This is a question more about how we can discuss about objects which no longer exist. For example, let's say that Socrates no longer exists (ignore any religious side of this and consider Socrates as simply being a physical entity) how come we can still use past tense language to discuss about him?

If we say that existence is a mandatory property of an object then Socrates IS not an object, however Socrates WAS an object, as Socrates does not exist, but has existed. This presents several issues for me, how can Socrates, not being an object, be an element of my domain of discourse when a set is defined as a 'collection of objects'?

How can Socrates be a referent in my language when Socrates is not an object? This would suggest that 'Socrates' does not denote anything, which it clearly does.

How can we have sentences and relations pertaining to Socrates when he does not exist as an object?

  • One can argue that talking about Socrates one does not refer to an actual object but to the memory of that object (eg the texts talking about Socrates) and these do exist.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 12:04
  • Another would be to take a higher-dimensional view of spacetime - something like "Socrates exists at a point in time t"
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 12:13
  • 1
    In usual contexts we say "Socrates existed" and not "Socrates exists". Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 13:28
  • The "domain of discourse" of natural language is quite wide: we usually speaks on a lot of things: inflation, bank account, Napoleon, Odysseus, Superman, etc. Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 13:30
  • 1
    @Confused I'm a bit failing to see a difficulty here. Can't we have a universe of discourse that contains objects that have ceased to physically exist, as well as objects that do no exist yet? What would block them from entering the universe of discourse? Existence is not a blocker, otherwise we would be restricted to talking about only things that physically exist now - and even then, that might be slippery to define.
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 19:16

7 Answers 7


Existence cannot be a property of an object, because "being a property of X" supposes that X already exists. The object Socrates did exist (essentially) in some period of time and no longer exists today. If existence had to be a "property" objects, it would have to be a very special one, that would take precedence over other properties, that might be conditioned on the existence property.

You can still mention the name Socrates today, that is not a problem: we talk about many things that do not exist all the time (unicorns...), but "Socrates" is not an object that was forever and then happened to have the property "existence" in some period of time. What's left today of Socrates in our inter-subjective world is a name and a series of associations to that name.

  • How can the 'object' be in a domain of discourse (set)? It does not exist, does it happen such that the 'idea' becomes an element of the set, or is a set a broad association that can hold for an object that does not exist?
    – Confused
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 18:19
  • @Confused Don't we routinely have things in our domain of discourse that don't necessarily "exist", at least in an informal way, on the informal understanding of "existence" as material existence. A set is only an abstract grouping of things that we use for convenience but does not in itself exist, at least not materially. But I'm not sure how you want this discussion to go: are you interested in an informal investigation, or in a formal or mathematical discussion?
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 18:30
  • Ok, lets keep it informal, so when we describe a set as a collection of 'object's our use of 'object' is informal, abstract object can be argued as 'existing' always but a physical objects that no longer 'exist' can be elements too? Is it that the definition of 'set' is not quite ideal to represent all these purposes?
    – Confused
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 19:05
  • @Confused then I think "exists" needs to be more precisely defined. Yes, a philosophical object can be an element of a set, just because a set if nothing but an abstract objects that contains pointers to other objects. Elements of a set are not required to "exist" materially, and a set does not materially exist either.
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 19:09
  • I think the issue becomes if there is no object 'Socrates' then what does 'Socrates' denote? Is 'Socrates' a philosophical object or the physical one? Sets are abstract in nature but 'Socrates' was abstract?
    – Confused
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 19:22

When we think rationally (which for the sake of this answer I'll equate to talking or writing), we manipulate or inspect objects. We assign predicates to them and explore their relations.

But these objects are emphatically not objects in the real world: They are models of these objects in our mind. When we imagine Hulk Hogan in pink underwear, we are not manipulating the real Hulk Hogan but out mental model of him. The difference between the two would become clearer if you confused them.

People who manipulate real-world objects are craftsmen and workers. People who manipulate mental objects are philosophers and scientists (which, not coincidentally, were once not distinguished).

Your conundrum is easily solved by this realization: When Socrates is "an element of my domain of discourse", as you phrased it, you are talking about your model of Socrates. The existence of that model is fairly independent of Socrates' existence. Fair enough, the mental model of Socrates that Plato had was probably much more accurate than ours, two millennia after his death. But of course we have mental models of things that are not in our immediate presence, whether they exist at all and will return from the gym in two hours or not.

In general, the relation between actual objects and our mental models of them is one of the main questions in philosophy. Particularly tricky is the question what we can say about those objects given that all we have are our mental models.


The SEP article on quantification goes over this topic:

Even if there is no change in the domain of quantification, you may nevertheless think that existence is only temporary. Socrates did not exist either before 490 BCE or after 399 BCE ... The moral of the temporal versions of BF and CBF [Barcan Formula and Converse Barcan Formula] is only that unrestricted quantification ranges over an immutable and necessary domain of objects, whether or not they enjoy temporary and contingent existence. The difficult question remains of how to answer Quine’s question “what is there?” once one abandons the thesis that no matter what condition F may be, there are objects that satisfy the condition. For more on different variants of Meinongianism, the reader may consult the entry on existence.

... [A final] option to consider is to take the derivability of CBF in tense and modal logic at face value, and embrace the conclusion that existence is indeed immutable and necessary. These are the theses that Williamson (2013) calls “permanentism” and “necessitism”. The task for each approach is to explain our initial reluctance to embrace them in the first place. Take the apparent resistance to accept the claim that Socrates will always be something despite the fact that he died in 399 BCE. The permanentist may respond that if we are initially disinclined to accept this claim, it is only because we mistakenly think that because a person, for example, is a concrete object, a past or a future person must be concrete as well. Socrates, which is a past person, was not a person either before 490 BCE or after 399 BCE; indeed, Socrates is now not a person, nor will he be one in the future.


Object it is something, that exist somewhere else. If you don't have object here - it mean minus-stance of object existence here, non-existence(here). Objects usually are not unique, objects have functionality. Some rare objects that are not exist nowaday or exist only in one instance, but have similar denoting called artifacts.

Socrat is not an object, he was man and he have thoughts, but now all this exist as information in things - books, pictures, so, Socrat is close to "εἶδος". Socrat is not exist as a body, or thing - he has not functionality. His "existence" characteristics depends on your cognitive abilities and knowledge. You can't "use" Socrat as an object.

Object - it is thing-pure sighifier-reflex function of the subject mind.


how can Socrates, not being an object, be an element of my domain of discourse when a set is defined as a 'collection of objects'?

Simple. Let x be the set of Socrates that exist. Since x is empty Socrates does not exist.

Not everything about an object exists as a property of that object. For example, right now you exist somewhere. That somewhere has x y and z coordinates. But absolutely nothing about you contains those coordinates. In fact they can change without you changing at all.

If we say that existence is a property that must exist of an object

Then existence isn't modeled by the existence of the object. It's modeled by a property. In such a model you could have many non-existent objects. In such a system not having an object is no longer about it's existence, it's about if you thought to model it.


How you denote objects fully depends of the context in which you are speaking:

  • Normal, everyday language: we can do whatsoever we wish with no recourse to formal logic or even common sense (whatever that is!). Other people will figure it out, or not. You are absolutely correct in assuming that problems have and will occur due to this. Misunderstandings leading to wars etc. Clearly, the human brain is able to juggle past and future states of their representation of the world; and one could argue that that is the only things it can think about (because the present, i.e. the actual instant of "right now" will itself take time to be processed by the senses, so is at any point of time already part of the past, from the point of view of the brain; even if you are "right now" doing some kind of meditation which has you focus your awareness on the current sense input).
  • Formal predicate logic, lambda calculus, boolean logic and so on and forth: These often have no notion of time, so the way you'd transfer reality into their language is taking a snapshot of reality at a specific instant of time. Not an interval, but an actual instant. Therefore the problem goes away - every object that may or may not exist at different times will either exist, or not exist, at each particular instant.
  • Temporal logic is a logic (and of course there are several different ones) which includes the concept of a timeline, so basically the changes occuring to objects, including existence, over time. They (may) have the necessary formalism to talk about things existing or not, or the existence changing. For example, Łoś' Positional Logic is an extension of predicate logic with variables denoting instants in time, and intervals of time and rules to work with them.

The best answer I've encountered for these questions comes from a philosopher named Saikat Guha. I don't know to what extent his work is publicly available, and it's been a while since I read it, but I'll give you what I remember. He thought that words (and names) refer to a combination or spectrum of concrete and intentional existence. At a minimum, on this view, the name "Socrates" denotes some minimally internally consistent sum of thoughts and ideas concerning a particular personality associated with a literary character. Presumably, but not necessarily, the name also denotes an influential Athenian in ancient Greece. At any rate, we can speak fruitfully of Socrates as an intentional object independently of settling whether or not he is (i.e., has always been) a merely intentional object.

While we can deal the same way with characters who we know to have merely intentional existence (the standard example being Sherlock Holmes), it is impossible by definition to deal with merely concrete objects in this way, since speaking or thinking about something necessarily involves intentionality. Ironically, this way of looking at things seems to stand the question on its head, making our contact with Socrates and Sherlock Holmes (the thoughts and ideas they evoke) seem a bit more straightforward than our contact with anything concrete or "present".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .