, G. "On Sense and Reference", translated by Max Black, Wikisource https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On%2520Sense%2520and%2520Reference?oldid=4276834

Wikipedia, "Sense and reference" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_and_reference


I would call this area something like theory of knowledge - you might be interested in Wittgenstein's "picture theory" of cognition and propositions - in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein says that "logical form" is what is common between something in reality and in representational form, and there is no way we can stand outside of the reality of logical form itself, and this is how metaphysics ties itself in knots, by wanting to go beyond the existence of logical form, when the existence of logical form, taken as fact, does not require for there to be anything necessarily "metaphysical" beyond its own existence - the subject is the limit of what he calls the "world", the totality of given facts - there is no "metaphysical subject", but what we can say is that logical form is what makes representation of reality possible, since it is what is shared between the reality of a thing and its representation, in the mind of the subject and in propositions made by the subject.


You might be pleased to learn that this was the subject of the most popular allegory by Socrates recorded by Plato: the allegory of the cave.

Socrates describes people imprisoned in a cave, separated from the opening by a big rock which nevertheless admits some light inside. The light shows shadows on the inside of the cave, like a camera obscura.

The people can't leave, and they can't turn around. Everything they see is shadows.

According to Plato, this is what real life is like: everything we see gives us in impression of real things (or what he calls "forms"), but we really don't see forms.


From wikipedia

Related to 'anthropocentrism', object-oriented thinkers reject correlationism, which the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux defines as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other"

So the "philosopher" Meillassoux seems to use the terms 'thinking' and 'being', though it's not obvious that these are exhaustive terminologies, the only way to properly express the idea, rather than merely well chosen ones. They are quite basic terms, and may appeal due to Heidegger's question "what is the meaning of Being", or Adorno's use of 'thinking;.

We may be skeptical of whether we can really know the meaning of either term, rather than intuitively grasping them

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