In his book, "Principles of Mathematics", Russell makes the following claim:

Being is that which belongs to every conceivable term, to every possible object, of thought-in short to everything that can possibly occur in any proposition, true or false, and to all such propositions themselves. Being belongs to whatever can be counted. If A be any term that can be counted as one, it is plain that A is something, and therefore that A is. 'A is not' must always be either false or meaningless. For if A were nothing, it could not be said not to be ; 'A is not' implies that there is a term A whose being is denied, and hence that A is. Thus unless 'A is not' be an empty sound, it must be false. Whatever A may be, it certainly is. Numbers, the Homeric gods, relations, chimeras and four-dimensional spaces all have being, for if they were not entities of a kind, we could make no propositions about them. Thus being is a general attribute of everything, and to mention anything is to show that it is.

Existence, on the contrary, is the prerogative of some only amongst beings. To exist is to have a specific relation to existence-a relation, by the way, which existence itself does not have." (Pages 449-450).

Although Russell makes this dinstinction between existence and being, I have been unable to find any further comment on the details of this distinction - I would be interested to know what he thought.

  • Numbers, propositions have being but not existence. Humans, atoms have being and existence. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 11:40
  • The comments included in the question seem clear enough. Many philosophers cover the same issue. Whether we agree with Russell is another matter. .
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:37
  • See also the post What does Russell mean by term in PoM Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


See Bertrand Russell: Metaphysics:

Russell’s Platonism involves a belief that there are mind-independent entities that need not exist to be real, that is, to subsist and have being. Entities, or what has being (and may or may not exist) are called terms, and terms include anything that can be thought. In Principles of Mathematics (1903) he therefore writes, “Whatever may be an object of thought,…, or can be counted as one, I call a term. …I shall use it as synonymous with the words unit, individual, and entity. … [E]very term has being, that is, is in some sense. A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term….” (Principles, p. 43)

Since for Russell words mean objects (terms), and since sentences are built up out of several words, it follows that what a sentence means, a proposition, is also an entity -- a unity of those entities meant by the words in the sentence, namely, things (particulars, or those entities denoted by names) and concepts (entities denoted by words other than names). Propositions are thus complex objects that either exist and are true or subsist and are false. So, both true and false propositions have being (Principles, p. 35).

See also Nonexistent Objects :

Are there nonexistent objects, i.e., objects that do not exist? Some examples often cited are: Zeus, Pegasus, Sherlock Holmes, Vulcan (the hypothetical planet postulated by the 19th century astronomer Le Verrier), the perpetual motion machine, the golden mountain, the fountain of youth, the round square, etc. Some important philosophers have thought that the very concept of a nonexistent object is contradictory (Hume) or logically ill-formed (Kant, Frege), while others (Leibniz, Meinong, the Russell of Principles of Mathematics) have embraced it wholeheartedly.

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