Existence, for instance of a human being, need not be restricted to the material body. Also the influence exerted on the environment can be considered a part of their existence. A discussion with Conifold has made me think that there are at least three kinds of existence:

(a) Material things like particles, substances, bodies, liquids, gases, creatures with or without labels or names stored in memories but exerting some physical influence on their environment. As an example the gravitational force of a body, the electromegnetic fileld of a particle, a picture of a human or a letter written by him/her belongs to his/her existence.

(b) Ideas with representations like "electron" or "number three". Every electron and every triple are representations of these notions and belong to the existence of these notions. But also a picture or a symbol standing for them belong to their existence.

(c) Ideas with only representations like unicorns. There are no material representations of unicorns but plenty of pictures. But there are also bones which (for instance by Leibniz) had been attributed to unicorns. And there are organic molecules which would belong to unicorns if they were bred.

My question: Are there philosophers who have thought along these lines already? In particular have the influence exerted on the environment and the representation been considered part of existence? And if so, could the blurred border between (b) and (c) be cleared?

  • I don't think it's really a sufficiently clear view to say exactly who in the history of philosophy would match your account. Specifically, (1) do you think each of these things exists differently? (2) Can you be clear as to which parts are about epistemology and which are about metaphysics? (3) Can you clarify what you mean by "represents" and "belongs" in (b)?
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 8:06
  • (1) My car exists idependently of the species and of the name of the species like the elements of the set {my car, the species car}. But what about its properties {wheels, engine, seats, ...}? (2) No. (3) I think that a number cannot exist without being represented by symbols, thoughts, or material manifestations. We could not apply or think of a number without addressing it somehow. Therefore the objects representing it belong to it (perhaps their set is the number?).
    – Hilbert7
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 9:26
  • so, you're (to use classical terms) either a "conceptualist" or a "nominalist". You're most definitely not a platonic realist.
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 9:31
  • Agreed. Platonism is unscientific in my humble opinion. If there are ideas (like numbers) without having been thought by us ("us" in the widest sense) then they must have been thought by God. I will and can in no way exclude the existence of a God or Gods but I would not be ready to build our science including mathematics on His existence.
    – Hilbert7
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 13:24
  • I recall reading a paper by a mathematician in which she said after speaking to a philosopher she was convinced of nominalism, but when she returned to thinking mathematically she was thought of them in such a way that they really existed; so it goes... Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 16:43

2 Answers 2


The problem of hierarchy of being dates back to Plato, who introduced "becoming" to reconcile the sensible world with Parmenides's prohibition on change in being. In Aristotle, who recognizes forms and matter as aspects of being this leads to the problem of universals, prominent in the medieval scholastics, if they are not Platonic entities what is their mode of being? I will not go over the general problem of universals since the subject is vast and well-covered by encyclopedias. The closest positions to the OP description I can think of are Peirce's theory of entia rationis ("creations of mind", as he also calls them), and Meinong's theory of non-existent objects. Peirce directly studied scholastic doctors involved with the problem of universals, especially Duns Scotus, and so did Meinong's teacher, Brentano, who introduced intentionality and intentional inexistence into modern discourse (Husserl was also a student of Brentano's).

According to Peirce, entia rationis are initially introduced by nominalizing predicates into subjects, "the new individual spoken of is ens rationis; that is, its being consists in some other fact". So we pass from "x is red" to "x has redness", this is called nominalization or hypostatic abstraction, and the new "object" fully supervenes on whatever underlies the pre-nominalized facts ("representations", "manifestations", etc.). It is the latter, which determine its mode of being. Frege had a similar notion of abstraction based on his context principle, but he did not develop it into a hierarchy of being for abstracta. Peirce uses entia rationis to even partly rehabilitate Molière's famous satire of a scholastic "explanation" that opium puts people to sleep because it has dormitive virtue, "for it does say there is some peculiarity in the opium to which sleep must be due". While it is ridiculous as a final explanation, it is exactly the kind of operational that-which definition that sets off a scientific inquiry. At their inception, temperature (that which thermometer measures), weight, voltage, etc., were such hypostatic that-whiches. I'll quote from Peirce's Theory of Signs by Short:

"These same examples teach us to be cautious about denying reality to an ens rationis. For all of the quantities mentioned – voltage, temperature, and so on – are consequential: all explain a range of effects. And each exists or obtains at a particular place and time (however vaguely these may be defined). Thus they have a physical reality, even if that reality ‘consists’ in the reality of certain other facts. Some entia rationis have only the being of a mathematical abstraction; others have physical reality; and some entities introduced by hypostatic abstraction are not entia rationis at all, for example, the alkaloid that is opium’s dormitive virtue..."

"If the inference is from true premisses and apodeictic, the introduced entity is an ens rationis, and it will have the same mode of being as those entities represented in the premisses: ideal in the case of pure mathematics, real in the case of empirical science. If the inference is not apodeictic but is abductive, then the entity introduced may fail to be real at all (even though the premisses be true), but, if it is real, it will be as real as the effects in terms of which it is introduced, whether it is an ens rationis or not".

In other words, the process of introducing entia rationis converts indefinite descriptions into objects on which they supervene, the description then may or may not have a further supervenience base in reality, and different kinds of bases are possible. In particular, numbers supervene not only on natural occurrences (sticks, grains of sand, etc.), but also on facts of our use of them as tools in counting, measuring, etc., i.e. on artifacts. This brings about the distinction between "physical" and "mathematical" numbers. The former can be empirically repudiated if certain class of real objects fails to conform to arithmetic, but not the latter. As our tools numbers are as "indestructible" as our cultural memory. So Ptolemy's epicyclics converted into a piece of pure geometry is still alive today, and so is Euclidean geometry, their revision as physical theories notwithstanding (Resnik calls such conversion "Euclidean rescue").

What about unicorns? They are also a that-which, that which is like a live horse with a horn. Does this make them akin to numbers in their artifactual role? Indeed it does. The distinction, if any, is to be found in our use of them as tools, on which their being supervenes. Unicorns are loose, poetic tools, their being is accordingly ephemeral, numbers, on the other hand, supervene on facts of a highly regimented practice, now supported by symbolic formalisms of decimals, Peano arithmetic, etc. Hence, facts about them have a much firmer hold on reality, although the difference is of degree and not of kind. And of course numbers do also have physical base of supervenience from which they were abstracted, while unicorns, so far as we know, do not.

Meinong goes even futher than Peirce in diluting being, he allows even inconsistent objects (e.g. round squares) to "subsist", if not to "exist", see SEP's Nonexistent Objects.

  • 3
    "And each exists or obtains at a particular place and time." Wonderful! Unfortunately I had not read Peirce before. I gained a lot from your answer. The system sun-moon has twoness and the holy trinity has threeness. And the round square exists, namely here as a pointer to a not really existing entity - but that's enough that we can talk about it.
    – Hilbert7
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 7:55
  • 2
    @Heinrich If you are interested, Peirce's writings on philosophy of mathematics are available online from project Muse. Some other works are posted on Mesosyn, and commentary on Commens.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 20:17

Ideas. Material world. Ideas.

I would start by examining this very important statement because it carries a lot of meaning, every word is important in my opinion:

".... "myth of the Given" serving as the foundation. Reality is rather understood as non-conceptual constraint on our conceptual productions. In this sense pragmatists are not traditional rationalists, but rather "rational pragmatists", as Brandom put it." Conifold in answer to User 28843.

Would we ever think of Hegel being deterred by a "non-conceptual constraint"? No, with Hegel the constraint acts as a challenge, so he picks up the gauntlet and he attempts to meet the challenge and to overcome it.

Kant wanted to bring the sensible, or the intuition, under a judgment too quickly, we might say, whereas with Hegel, the finite is provisional. I would say the finite is open to a subject-object struggle. Ideas don't simply stay trapped in the mind, rather man (subect, ideas) will not take the object "as is", he will not accept such a constraint, man wants to put his stamp on the world, and this is the struggle with the object. (Rudolph Eucken was a neoKantian, but he pointed out the German striving for the "gemut" add umlaut, our idea to create for ourselves a good feeling with the world, our desire to put our stamp, our ideas, onto it).

So “an inert realm of laws” (say a constraint) is with Hegel sublated into the supersensible and lifted up. This is the beginning of the "lifting up" (Aufhebung) of the sensible to a new level of organization led by the idea or notion. The idea takes the lead (negate the negation (i.e. negate the finite)), but the idea can ultimately work itself out in a struggle with the object. So for instance man has a notion of a unicorn and he goes about the long struggle to breed one.

Note, again, with Hegel the ideas may lead, but there can be ultimately a working out of these ideas in the material world so that our concepts are continually refined. The spirit (mind) needs the material world to make man/mind uncomfortable so that man can go about making himself comfortable again. I mean comfort in a broad way here. We understand the working out of the master-slave dynamic after it happens in this world, or after the struggle in this world. And just so, scientists also struggle with the world and continue to refine their concepts.

Here bat020 does a far, far better job than I do in connecting these ideas to Hegel's text(s). https://www.google.com/amp/s/bat020.com/2011/05/20/force-and-understanding-in-hegels-phenomenology-of-spirit/amp

So I put forward Hegel's name as one possible answer to your question. For Hegel the sensible itself has no a priori form as a given, nor on the other end do the a priori principles of the understanding. Reason can go beyond the limits Kant presupposed, but the Spirit must be challenged to a contest by the world.

( Hegel has been called the ultimate rationalist, but he is in definite contact with the real world. For Hegel, the FACT of existence is given, but it is not wholly true, it is true and false. This is his absolute idealism.).

P. S. As far as your last sentence in (b) this may involve an ontology of the sign or symbol. I don't understand it well enough other than to recognize it, and I don't even know if I recognize it properly. Etienne Gilson, or John Poinsot. John Deely's book "Four Ages of Understanding". Nothwithstanding, since we can't see an electron, it's hard to see it as a sign, unless the probability model, electron smear, is itself a sign. I think it fits better with Hegel's levels of reality (levels of truth).

  • Thanks for this answer. (Unfortunately I am not very familiar with Hegel.) But the border between points (b) and (c) has not been investigated by him?
    – Hilbert7
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 13:37
  • @Heinrich Thank you. Hegel wrote the Phenomenology of Spirt in haste, and bat020 explicates a difficult part of Hegel as he completes his separation from Kant. I think it is necessary to be patient with Hegel's awkwardness, but for me the study of Hegel is worth it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 13:52
  • @Heinrich I would have to think about Hegel and the (b), (c) border. It's Hegel's method which is so valuable, at least for me. But let me think about the border you mention.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 13:58
  • @Heinrich I think Hegel would see numbers as an abstract general. Just a concept, but the abstraction from the world of things to the notion of universal number was again a struggle. This would be a struggle of abstraction. The unicorn is more interesting. True, he seems imaginary, But the imagination was stimulated by a real horse or pony. So we have a notion of a unicorn and, when the time is right we make a unicorn. The notion leads. So man is not a passive recipient of the world with Hegel.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 23:09
  • Now looking at Hegel qua Hegel (not as modernized Hegel) the notion leads, "the other" of the absolute idea is the material world and the Idea works itself out in the Phenomenology of Mind in that as man struggles with the world existence comes to consciousness through us.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 23:21

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