by Varun S Bhatta.

1. Introduction

We have an intuitive grasp of what is there and what is not there around us. The trees and the building are present not only for me but for others too. The same is true of the Taj Mahal, which I cannot see from my current position. And, if I do not see an elephant or sense it through other means, it does not exist in the room. Even though this common-sense grasp of what exists and what doesn’t is naïve and ambiguous (as I will demonstrate below) we can still understand its relevance for our understanding of reality: something that is not real cannot exist, and that which exists has to be real.

It is easy to see the lack of clarity regarding our grasp of ‘existence’ when we ask the most general question – “what all exists in this world?” The answer to this question should list all the components of our world that are there. For example, if the scope of the question is narrowed down to my bag, then I should make an inventory list consisting of all things that are present in the bag. But, as I will show in the discussion below, there are various hurdles in providing a univocal answer to the general question asked above. There seem to be various ways to answer it, each having its own merits and absurdities. The difficulty arises because it is not certain whether the above question can be restricted only to material things. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, at present, is not around us, but was there some years back; so, if he does not exist, whom are we talking about when we talk about “Gandhi”? And, we seem to take it for granted that the seven-headed snake and unicorn do not exist because we do not see them as we see tables and cups. But if we agree to this, then can we, by the same logic, confidently say that numbers also do not exist?

In spite of these difficulties in answering this general question, the exploration of these topics is important as it not only defines what a metaphysical enquiry is but also sets the possibility and limit for doing metaphysics.

2. Importance of ontological assertions

One of the important activities of metaphysics is to provide an inventory list of kinds of things that are present in the world. This is what’s expected when the general question “what all exists?” is asked. This is similar to the question asked by various sciences. For example, when biology asks this question, it intends to list all the different kinds of species that are there in this world; when a chemist ask the question, he intends to find all the elements and compounds that are possible; a physicist wants to know the set of fundamental constituents that make up the physical world. Similarly, a metaphysician aims at classifying all things. But she intends to do the most general classification possible. This list of kinds of things is referred to as an ontology. As I hinted at the beginning, because of certain difficulties, it is not straightforward to provide a single ontology that is approved by all metaphysicians unanimously. As a result, there is no ontological assertion – assertion that certain kinds of entities exist – which is not criticized.

In order to illustrate the complexity regarding ontological assertions, let us examine the ontological assertions about a room consisting of a blue coloured ball (name it “B”) and a red coloured ball (call it “R”). Limiting our discussion to this room, and not extending the scope of our investigation to the actual world, simplifies our discussion. So, let us consider various answers to the question – what all exists in the room? We can start with the simplest assertion that there are two things in the room – R and B. This assertion seems straight-forward and satisfies what is commonly considered correct about the room. But, there are metaphysicians who think these two balls are not the only concrete occupants of the room. According to them, apart from these two things, the left and the right halves of B, and the top and bottom halves of R also exist in the room. In other words, the parts that compose these things also exist exclusively and independently, apart from the wholes they form. Proponents of this view would go on to argue that there is also another object that is constituted by the top half of R and left half of B.[i] So, according to these metaphysicians, there are many material things, and not just two, that exist in this room. If this is one stance, there is another group of metaphysicians who claim that R and B actually do not exist; instead, only the parts that compose R and B exist.[ii]

The above discussion highlights one set of differences in ontological assertions that can arise. This disagreement arises specifically due to different views about what material objects are. Even if the contention regarding concrete entities is overlooked, for the time being, there are other problems with the assertion “there are two balls in the room”. For example, does the number two also exist apart from the balls? Unlike concrete entities like rocks and trees, the existence of abstract entities, like numbers, properties, universals, etc., are not directly evident. The presence of two balls does not directly imply the presence of number two. Some metaphysicians argue that these numbers and universals are just linguistic artefacts: words like ‘two’ do not refer to anything in the real world. Similar to this, universals like ‘chairs’, ‘balls’ do not refer to anything concrete.[iii] I can refer to each of the balls present in the room by ‘B’ and ‘R’, and “balls” might just refer to the collection of these two, there is nothing like a platonic universal called balls that the word ‘balls’ corresponds to. Like abstract entities, similar difficulties arise for other kinds of entities like fictional entities and mental entities. Mental entities may refer to concepts, perceptual contents, etc. Fictional entities are things created through works of fiction.

From the above discussion, first, it must be evident that the answer the metaphysician is looking for when asking the question “what all exists?” is very different from a biologist. The question asked does not limit itself to a particular discipline, but has a very general scope intending to capture all kinds of entities. The entities being investigated are not the ones that can be validated empirically and straight-forwardly. But these disputes are not entirely about the abstract nature of entities. Even concrete entities are variedly interpreted (e.g., the various possibilities of understanding the balls in the room – as just balls, balls and their parts, and no balls and only parts). This brings forth the second characteristic of these disputes: it seems difficult to settle the dispute between these metaphysicians about what exists as the way they are interpreting what is given to them (two balls in the room) is different. It is not that these metaphysicians literally see only parts or balls and parts at the same time. This back and forth might negatively suggest that there is no way to settle the dispute.

These conflicting claims about ontological assertions result in different opinions about the metaphysical enquiry. For certain metaphysicians, the difficulty in resolving these disputes expresses the futility of ontological enquiries. According to them, the very enterprise of metaphysics to prescribe the general ontology is misguided. These disputes exhibit the impossibility of making ontological assertions. Contrasting to this extreme stance, there are other metaphysicians who are positive about the metaphysical enquiry. According to them, ontological disputes can be resolved and it is possible to show why and how these different ontological assertions vary in their claim (Hofweber 2009). Therefore, interpretation of ontological assertions is of central importance for metaphysics as the orientation towards it decides the possibility and the limit of metaphysics.

3. Nature of ‘existence’

The intention of the previous section was to introduce the scope and the context of the general enquiry regarding the existence and certain possible answers to it. Having done that, now it is time to delve into the nature of ‘existence’. Even though it may seem intuitive to answer the question “what exists in the room?” with “the ball exists”, we are not exactly sure what this assertion says about the ball’s existence. The assertion of the ball’s existence conveys its presence in the room, but it does not throw any light on the nature of existence. By itself, this assertion might not be illuminating; but let us try to compare and contrast this positive assertion (an assertion that something exists) with a negative one (that something does not exist). If for the purpose of illustration, we assume that abstract, imaginary things like Sherlock Holmes does not exist, then the following negative assertion holds good – “Holmes does not exist”. Holmes does not have existence; whereas the ball has existence. So, to begin with, we have these existential assertions and it is these claims that need to be interpreted.

3.1 Existence as a property

Some things having an existence and others lacking it seems to be a good initial clutch to hold onto in this analysis. Existential assertions are not the only assertions that come in positive and negative shades; this is true even with assertions about things’ characteristics. For example, only a few objects possess blueness; some other things are spherical, etc. This comparison of existential assertions with other assertions shows the possibility of considering existence as a property (like blueness). Several philosophers, the prominent proponent among them being Alexius Meinong, have proposed this interpretation (Nelson 2012). Analysis of ontological assertions and how we commonly talk about things around us support this interpretation of existence as a property. The assertion “the ball exists” can be understood as conveying that the object ball possesses the property of existence. Similarly, in the case of negative assertions, like “Holmes does not exist”, Holmes possesses the property of nonexistence.

According to this stance on existence, there are things; and each of these things possess, among a set of other properties, either the property of existence or nonexistence. The positive case (“the ball exists”) does not clearly depict what this stance implicates. To understand its subtlety, consider the negative assertion. The structure of the assertion that Holmes possesses the property of nonexistence depicts that there is a thing (i.e. Mr. Sherlock Holmes) and it possesses the property of nonexistence. Now, irrespective of ‘nonexistence’ or ‘blueness’, a thing has to be present for it to possess some property. Therefore, according to this stance, all things have being; it is just that some of them happen to be existing and others nonexisting. Meinong and other philosophers, who propose this view, differentiate a thing’s being and its existence to tackle the philosophical difficulties with existence. But, what should be evident about this stance is the following: all things, by default, have a being (Marek 2013).

This unrestricted license for everything to have a being leads to certain absurdities: even golden mountains and round squares have being; it just so happens that some of these things do not exist. This stance faces the difficulty of characterizing and differentiating things that do not exist. For example, consider the fact that Sherlock Holmes is depicted differently across various stories; although all of these different versions co-exist, this stance does not help in settling whether all of these are the same Holmes or different ones. Also, this stance does not comply with certain standard principles of logic like the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of excluded middle (Nelson 2012).

3.2 Existence as a second-order property

The opponents of this view, like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, do not accept the very foundational principle of this stance – that all things have a being, irrespective of their possession of existence or nonexistence property. According to them, it is absurd to talk about the possession of properties by a thing that does not exist. So, Russell rejects Meinong’s interpretation and reinterprets the structure of existential assertions.

At this point, I have to elaborate and distinguish a few things in order to clarify the general nature of the question regarding the existence and what Russell’s stance specifically criticizes. First, I want to briefly introduce a particular method of writing existential assertions. This method attempts to break up the usual existential assertions using logical operators. The advantage is that this way of depiction provides clarity and makes the assertions terse.

According to this method,

a statement like “the ball R is red in colour” can be paraphrased as the following – “there is at least one thing such that it is a ball and it possesses the property of redness”.

Using the standard logical operators, this sentence can be represented as

– ?x(x is a ball ? x is red)[iv].

In this way of depicting the existential claims, the phrase “there is at least one thing x such that…” can also be paraphrased, more elaborately, as “there exists at least one thing x such that…” Since this phrase makes an existential claim (about the variable x), it is called “existential quantifier” (Inwagen 1998).

Second, I want to draw a distinction between general existential assertion and singular (or individual) assertions. Singular assertions are claims about specific individuals. Compared to this, general assertions are propositions which might be about a specific individual (like Holmes) or about a particular kind of things (like humans, unicorns), but are articulated without direct reference to a specific individual.

For example, if “Holmes is a detective” is a singular assertion, the generalized version of this might be “A human who is a detective”.  In simple terms, generalized assertions do not have specific markers or labels like names that pick a specific individual.[v]

With these details, it is now easier to state the difference between Meinong and Russell’s positions. Recollect how the claim that existence as a property was made: Meinong wanted to provide philosophical grounding for the sentences that are commonly used when we are talking about the existential status of things. Sentences like “Tendulkar exists”; “Holmes does not exist” were interpreted as having subject-predicate structure. Therefore, existential assertions were considered to be of a singular type such that specific things possess existence or nonexistence properties. Russell’s critic about this stance is that existential assertions should not be evaluated as having the subject-predicate structure. According to Russell, it is this analysis that makes Meinong claim that Holmes possesses the property of nonexistence.

Instead, Russell argues that the existential assertions like “Tendulkar exists”, unlike the simple subject-predicate structure, has the following structure

– ?x(x is a human ? x is a cricketer from Maharashtra ? …).[vi]

Here, “x is a cricketer from Maharashtra ? …” is a phrase that contains enough specificity to pick Tendulkar. Now, let us consider a negative existential assertion, for example, “Holmes does not exist”, and see how Russell responds to that. As already discussed, Meinong claimed the following – Holmes possesses nonexistence property.

But, for Russell, this kind of negative assertions have the following structure –

¬?x(x is a human ? x is a detective staying at Baker Street).[vii]

In this reinterpretation, the nonexistence is not associated with the specific individual (Holmes); instead, the existence of a human having specific properties (of being detective, living in a specific location, etc.) is denied.

Both Meinong and Russell, therefore, provide two different ways of understanding the usual existential assertions. For Meinong, existence and nonexistence are a first-order property that a specific individual possesses. For Russell, existence is a second-order property that is not possessed by the individual; but instead, it is the positive or negative assertion of certain kind of individual. Here, we have to observe the intention of Russell – he wanted to avoid the interpretation of negative existential assertions as nonexistence property being possessed by an object. Since he claims that existence is something prior to an object to possess properties, he interprets negative assertions as to the denial of the very existence of an object having specific properties (like being a cricketer, being a detective, etc.).

3.3 Is existence univocal?

Till now, I have introduced various possibilities of interpreting existential assertions. Finally, to end this discussion on existence, I want to mention an important topic of contention regarding existence: do different things exist differently or do all things, which exist, have a similar kind of existence? For example, do humans and other living things have a different kind of existence compared to tables and water? And, do quantum particles exist differently than photons? In other words, are there multiple senses and kinds of existence? Or does existence have a single meaning and sense that equally applies to all things? If existence has this single interpretation, then it is said to be univocal in its usage.

As might be expected, different philosophers have argued on either side of this question. Philosophers like Quine (1963) and van Inwagen (1998) propose that all objects exist in the same way. According to them, existence is like numbers. We do not claim that the numbers used to talk about different kinds of things are different. For example, it is strange to argue that the number two in “two tables” and “two humans” are of different kinds. Similarly, the existence in “the table exists” and “the person exists” has the same sense. Opposed to this stance, there are other philosophers who think that there are several kinds of existence, each of them having something in common with the others. One of the main proponents of this stance is Heidegger (McDaniel 2009). The standard example that is used by proponents of this position for making the analogy that there are multiple senses of existence or being is through the various usages of “is healthy”. The term has a different interpretation in the following usages – “the relationship between these two people is healthy” and “that person is healthy”. Therefore, according to Heidegger, the concrete entities have different kind of existence (called presence-at-hand­) compared to those who are living (called life); the abstract entities like numbers and universals have different kinds of existence (subsistence) as these things depend on concrete entities.


Hofweber, Thomas. 2009. “Ambitious, Yet Modest, Metaphysics.” In Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology, 260-289. Edited by David J Chalmers, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Quine, W. V. O. 1963. “On what there is.” In From a Logical Point of View, 1-19. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Marek, Johann. 2013. “Alexius Meinong.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on 19 May, 2015.

McDaniel, Kris. 2009. “Ways of Being.” In Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology, 290-319. Edited by David J Chalmers, David Manley and Ryan Wasserman. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nelson, Michael. 2012. “Existence.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on 19 May, 2015.

Van Inwagen, Peter. 1998. “Meta-Ontology.” Erkenntnis 48: 233-250.

[i]  This view of compositional material objects is usually labelled as “universalism” regarding composition.

[ii] This position is called “eliminativism” about compositional objects.

[iii] This metaphysical stance – to say that certain things are just artefacts of language and does not really exist - is called ‘nominalism’.

[iv]  Here, ‘?x’ stands for “there is at least one thing x such that…”, where ‘x’ is a variable and “?” stands for logical conjunction, i.e. “and”.

[v]   This comment should hint the reader about the philosophical relevance of names, which is discussed in philosophy of language.

[vi]   Maharashtra is a state in India to which Tendulkar belongs.

[vii]  Here, “¬?x” stands for “it’s not true that there is at least one thing x such that…”

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