Concepts are mental and abstract objects or fundamental building blocks of thoughts. Abstract nouns are nouns that name abstract concepts, or concepts that cannot be experienced with the senses. In contrast, concrete nouns name things that we can know by our senses, i.e. you can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.

Let's take an example. "Sept 25th edition of New York Times" is member of "New York Times", which is member of "Newspaper". "New York Times" is a concrete noun for it is real newspaper.

The question is thus, is "Newspaper" abstract or concrete noun? On the one hand, "Newspaper" is abstract concept from many newspaper like "New York Times". So it should be abstract noun. But on the other hand, "Newspaper" is a physical thing, and should be concrete noun by linguistic definition. Since no noun can be both abstract and concrete noun at same time, is concept abstract or concrete noun?

  • I assume you are referring to the word "concept" and asking whether that word is an abstract or concrete noun. A natural language may be ambiguous and so the constraint that "no noun can be both abstract and concrete noun" may not apply to the way language is used. However, that is my first guess. Regardless, welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Sep 30 '18 at 20:05
  • ""New York Times" is a concrete noun for it is real newspaper." Interesting question. Is the digital edition a concrete newspaper? How about in the not-so-far future when there no longer is a print edition? Is it still a newspaper? Then what about a blog? Is that a newspaper too? You see that even "concrete" nouns can be slippery. – user4894 Sep 30 '18 at 21:42
  • Digital edition is still concrete because by definition, concrete nouns are things that we can know by our senses, i.e. you can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. – Math Wizard Sep 30 '18 at 21:49
  • Your newspaper example is based on ambiguity, "newspaper" can refer to a concrete thing on my desk, or it can refer to an abstract concept it is an instant of. Moreover, concreteness comes in degrees and even the abstract concept of newspaper is still pretty concrete compared to, say, love or beauty. Once you disambiguate the terms your question becomes trivial. – Conifold Sep 30 '18 at 21:58

"Newspaper" and "New York Times" are concrete nouns, not abstract.

You can see that by the way they are used:

The newspaper is on the table

The New York Times was wrong about Trump's chances of winning.

Abstract nouns do not designate any thing that can be over a table, or that can be wrong about elections:

?Justice is on the table (only possible if the table here is metaphoric).

?Freedom was wrong about Trump's chances of winning (only possible if "freedom" here is the name of something else, such as magazine or a person).

(ETA, see Conifold's comment below)

Philosophically, there is something like "abstraction", which is a complex issue.

Also philosophically, there is some thing like "indivisibility of matter". When Greek philosophers first thought about this issue, they concluded that matter could not be infinitely divisible - so there should be a minimum amount of matter that could not be subdivided. They then called this minimum "atom", which meant, in their language, exactly "indivisible".

As alchemy transmutated (pun intended) into modern physics and modern chemistry, that concept of "atom" was reapropriated; the modern concept of "atom" no longer implies indivisibility (though its division is by no means inconsequential): we know an atom is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons (and a few other less famous particles), so we can divide it conceptually - and we can also divide it physically - which is what a fissile atomic bomb, or a nuclear reactor, are about. Philosophically, we can still discuss whether matter can be infinitely subdivided (we now have, perhaps provisorily, agreed to the idea that subatomic particles can be further subdivided into "quarks", but that quarks themselves are indivisible). Until another paradigm change comes, quarks are what correspond to the philosophical concept of "atom"; conversely, atoms are quite complex particles, made of several different internal structures; they are still the minimum amount of matter that preserves the chemical properties of an "element".

Similarly, the linguistic concept of "abstract" noun has been detached from the philophical concept of abstraction. All names - all words indeed - are "abstractions" in one level or other, even proper names, as the continuity between today's John and yesterday's John is abstracted from the different beings each are. But an "abstract noun", in linguistics, is a "noun" that behaves syntactically (and semantically, and pragmatically) in certain ways, different from "concrete nouns". If a noun behaves in such ways, it is abstract; if not, it is not abstract, and we call non-abstract nouns "concrete nouns", regardless of the fact that they are abstractions already.

For instance, an abstract noun does not make phrases with precedents such as "taste of...", "colour of", "smell of", etc. (not without changing radically the meaning of the words "taste", "colour", "smell"). We say "taste of chocolate", but not "taste of freedom", because "freedom" is an abstract noun; and if we eventually say "taste of freedom", we understand that we are not talking of "taste" in the same sense as in "taste of chocolate"(1) (or, of course, that we are not talking of "freedom" in the same sense as in "freedom for the people" - perhaps Freedom[tm] is just another brand of chocolate, which is what we probably understand from a construction like "Freedom tastes not like chocolate, but like chocolate up to eleven").

As such, the "abstractness" of a noun is part of the internal context of a given speech, and helps us understand what we are talking about. But we shouldn't take philosophical conclusions from the fact that a noun is abstract, more than what is common knowledge about things we speak of. "Ghost", "goddess Athena", or "phlebotinum" are no more material than "justice" or "beauty", but they are concrete nouns or expressions.

(1) This is what we call usually "figurative sense", which apparently some philosophers think is a misnomer, and, worse, entangled with Platonic reifications of language. But whether "figurative" or not, I suppose it is easy to see it is a different sense; the "tastes" of chocolate, carrot, or peppermint are very different, but are still something we perceive with our tongues; the "tastes" of freedom, political correctness, or madness are not merely different, but are perceived in a very different way, perhaps with our brains, or our whole bodies.

  • How about "after 10 years of incarceration he he could taste his freedom" or "history of modern newspaper dates back to 1566"? The OP has a point that the abstract/concrete distinction in grammar is philosophically defective. All nouns are strictly speaking abstract, at best one can talk about different degrees of abstraction. And they all can be used "concretely" (indexically) when implied pointing is involved. – Conifold Oct 1 '18 at 2:46
  • @Conifold - "abstract noun" is a grammatical concept, not a philosophical one. If one wants to discuss "abstraction" in a philosophical sense, it is necessary to avoid confusion with non-philosophical ideas, such as "abstract noun". – Luís Henrique Oct 1 '18 at 19:00
  • As for your examples, "taste" in "taste of freedom" is metaphorical, by no means the same "taste" as in "taste of chocolate". And entities referred to by concrete nouns do have a history: the history of ships, the history of gunpowder, etc. – Luís Henrique Oct 1 '18 at 19:02
  • I agree, but the philosophical discussion is lacking in the post. "Beginning with the work of Michael Reddy in his 1979 work "The Conduit Metaphor", many linguists now reject that there is a valid way to distinguish between a "literal" and "figurative" mode of language" Wikipedia. Philosophers, e.g. Davidson, exposed the distinction as spurious even earlier, "the same" is a throwback to reified "meanings" of Plato and Frege. And it is concrete use of freedom that matters, not the taste. – Conifold Oct 1 '18 at 20:02
  • @Conifold - edited the answer, to address some of your points. – Luís Henrique Oct 3 '18 at 0:42

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