I spent some time earlier this summer puzzling over what an object is, or more precisely how we come to consider an object as an object. As a realist I naturally felt inclined to commit to a theory of objects which didn’t result in the type of psychologism we risk falling into when shown vague or seemingly subjective results.
I figured it was important to go back to the original region of experience where we come across objects in our daily lives (intentionality). Having approached some objects myself to get a feel for it, I noticed that there was a unity behind each “object” I apprehended, and that this unity was most definitely something about the object and not a projection I made onto it. My awesome 2.1’s, for example, have a functional unity – they’re made for, and perform a certain task. My books also, designed for the purpose of reading and standing on my shelf in a self-supporting repose.
An acquaintance from a philosophy seminar some time during year one, when arguing for the non-existence of a priori knowledge asked the class what sense the number six could make in a universe of only one object. I considered for a while, but then I realised the nature of the problem. If there is one thing in this universe, let’s say it’s a speaker, is the speaker not made of components which can be considered as objects in their own right? Further still, is the speaker not composed of atoms which can also be considered as objects? And how many of those are there? Loadz.
But what I thought next was that there was a common thread running through my conceptual headaches, something there I wasn’t grasping - occluded by my mortal idiocy. Then I finally saw it staring at me with mocking eyes and a “did it really take you that long?” expression seared into the lines on its face. The unity of function and the disclosure of parts were two sides of the same coin. One thing, like my speaker, has different aspects of intentionality which to some degree exclude one another (like a necker cube), and therefore different aspects of its being are being presented (as a speaker, as a composite of other objects i.e. it's components, and as atoms) as a result of a given agent's intentionality.
If we are concerned with listening to music, we see the speaker as a speaker – as a functional unity owing to our intentionality (wanting to listen to some tunes). However, if the speaker has a fault, suddenly we consider this once unitary object as a composite of objects whose presence was previously “smoothed down by equipmentality”, to borrow a phrase from Marty H. We start considering different functional unities as objects themselves when trying to isolate the fault. Or, if we’re physicists with an electron microscope, suddenly the unities of these components are broken down further into atoms.
Now you might object that the components of a thing are simply parts, and not objects by themselves, as their functional unity makes reference to the whole object. However, we consider trees as objects, even leaves and branches as objects - but because of the nature of the directedness which discloses them as standing by themselves, there lies concealed within them a part-like nature. Are they after all not part of an eco-system which, if you were so inclined, could be considered a thing wholly in itself?
However, most people consider ecosystems to be composites of objects, and not objects themselves. This, again, is rooted in intentionality - as we're not simply glazing over the ecosystem as a whole like we would with a speaker or a lighter. The nature of our typical directedness towards an ecosystem considers it as a composite of parts (where the parts are themselves not discreet but stand in evidence). However if we were to grasp the ecosystem in relation to another ecosystem (for some sort of study, say) then we consider both as single things.
I say then that the origin of objecthood is in directedness. The objects are as one, as several, or as millions simultaneously, and whichever one you see is rooted in the simplest place: what you’re doing or what you want to do. As the different objects are not “mind dependent” phenomena in the sense of psychologism, they are genuinely existent features of the universe. However, their objecthood and their systematisation is rooted in our mode of being (what we’re up to). An object is, therefore, whatever you will it to be within the scope of possibilities determined by the particular nature of the object of your directedness (which is to say it's not possible to use a hamburger as a sanitary towel or anti-perspirant).