What does it mean to say something exists and something is real? And what is the difference if there is any? For example, take a software program. Is it more fitting to say that it exists or that it is real?

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. Some philosophers distinguish those concepts, but for an answer you'll have to provide some context. Where did you encounter the distinction? – Conifold Nov 14 '17 at 18:37
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    Sir, please consider the edited question. – Akhil Nov 14 '17 at 19:08
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    Philosophers who endorse the distinction are usually the ones who advocate a hierarchy of being, different "degrees" of it. On this concept being, or reality, is wider than existence, and there are things (like fictional objects) that do not exist. Software programs, and other abstractions, would have some lower degree of existence than concrete objects, see What is and how far extends existence? Alternative view is that all that is real exists, including some abstractions plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-commitment/#QuiCriPre – Conifold Nov 14 '17 at 21:48
  • In law we have the concept of tangible and intangible property, and it is interesting, and exhausting, to follow the history of the treatment of software here. In philosophy/pedagogy I would draw attention to the Bildung (German). The raw pupil exists, he is not yet real, and the same applies to humanity. So we might consider Hegel's Phen. of Spirit a Bildungsroman for humanity. – Gordon Nov 15 '17 at 15:41
  • To exists is to 'stand-out. To be real 'standing out' is not not necessary, Thus for the mystic what exists is not really real and the Real does not stand-out. Iow, every existent can be reduced to the Real. Hence, for instance, F.H. Bradley's essay 'Apearance and Reality' and the distinction he draws. . . . – user20253 Mar 28 '20 at 13:06

For most "ordinary" people, and even some philosophers, "to be real" and "to exist" are the same thing. But not for all philosophers. Plato (and his followers, the Neoplatonics) famously believed that the things of the ordinary world, which might arguably be said to "exist" were nevertheless not "real" as he defined realness. Other idealists like Bishop Berekely, might arguably be viewed as having similar views, whether they expressed them in those terms or not.

Even from this point of view, however, it's far from clear if the software program is more or less "real" than other things that "exist." It has no soul, which argues against it being real in Platonic terms. It is abstract and conceptual, however, and those are qualities strongly associated with Platonic realness.

  • What do you mean by “It has no soul, which argues against it being real in a Platonic sense”? I don’t believe Plato required that things possess a soul to be real. After all, the Forms are the real existents par excellence, and while souls are Forms not all Forms are souls — at least not in the sense he discusses in The Republic where he lays out his tripartite theory of the soul. It’s also not common to speak of souls as a modern day platonist. Maybe this was associated with the neo-Platonism of Plotinus and other medieval philosophers? – Dennis Nov 18 '17 at 2:34

For most purposes, everyday and philosophical, reality and existence, 'real' and 'exists', are interchangeable. There's a distinction of sorts in Meinong. What exists, does so in space/ time. But we might also want to say that numbers, meanings, propositional contents are real but 'subsist'. The common meaning of propositions - that between 'The dog is red' and 'Le chien est rouge' - could be real but only subsist, not exist in space/ time. It is real in the sense that it can be the subject of true sentences or statements.

To (try to) prevent a tidal wave of criticism let me say that I am aware of the difficulties that beset the putative reality of common meanings, numbers and the rest. But if (IF) they are real, as can be non-absurdly argued, then they do not occupy space/ time and so we have a distinction between the existent and the real.


The distinction is sometimes cast as one between fundamental and derivative entities. Everything exists, but some things might not really exist. For example, you might hold that the ultimate constituents of reality are the entities posited by fundamental physics. Everything else is some complex of these things, and is not fundamental.

Although views like this are common, casting it in terms of what “really exists” is less common. The most prominent proponent of such a view is Kit Fine in his “The Question of Realism”. “To be real” would be to exist in reality. (Though I don’t believe he holds the strict physicalism described above.)


Just to complement previous comments: there are no differences, except for some philosophers. I would add that there could be a subtle difference on the common language: reality is usually associated with perception, and existence, to interaction.

  • Can something exist and be unreal? Yes. You can state that a mathematical model exists, because someone created it, and you can use and interact with it (e.g. input a value and get an output from it). But a mathematical model is unreal, it's just an idea you can interact with, it's not part of our perception of reality.
  • Can something be real and don't exist? Yes. Death is an example. It is part of our perception of reality, we live for a limited time and then, we die. But it's not something we can interact with, it's just an idea about something that doesn't exist. Another example is the Infinite, or the nothingness. They are real, but we can't interact with them. If so, they would exist. And nothingness, for example, can't exist.

That is a really good question best one I've heard in a long time. You had me for a minute, but the clear answer is reality is reality based. It's subjective to The Observer. So you define what is real. A cup may exist. But unless you decide it's a cup it is just something sitting on the counter but it still exists. So it's not really a cup until you decide it's a cup.


Great question. This question is best addressed with an answer that "best" separates, differentiates, and clarifies their differences. I use the word "best" because I will be the first to admit the answer I am providing here is not formal, conventional, nor even established. This is my interpretation and I not presenting it for sake of argument. I offer it only as a SINGLE mean of understanding, which is mine.

Let me start with the word 'exist' (a verb used without an object) and its sibling 'existence' (its qualitative state or attribution). The word exist often refers to be or to live, more specifically to CONTINUE to be or to live, as in the phrase "poverty still exists". I believe this convention does not capture the essence of the word because it suggests two misleading and limiting implications. First is the idea that existence in some way refers to an actual entity, living or inanimate. Second that existence is temporal. In other words, existence is equivalent to the actuality of any object, condition, or being and that actuality has a beginning (creation) and an ending (termination). I would like to offer a different dimension of the word, with coordinates not associated with reality and time, but rather, established from the root of the word.

The word 'exist' derives from the Latin words 'ex' meaning out (of) or away (from), and 'sistere' meaning to stand. So its literal origin of meaning was "to stand out" or "stand apart from". Think of a police line up and suspect #3 steping forward. Suspect #3 now appears before you, distinguished from the group of others. The witness can point to him, identify him, describe him. #3 is a particular person in a particular place and time. Are the other suspects real? Of course. But I would propose they don't exist. The others are not definable, distinguishable, or even recognizable because they are not the immediate subject (no pun intended). Let me try another way.

Not long ago I stood before a large photograph of a hummingbird in an art gallery, and what made the photo so captivating is that the background was so blurry all you could make out was some vague, ethereal colors, but the hummingbird, in focus, appeared to pop out from this background. The bird was the subject of the photo. The background most likely consisted of trees, mountains, clouds, a backyard or such. Were the contents of the background real? Certainly, but they didn't exist. The observer could not identify, differentiate, or understand them. For this "standing out" or focus requires an observer. Am I saying entities have an existence only in the regard of an observer? YES. Is this the conventional, proper, or established definition? NO.

Once an observer takes notice of an object, entity, concept, feeling or being, REAL OR IMAGINARY, it now declares its existence. This existence lends way to discovery, inspection, definition, clarification, classification, explanation, comprehension, and most importantly understanding. In fact, ANYTHING (concept, emotion, object, situation, condition, fantasy, being) that can be defined, explained, illustrated, or named exists. If this is confusing, try this. Try to define, explain, illustrate or name anything that DOESN'T exist. Try your best to demonstrate it. It can't be done. If in your retort, a dragon comes to mind, consider this. There is no evidence (yet) that dragons are real. But ask someone to define, describe, or draw one and they could - provided the concept of dragon was presented to them by picture, animation, or story. Show them a picture series of a unicorn, a mermaid, Santa Claus, and a dragon and they will point it out to you. Further, they could likely offer attributes within their description of a dragon (winged, enormous, fire-breathing, green serpent that incinerated dozens of English knights to save Blondie).

Why is this explanation the best? Because it clearly differentiates between entities that exist (subjective presentation) from those that are real (objective actuality). In other words, this distinction clarifies the difference between entities that are merely perceptual from those actual. For instance there are entities in our universe that possess actuality and are objectively real but do not exist to you or me because these entities don't stand out to us. Or here's another way.

I once heard someone state that gravity didn't exist until 1687. It got a laugh out of everyone around, even me. But now I understand AND concur with that statement. Of course the forces of gravity and the laws governing that reality have always been actual, for those forces need no subjective observer to impart effect. Those forces shaped every physical entity in our universe. Gravity is real. But when did the nature and laws of gravity first exist? When they stood out to Newton!

Hope my effort helped or, at very least, gave alternate meaning.

  • I made some minor edits which you may roll back or continue editing. You may see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. Although I agree with your answer what would strengthen the answer is to add references to people who think similarly to you. This would give the reader a place to go for more information as well. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Sep 2 '18 at 14:04

First of all, there MUST be a difference. It has been argued for probably centuries, and it must come to a end.

Existing Vs. Being Real

Let us use the analogy: Illusion

Illusion, is arguably both true and false. True in a sense that it is and can be presented, therefore exists.. and False, because its nature is referred as fallacious and deceitful.

In an Illusion, The presence of an object, proves its existence. But IF the accuracy of the object is counterfactual and fabricated, therefore it is false.

Matter and energy are commonly both TRUE by existence and TRUE by accuracy. But information is ALWAYS (even in emptiness, without space and time) TRUE in existence and TRUE/FALSE by accuracy, it really depends on how you translate an information.

In conclusion There is indeed a difference: Existence: The presence of an object. ——————————- To be real: The true value of an information, or sometimes, object.

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