I recently read an introduction about ontology. A section was about the debate whether to exist and to have being is the same.

One position says (attributed to Meinong), that some things exist and some things have being. Dragons, for example, have being, but don't exit. According to this position, one can make sense of propositions like "Dragons don't exist".

The other position says (attributed to Quine), that having being and existing is the same thing. To say, dragons don't exist is to say that dragons don't have being.

I expected to see an explanation of the theoretical importance of this debate, but the section just ended.

I don't get, what the point of this debate is. The first position agrees with the second, that dragons are somehow not present and that we can't touch them for example. It seems to me, that this debate is only about linguistic preferences, whether I want to say, that dragons have being or not.

Since I don't believe, that philosophers just talk about linguistic preferences, I must have missed something.

My question: What is the theoretical importance of the debate, whether to exist and to have being is the same?

  • could it not just be that they're discussing whether dragons are big lizards (beings, with being) or whether that claim is abitrarily true because they don't exist?
    – user6917
    Feb 9, 2017 at 11:36
  • 1
    @MATHEMETICIAN I don't know, maybe someone else can answer this question. Feb 9, 2017 at 14:21
  • i'd also like to know what Heidegger thought about it, quine or meinong
    – user6917
    Feb 9, 2017 at 14:47
  • This topic usually ends up as a muddle of words. Another relevant word would be 'unmanifest'. I think the use of these words is to some extent a convention, so it is up to us to define these words when we use them, and there may never be a generally agreed definition. The important non-linguistic issue would be that the Perennial philosophy says that there is one phenomenon that transcends being/non-being and existence/non-existence, and this requires a very careful examination of these words.and what they really mean.
    – user20253
    Apr 12, 2017 at 11:10

2 Answers 2


There are two separate issues here. Some religious philosophers and theologians distinguish between being and existence because God, who is the source of all existence, and therefore precedes it logically, can not be meaningfully said to exist. The same point can be phrased in reverse, to wit God exists, but does not have being. As Plotinus puts it "The One is all things and yet no one of them. It is the source of all things, not itself all things, but their transcendent Principle... So that Being may exist the One is not Being, but the begetter of Being."

For the debate you are referring to the more common terminology is to distinguish not between "existence" and "being", but between "existence" and "subsistence". The main motivation comes from the necessity to reason about non-existent objects, because for example we do not know that they do not exist from the outset, or because we want to prove that they do not, and therefore can not assume it, as e.g. in proofs by contradiction. The puzzle is dated back to Plato who reasoned (in Quine's rephrasing) "nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?". Here is an elaboration by SEP:

"In order to assert “there are nonexistent objects” without implying nonexistent objects exist”, one has to suppose that sentences of the form “There are Fs” mean something different from sentences of the form “Fs exist”. Some philosophers reject a distinction between “there is” and “exists” (see, for instance, Lewis 1990, Priest 2005, Quine 1953), some philosophers (e.g., Meinong 1960, Parsons 1980, Zalta 1988) think that there are good reasons for making this distinction. Some of the latter think that the distinction between “there is” and “exists” is rooted in ordinary language, but others deny this firmly (see for instance, Geach 1971)."

On Meinong's view subsistence is the "under"-existence that allows us to talk and reason about non-existent, even self-contradictory (round squares), objects. Quine's solution is to avoid such extravagant objects by applying paraphrase, namely by rephrasing sentences that seemingly involve them into ones that do not, but have the "same" meaning. This uses so-called definite descriptions of Russell. E.g. "the current king of France is bald" is rephrased as "there is someone who is currently the king of France and who is bald", which only requires a variable and two predicates, no objects.

Russell's solution is elegant but it is disputed that paraphrases by definite descriptions preserve the original meaning. The issue is tangled up with the old problem of "intentionality", a seemingly universal directedness of our mental states at objects pointed out already by medieval scholastics, and promoted by Brentano in 19th century. It seems that our thoughts about dragons are directed at dragons as intended objects, without paraphrasing themselves into predicate calculus. Quine was interested in transforming natural language into a "cleaned up" scientific language, so to him this is just as well, but if one wishes to stay closer to the semantics of natural language Meinong's approach to intentional objects as subsistent might be more germane.

In a sense, the debate is about linguistic preferences, but it is not as wanton as it seems. Developing a faithful semantics of natural languages (how they relate to their referents, if any) is considered a notoriously difficult problem, but at least partial solutions to it are needed in developmental linguistics, psychology, AI research, etc., to answer questions like how infants connect words to their referents, or to build machines that can do the same without supervision. It can be seen as part of the debate on how best to develop such semantics. For more on this see Is the use of inconsistent definitions a logical fallacy? and Nonexistent Objects.

  • Could you elaborate on your statement that "partial solutions to it are needed in developmental linguistics, psychology, AI research, etc". It seems that the main thrust of the question is why the linguistic debate matters, you've spent the majority of your answer giving an historical account of the debate and then just stated that it matters without providing any explanation or evidence of the fact. In what way exactly is psychology and AI research being hampered by a failure to decide whether to use the word "exist" or not for imaginary objects?
    – user22791
    Feb 9, 2017 at 7:50
  • Can you please give a synonym for "germaine"? I can't find a translation for this word into my language. Feb 9, 2017 at 7:51
  • @Metaphysiker The modern spelling is germane, closely connected, relevant, pertinent. Derives from Hamlet "The phrase would bee more Germaine to the matter: If we could carry Cannon by our sides".
    – Conifold
    Feb 9, 2017 at 23:27
  • Meinongian and Russellian ontologies do not just differ in the use of words, they lead to different representational schemes. A good description of how representation of intentional objects was and remains a central issue in AI research is Dreyfus's historical sketch.
    – Conifold
    Jun 20, 2017 at 2:16

Could it be perhaps that things having "being" have a finite material existence (whether actual or theoretical) while things which exist without being are unspecific in size and shape, like sound and entropy? On the other hand, being could be taken to mean an autonomous or conscious entity. In both cases, there is an implied border between part-of and outside-of a being, whereas not all things which exist have boundaries or an inside and outside.

Another idea is that beings have entity while non-being phenomena are without entity. A phenomenon exists whether an instance of it currently exists. For example, the phenomenon that we call a human exists whether or not any humans remain in existence. In this sense, a human is an instance of said phenomenon. An instance may have entity, but the phenomenon itself does not. The phenomenon that is a dragon would not have being unless instantiated as per example Puff, the Magic Dragon. In programming, the phenomenon is the type while the being is the instance.

The importance of this debate, as I see it here, is to help us have a clearer and more refined understanding when speaking and reading about entities, phenomena, beings, and existence. Without having clearly understood and agreed terminology and meaning, texts and discussions can become vague and ambiguous, ultimately weakening their effective wisdom and value.

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