Divisions of the physical world: Concepts of objects and substances

Lance Rips*, Susan J Hespos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

22 Scopus citations


Our concepts of the physical world distinguish objects, such as chairs, from substances, such as quantities of wood, that constitute them. A particular chair might consist of a single chunk of wood, yet we think about the chair and the wood in different ways. For example, part of the wood is still wood, but part of the chair is not a chair. In this article we examine the basis of the object/substance distinction. We draw together for the first time relevant experiments widely dispersed in the cognitive literature, and view these findings in the light of theories in linguistics and metaphysics. We outline a framework for the difference between objects and substances, based on earlier ideas about form and matter, describing the psychological evidence surrounding it. The framework suggests that concepts of objects include a relation of unity and organization governing their parts, whereas concepts of substances do not. We propose, as a novel twist on this framework, that unity and organization for objects is a function of causal forces that shape the objects. In agreement with this idea, results on the identification of an item as an object depend on clues about the presence of the shaping relation, clues provided by solidity, repetition of shape, and other factors. We also look at results from human infants about the source of the object/substance distinction and conclude that the data support an early origin for both object and substance knowledge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)786-811
Number of pages26
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Count nouns
  • Mass nouns
  • Object concepts
  • Substance concepts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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