Existence predicates


The standard view about existence is that existence is a univocal concept conveyed by the existential quantifier. A less common philosophical view is that existence is a first-order property distinguishing between ‘nonexistent’ and existing objects. An even less common philosophical view is that existence divides into different ‘modes of being’ for different kinds of entities. Natural languages, this paper argues, generally distinguishes among different existence predicates for different types of entities, such as English ‘exist’, ‘occur’, and ‘obtain’. The paper gives an in-depth discussion and analysis of existence predicates in English within the general project of descriptive metaphysics, or more specifically ‘natural language ontology’.

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  1. 1.

    The restriction to a particular language is also in accordance with the practice of descriptive metaphysics as such. Linguistic data and generalizations, even if just from a particular language, are considered a manifestation of the sorts of fundamental intuitions that descriptive metaphysics aims to make use of.

  2. 2.

    Fine (2017) call this ‘naive metaphysics’. However ‘descriptive metaphysics’ certainly is the better established term.

  3. 3.

    See also Bach (1986), who uses the term ‘natural language metaphysics’.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, Salmon (1987, 1998), Zalta (1983, 1988), Muyskens (1989) and Priest (2005).

  5. 5.

    See McDaniel (2009) for a recent discussion of the view of existence dividing into different modes of being.

  6. 6.

    See Turner (2010) and McDaniel (2010a, b, 2013).

  7. 7.

    For a recent defense of the Quinean view see van Inwagen (1998). The view of existence dividing into different modes of being had been held by Aristotle, Heidegger, Sartre, and Moore.

  8. 8.

    An older view about modes of being, involves a distinction between the being of material objects and the ‘existence’ of free agents (and perhaps the transcendence of god). This distinction is associated with Augustin, Sartre, as well as Jaspers.

  9. 9.

    More generally, it appears that what is fundamental can draw little elucidation from natural language. Natural language, for example, does not distinguish between natural and non-natural properties, but generally displays only predicates (and their corresponding nominalizations) expressing non-natural or abundant properties.

  10. 10.

    Meinongians have long argued that existential quantification, unlike predication with exist, is not existentially committing. Recent Meinongians include Parsons (1980), Priest (2005) and Zalta (1983, 1988), as well Salmon (1987, 1998) (for past and possible objects only).

  11. 11.

    Note that existential quantifiers and there is/are can be used to express existence, as below:

    (i) a. There aren’t any objects of thought.

        b. There aren’t any objects like tables and chairs.

  12. 12.

    There is a common view, held most notably by Frege, that exist is a special, second-order predicate, applying to concepts rather than individuals (and thus expressing instantiation or non-emptiness of extension). From the point of view of natural language this is not plausible, though. Exist does not require, like putative second-order predicates, predicative expressions. Rather it requires expressions in subject position that act as singular terms, as in (4a, b) and (5a,b), or that act as quantifiers binding individual variables, as in (4c). Further support for the status of the subject of exist as a singular term comes from its support of anaphora, which are not anaphora relating to predicates as antecedents (one, that), but anaphora relating to singular terms (he, she, it).

    There are also philosophers that have argued for exist not being a second-order predicate but a first-order predicate including Miller (1975, 1986, 2002), Salmon (1987, 1998), and McGinn (2000).

  13. 13.

    See Sainsbury (2005) as a representative of that view.

  14. 14.

    There is also a third, hybrid view, that of Salmon (1987, 1998), on which the subject term in true negative existentials sometimes stands for an object of which exist is false, namely an object that has existed only in the past or a merely possible object. If the subject of the negative existential is a fictional term, though, Salmon takes it to be empty, with negation then being external negation.

  15. 15.

    For the view that quasi-philosophical statements, statements that imply a certain amount of philosophical reflection, should not be taken into account for the ontology reflected in natural language see Moltmann (2017a).

  16. 16.

    Thus, the Russellian view does not as such take definite NPs to be singular terms, and names in negative existentials have been treated as empty names (see Fn 13). See also Azzouni (2010) for a non-Meinongian account of simple negative existentials.

  17. 17.

    See the discussion in Moltmann (2015), where the notion of an intentional predicate and the difference between intensional and intentional predicates are discussed in greater detail.

  18. 18.

    See McGinn (2000) for a philosophical defense of that view, and van Inwagen (2008) for a critical discussion.

  19. 19.

    It is remarkable that philosophers even if they have a reflective notion according to which existence is univocal are unable to use exist for events.

    Interestingly, the nominalization existence appears able to convey the unvocal concept of existence, as well as covering different modes of being at once, depending on the philosophical view of the language user. The nominalization thus conveys a notion of a speaker’s reflective metaphysics, but not the verb from which it is derived, which is restricted to notion of the metaphysics implicit in language. The structure of language thus appears to display different degrees of implicitness of the metaphysics adopted by speakers.

  20. 20.

    Exist is also not particularly good when applied to a person (with the time-related use), an observation I will set aside in the context of this paper:

    (i) ? John’s child still exists.

  21. 21.

    There are further restrictions on event-related existence predicates. Occur applies to incidents and processes, but not to activities. Take place imposes its own constraints on a prior planning of an action, see Section 8.

  22. 22.

    Interestingly (non-worldly) facts do not go with exist, but only with obtain and hold. For the notion of a non-worldly fact see Strawson (1950). Non-worldly facts differ from worldly facts in the sense of Austin (1979), namely fully specific facts that are part of the world and are rather event-like. See also Moltmann (2013a, b) for the notion of a nonworldly fact (and the notion of a nonworldly state).

  23. 23.

    The various existence predicates in English raise the question of how many different types of existence predicates there are in natural languages in general. This is a question highly worth a crosslinguistic study, but pursuing it goes far beyond the scope of this paper, which restricts itself to the way the notion of existence is reflected in English (and related languages).

  24. 24.

    Note that such predicates do not come out as ordinary predicates, which can apply only to presently existing entities. However, this restriction could easily be changed if so desired, allowing for a larger class of ordinary predicates.

  25. 25.

    See, for example, Sider (2001) and Hawley (2001) for discussion.

  26. 26.

    That said, it may not be excluded that the semantics the paper gives for existence predicates in English may, to an extent, be reformulated on the basis of somewhat different philosophical notions or views.

  27. 27.

    Unlike for material objects, the spatial location of events is notoriously difficult to specify. Neither the location of the event participants at the relevant time nor the parts of the participating objects affected by the change induced by the event guarantee an intuitively clear notion of the location of an event. There is in fact another view, defended by Hacker (1982b), on which events simply do not occupy space and thus cannot be extended in space. If events are attributed a spatial location, then that location, on that view, would be derivative upon the spatial location of the event participants. The view that events lack a spatial location may be particularly plausible if events are transitions among tropes, that is, particularized properties. While on a common view (following Williams 1953), tropes come with a spatio-temporal location—or rather with relations of spatio-temporal co-location, tropes in fact do not easily allow for the kinds of location modifiers that one would expect on that view. Thus be + spatial modifier is generally excluded with tropes:

    (i)  a. ?? The apple’s greenness was on the table.

         b. ?? The roundness of the ball was in the basket.

    Moreover, trope-referring terms disallow spatial adnominal modifiers (on the ‘normal’ interpretation of a spatial modifier):

    (ii)  a. * the apple’s roundness on the table.

           b. * John’s heaviness in the bed.

    This suggests that it is only the bearer of a trope, not the trope itself that has a spatial location. Tropes depend on a bearer; but unlike their bearer they could not be spatio-temporally located. A trope may ontologically depend on another trope of extendedness, as Husserl had argued (Simons 1994). But a trope of extendedness is not itself extended; it only instantiates extension.

  28. 28.

    See Casati/Varzi (2005) for discussion.

  29. 29.

    One might take time- or space-relative occur, happen, and take place to serve that function. But it is not plausible that occur, happen, and take place express extension: occur is an eventive predicate, not a stative predicate like be + location modifier, and thus it could not express the notion of extension.

    Note that occur, happen, and take place unproblematic with spatial or temporal modifiers (the walking took place in the garden, the incident happened in John’s office), but that is because the location modifier here may give the essential location of an event (of occurrence), unlike when the location modifier is the complement of be.

  30. 30.

    Quantified plurals are better with exist than (definite) singular NPs:

    (i)  a. Only ten old Victorian houses exist in this neighborhood.

         b. ??? This old Victorian house exists in this neighborhood.

    I will have to leave an explanation of this difference to future research.

  31. 31.

    In fact, in the relevant sentences with exist, the location adverbials have the function of complements, not adjuncts, of exist. They have the same status as in the house below, where in the house is a complement of was:

    (i)  John was in the house.

    Location modifiers that have the status of adjuncts, by contrast, simply act as predicates of the event argument of the verb, as is the case with occur as in (25c).

       Location modifiers as adjuncts are actually impossible with exist, and that is because location modifiers as adjuncts are impossible with stative verbs in general. This is a generalization known as the ‘Stative Adverb Gap’ (Katz 2003; Maienborn 2007; Moltmann 2013b).

  32. 32.

    For entities permitting space-relative existence, Fine gives the example of a composite aroma of coffee and vanilla whose presence at a location, he argues, requires the presence of both the aroma of vanilla and the aroma of coffee at that location. This example is problematic, though, since aromas do not go along very well with the existence predicate exist:

    (i)  ?? The aroma exists in that room.

    The reason why aromas do not go along with exist appears to be an ontological one. Aromas as particulars simply cannot be wholly present at different locations and thus cannot have a location-relative existence. Only aromas as kinds can, as in the examples below:

    (ii)  a. This kind of perfume does not exist in France anymore.

           b. This kind of aroma only exists in oriental countries.

    Ontologically, aromas as particulars arguably are tropes without a bearer, that is, mere spatio-temporally located features. Tropes in general do not go along very well with space-relative existence predicates:

    (iii) ?? The greenness of the plants exists everywhere in the garden.

    Sounds and physical fields for Fine are also entities able to engage in space-relative existence. I find examples with sounds even more problematic than aromas. Sounds as particulars accept neither location-relative nor time-relative existence predicates:

    (iv)  a. ?? The sound exists throughout the house.

           b. ?? The sound we heard five minutes ago still exists.

    Sounds as particulars could hardly be present at different spatial locations at once. That sounds do not allow for time-relative existence predicates is no surprise in view of Strawson’s (1959) point that sounds do not come with criteria for reidentification over time.

  33. 33.

    For the view of kinds acting as semantic values of bare plurals and mass nouns see Carlson (1977) and Chierchia (1998).

  34. 34.

    Of course, a speaker may only partially know the language, but parts of a language are entities strongly dependent on the whole of the structure of the language, and thus partial knowledge of a language may be viewed as an instantiation of at least the structural whole of the language.

  35. 35.

    Obtain also applies to facts (though time-relative and space-relative obtain does not apply to facts since the canonical description of facts about concrete entities (Sects. 4) includes a location specification):

    (i) The fact that S obtains.

  36. 36.

    For the notion of a (modal) product of an illocutionary act, a notion that derives from Twardowski, see Moltmann (2017b).

  37. 37.

    Exist is actually not that good with some of the modal products, for example permissions :

    (i) The permission to skip the meeting still obtains / ??? exists.

    This means that exist is subject to another restriction, though it is not obvious what that would be.

  38. 38.

    Not only obtain and exist are applicable to normative condition-like entities such as laws, but also is valid:

    (i) The law still obtains / exists / is valid in some countries.

    Is valid, as was mentioned in Section 3, can act as an existence predicate, but as such it is restricted to normative products established by declaration (laws, rules, offers etc.).

  39. 39.

    The way obtain differs from exist may be attributed to the particular notion of ‘presence’ it involves: exist requires presence in the sense of spatial or temporal locatedness, whereas obtain requires the more specific notion of presence in the sense of a property being true of an object relative to a location.

  40. 40.

    This gives a characterization of states as ‘Kimian’ states (Maienborn 2007) or ‘abstract’ states, as I prefer to call them (Moltmann 2013b), rather than ‘Davidsonian’ states (Maienborn 2007) or ‘concrete’ states, as I call them (Moltmann 2013b).

  41. 41.

    States are actually condition-like entities that may be of either kind: states based on empirical facts (about the time or spatial location, or the world), and states based on normative conditions or conditions resulting from ‘declarations’ (which may or may not be restricted to a time or a spatial location). The state of someone’s mind or health is a state of the first kind, as are habits; a state of war, a requirement and a law are condition-like entities of the second kind. The first kind of state holds in virtue of what is taking place at the relevant location; the second kind of state holds by declaration or whatever may ground normative conditions.

  42. 42.

    This is different for obtain: a fact can satisfy a vacuous relativization to a time just as it can satisfy a vacuous relativization to a space.

  43. 43.

    The close connection between instantiation and existence might make it tempting to consider an account of existence statements with singular terms according to which exist expresses instantiation, relating an individual concept to a material manifestation at a location. Of course, the individual concept would not be given by a predicative expression, but be associated with the use of a singular term in the particular context of an existence statements. I will not pursue this option further, though.

  44. 44.

    The nominalization existence, though, appears have a reference-related use, as in the existence of the event described in the book. Alternatively, existence here may just convey the reflective notion of existence, see Fn 12.

  45. 45.

    Note that a reference-related use is entirely unavailable for other existence predicates than exist.


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The paper has greatly benefitted from the audiences at presentations at New York University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, the University of Tübingen, and Yale University, as well as the Metaphysics Conference of the Marc Sanders Foundation at Columbia University in 2014. The material was also discussed in seminars at Padua University and the IHPST in Paris. I would like to thank especially John Burgess, Peter van Inwagen, Kit Fine, Claudia Maienborn, Achille Varzi, Jason Stanley, Zoltan Szabo, and several referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Friederike Moltmann.

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Moltmann, F. Existence predicates. Synthese 197, 311–335 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1847-z

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  • Existence
  • Intentional objects
  • Facts
  • Events
  • Natural language semantics
  • Persistence
  • Endurance