If I wanted to define "existence" as "that which we encounter but cannot will", what philosophical tradition would that put me in? What authors took up that position or a similar one? What authors criticized that position? Or is this position nonsensical?

To give more details about what that formula could mean, what we "encounter" would be what our mind becomes aware of. For example, I am aware of this table in front of me. Of course, I could become aware of some things, e.g. an "atom", only indirectly, but that may not be an obstacle here. What we "cannot will" would be what our mind was given but is not an immediate product of our mind. That table was not just imagined by my mind. I can get confirmation that it is not just inside my head from others (sane, not blind...) who also can see and touch it. Also, I cannot just will that table into existence with an injunction such as "let there be a table!". Although, of course, I can formulate a plan, get some wood and a saw and get to work to produce a table. But my mind cannot immediately "will" that table into a concrete existence.

I am sure this position is fraught with many issues. I am looking for references that would discuss something close to it.


3 Answers 3


Sticking me poor neck out, here's the etymology for "exist": From ex meaning out of and sistere for stand. Existence then means independent of the mind, to stand outside (the mind). I suppose at the time the word was coined, people were already convinced that dreams aren't real and were in the know in re hallucinations. That is this position on existence, so clearly and so elegantly described as that which we encounter but cannot will, is naïve realism (contra idealism).

  • 1
    Thanks for bringing in the word origin, it is always one of the first things I want clarity about. Might as well start off understanding the word how it was meant to be known!
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 5, 2023 at 13:00
  • It is probably naive realism. There are serious issues with it and many questions that arise from it.
    – Frank
    Feb 5, 2023 at 16:04
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    Even that seemingly naive formula is repleted with details, some of which were pointed out in comments here: for example, we "encounter" things in our head all the time that we do not seem to "will", so that the formula would confer "existence" to possibly non-material things. Another issue, is that what I think I am "encountering" could be in fact "generated" by my mind, although I am not aware of the generation process.
    – Frank
    Feb 5, 2023 at 16:29
  • @Frank, good critique. Definition is where all the action takes place in philosophy.
    – Hudjefa
    Feb 6, 2023 at 2:26

If I wanted to define "existence" as "that which we encounter but cannot will", what philosophical tradition would that put me in? ... For example, I am aware of this table in front of me. ... not just imagined by my mind.

Puts me in mind of this:

What does “matter” mean? Does it mean just “raw material”? No, Aristotle characterizes ὕλη as τὸ δυνάμει. ∆ύναμις means the capacity, or better, the appropriateness for.... The wood present in the workshop [281] is in a state of appropriateness for a “table.” But it is not just any wood that has the character of appropriateness for a table; rather, only this wood, selected and cut to order. But the selection and the cut, i.e., the very character of appropriateness, is decided in terms of the “production” of “what is to be produced.” But “to produce” means, both in Greek and in the original sense of the German Herstellen, to place something, as finished and as looking thus and so, forth, into presencing.

[285] ... The orderable wood in the workshop changes into a table. What sort of being does this change have? The thing that changes is the wood lying present here, not just any wood but this wood that is appropriate. But “appropriate for” means: tailored to the appearance of a table, hence for that wherein the generating of the table — the movement — comes to its end. The change of the appropriate wood into a table consists in the fact that the very appropriateness of what is appropriate emerges more fully into view and reaches its fulfillment in the appearance of a table and thus comes to stand in the table that has been pro-duced, placed forth, i.e., into the unhidden. In the rest that goes with this standing (of what has attained its stand), the emerging appropriateness (δύναμις) of the appropriate (δυνάμει) gathers itself up and “has” itself (ἔχει) as in its end (τέλος).

[286] ... But therefore having-itself-within-its-end (ἐντελέχεια) is the essence of movedness (that is, it is the being of a moving being), because this rest most perfectly fulfills what οὐσία is: the intrinsically stable presencing in the appearance.

Heidegger GA9 On the Essence & Concept of φύσις in Aristotle's Physics

  • Thanks for this contribution. I'm wondering if I could map "intrinsically stable" to "not willed" - things that we can will seem contingent, we can often if not always imagine a thing and its opposite, whereas what exists has some "stability" or is not subject to any capricious "willing".
    – Frank
    Feb 4, 2023 at 19:30
  • I'm not sure of will as capricious wishing so I'd forbear to say much there. Feb 4, 2023 at 20:23
  • Clearly this is redefining "will" for this purpose. It may not match any existing prior definition of "will".
    – Frank
    Feb 4, 2023 at 20:37
  • Yes, I'm more concerned about the effectualness of wishing and imagining things into existence. Korean buddhism speaks of the illusory skyflowers. Feb 5, 2023 at 10:06
  • On the other hand, Kary Mullis imagined PCR into existence. A eureka! moment worthy of abracadabra! Feb 5, 2023 at 10:33

I cannot help you with references, but I suspect you will have to tighten up your definition of encounter, because it can mean to meet with abstract things, like encountering a problem. I also think that you might have to stretch the meaning of encounter in other ways, too- for example, consider the Earth's core; most people would agree that it exists, but we don't really encounter it in the usual sense of the word.

  • Yes, this is a very rough idea at this point. And yes, it is probably fraught with many difficulties. Indeed, "encounter" could be quite indirect: we "encounter" atoms via indirect evidence for example (similar to the Earth's core). But the second part of the formula is effective: we don't "will" the indirect evidence we observe?
    – Frank
    Feb 4, 2023 at 17:43
  • Maybe I'm trying to triage what we become aware of between what we can conjure up as an internal movement of our mind, and what we cannot "conjure up".
    – Frank
    Feb 4, 2023 at 17:45

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