What is Existence?


You can’t get a question more basic than: what is existence? Presumably existence isn’t a thing (an individual), so it must be a property of things. Surely indeed it must be a property of everything!


The tulip is red

But we can’t experience a thing’s existence (over and above the properties it has). Could we be being misled by the subject-predicate form of the existential statement ‘the tulip exists’ into thinking it is logically identical to ‘the tulip is red’?

But surely we are right to think that ‘the tulip exists’ is true if the tulip exists, and false otherwise – i.e. that the sentence does have subject-predicate form?

If we do think this we get these problems:

  1. the predicate ‘exists’ is redundant – that the words ‘the tulip’ have meaning tell us that there is (i.e. there exists) a referent.
  1. if a name gets meaning because of its referent then it seems nonsensical to say, of the referent of a name, that it doesn’t exist.

But ‘Santa Claus doesn’t exist’ is surely true? If so it must have meaning.

There are two ways to escape our problem:

  • non-existing things do exist;
  • existential statements are not ordinary subject-predicate statements

1. Non-Existent Things


Alexius Meinong

Why, we might ask, can’t we allow two different senses of ‘exists’? So I exist, but Santa Claus merely is. Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) made such a claim, and it has also been made by contemporary philosophers such as Zalta.

This deals well with fictional objects, and it allows us to make sense of attributing truth-values to sentences such as ‘Santa Claus has a white beard’. It also explains how we can fear or want something that doesn’t exist (mental states are about something, even if their putative object does not, in fact, exist) and it allows us to talk of future and past beings.

So Meinong’s theory has explanatory force, and this is undoubtedly a reason for, as Meinong put it, overcoming our ‘prejudice for the actual’.

Problems for Non-Existent Things


Betrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) insisted we should maintain a ‘robust sense of reality’. Meinong, Russell points out, insists that (a) every set of properties has being even if it doesn’t exist, and (b) existence is a property. Meinong is therefore committed to the existence of an object with the properties of being an existing golden mountain.

But no such mountain exists. Saying it has being does not save Meinong. If existence is a property, and there is an object for every set of properties, then he is committed not just to the being of a golden mountain but to its existence.


Willard van Orman Quine

Quine also rejected Meinong’s theory because non-existent objects have no determinate conditions of identity. Is the (imaginary) fat man in the doorway, asked Quine, the same as the (imaginary) tall man in the doorway? How can this man/these men have any sort of being if there is no determinate answer to this question?

Non-existent objects are also ‘gappy’. Does Sherlock Holme have three buttons on his overcoat? Given Conan-Doyle says nothing about this, the question has no answer.


William of Ockham

Finally William of Ockham (1285-1347) says that it is a virtue in a theory not to multiply entities unnecessarily: the ontological abundance of Meinong’s theory must be avoided.

But is there a theory simpler than Meinong’s that explains everything that his theory can explain?

2. Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

Russell denies that existence is a property of individuals. Instead it is a property of other properties. Russell thereby assimilates singular existential statements to general existential statements which attribute existence only to properties.


Do dragons exist?

Consider ‘cats exist’. This does not say, redundantly, of an individual cat, that it exists. Rather it says, of the property being a cat, that it is instantiated. ‘Dragons don’t exist’ does not say, paradoxically, of an individual dragon that it doesn’t exist. It states that the property of being a dragon is not instantiated.

But how can we assimilate singular existential statements to general ones?

Russell says we should understand ordinary proper names as disguised definite descriptions. Definite descriptions are claims to the effect that there is something that uniquely satisfies some set of properties.

On Russell’s story ‘Marianne’ has meaning not by referring to me, but in stating that there is something that uniquely satisfies the description ‘the DoS in Philosophy at OUDCE’. This denies that ‘Marianne exists’ is a subject-predicate statement and thereby avoids the problems listed above. Russell’s theory solves the problems generated by Meinong’s theory, but rejects non-existent objects.

Problems for Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

There are two problems for Russell’s theory:

  • The Semantic Problem: if a sincere use of ‘Marianne’ means ‘the one and only Dos in philosophy at OUDCE’, then I cannot inform you that Marianne is the DoS in P at OUDCE.
  • The Modal Problem: if ‘Marianne’ means ‘the one and only the DoS in P at OUDCE’, then how can it be true that I might not have got my job or that I might not have been called Marianne?

The price of accepting Russell’s Theory of Descriptions is a theory of ordinary proper names that makes some information redundant, and that prohibits us from tracking individuals across possible worlds.

So is existence a property of individuals? Or is it a property of properties? What do you think?

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
This entry was posted in Monthly Conundrums, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to What is Existence?

  1. Kris says:

    What is for me, in short, the theory which describes reality and consequently, the property of ‘existence’?
    I want to put forward a theory, developped by John Searle, a wel-known pragmatist, not a bystander of semantical externalism (which makes him I guess an ‘internalist’, nevertheless he disagrees substantially with such philosophies) and known for his ‘biological naturalism’: explaining the very notion of consciousness.

    Starting of with a sort of dualism between ‘the mind’ and ‘the world’, he uses two other notions, namely: ‘direction of fit’ and ‘direction of causation’.
    With these four concepts then, he builds up the idea of intentionality, that, he says, regulates the very fact of ‘being’ itself.

    Intentionality is a somewhat vague term that tries to capture ‘aboutness’, mostly of what’s being said, but can also be generalised to thoughts, desires, even objects.

    How can one imagine objects have intentionality? Well, for instance, take a star (in space). What’s the intentionality of a star (what’s intentionalistic about a star)? Well, you can say (or think or desire): “About that star: it shines light!”

    Ok, but how does this work then for (non-reducable) existentials (or ontological predicates)?

    One commits to firstly a system of perception:
    One perceives an existing object, this is done by an emerging mind. One says that the fact by itself is caused by the world (in which the object lives). The direction of fit of this phenomenon is ‘Mind to World’ and is admittingly intuïtively harder to understand. It is like some sorting machine that distinguishes out primitive inputs from the senses and imposes an ‘explanation’ of what we perceive. An evolutionary (darwinian) theory can than account for this mechanism.

    Although this might sound as if cartesian dualism has returned, the whole of this mechanism must be embedded in a second system, a system of ‘intentional action’.

    It is here that the notion of intentionality comes into play. The idea applies to all sort of actions (like ‘saying’, ‘thinking’, ‘desiring’,…not ‘being’ of course). Important is that this referring notion has also a direction of fit, namely the ‘World to Mind’ direction of fit. (the world imposes certain conditions onto the mind). But BECAUSE the mind imposes these actions to the world, the direction of causation is the ‘Mind to World’ direction of causation.

    This whole system finds its roots in a strict analytical tradition of Russell , Frege and the theory of ‘Speech acts’ (see Austin and Searle).
    (Sorry for this lenghty exposition, a reduced abstract, I’ve put on your Facebook-page)

    • Marianne says:

      This is a very long post and I rarely have the time to answer long posts I am afraid. I am familiar with John Searle’s views, he is an excellent philosopher. Yes, indeed he does diagree with many other philosophers – but if philosophers can’t cope with disagreement they should be ashamed.

      Intentionality is NOT a vague term. It mean ‘aboutness’ (as you imply), and is the property characteristic of the mental (at least according to Brentano). All properly mental states have content, they are about something. Stars do not have intentionality, but the thoughts we think about them do.

      I am sorry I cannot devote to the theory the time that it needs. I will try to get back to it later.


  2. Safwan says:

    Eastern philosophy approaches the question of Existence by setting a criterion: Existence of an object is detectable by the five sense organs (and their extensions of tools and instruments). Phenomena, which are not detectable in the physical domain, such as imaginary animals, abstract mathematical concepts, and also dreams – dwell in a realm of vibrant void, which nature is neither existence nor nonexistence (but exhibiting both; dreams are experienced in reality, they exist, but their content does not exist in reality, so they both exist and do not exist, or rather they neither exist as physical items, nor do not exist (as we do experience them).

    The realm of Vibrant Void is a charged field of potentials, possible or impossible worlds, abstract entities, dreams and subconsciousness. Only potentials that match the spatiotemporal reality can sneak out the Void becoming the actual state of something existing.

    • Marianne says:

      But there are existing things that cannot be detected by the senses (love? justice? numbers?) The ‘vibrant void is an interesting concept. I will follow it up.

      • Safwan says:

        There is a difference between existence of physical objects and that of mental phenomena. Physical object occupies a space and is detectable by the senses (and instruments). Mental drives and abstract items neither exist as physical objects nor they do not exist in reality, because we do experience them (dreams) or use them as (mathematical items).
        This category of existence is not detectable by specific sense organs. It inhibits a vibrant field of potentialities and mental phenomena, such is the mind itself, a vibrant field beyond spatiotemporal restrictions – devoid of matter, and as such cannot be pinpointed as existing (as physical spatiotemporal items can be located), but cannot be described as non existing.

      • Marianne says:

        There are many existing things that are not detectable by the senses. but you are right, mental states are probably one of them (you sound absolutely definite, but I think we must leave some room for doubt – dualism is far from proven).

      • Safwan says:

        As you suggested, Marianne, there are two categories of existence: things that can be detected by the senses and others which cannot. But this view is not necessarily based on dualism (perhaps it I can be viewed as an introduction to Nonduality). While it is futile to deny that physical and mental are distinct (because they are), Dualism however stops at their separation, while Nonduality encompasses both inseparably.

        Western philosophy is heavily influenced by the “either-or” perspective, while Eastern philosophy allows for a category of “neither-nor”. Dreams are a good example for the category of neither existing nor non existing.

      • Marianne says:

        Hi Safwan,

        even if it is TRUE that the physical and the mental are distinct (and it is far from proven), it is hardly FOR THIS REASON futile to deny it. To make it futile to deny something, that something would have to be KNOWN, and as I keep saying we do NOT know that the mental and the physical are distinct – there are arguments for and arguments against.

        You deny the existence of dreams? Don’t you dream? Dreams obviously exist, in my opinion, though the objects we dream about often don’t.


  3. Safwan says:

    Adding to previous post about the Void, Quantum mechanics also postulates a field of Void – vibrant with elementary particles, which can emerge into the physical reality, and then become absorbed back into the Void – which nature cannot be detected by the five senses and equipments to do so.

  4. ghaziphil says:

    ah! had missed your discussion, finally something that makes me happy. Sorry, have not been able to follow you on Facebook, I have taken down all sorts of social networking. Anyway, so existence.

    Existence, certainly isn’t a property or a property of a property, where people make this question more perplexing is, when it comes to distinguish between attribute and reality. For example, cupness is an essence of cups which not necessarily implies the existence of a particular cup and is an attribute. Attribute CAN exist without the existence of the being/object but every EXISTENT object/being must have some attribute. But can EXISTENCE (if you are calling it a property) exist without the presence of any of the being/object ?? Answer is NO, hence Existence isn’t a property but a degree of reality and in some cases “a perfection”.


    • ghaziphil says:

      my point is, if ‘existence’ is a property, it must be capable of existing without the presence of being but existence itself is synonymous with the real presence and is incomplete if something isn’t there for real, for existence to exist independently without the presence of such notion, there seems no possible way, maybe you can ask, “how about if I say dragons exist” and in reality there’s no existence of such being then in those contexts or maybe there is and yet again it all converges to the same point, reality or delusion rather essence or existence!

    • Marianne says:

      Why have you stopped social networking? Because o the time it takes? I understand that. I refuse to spend too much time on it. I am surprised that you deny so quickly and definitely that existence is a property of properties. There is disagreement about whether types, as well as individuals, exist. Every individual that exists must surely have MORE than one property? You argue that existence cannot exist without an object, and therefore it isn’t a property. But surely no property can exist without an individual in which to inhere?

      • ghaziphil says:

        the reason of quitting social networking was my dislike for a virtual reality wherein emotions are involved. And my idea of finding ideas is solely based on counter arguments. Answering to your last question, no property (attribute) can exist without an individual to inherent, indeed attributes can, example, Stacey is ‘beautiful’ but for just ‘beautiful’ to exist, Stacey or any being isn’t needed or is it? Hence, it is one of the properties of a property to exist ‘independently’ whereas whenever we talk about ‘existence’, in any of the contexts, it can’t exist independently and thus it is not a property.

      • Marianne says:

        Well, Plato would agree with you. But Aristotle would disagree. The idea that properties exist without individuals in which to inhere is Realism, the alternative is nominalism.

      • ghaziphil says:

        inhere* not inherent .

      • ghaziphil says:

        I would’ve convinced Aristotle by the following argument:

        ‘Existence’ can be of two types, intrinsic and extrinsic, extrinsic existence are the ones wherein matter exists for real and hence we can say something exists, example- Stacey lives 4 blocks next to my house. Intrinsic existence are the ones which acquires mental dimensions like ’emotions, dreams, desires, feelings’ and all sorts of mental phenomenon.

        Philosophy of ‘properties’ say that these are the things which define the identity of intrinsic and extrinsic existence. Hence, existence itself can’t be a property rather it is a ‘presence’ in one of the two aforementioned states.

        if you aren’t convinced yet, I would try to come up with a logical proof using a bit of mathematics. ( I wish I could upload picture of the proof)


  5. Tracey Tang says:

    I praise your beautiful precise. Yet,

    Has Hannah Arendt said, to give the Brits “even the slightest inkling of what philosophy is all about” is a yet unworked wonder. The real start to this problem would be to challenge the principle of identity, and so the tradition of Greek logic. Searle, the wretch into observation of what is now done, never reached the starting point, whereas Derrida got stuck at the first step. But Husserl (and others) already went far into thinking through this matter more than a hundred years ago, and, a fortiori, his student Heidegger and so too Leo Strauss.

  6. Karel Konečný says:

    Good morning,
    my answer to this question is this:
    I think that existence is a property of individuals. I know from the study of history that the question of the names of individuals in the Middle Ages was solved by the science of realists and nominalists. In Bohemia, the dispute took place at Charles University.
    One way out of the problem you are mentioning is that non-existent things exist. This, in my opinion, brings us to the concept of transcendence, because it is beyond my comprehension. I remember talking about transcendence between Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson.
    I know your statement on Russell’s theory from your explanation.

    Best regards
    Karel Konečný (Czech Republic, Tábor)

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Karel, I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply, I have been on annual leave. Many philosophers would disagree with your claim that existence of a property of individuals. You might be interested in this piece from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existence/ You are not alone, though, in thinking that it might be the case that non-existing things exist. Meinong would have agreed (though of course he had to allow that there are different sorts of existence). Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson met did they? Is there a podcast of that?

      • Karel says:

        Hi Marianne, I’m sorry to answer in a long time. I forgot to look at your reaction. I looked at your lessons because I enjoy it and it helps my English.
        Video with Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvbtKAYdcZY
        I perceive that the existence of things that do not exist for us, it can direct our thoughts to religion. I think religion is the work of a man who tries to explain things we do not understand. I think it’s misleading because I can’t understand it. I’ve dealt with a bit of theology, and I understand its interpretations of the Bible.
        I do not yet know what I would say to the original question about the properties of individuals. I also realize that I may not understand it well.
        I read, in part, your link to the Stanford Encyclopedia.
        Best wishes

      • Marianne says:

        I am glad you have enjoyed the lessons. I am not sure what you mean by ‘the existence of things that do not exist for us’….it seems to contradict itself. What is misleading (and the fact you can’t understand something doesn’t mean it is misleading!)

  7. I’m utterly surprised by the notion that “Existence is a property of individuals” (Stanford Encyclopedia.) Perhaps it is because English is not my first language – that I am missing something here?
    I have 2 observations :

    1/ Because “Individuals” do exist – then the sentence: “Existence is a property of Individuals” becomes: “Existence is a property of Individuals who exist”. Any circularity here?

    One of the arguments against the Cogito is that its first part of “I think” requires that “I exist” – in the first place. And – “I think (because I exist), therefore I exist” – sounds clumsy.

    2/ Existence is not just about individuals. The Sun exists, rain and trees exist.
    So, how this “individual-oriented perception” in philosophical observations – became dominant?

    I wish to understand more!

    Best regards

    • Marianne says:

      Er….yes, the sentence is circular, as is ‘redness is a property of individuals who are red’.

      I don’t think that is a ver good argument against the cogito. It has often been said (initially by one of Descartes’ contemporaries), that he should have derived his conclusion from ‘there is thinking’ rather than ‘I think’. But If you read Chapter 4 of Bernard William’s book ‘Descartes: The Pure Enquiry’, this will tell you why it isn’t an advance (basically because he must ‘locate’ the thinking somewhere and the ‘I’ does that trick.

      You were the one who mentioned individuals. Actually universals exist too (arguably). So do numbers, moments of time etc.!

      We all wish to understand more. I wish you the best in your journey!


  8. Karel Konečný says:

    Thank you Marianne for your September 21 explanation. Yes, I understand that. I only respond now because I have more interests like entomology, genealogy, history, and making films from nature. I study your lectures and I am happy when I understand. 🙂

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