The question of when objects are is crucial to any ontology that claims being is composed of units, substances, or entities. This question takes roughly two forms: On the one hand, it’s the question of the relation between the material parts of an object and the totality that is the object. I say material parts as I’m committed to the thesis that there is no entity that is not physical (here we also need to specify what matter or the physical are; connotations of language are no guide or authority where philosophy is concerned). The question of the relation between parts and totality or community– units are “communities of parts”, though it’s possible that there are elementary, indivisible parts such as strings –is that of whether an object remains that object when it gains or loses parts. It is a question of what individuates an object as that object. Here it must be understood that the principle of individuation sought is not an epistemological principle– “how do we identify an object as that object?” –but is rather an ontological principle: “what makes that object that object?” Such a principle would be operative in units regardless of whether or not any sentient beings existed to know objects. Here, then, what’s being asked is whether or not an object becomes another object when it gains or loses parts (this, incidentally, is why questions of mereology are central to questions of objecthood). Jennifer Wang illustrates this problem beautifully in her discussion of the Ship of Theseus Paradox (seriously, watch this, it’s awesome):
The second question is how we distinguish genuine objects or units from social and psychological conventions. Put differently, how do we distinguish between what is only a unit for an observer and what is a unit in itself? A unit that only exists for an observer would have no existence of its own. For example, I suspect that it’s unlikely that there is any entity corresponding to the category “Soccer Mom”. If true, while there are many soccer moms, “Soccer Mom” would be a construction for a particular observer (political pundits and statisticians), with no substantial existence of its own. As philosophers of science like Ian Hacking have argued, this category, of course, can affect soccer moms– they might begin to embody behavior formulated by the pundits, or to repudiate the characteristics attributed to them –but the point is that prior to the formulation of this category there was no unit out there in the world existing in its own right. “Soccer Mom” is a convention, not something out there in the world (if this is true, Latour’s Principle of Irreduction is wrong). How far do we go with this? For example, if it is the parts that make the Ship of Theseus the Ship of Theseus, then the gain or loss of a part means that the Ship of Theseus is no longer the Ship of Theseus. If that’s true, then our continued reference to the Ship of Theseus as the Ship of Theseus is a mere convention, a pragmatic fiction, not something grounded in reality. By contrast, something is a unit in itself if, like God, it is what it is regardless of whether or not it’s observed.
I won’t attempt to answer these questions here as I have to teach in a few minutes (though I’ve written a great deal about such things elsewhere). With respect to the first question, I lean in the direction of Jennifer Wang’s fifth solution and reject the notion of substantial forms. This aside, I think it’s important to raise them as I’ve noticed a rather exorbitant tendency to multiply entities in discussions of objects and actants. If we treat everything for which we have a name as “real”– in the sense of being a “unit in itself” –I think we pretty quickly run into serious epistemological problems as well as very dangerous implications in our social and political theory.