Existence is an ontological topic par excellence. In Anglo-American philosophy (this article will have to be augmented with summaries of work in other traditions), probably the most widely-asked question about it is what sort of concept it is, or what function it serves in languages, both natural and formal. Another significant topic, related to the first, but somewhat less discussed, is whether 'existence' or 'exists' can be analyzed or defined or otherwise explicated, and if so, what the explication might be. Perhaps the most common definition/usage of the concept, is to be in the current moment in time, to be in the present, rather than the past or the future. (For further discussion, see the existence of physical objects below.)
Frege and Russell, among many others, for similar reasons are well-known for their view that 'exists' is not a (logical) predicate, or more precisely, not a first-order predicate, or that existence is not a property. This has become the dominant but not the universal view in twentieth-century and contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. But, as G. E. Moore pointed out in an early essay, it is a matter of some difficulty to say what exactly this view amounts to. In recent times, Miller re-visited and created a (now widely accepted) formal demonstration of how existence is a predicate, since it individuates its subject by being its bounds. More can be seen on this in the Stanford essay at the bottom.
The words (and concepts) 'existence' and 'being' are treated in slightly different ways in Western philosophy. Aristotle pointed out that there are various ways in which a thing can "be" and inaugurated ontology as a field with his notion that there are categories of being, such as substance, attribute, and acting-upon. Similar claims, however, are not as often made on behalf of existence. That is, contemporary philosophers at least are wont to treat existence as a univocal, unambiguous concept, as if the only sense of 'existence', or the only sort of existence worth talking about, were the existence of physical objects. Consequently, some discussions of existence have an unclear bearing on, for example, the sense in which numbers, possibilities, and properties exist (or might be thought to exist).
Even if the ambiguity of 'exists' is sometimes overlooked, oddly enough, the ambiguity of 'does not exist' is not. That is, ontologists are fond of pointing out that there are various ways in which things can be nonexistent.
Though often not discussed under the heading of existence, disputes among realism, phenomenalism, physicalism, and various other metaphysical views concern what might be called the criteria for existence. For example, phenomenalism, generally speaking, is the view that everything that exists is mental. Most phenomenalists would want to deny that this claim is a definition of 'exists'; if phenomenalism were treated as a definition of 'exists', then others might accuse the view of trying to be "true by definition." Accordingly, it might be dismissed as a trivial exercise in redefining the ordinary concept of existence, which is, perhaps, of little interest to anyone. Exactly what relation, however, definitions (or analyses, or explications, etc.) and criteria have is an interesting and vexed question. See definitions vs. criteria .
The existence of physical objects
Suppose that 'exists' does have different senses, so that, if it could be defined (analyzed, explicated), one might define it for physical objects, for properties, for relations, for facts, for possibilia, etc.
In that case, what does it mean to say that a physical object exists? One might try to fill in the blank in the following: "An object exists, if and only if, it ... ."
A common view is that this question cannot be answered. It has been suggested that "exists" simply cannot be defined. That people very well understand what it means to say that an object exists is not necessarily to say one can define it. This is a very influential view, which many very smart people hold. But the initial assumption will be made here that we can define "exists" for physical objects.
George Orwell defined existence in his popular novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. O'Brien explains to Winston that if both of them believed that O'brien had floated away like a soap bubble then he had.
Here is a starting point for this assumption. What is existence contrasted with? There are different kinds of nonexistence. So it has been proposed that the existence of physical objects is an "excluder" concept, as it were a purely negative concept: an item is actually in the world, it is not fictional; it is real, not imaginary; it is an actual phenomenon, it is not part of a false hypothesis; and it is located at the present time, not just at a past, or a future time.
Common sense would seem to have it, however, that there is one basic sense in which physical objects actually do exist, and that is as an object that belongs to the space-time system that is the world with which people are in direct contact. If one can bump into it, it exists. So one might boldly give this following definition:
- Physical object O exists if, and only if, O is, at present, spatially located in the universe with which we are in contact.
This definition would seem to express a common sense notion of existence. Interestingly enough, though, only a few philosophers have given such definitions (unless one would wish to construe materialism as a theory of the meaning of 'existence' which it normally is not). But Bruce Aune , for example, in an introductory philosophy textbook, gives a definition much like this one.
This sort of definition encounters some serious objections. Consider the following objection, probably the most widespread.
There are many philosophers today, following Hume, Kant, Frege, and Russell, who claim that existence is not a property, or that 'exists' is not a predicate. Sometimes they say that 'exists' is a second-order predicate (or "second-level" predicate); or they make other sorts of claims about it, such as that it is a unique sort of predicate. Typically, the discussions in which this claim arises are discussions of the existence of physical objects. So, for example, the Eiffel Tower exists. This is a true claim; what makes it true? One would like to be able to say that it is the fact that the Eiffel Tower has the property of existence. It seems that the claim asserts that existence is a property of the Eiffel Tower. Yet the philosophers listed--with qualifications the philosophical Wikipedian is encouraged to elaborate--deny that existence is a property. In fact, this is the common view among philosophers today.
One might wonder why it matters at all whether or not existence is a property. Consider: if existence is not a property, then the concept of existence cannot be defined, or at least, not as it has been defined here. The foregoing definition of 'exists' is incorrect, many philosophers would say, just because the definition does treat existence as a property.
Immanuel Kant wrote:
- By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing--even if we completely determine it--we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. Otherwise, it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept; and we could not, therefore, say that the exact object of my concept exists. If we think in a thing every feature of reality except one, the missing reality is not added by my saying that this defective thing exists. On the contrary, it exists with the same defect with which I have thought it, since otherwise what exists would be something different from what I thought. (Critique of Pure Reason, B627-8)
Suppose one listed out all the properties and relations of an apple sitting on a table. It is red, it has a stem, it is four inches wide, it is juicy, it is on the table, it is in a room, and so on. Kant says, then, once one has listed out all the properties and relations of the apple, one could try claiming that the apple exists (or "is," as he says). But that, Kant says, does not add any new property to the thing. Therefore, existence is not another property over and above all these. So in other words, Kant argues as follows: a complete list of an apple's properties would not be expanded by adding another property, namely existence; therefore, existence is not another property over and above all the other properties.
Of this view, one might ask: does this entail that existence is not a property at all? It seems not. If one lists out all the properties of the apple, the list would include 'being located in the universe with which we are in contact'. An advocate of the definability of 'existence' for physical objects might claim that that particular property just is what constitutes the apple's existence. That property would, of course, be included in a list of all of the apple's properties; so Kant's claim, that existence is not another property over and above all its other properties, seems true enough, but that by itself does not mean that existence is not a property at all.
The dialectic definitely does not end there; in fact, we have barely scratched the surface. Much more can be said on both sides. (And we invite ontologists to dive in and supply the missing details.)
Last updated: 10-08-2005 12:56:36