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Philosophy of Existence

Updated on April 18, 2012
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Nikki Alberta has a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Alberta. She is a freelance article writer, novelist and blogger.


Philosophy: Exploring Existence


Ontological theories have to take into account which objects they are going to accept in their theories. Large ontologies are willing to accept a larger quantity of objects, which smaller, more restricted, theories refuse. The reluctance to accept more objects into a theory partially stems to what ‘existence’ is defined as and refers to. As many theories are influenced by physicalism the assumption is ‘to exist’ is to be ‘concrete’. If a theory wishes to postulate the existence of abstract entities it is confronted with questions about how these entities exist and further how we can know they exist.

If concreteness is synonymous with existence, then it is impossible to image how abstract objects exist. Visualize for example a Platonic heaven, with Forms floating around in some unimaginable non-physical way. They cannot float at all, because they do not occupy space and they have no shape for us to picture. To make existence claims about abstract objects is usually founded on their usefulness in a theory. If they are necessary to a theory, then they exist. Then, however, a theory might suggest some abstract objects exist while others do not.

Naturalism essentially only recognizes those objects required by natural sciences. If naturalism is combined with physicalism then all that exists are concrete spatiotemporal objects; physical entities governed by the laws of physics. However, mathematical objects and properties, which are abstract, are necessary for scientific theories and laws. Because of the inherent difficulties involved in stretching the notion of existence to fit abstract entities, most theorists would rather do without, or somehow demonstrate how they fit into the naturalistic worldview.

D.M Armstrong in A world of States of Affairs postulates the existence of universals and states of affairs, but claims that specific universals fit within the naturalistic and physicality framework. Therefore abstract entities such as ‘possible worlds’, ‘universals’ and ‘classes’ can either be ‘dispensed with or, as is preferable in general, that an account can be given of them within the spacetime system, with that system taken to be a system of states of affairs.’ (P.8 Armstrong). He does not postulate uninstantiated universals, because these entities not tied to particulars would have no logical way of existing in his framework. He states ‘if universals are ways things are, or the way things stand to each other, then it seems implausible to assert there are entities, the ways, with no thing to be that way or no things to stand that way to each other.’ (P 38, Armstrong). His universals are not transcendent, but are constituents in his state of affairs or factualist system. Universals exist in their instances.

Furthermore other abstract entities such as numbers are not claimed to exist transcendently. Armstrong states for a ‘mathematical entity to ‘exist’, according to this view, is for it to be a possible property or relation (not necessarily a universal), one that could be instantiated.’ (P 40, Armstrong). Some mathematical entities are actually instantiated in the physical world, or in any other particulars that really exist. Armstrong does not diverge anymore than he has to from the notion that exists is related to concreteness, or at least his abstract entities must be instantiated in the concrete world and in spacetime.

Alternatively, on the other end of the spectrum, there are theories that include abstract objects more freely. One example that expresses a distinction between abstract and concrete objects in terms of their existence is by Bernard Linsky and Edward Zalta, discussed in their paper ‘Naturalized Platonism versus Platonized Naturalism’. The distinction they offer is between exemplification and encoding. Under Zalta’s theory of fictions, a fiction encodes a property and are real but do not exist, whereas an object needs to exemplify properties to exist. Therefore there is a distinction between real and exists. We can say that abstract objects are real, non-spatiotemporal and encode certain properties but they do not exist. We can say that objects exist and that they are concrete and spatiotemporally located. With Zalta we are still in accordance with naturalism, since what exists is concrete and spatiotemporally located.

Together in this paper they add a platonic element to this theory by reading ‘there is’ as ‘exists’. Therefore abstract entities exist, are non-spatiotemporal and encode properties. In this theory concreteness is the distinguishing property that some objects have. Existence, as not a defining feature, becomes a somewhat empty term, since it refers to everything. This can be seen in a great many theories that include abstract objects, since existence as a property adds nothing to the object nor distinguishes it from any other object. Abstract objects cannot be viewed as physical ones because they cannot be in spacetime and they fail to exemplify certain ordinary properties, such as ‘have a shape’, ‘have a color’, ‘have a texture’. Because of the comprehension principles that give a plentitude of objects we can state ‘that not matter what properties one brings to mine to conceive of a thing, there is something that encodes just those properties involved in that conception (P 537, Linsky&Zalta). If exists is an all encompassing term, then what is it that concrete and abstract objects share that we can claim they all exist?

We could in fact make use of Kant here, when it comes to the all-encompassing view of existence. We could state there are abstract objects and concrete objects, both of which are real and different in kind. To latch on the notion of existence adds nothing to the nature of either. We can state that a chair has the properties of being made of wood or being brown and to add that it also exists adds no new property and no nothing to the definition. Likewise to state the number two has the property of being after the number one and before the number three in a sequence and then further adding that it exists also does not add anything to the definition. Concreteness can be seen as a defining property that some objects have necessarily or contingently, but abstract objects cannot have. Perhaps that is a safer stand than saying that abstract objects somehow exist separately from how concrete objects exist.

In conclusion how we understand the term exists is dependant on what sort of objects we will allow in our ontology. First we can view existence as a predicate or a property that concrete objects have and abstract entities do not. The case for this framework becomes complication if one wishes to claim some abstract objects exist while others do not and why some exist and others do not. Armstrong does this by incorporating some abstract entities into his theory; entities such as universals must be instantiated for they exist in their instances and not otherwise. Or we could use the term exists in a all encompassing way that includes a plentitude of abstract and concrete objects, that while different in kind both are real and exist. Leaving there to be nothing unique in the term of existence at all. It is because concreteness is often associated with existence that any claim that abstract objects exist nowhen and nowhere seems absurd. If we make the distinction that objects are different in kind, and concrete objects exemplify properties while abstract objects encode properties we are eliminating the confusion over the term exists and instead illustrating a difference in kind.


Armstrong, D.M A World of States of Affairs (NY, NY, 1977)

Linsky, Bernard & Zalta, Edward “Naturalized Platonism versus Platonized Naturalism” (The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.: ed. 0022-362X, 1995)


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