Identifying and counting objects: The role of sortal concepts

Nick Leonard*, Lance J. Rips

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Sortal terms, such as table or horse, are nouns akin to basic-level terms. According to some theories, the meaning of sortals provides conditions for telling objects apart (. individuating objects, e.g., telling one table from a second) and for identifying objects over time (e.g., determining that a particular table at one time is the same table at another). A number of psychologists have proposed that sortal concepts likewise provide psychologically real conditions for individuating and identifying things. However, this paper reports five experiments that cast doubt on these psychological claims. Experiments 1-3 suggest that sortal concepts do not determine when an object ceases to exist and therefore do not decide when the object can no longer be identical to a later one. Experiments. 4-5 similarly suggest that sortal concepts do not provide determinate conditions for individuating objects. For example, they do not always decide whether a room contains one table or two. All five experiments feature ordinary objects undergoing ordinary changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-103
Number of pages15
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Individual concepts
  • Object identity
  • Object individuation
  • Singular concepts
  • Sortal concepts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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