In analytic philosophy, the dominant view has it that things are real iff they exist mind independently (i.e. they exist apart from our beliefs, concepts, cultural practices etc.).

So there are two conditions to satisfy for a thing to be real.

  1. Existence.
  2. Mind-independence (as defined above).

That implies there are some things that exist that do not fulfill the second criterion, and so these things would exist but not be real.

So then, what are some less controversial examples of things that exist but are not real?

What justifies us in saying that certain non-real things exist and that others don't?

(Looking for rigorous, discourse based answers.)

  • You are looking for "rigorous, discourse based answers". Such answers require that you first state your definition of "to be real" and "to exist". I do not know if analytical philosophy uses a standard definition which you can presuppose as being well-known.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 16:24
  • 1
    Social and economic facts are real. But Margaret Tachter once said that there is no society, only individuals. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 16:43
  • But as a rule of thumb everything that you can act on or that acts on you must be real, if you are so. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 16:44
  • @JoWehler I opened the question with the definition of real. The definition of existence is the question, so of course that's not included.
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 17:06
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA the question was about existence and the existence of non-real (non mind independent) things
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 17:09

2 Answers 2


In analytical philosophy, I would say the dominant view is slightly different than how you present it. That is, things are real (property, entire domain of discourse) and exist (temporal state of being), if they are physical. Existence and reality in this sense are synonyms. Thus, horses are real not because they are mind-independent, but because they are physically detectable. Why am I equivocating on the definition? Because existence is often taken to include controversially things that are not physically detectable and that characterizes ontological disputes that are very common in philosophy. For instance, triangles are often said to exist. And yet, when the abstract criteria are held to against actual physical encounters, it becomes clear, after some thought, that there are no physically existing triangles at all; that creates an ontological tension experienced as cognitive dissonance. To resolve the dissonance, we either simply accept somethings exist without physical existence (abstract objects (SEP)) or we invent alternative realms of physical existence to justify their conceivability (consider realist mathematics under Plato (SEP)). We might also simply become anti-realists (see nominalism in mathematics (SEP)).

I would simply offer this is an equivocation on existence where there is EXISTENCE1 which means physically exists and EXISTENCE2 psychologically exists. This dichotomy between physical being and psychological experience is then the origin of the intuitional dichotomy "appearances and actuality" and describes the fundamental challenge to naive realism. A great deal of ontological dispute is centered around this equivocation. Kant argued for ontological ambiguity with his phenomen/noumenon distinction. And he was followed by Meinongian ontology rejects the physical test of existence and relies on conceivability (very phenomenological), where as Carnapian ontology rejects conceivability to embrace physical observation (very positivistic). Quine heads off in the direction of existential quantification to split the difference and argues for abstract objects (very logically oriented) adopting a property-dualistic stance. Ultimately, since metaphysical suppositions in a very real sense prefigure the philosophy that builds on top of them, they are in a very real way evidentially underdetermined since one's flavor of evidentialism derives from the metaphysical foundations introducing the problem of impredicativity.


Your definition: “To be real = to exist mind-independently.”

  1. You ask for a kind of things which exist but only in mind. Isn’t the answer obvious: Thoughts exist only in mind. A special kind of thoughts are concepts like unicorns which have no referent.
  2. But in common language thoughts are considered to be real, which contradicts your definition of being real. Therefore your definition does not conform to the common use of language.
  3. I cannot see why your definitions relate to analytical philosophy. Hence a corresponding quote would be helpful.
  • 1
    To clarify, I didnt ask for things that exist only in the mind, I asked for things that exist independently of our beliefs, concepts, cultural practices, etc.
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 1:14
  • @Hal According to your last comment you ask for things that exist independently of the human culture. Typical things of that kind are all things in our world before the human species came into being. Hence all planets, stars, galaxies, all species existing before the human species,... - But according to your definion now you ask for "real" things, That's different from your original question.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 5:29

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