Suppose person X lacks the concept nothing. Suppose, now, whether it would be possible for them to know they exist. By that I mean whether they know they, as a subject, exist. For to make the claim that "I exist" requires the concept of existence. But I would argue this claim is untenable given that the person I am talking about does not have a concept of nothing. And to have a concept of existence - whether we are talking about things existing external to ourselves or merely the existence of our subjective experiences - requires that we have a concept of nothing.

Take the following analogy. Suppose person X lives in a universe with no light thereby having no visual experience. Suppose, also, that cannot conceptualize light. Now, concepts derive their importance based on their meaning, and for a concept to be meaningful it must be distinct from other concepts. That is, the concept must be distinguishable from other concepts in terms of their meaning. So, when I want to explain the concept of an apple I say it is round, green and so on. That is equal to saying "it is not any shape or color that is not round or green". Therefore, a concept's meaning is achieved by stating it in terms of what it is not. If person X lives in a universe with no light and cannot have a concept of light, then it seems to me that person X would not have a concept for darkness, since to have a concept of darkness would require that it be stated in terms of what it is not which is light.

Returning to the initial idea of whether person X would know he or she exists if they did not have a concept of nothing, I am tempted to think they would have no concept of existence and wouldn't think of themselves as existing.

  • 1
    With these questions, the answer tends to be whatever you want it to be. They tend to be little more than a thought exercise. However, I'd point out that your logic in the second pararaph suggests to me that you'd consider the Chinese concept of the "Dao" to be an unimportant concept because all things are the Dao. Given how important that concept is to the Chinese and their philosophy, I think it's worth additional study.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 19:51
  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. Your post is not really an answerable question but a description of your thoughts on a subject inviting other users to share theirs. This is suitable for a forum but here is considered off-topic. We take more pointed questions that are more or less objectively answerable based on existing literature.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 20:30
  • Existence and nothing are not concepts in an individual, they aren't cognitive, they are basic ontological givenness.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 7:46
  • "for a concept to be meaningful it must be distinct from other concepts". True, but the problem is that to be meaningful is not suffice to be distinct. X is "not Y" leaves X just another "something positive nearby Y". To occur meaningfully as "not Y", X must first not be itself, it must be destroyed on its way to Y, to appear all in the form of an ulcer of Y which shatters stability of the whole being. That implies nothing is "real", "objective" happening, not somebody's concept. Finding oneself in a meaningful world needs nothing as condition first. Existence is based on nothingness.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 8:22
  • The etymology of 'exist' is 'stand out'. Therefore the entire premise of existence is that it stands out from something (or nothing). In this sense you seem to be correct. But as Cort Ammon points out there are complications to take into account. .
    – user20253
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 10:00

2 Answers 2


Your argument seems to boil down to an assertion that a concept cannot be properly understood without a differentia. That view finds support in certain epistemological arguments. For example, Rand (1990) (pp. 41-42) has the following to say in regard to concepts and their definitions:

The distinguishing characteristic(s) of the units becomes the differentia of the concept’s definition; the existents possessing a Conceptual Common Denominator become the genus.

Thus a definition complies with the two essential functions of consciousness: differentiation and integration. The differentia isolates the units of a concept from all other existents; the genus indicates their connection to a wider group of existents.

For instance, in the definition of table (“An item of furniture, consisting of a flat, level surface and supports, intended to support other, smaller objects”), the specified shape is the differentia, which distinguishes tables from the other entities belonging to the same genus: furniture. In the definition of man (“A rational animal”), “rational” is the differentia, “animal” is the genus.

Your argument seems to me to say that without a differentia, the concept of existence cannot be understood, and hence the person cannot know he exists without having an understanding of the concept of non-existence (i.e., nothing).


This is an argument that is reminiscent of the semiotic arguments of some structuralists, namely Ferdinand de Saussure.

From Wikipedia:

"Binary opposition originated in Saussurean structuralist theory.[3] According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the binary opposition is the means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with another term, as in binary code. It is not a contradictory relation but a structural, complementary one.[3] Saussure demonstrated that a sign's meaning is derived from its context (syntagmatic dimension) and the group (paradigm) to which it belongs.[4] An example of this is that one cannot conceive of 'good' if we do not understand 'evil'.[5]"

Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_opposition

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