What are the justifications for holding concretes to be more real or more important than abstractions like ideas and thoughts?

  • A general statement like, "Unicorns have horns," can be true even if no unicorns exist. By contrast, "This unicorn still has its horn," requires an actually existent unicorn to be true. We might go the Zalta route and talk about an abstract unicorn that encodes having a horn, and this would be the existent referent of the general statement, but why are there abstract unicorns, then, over and above the nonexistent concrete ones? Commented May 12, 2022 at 16:14
  • @KristianBerry my question is about existent concrete, not about non-existent one. And I'm wondering how come something can be concrete when it isn't in existence? Commented May 12, 2022 at 16:31
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    We can have multiple properties or relations of existence, multiple degrees of actuality, iterations of modal structures, etc. So if we have an existential quantifier and an existence predicate, we can quantify over things lacking the predicate, and predicate existence of things we don't quantify over. Commented May 12, 2022 at 16:36
  • This is a very general, universal and deep question indeed which everyone has their own criterion for sure... With this said, however, it doesn't mean it has to remain mystic forever. Just stare at the word "real" long and hard, contemplate and meditate, hopefully it will hint you with more relevant ideas... Commented May 12, 2022 at 16:57
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    From Kristian's hint, your perceived difference between concrete and abstract might only depend on their epistemic modal degrees upon you which has nothing to do with their own reality or importance per se strictly speaking. Do you count your own stated "fact"(Not a proper answer came up yet) as concrete or abstract? If your answer is abstract, then by your own titular logic it's not important at all, so why bother stated it? If your answer is concrete, then this "fact" must be important and very real, however, is it really true?... Commented May 13, 2022 at 5:35

3 Answers 3


I think what you are describing is nominalism, the idea that concepts like "human", "cars" or "democracy" are built by us a posteriori from the observation of individual objects or events we try to gather into manageable categories.

Nominalism vs. Ideal Realism is an old debate that goes back to the XI century at least. Each of the proponents of nominalism has had their own arguments for it.

Spinoza argued in Ethics that things happen to be by the effect of natural laws alone, and therefore most of them exist without a specific goal or without guidance by a specific idea. Similar things happen to exist because similar initial conditions lead to a similar result, by the consistent application of the same natural laws (clouds in the cold produce snowflakes, a chicken egg gives a chicken, and so on).

Spinoza claims that because some things are similar we get a wrong idea about them by noticing only this similarity, and group them into categories, that are imperfect ideas. But if we were able to know every detail there is to know about every chicken, we would notice how different they are from.one another and stop lumping them into a kind.

He also explains that the reasons we commit the mistake of relying too heavily on categories is that

  1. It's convenient: we can ask for "a chicken" at the meat shop instead of giving a complete list of the specific individuals we would want to buy, the clerk understand what we mean and generally it works good enough.
  2. We live among objects that were designed by humans for a specific goal in mind. My shirt looks like a shirt because it was made with the idea of a shirt in mind. In the case of manufactured object the idea actually precede the object. And because those manufactured objects are so pervasive around us we are lead to think that the same must be true for natural objects.

Nominalism as an ontology is strongly supported by modern biology, particularly the theory of evolution. We know now that great apes are not an embodiment of the "ape form", and humans not an embodiment of the "human form", but rather that both happened to be from a common root where it's impossible to objectively define which specimen is human and which is great ape.

Species appear to be merely categories we built from observation and classification of individuals rather than clear, distinct and a priori molds for living beeings to be cast from.


You can consider concrete more real in the sense that many/all people perceive it as real, so it is "used" and/or "referenced" more often. On the other side, ideas and thoughts have a varying degree of usage or reference. For example numbers can be considered as real as concrete at least to humans who know how to calculate. Also, consider the idea that ideas have changed the world, think of a revolution for example, it sure has an big impact on the world. Hope that helps.


Holding a concrete to be more real than an abstraction is direct. You can drop it on your foot.

Determining the importance of a thing is a question of value. That necessarily implies the further questions: To whom? and For what?

That is, value judgements only arise when there is a person to do the valuing and a purpose for which the thing is to be valued.

If I am wanting lunch then the substance of that lunch, say a sandwich, the concretes, are important to me for the purpose of lunch. Ideas, whether about lunch or about other things, cannot satisfy the purpose of eating lunch. If I only have an idea then I stay hungry. If I have an idea and a sandwich, I can eat.

If I am wanting to write about having lunch then ideas about lunch are going to be very useful. And lunch itself is only going to be of passing use, sustaining me long enough to finish writing. Indeed, I can write about lunch rather lengthily before I ever get any concrete food item.

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