Definition of "Thing"

Been contemplating and trying to discern this notion for awhile… I don’t think this is going to go down well, but I’m going to try giving it a shot…

The question is… when is a “thing” a “thing”? What gives something its essential being? Or, when is a thing not a thing, but then a something? And, if a potential entity is moving through a state of becoming to a state of actual being, then - if there are any universal abstract definitions and proofs - that’s kind of what I’m looking for…

Possible applications and arguments might include… being is nothingness, and how God created the world from nothing, potential being vs actual being… and so on…

Basically, I’m trying to identify a simple and appropriate definition of “thing-ness”… Only credibly referenced articles count. Or, if you cite your own thoughts, then please back it up with credible reasoning and proofs… Also, I’d like to know in a Catholic sense, if possible… But, secular arguments can be made… I only ask that you note the difference, if you posit a secular argument…

I’m interested in commenting, but it’s a little off putting when it feels like I’m being asked to include footnotes and then a bibliography at the end. You aren’t researching for a paper, are you?

Still, it interests me, so I’ll give it a kickstart.

As Thomist W. Norris Clarke writes in The One and the Many:

It is through action, and only through action, that real beings manifest or “unveil” their being, their presence, to each other and me. All the beings thst make up the world of my experience thus reveal themselves as not just present, standing out from nothingness, but actively presenting themselves to others and vice versa by interacting with each other. Meditating on this leads us to the metaphysical conclusion thst ot is the very nsture of real neing, existential being, to pour over into action that is self-revealing and self-communicative. In a word, existential being is intrinsically dynamic, not static.

Suffice it to say, in my own words and to sum up part of Clarke’s point, it is this self-communicative nature of being, of it affecting and, in a sense, acting on other beings which distinguishes being from non-being. A hypothetical being that could not possibly affect in any way any other being would be indistinguishable from non-being. He does provide arguments which are too long to type up.

“Being” in its strong primary sense as real being means that which is, i.e., actually exists in the real order, is present as standing out of nothingness with its own act of existence outside of an idea. It actively presents itself to other real beings by its characteristic self-manifesting, self-communicating action on them.

I know the nature or essence of other real beings as this kind of actor on me and on others, that kind of actor, etc. Thus I do not know the hidden natures of things as they are in themselves apart from their action on me . . . But I do know them as they really do manifest their existence and their natures by their real action on me.

The last portion touches on a type of modest, relational realism towards the objects external to ourselves.

I wanted to touch base on being as action, and of the act of being as preceding all other properties (real, accidental, relational). Something cannot be tall, red, two meters off the ground, rational, carnivorous, or anything else unless it is. All other properties are dependent on and follow the act of being. Not sure I want to search for the page right now, though.

Other topics I’d like to touch on at some point is the unity of “a being” (referring to transcendental properties), potency vs act, analogy of being… Sounds like you’re also interested in the notion of substantial change. And identity and persistence… It’s a big topic.

My apologies for any typos, I’m posting from my phone and my phone and I are fighting.


A bit vague-ish?

Gives can imply a Giver …

Ergo, “Who brings ‘things’ into existence?” could be an applicable question…

That said - a “thing” can be realized as a noumena / an Actuality - within Existence

Thank you for the honest and sincere reply, as well as your due diligence on the matter.

Am sorry about the demand for rigor in citations, but I was a philosophy major in undergrad about 30 years ago, and - based upon my experiences - it’s usually best to be able to trace any predications to their sources, It’s often difficult enough to contemplate the basis (or bases) of any substantial propositions, but references at least usually point to the origins of the claim. Besides, as far as online posting goes - how often do we really know anything about our correspondents? Anyone could come in here saying almost anything within the policies, but that doesn’t make it accurate or correct…

With all due respect to the other poster, the second response is the type of comment I’m trying to avoid. The question was very general, but it wasn’t vague. It couldn’t have been clearer and more simply stated. Instead of spouting Kant (without reference to either Kant or the design specs of the OP) only to fall back upon vague conditionals while speculating over a question you dont know the answer to… relying upon what - for all practical purposes could amount to a solipsistic, subjective and all out morally relativistic result… consider the certainty of the existence of some-thing under the following framework…

A square is an equal-sided, rectlinear object with four 90 degree angles, where each angle shares each one of it’s sides with two of the other angles. Furthermore, every side subtends each of it’s other sides. Thus, since each of the angles has two sides, yet these sides are shared equally among the four angles; and each side also equally subtends the other, so then there will be four lines required to constitute a square. And an object that conforms to this definition is a square.

Now remove one of the sides.

You no longer have a square with respect to the definition above. A square has four lines and four angles, but you would at best have three lines and two angles. In fact the object may not even have a 2-dimensional shape to it; it could, but for all we know it is merely a sort of wandering “length” as it exists.

So suppose then we put the fourth line back in place. Then we can say the object is identifiably a thing we call a square according to the definition above…

As I have contemplated this question of “thingness” in various contexts the definition and mode of expression and/or methodology (whether mathematical, in terms of object oriented programming, under various logical paradigms- whether religious, economic, physical, technical or whatever)… Logic nowadays seems to admit of too much rationalization… I think logic can explain things, but the actual basis of whatever a matter is under consideration - that’s what I’m trying to get at…

If it is even possible, one must be able to trace the origins of the existence of a thing… and so that is what this post aims to discuss in the clearest manner possible…

Depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.


A thing in simplest terms is nothing else but a being, that is, one that exists. However, note that there are two kinds of beings. First, there are real beings, that means, beings that exist outside the mind. Most of what we call “things” are, in fact, real beings. Second, there are beings of reason, or beings that can’t exist, except only in the mind, such as, for example, the idea of a “mermaid”, a “square circle”, or even “evil.” All these are also “things” because they, too, exist, but only in the mind as beings of reason (entia rationis). Note that we can’t think of anything at all, or talk about anything, unless we think of it first as a being. So, if a thing does not exist in reality, the mind itself gives it its “thingness” or its intelligibility, by giving it a purely mental or intellectual existence.

What about “nothingness.” Is it a “thing”? Sure it is. It is a concept in the mind that represents the state of non-being. So, nothingness is also a thing, but it is a being or reason, not a real being. There is no such thing as a real nothingness existing in the world. If there was a time before God created anything in the world, then there was a time when outside of God there was absolutely nothing. Could we then say that outside of God, before the creation of the world, there was an entity, called “nothingness”? Nope! Because nothingness is not a real being or a real entity. Before God created anything, there was nothing that exists outside Himself. There was no time, no empty space, and no nothingness either!

Let me dig this a little more. Real beings are of two kinds: actual beings and possible (or potential) beings. Actual beings are real beings that exist in reality here and now. Possible or potential beings are real beings that do not exist in the real world, but which can exist. They are distinguished from beings of reason because, although they do not exist here and now, they have a reality in the Mind and Power of God. A city with 1000 waterfalls may not be an actual being, but it is in the power of God to create; so it is a real, possible being. Things that have a contradiction in their notion, such as a “square circle” are purely beings of reason, and are not possible beings at all. Not even the infinite power of God can make a being of reason of this kind real.

However, do all beings of reason involve a contradiction? Not at all. For example, there are mathematical entities, such as the square root of -1, that do not exist except in the mind, but which do not involve an inherent contradiction. These are beings of reason, but not possible beings. Philosophers have a special terminology for them. They are called “beings of reason with a foundation in reality,” entia rationis cum fundamento in re.

Real. Not fictional. Although is it possible to conceive of a fiction as nonetheless existing, like can we really say that “Superman” is not real in every sense? When we read a comic book or watch a movie, are we reading nothing? So then perhaps not exactly “not fictional”, but perhaps nonfiction plus only those fictions that are pondered, regarded, apprehended intellectually? And therefore fictions that nobody ever imagined, those would not be things, those would not be real in any sense?

“A person is a person no matter how small”…Dr. Seuss.

I would say anyTHING that is not a person is a THING. A zygote is a person, it is not transitioning into a person it is a person, we just use that term to give a name to the stage of development. Just like “teen” is a stage of development as is octogenarian.

A kitten is a cat but the term kitten just describes the stage it is in. A kitten cannot transition into anything else but a cat.

Once again anyTHING that is not a person (which has a rational soul) is a thing. A rock is a thing. A dog is a thing. A tree is a thing.

This topic was automatically closed 14 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit