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Existence as a Property

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This paper is a defense of the view that existence is a property. Since the view is still a minority one, a fair amount of space is allotted to defending it against objections and counter-arguments. Positive arguments aren’t lacking, however, and emerge in the course of the discussion. Not all of the many positive or negative arguments which follow are wholly original—a fact to be expected in this context—but a fair number are, and both sorts of argument are seamlessly interwoven in the warp and woof of what follows.

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  1. As the above might suggest, I won’t be offering a substantial definition or characterization of what a property (real predicate) is. Instead, I will be relying on an intuitive understanding of the notion. I do so for several reasons; the most important of which is that I don’t think that anything very helpful or useful, anything very enlightening, can be said about what a property is. Dating back to Aristotle, much of the literature on the topic relies on contrasting property with substance and invokes notions less intuitively clear than both, such as instantiation, exemplification, and predicable, to explain both. Second, I don’t think that of a philosophical explication of property is needed in this context. The question whether existence is a property is clear enough as it stands. If it weren’t, it probably wouldn’t be raised in the first place. Third, as will become evident below, arguing dialectically, taking what Kant and others say about property seriously, is itself sufficient in many cases to show that no very good argument has been made for existence not being a property.

  2. In what follows I’ll be exclusively concerned with existence as a property of individual objects, whether as specifically named or uniquely described, such as the Eiffel Tower or the tallest man in Prague, or as falling under a general term, such as ‘lion.’ The view sometimes associated with Wittgenstein, that existence is primarily a property of facts or states of affairs, and only secondarily a property of individuals, won’t be considered. Ontological priority, at least in my view and that of many others philosophers (such as Aristotle), belongs to the objects that figure in facts and states of affairs, not the facts and the states of affairs themselves. Thus, whether existence is a property is primarily a question about individual objects, not facts or states of affairs.

  3. Kant Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (Macmillan Publishing, London: 1929), pp. 502–506; 505. (Kant 1929)

  4. Ibid., p. 506

  5. Ibid.

  6. See Peter Geach, Reference and Generality (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY: 1962), section 18. (Geach 1962)

  7. The argument here is similar to one advanced by C.J.F. Williams in his excellent What is Existence? (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1981), p. 25 (Williams 1981). Williams’ book is the most thorough treatment of existence that I know of. Its conclusions, however, are very much at variance with my own.

  8. The tame tigers, growling and otherwise, were introduced to philosophy in G.E. Moore’s “Is Existence a Predicate?”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume XV, 1936 (Moore 1936). However, as the next few paragraphs make clear, I take the argument in a very different direction from Moore.

  9. “A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity,” Quine writes in the first sentence of his well-known “On What There Is” (Quine 1999; reprinted in Steven D. Hales, ed., Metaphysics [Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont CA: 1999], p. 206). “It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?' It can be answered, moreover, in a word—'Everything'—and everyone will accept this answer as true." Actually, in the canonical notation Quine himself favors, the answer is as follows: “For any thing1, for at least one thing2 [Quine would prefer “there is at least one thing2”], thing1 is identical with thing2.” This is an answer that hardly anyone except a philosopher deeply committed to first-order logic thinks is even relevant to the question “What exists?” In ordinary English, it says that everything is identical with something. That is about as close as canonical notation can come to saying that everything exists.

  10. This is Russell’s view, in his “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” reprinted in R.C Marsh, ed., Logic and Knowledge (George Allen and Unwin, London: 1956), pp. 232–233 (Russell 1956).

  11. This is Frege’s view, in his The Foundations of Arithmetic, translated by J. L. Austin (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1953), p. 65 (Frege 1953); and also “Concept and Object,” in Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, eds., Peter Geach and Max Black (Basil Blackwell Publishers, Oxford: 1952),pp. 48ff (Frege 1952).

  12. In order to be clear, comprehensible, self-contained, and of general philosophical interest, references to the vast literature on the ontological argument and existence have been minimized in this paper. By way of a bibliography I should add that, in addition to the texts mentioned in previous footnotes, good but relatively brief discussions of the ontological argument can be found in William Rowe, Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed. (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA: 2001),pp. 29–43 (Rowe 2001); William Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA: 1999),pp. 35–42 (Wainwright 1999); and Peter van Inwagen, “Necessary Being: The Ontological Argument,” in Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds., Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA: 1999),pp. 69–82 (van Inwagen 1999). Somewhat longer and more detailed discussions of value and interest include Michael Palmer, The Question of God (Routledge, London: 2001),pp. 1–30 (Palmer 2001); Jonathan Harrison, God, Freedom and Immortality (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, England: 1999),pp. 107–140 (Harrison 1999); Jonathan Barnes, The Ontological Argument (St. Martin’s Press, NY: 1972) (Barnes 1972); Stephen T. Davies, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Edinburgh University Press, Ediburgh: 1997),pp. 15–46 (Davies 1997); Katherin A Rodgers, The Neoplatonic Metaphysical Epistemology of Anselm of Canterbury (Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY: 1997),pp. 234–255 (Rodgers 1997); Brian Leftow, “The Ontological Argument,” in William Wainwright, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, Oxford),pp. 80–115 (Leftow 2004). Far and away, the most comprehensive study of the ontological argument, however, is Graham Oppy’s Ontological Arguments and Belief in God (Cambridge University Press, New York: 1995) (Oppy 1995). Oppy’s book is both an historical and a systematic study of a variety of ontological arguments, and it contains a very substantial bibliography, as well as a detailed review of the literature. All of the literature just cited concerns the ontological argument in general and not the “existence isn’t a property” objection in particular. For discussions of the nature of existence, C.J.F. Williams’ book is the best place to begin. Most of the important issues are discussed in it, and its bibliography, though somewhat dated, is a good entry point into the sprawling and voluminous literature on the topic. Much of that literature is technical and deeply enmeshed in logical theory. A well-argued and stimulating exception is Colin McGinn’s “Existence,” in his Logical Properties (Oxford University Press, (Oxford: 2000),pp. 15–51 (McGinn 2000).


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Wreen, M. Existence as a Property. Acta Anal 32, 297–312 (2017).

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