There is an intuitive suspicion expressed in common sense, that certain kinds of objects -- namely, objects that seem to be dependent upon social factors -- aren't "*really*, real". The intuition is a skeptical one arising out of a default common sense empiricism. While there may be some nominal understanding or some social agreement about the reality of things like national borders or governments, they're not "*really*, real" in the sense that, say, an airplane, or a boulder, or a dog, are "*really*, real". In contemporary philosophical literature, this distinction is typically understood as an opposition between the realist and antirealist understanding of objects, and is sometimes justified by adding the qualification "social" to the term object. The qualification is correct, but incomplete. This paper will attempt flesh out the notion of a social object, in order to provide a clearer understanding of what is meant by it, and to provide a means by which we might answer the question of whether so-called social objects are in fact, "*really*, real".
## Social Objects
### Social Objects
To begin the analysis of social objects, we need to clarify our understanding of the component terms in the question. What are "objects", what does it mean for them to be "real" or "social", and what is it about the social qualification that seems to suggest an ontological demotion?
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Having identified the three kinds of social objects, the question of whether there is any sense in which any of these three kinds of social objects can be count as real in the same sense as a tangible object, or whether there is some other sense of real that might be analogous or equivalent to the reality of a tangible object. I will now examine each of these three notions of social object, and provide some reasons for judging the extent to which they are "really, real".
## Social Objects as Collective Social Beings
### Social Objects as Collective Social Beings
It can be argued that social objects of the collective kind are in fact *more real* than their constituent parts, as is seen in Hegel's theory of objective mind (Quinton 1976). Hegel couched his theory in the context of the life of the state in history, but it could also be applied to something a bit less intimidating, like a sports team. The 1984 Chicago Cubs, picks out a social object we can classify as a team. On Hegel's account, there is (analogously), a spirit of baseball, out of which the team spirit of the 1984 Chicago Cubs becomes a concrete universal (a concept somewhat analogous to the concrete universal of a color, for example). The team's individual members have their reality as that team, and the team 'only is, as an organized whole' (Quinton 1976, 6). To pick out individual team members when talking about the team, is to abstract away from the team, rather than to explain it by reducing it to its individuals. This might be thought of as a sort of supervenience view of social institutions, but this is still slightly misleading. The substantial reality is the idea that the group actualizes an already existing spirit, and the individuals in the group are only important insofar as they actualize the spirit of baseball in its concrete form of the the 1984 Chicago Cubs.
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But would this satisfy the Quinian? Would Quine accept the concept of a general will into his ontology? Probably not. Quine's eliminativism seems to suggest the necessity to roll back collective notions entirely, until we are left with individuals over which we can quantify variables. In the same way there can be no "average American", there can be no "steelworkers union" or "1984 Chicago Cubs". Terms like "team", and "union", and "nation", are just labels of convenience attached to aggregations of individuals, in order to reduce a cognitive load in the act of communicating, or to reduce the practical or logistical problems inherent in organizing groups of people. Quine's nominalist eliminativism is attractive, because it helps to highlight one way in which subject and object can be demarcated. If we can reduce collectives to individuals, then we can get to something "real". Indeed, contra my own suggestion above, Passinsky (2020) suggests that this is the source of the antirealist intuition about social objects: the degree to which they depend on the subjective is the degree to which they are not real. To put it in terms of a question, we might ask, where does object stop and subject start? One answer to that is indeed to insist on tangible individuals as the standard of what is real. As we will see, however, it is not so easy to stop even at the level of the objective individual.
## Social Objects as Composite Individual Beings
### Social Objects as Composite Individual Beings
Earlier, we gave a definition for something called a *tangible*: a unity which has an independent numerical identity, and can be *sensed* or *perceived*. Let's call this common-sense realism. What J.L Austin famously called the reality of "moderate-sized dry goods" (Austin 1979, 8). Interestingly, Quine was also unsatisfied with this definition. He did want to say that real objects were just those objects over which we could bind a variable to a quantity (Quine 1980, 12). However, he broadened the concept far beyond tangibility, when he further argued that quantifiable objects were really only those for which scientific inquiry could provide a satisfying theory (Quine 1980, 44). So, atoms and quarks and elements and forces and fields are given the status of objects because the scientific community has given them to us, in the form of convincing theories. This view has become a dominant feature of contemporary common sense. In a moment, we'll see why this is a problem.
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Thus, while I agree with Passinsky (2020), that "*ordinary material artefacts like tables... can be brought into existence by lone individuals*", it is not clear that objects like the Runnymede Charter Table, or the Table of the Last Supper, or even a chess table, can be brought into existence by a lone individual, because these objects require the stuff of social history for their complete constitution. Without social agreement about what these things are (and not simply whether these things are), they lack their full nature. In Passinsky's terms, they rely on a response-dependence condition, just as much as money and borders do. Likewise, with Pluto.
## Social Objects As Doings
### Social Objects As Doings
The last kind of social object to be considered is the kind of object that arises out of human behavior, rather than simply an arrangement of human beings, or the meaning assigned to (or identified in) a tangible. These objects are characterized as distinct from the others, in virtue of their *duration*, in addition to their spatio-temporal location. While the 1984 Chicago Cubs have a specific time and place in which it exists as a team, in a roughly static sense, the 1984 Cubs Home Opener game, on the other hand, *occurred over a period of time* (namely, over a span of about two and a half hours on Tuesday, April 3rd). In addition to this, though, the activity was also characterized by something that seems common to collective social objects in general: an agreed-upon common set of rules, and functional roles played by the participants of the activity.
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There is unfortunately no more room to explore this idea. Suffice it to say, that when we think about objects like "the game of chess", or "the Tokyo Accords", or even "the Runnymede Charter table", it is not at all clear that we are only talking about an inventory of items.
## Conclusion: Reality And Its Discontents
### Conclusion: Reality And Its Discontents
The upshot of all of this, is that it is beginning to look like it is not possible to escape the fact that the reality of beings (both collective and individual) just is a relation between the intelligibility of existence itself, and the intellect that does the work of intelligent discernment. Since that intellect resides (so far as we are aware) in the skulls of human beings, some degree of subjectivity will always be present in the composition of every object. What is "really 'out there' in the world", is out there in the world, because we can discern it. And, we can discern what is out there, because what is out there, is discernable. The mode of discernment, on this view, is instrumental rather than fundamental, and it is context dependent. For those objects that require rational discernment, we apply a rational method. For those objects that require empirical discernment, we apply an empirical method. For those objects that require a moral discernment, we apply a practical or ethical method. And so on.