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Royal Institute of Philosophy Is Existence a Predicate? Author(s): Vera Peetz Source: Philosophy, Vol. 57,

Royal Institute of Philosophy

Is Existence a Predicate? Author(s): Vera Peetz Source: Philosophy, Vol. 57, No. 221 (Jul., 1982), pp. 395-401

Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy

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According to Kant, existence is not a real predicate, that is, 'a predicate which is added to the concept of a subject and enlarges it';1 and modern philosophical analysis would seem to support Kant's view. One argument to show that existence is not a predicate is the following. In order to

predicate something of X, it must be presupposed that X exists. So, if 'exists' is a predicate, then, for example, 'Tame tigers exist' will be tauto-

logous and 'No tame tigers exist' will be self-contradictory, but, since neither of these is the case, 'exists' cannot be a predicate. It has been suggested that there are cases where 'exists' does function as a predicate. Mr David Pears,2 for example, thinks that 'exists' is a predicate

when the subject (which is presupposed to exist at one time) is said to exist at another time (for example 'Euston Arch no longer exists') or when existence is presupposed in one world and asserted in another (for example, 'The house I dreamt about really exists'). Professor W. P. Alston3 also argues for different kinds of existence, existence in the real world, existence

in fiction, existence in imagination, and so on. Although it might be said that other modes of existence depend on real existence, I am inclined to think, although I do not want to argue for it here, that there is some point in distinguishing various modes of existence and, certainly, as Alston says, ordinary language does. Alston, like Pears, suggests that if X is pre- supposed to exist in one mode we can predicate of it existence in another mode. However, he argues that since we can predicate of X only what is appropriate to X's mode of existence (for example, I cannot say of the fictional Mr Pickwick that he really went to Bath), we cannot predicate of a subject which exists in one mode that it exists in another mode. Existence is, therefore, not a predicate and 'The legendary King Arthur really existed in the sixth century' is to be translated as a conjunction of two existential statements thus, 'King Arthur existed in legend and King Arthur really existed in the sixth century'. I do not think this translation is adequate, for it fails to establish a connection between the two King Arthurs. Also, Alston's argument would not rule out Pears' instances of

something being presupposed to exist at one time being said to exist at another time, for example, 'Euston Arch no longer exists'.

Pure Reason, Second Division, Transcendental Dialectic,

Ch. 3, Sect. 4-

Predicate?', in PhilosophicalLogic, P. F. Strawson (ed.)

(Oxford University Press, 1967).

1 The


2 'Is Existence a


'The OntologicalArgument

Revisited',Philosophical ReviewLXIX (i960).

Philosophy57 1982


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this problem for the moment, I want to look

If we

now at the dis-



tinctionswhich G. E. Moore4 drew between 'exists'and an

properpredicate such as 'growls'.

compare 'Tame tigersgrowl'

'Tame tigersexist', then, whereasall of the following A set

AI. All tame tigersgrowl

A2. Some tame tigersgrowl



Some tame tigers do not growl

No tame tigersgrowl

make perfectlygood sense, of the following B set

Bi. All tame tigers exist

Bz. Some tame


B4. No tame tigers exist



Some tame tigers do not exist


which certainly do not carry their meaning, if they

them'.5 (Moore does

give one for Bi, in termsof real

B2 and B4 have a clear sense; BI and


B3 'are puzzlingexpressions,



on the faceof

a meaning for B3, and one could similarly

peopleimagining,having hallucinationsof

involvea differentsense of

tame tigers, but such an interpretation will 'exists'.)

It might seemthenthatthereis a differencebetween'exists'and ordinary

predicates like 'growls'.However, considerthe followingexamples:


(D) Spots


Rainfell in

Nottinghamtoday coverhis face

Tame tigersgrowled in SherwoodForest

Of the following


Cz. Some rainfell in



All rainfell in



Some raindid not fall in

No rainfell in Nottinghamtoday


only Cz and C4 have a clear sense, and it is doubtfulwhethera

couldbe given to CI and C3. We get a similarresultforthe set DI-D4 and

the set

that we should notice is that the insertionof 'the' beforethe



One thing

these sets of examples. In sets B and

C, the insertion of 'the' before, respectively, 'tame tigers' and 'rain'

subject-term makesa differenceto all

implies a presupposition of the existence in one case of a particular group

4 'Is Existence a Predicate?',Proceedingsof the Aristotelian Society Suppl. Vol. XV (1936). 5 Op. cit.


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of tame tigers and in the otherof a particular fall of rain.All the

havea clearsense (suggested existential presuppositions in brackets):



B'2. Some of the tame

B'3. Some of

B'4 None of the tame tigers(whichexist) exist

C'I. All the rain (which fell in Britain today)

C'2. Some

C'3. Some of

All the tame



tigers(whichexist) exist

the tame tigers(whichexist) do not exist



rain (which fell rain (which fell



fell in


in not fall in


Britain today) fell Britain today) did



of the

C'4. None

rain (which fell in Britain today) fell in Nottingham

and similarly with the corresponding sets D'I-D'4 and E'I-E'4.


them examples more likely to be used-for

(which existed in the safari park)(still) exist'-but

have chosen the presuppositiongiven above.) In the B' set, B'I and B'2

are tautologous and B'3 and B'4 are self-contradictory,but, in this case,

this does not imply that 'exists'is

it adds

the subject in

E', all of which makesense. The insertionof 'the' before'tame tigers' in the A

a difference.Whereasthe A examples describea characteristicwhichall or

some tame tigers do or do not have, the A'

tame tigersgrowl')

tigers are doing or not doing now. In the A examples,'growl' is being used

in its habit sense, in the A' examples it is being

happening now. This is also a differencebetweenthe A

B, C, D, E examples: noneof the B, C, D, E examples is usedto describea


describewhat is

differencebetweenthe B

verbs 'fall', 'cover'and 'growl' can all be used in

describe a characteristic, it can never be a characteristicof

exist. Why is there a differencebetweenthe B, C, D, E examples and the B',


quantifications, but not the former?Let us lookfirstat the C and C' sets. In the C' set, we are referring to a particular amountof rain,namely, the rainwhichfell in Britain today; in the C set, however,we arenot referring to a particular amountof rain.C is equivalent to (F) 'Nottingham hadrain today' and C' is equivalent to (G) 'Nottingham had the rainwhich fell in



presupposition for the

B' examples whichwouldhavemade

example, 'All the tame tigers

for variousreasonsI

as Kant

not a predicate(although,


Whenwe insert'the' before

nothing to the concept of the subject).

the B, C, D

andE examples,therefore, we get B', C', D' and


also makes

examples(for example, 'All the

particulargroup of tame

used to describewhat is


and the

possess; they


there is this

describewhatall or some of a

the subject possesses

at a

or does not


particular time. However,

examples andthe C, D,

E examples: whereasthe

appropriateexamples to

anything to

C', D', E' examples?Why do the latter go through all the


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Britain today'. All of


G2. Nottingham had some of the rainwhich fell in Britain today

G3. Nottingham

Nottingham had all the rainwhich fell in

Britain today

did not have some of the rainwhich fell in Britain


today Nottingham had none of the rainwhich fell in Britain today

have a clear sense, but of the corresponding F set only

Fz. Nottingham had some rain today


Nottinghamhad no raintoday

have a clearsense.

In the G set of examples, we are referring bothto Nottingham andto the

predicating of Nottingham that it had

rainwhich fell in Britain today and

(or did not have) all (or some) of that rain. In the F set of examples,

are referringonly to Nottingham


rainwhich fell in Britainis

the existenceof Nottingham is

assert the existence

establishedthe existenceof rainin Nottingham, we canthen

rain which fell in Nottingham. The definite description,

fell in Britain today' which occursin the G and C'

as a referringexpression;

occursin F2 and F4

the case that some rain

This will perhaps be moreobviouswhenwe considerthe B andB'




predicating of it that it had (or


rain.In the G examples, the existenceof

(or non-existence)

both Nottingham andthe

presupposed, whereasin the F examplesonly

presupposed and the examples themselves

rain in Nottingham. Having



'the rain which

examples is being


the indefinite description 'some rain', which

equivalent to 'It is not

andCz and C4 ('No rainfell' is


is not

being used as a referringexpression.



If we compare the B example 'Tame tigers

exist' with the C

'Rainfell in Nottinghamtoday', what has been said aboutthe C example

would suggest thatin 'Tame tigersexist', 'tame tigers'

a referringexpression.

confirmthis view.




Nor does it seem that the sense of 'exists'in the B' examples is different

fromthe sense of 'exists'in the B

of whatis said, it seemsthat 'exists'is

it,6 'beforewe canattachanypredicate to anything

we must presuppose

, that it exists'. As we have seen, if in 'Tame tigers exist' we were to pre- suppose that tame tigers exist, then 'Tame tigers exist' would be tauto- logous, whichit is not. This wouldseem to confirmthe suggestionalready

is not being used as

help to

There are also other considerationswhich

The B' examples,although either tautologous or self-

therefore, not likely

to be uttered very

often, all make

sense. 'Exists'in these B' examples seemsto functionas any

predicate(although here perhaps not areal predicate in Kant's sense).

example, 'Tame tigersexist',so, in spite

as Alston puts

herea predicate.But,



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made when comparing 'Tame tigers exist' with 'Rainfell in Nottingham


a referringexpressionpresupposes the existenceof what is being referred to). If, however, 'tame tigers' is not herea referringexpression and 'exists' is a predicate, andif in orderto attacha predicate to something we haveto

presuppose that it exists, of what is 'exists' being predicated? Let us rememberthat 'Tame tigers exist' is equivalent to 'There are

tame tigers'

exist' and

is equivalent, as we have seen, to 'Nottingham

sentencesreferto Nottingham ratherthanto rain.I would suggest, there- fore, that 'there'in 'Therearetame tigers' is not non-locative (as has been

assumed) but refersto the worldof existenceaboutwhichwe are talking-

the real world, the worldof fiction, the worldof dreams, andso on. 'Exists',

that is, is ratherlike 'free'-it needsto

real world', 'exists in fiction', and so on.

without any further qualification, it is understoodfromthe contextwhich mode of existence we are talking about. Thus, 'Tame tigers exist' will

in the realworld'and this is equivalent

normally mean 'Tame tigers exist to 'The realworld contains tigers';

of the real world,just as


tigers' is not here being used as a referringexpression(for

and let us rememberalso

the parallel between 'Tame tigers

'Rainfell in Nottinghamtoday'. 'Rainfell in Nottinghamtoday'

had rain today' and the

be supplemented as in 'existsin the


when we use 'exists'

that is, we are predicating tame tigers

we predicate rainof Nottingham.

'tame tigers' in 'Tame

tigers exist' is not a referringexpression(and,

subject of the sentence).

then it would presuppose the existenceof tame tigers, that is, it would pre-


therefore, not the logical

Fromanother point of view, it is alsoobviousthat

If 'tame



here a referringexpression

another existential statement about tame tigers; and if 'tame


in this second existentialstatementis a referringexpression then it

and so on, ad infinitum. It

to 'The real world

presupposed to exist. The

takenas given, but the real

presupposes a third existential statement,


might be objected that this criticismwill also apply

contains tigers',

real world,

this does not generate an infinite regress.

world to exist, we get

worldcontainsthe realworld'. One question which this discussionof existencehas raisedis when an

expression is being used as a referringexpression,

thereseemsto be some confusion.For example, ProfessorP. F. Strawson,1 in spite of his distinctionbetween'A manfell overthe edge' and 'The man fell overthe edge' neverthelesstalksabout 'a man'and 'the man' as refer-

ring expressions, although, comparing Strawson's examples with the examples I have been discussing in this article, I would have said that whereas 'the man' refers 'a man' does not. In 'A man fell over the cliff',

for herethe realworldmust be

course, mustbe takento exist, it must be



When we


'The real world exists' or 'The real

a subject aboutwhich

7 Introduction to Logical Theory (London:






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we are talking about the cliff (which is presupposed to exist) and estab-

picture) are predicatingsomething of the cliff.

to the


(putting cliff (falling off it); that is, we

the existenceof

into the

a manwith some relation

Expressions can be used to refer only when existence, at some level, is presupposed; when existence is not presupposed the expressions can be used only predicatively. We can go through the range of (Aristotelian) quantifiers only with those expressions where existence is presupposed. To talk of something is not always to refer to it. Roughly speaking, one might say that definite descriptions can be used as referring expressions,

whereas,except in characteristic-ascribingstatements, indefinite descrip- tions cannot, but this requires qualification and refinement,something that would taketoo long withinthe limits of this article.

What can we say then about existence?


There are examples, the B' examples ('The tame tigers exist'), where it would seem that 'exists' is being used to predicate something of tame tigers although only tautologously or self-contradictorily.


In the B examples ('Tame tigers exist') 'exist' is being used as a

predicate, but not to predicatesomething of tame tigers, but to

predicate something of, say, the real world; this is probably the most useful use of 'exists'.

It does seem plausible to say that in 'EustonArch no longer exists' 'exists'is a predicate,predicatingsomething of EustonArch.It might

be argued that 'Euston Arch no longer exists' is equivalent to 'Euston Arch exists at time ti and Euston Arch exists at time t2', but since 'Euston Arch' is a referring expression and therefore pre- supposes the existence of Euston Arch, then, even in this translation

'exists at time tl (t2)' is a predicate predicating something of Euston Arch. However, I am inclined to agree with Alston that in 'The

legendary King Arthur really existed in the sixth century' 'existed' is not being used to predicate real existence of the legendary King Arthur, although, unlike Alston, I do not think that this means that 'exists' is not a predicate. My interpretation of the sentence is this,

although I wouldnot wantto insiston it: that a

predicated of the worldof

legend and a king calledArthuris predi-

catedof the real world and there is some sort of identity between

the King Arthurof




legend andthe King

Arthurof the realworld.

(4) One thing which emerged when 'Tame tigers growl' was compared

with 'Tame tigers exist' was that 'exist' could never be used in a habit sense. 'Exists', as Kant said, is not 'a predicate which is added to the concept of a subject and enlarges it'. And even when we construe 'Tame tigers exist' as saying something about the (real) world, we cannot say that it is characteristic of the world to contain tame tigers.


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(5) 'Exists'hasthis peculiarity not possessedby other predicates: thatin

'exists' itself, we must firstof

orderto predicateanything of X, even

all presuppose that X

exists, that is,

that some worldcontainsX.

It is not true,then, to say that 'exists'is not a predicate, but it cannotbe

to describea characteristic (or habit)

is probably whatKantmeantwhenhe saidthat

however, to use Pears' expression,

used, as most other predicatescan,

which something has. This

existencewas not a real predicate. It is,

'a peculiar sort of predicate'.

Universityof Nottingham


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