What are the counterexamples to Kant's argument that existence is not a predicate?



Kant argued that considering existence as a predicate is wrong. A predicate is a feature or characteristic of an object. But logically, existence adds nothing to the characteristics of that object, hence it does not qualify to be a predicate. And if we treat existence as a predicate we are left with a paradox. Consider this example: If A exists then A possesses characteristic of existence, and if A does not exist A lacks the property of existence, but for A to possess any property it must exist in first place, which is a paradox.

I tried to think on the lines of characteristics of an object. Let us consider "Tallest man in California"; now I know that "Tallest man in California" will have the following characteristics: man, lives in California, tallest among all men in California. But it might happen that this person is also married, has a dog and is vegan, i.e., it possesses characteristics that we do not know of. This does not mean that these characteristics are invalid; the same can be said about existence as a property.

I don't know if I am correct or incorrect. What I want help with is:

  1. Correctness of my example
  2. Some other counterexamples on Kant's argument you can think of


Posted 2017-03-07T15:25:55.567

Reputation: 81

For a revamping of the conception of existence as a property, see Francesco Berto, Existence as a Real Property: The Ontology of Meinongianism, Springer (2013)

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-03-07T16:12:00.413

I've always understood the problem to be that if we allow existence as a predicate (or a "perfection") then Anselm's proof of God becomes a valid proof. – user4894 – 2017-03-07T16:22:13.053

The conundrum is realted to the seemingly neutral word "object"; if an object is part of the furniture of our "external world", then it exists (necessarily ?), but then "fictional objects", like fairs and gods are not "objects" at all. If we name "object" something of which we can "speak of", irerspective of the fact that we can be in touch with thm, then existence is not included. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-03-07T17:02:07.453

1I believe that your logic is going wrong because you are considering existence as a "characteristic." If object exists, then it can have characteristics (T, M, C, etc.), but if object does not exist, then it has NO characteristics. Since existence allows object to have characteristics, it does (indirectly) "add" characteristics to object. However, existence itself, is NOT a characteristic ( a predicate). – Guill – 2017-03-13T22:55:18.570



There are no counterexamples to Kant's "argument" because it is not an argument. It is a view of predication under which being/existence is not a "real" predicate discussed in Transcendental Dialectic (Chapter III, Section 4):

"Anything we please can be made to serve as a logical predicate; the subject can even be predicated of itself; for logic abstracts from all content. But a determining predicate is a predicate which is added to the concept of the subject and enlarges it. [...] "Being" is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing... By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing - even if we completely determine it - we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. Otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept: and we could not, therefore, say that the exact object of my concept exists."

One can disagree with Kant's view, or one can even agree with it, but still choose to treat existence as a predicate for technical convenience. It is unclear what path you take in your example. Of course, we can think of listing "characteristics" (Kant's "logical predicates") of an object in a database, and one of those characteristics could be "exists in nature" (like horse) or "fictional" (like unicorn). What Kant is talking about is not such technical convenience that "abstracts from all content", but rather descriptive ("real") predicates that constitute our conceptions of objects. Be it horse or unicorn we do not learn anything new about our conception of them by discovering that such an animal occurs in nature. In fact, we need to form a conception first, and then go out into the nature to find out if an object of this conception exists there. Kant used this view to object to the ontological argument, which first declares existence to be part of the conception of "God", but then infers his real existence from it.

Kant's view was incorporated into the standard predicate logic by Frege and Russell, who treat existence not as a property of objects (predicate), but as a property of properties (quantifier). It applies to a list of properties ("conception") and returns true or false depending on whether there is an object in the domain of discourse which instantiates that list. Of course, existence can still be treated as a "characteristic" of objects with the help of identity, ∃x(x=a) expresses that a exists. But on a closer look what is being asserted is not that a exists but rather that the predicate is-a ("=a") is instantiated. There is no way to say that some a does not exist, ¬∃x(x=a) rather says that being-a is not a property of anything. One can object to such logicization of Kant's view (against his express words, apparently), but this is the prevailing interpretation of what he meant even among opponents of his view. Kant's notion of "conception" was developed into the descriptivist semantics by Russell, which came under heavy criticism, especially by Kripke in 1970s, see Kripke’s Attack on Descriptivism by Speaks, who offered an alternative theory of reference. Arguing with Kripke over Existence on Maverick Philosopher quotes him on existence specifically:

"To deny that it [existence] is a first-level concept is to deny that there is a meaningful existence predicate that can apply to objects or particulars. One cannot, according to Frege and Russell, say of an object that it exists or not because, so they argued, everything exists: how can one then divide up the objects in the world into those which exist and those which don't?"

An alternative approach to existence is pursued in logics of non-existent objects, which go back to Meinong with more recent versions developed by Parsons, Priest, and Zalta. There one does have the existence predicate, denoted E!, in addition to the existential quantifier ∃. Such logics distinguish between "there is" and "exists", where the former applies even to imaginary objects like unicorns and Pegasus, while the latter is something more real. In paticular, ∃x(¬E!(x)) expresses that there are objects that do not exist. But even these logics may not be in a real disagreement with Kant, but only regiment the use of "predicate" differently. This is subtle, see Berto's Existence as a Real Property: The Ontology of Meinongianism for a more radical view that traces Kantian view of existence all the way back to Parmenides:

"What the standard Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation puts in Parmenides’ mouth may be phrased by claiming that, for him, any concept including or entailing nonbeing in any form applies to nothing... much contemporary philosophy is dominated by what one may call the Parmenidean Thesis: everything exists... The philosophers we are about to meet have reinforced the Parmenidean position in two moves: (1) they have expanded the slogan “Existence is not a predicate” into the thesis that existence is (nothing but) property-instantiation; (2) they have also explained existence in terms of the logical notion of quantification. Both moves were made mainly by Frege and, derivatively, by Russell.

[...] Here comes a non-Parmenidean approach. To begin with, “exists” is a predicate of individuals just like the others – a predicate for real, not only from the point of view of our ordinary language’s surface grammar. It is a predicate in the same sense that “eats”, “flies”, and “is a man” are... The motto is Alexander’s famous one: “To be is to have causal powers”... The Parmenidean conception, once forced to admit that even from its viewpoint existence can be a property of individuals, still explains it away, defining it via the existential quantifier and identity, that is, via logical notions. But existence is not taken as a logical notion from now on: if to exist has to do with the enjoying of causal powers, whatever these actually are, they are not logical features."


Posted 2017-03-07T15:25:55.567

Reputation: 38 006


How exactly is the possibility of an unnamed attribute a counterexample to the notion that existence is not an attribute? You have not proven that existence is an attribute, only that it is modally -- possibly an attribute. You can equally decide it should be an attribute, and still have not accomplished anything.

Modal suspension gets rid of the paradox, so it does not matter whether existence might be a property. Things might and might not be in the same way at the same time and in exactly the same manner. I might or might not be home at 7pm petting my dog. Existence might or might not be a property. No possibility of conflict.

In fact you can come up with arbitrarily many modal suspensions, and they all 'solve' this problem. The Meinongians actually end up doing so. If existence is an actual predicate, it produces non-existence as an actual predicate, but the non-existing things are less real than the existing things. They are forced into a modal suspension of fictition, like your invocation of possiblity.

Likewise, the notion of properties of concepts separate from properties of objects is a modal suspension by reference, which splits off the rules that govern the idea of something separately from those that govern the thing itself.

To have a genuine counterexample, you have to get the property you want to label 'existence' back into real reality, and not leave it modally suspended in some alternative reality.


Posted 2017-03-07T15:25:55.567



If you permit things to exist in our imagination then the property of existence in the real world can be a predicate of these things. Irrespective of whether God actually exists, he nevertheless exists as a concept and has certain properties in people's imaginations.

The God in our imaginations and the God which actually exists, if he does, are one and the same thing. Therefore the God which definitely exists in our imaginations, may or may not, depending on whether atheists or theists are right, possess the predicate property of existence in the real world beyond our imaginations.


Posted 2017-03-07T15:25:55.567

Reputation: 265


The Kantian view takes after the Thomist view, and we find an opposing view in Suárez.

First, outlining the Thomist-Kantian common ground.

From Heidegger: The Thomistic doctrine of the distinctio realis between essentia and existentia in ente creato (The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, page 91)

Existere is something other than essence; it has its being on the basis of being caused by another. "Omne quod est directe in praedicamento substantiae, compositum est saltem ex esse et quod est" (De veritate, q.27); each ens, therefore as ens creatum is a compositum "ex esse et quod est", of existing and of whatness. This compositum is what it is, compositio realis; that is to say, correspondingly: the distinctio between essentia and existentia is a distinctio realis. Esse, or existere, is conceived of also, in distinction from quod est or esse quod, as esse quo or ens quo. The actuality of an actual being is something else of such a sort that it itself amounts to a res on its own account.

If we compare it with the Kantian thesis, the Thomistic thesis says — indeed, in agreement with Kant — that existence, there-being, actuality, is not a real predicate; it does not belong to the res of a thing but is nevertheless a res that is added on to the essentia. By means of his interpretation, on the other hand, Kant wishes to avoid conceiving of actuality, existence, itself as a res; he does this by interpreting existence as relation to the cognitive faculty, hence treating perception as position.

In the quote below are the contrasting views, quoted from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: on Essence and Existence.


Many Thomists hold that a real distinction obtains here and that the essence and existence of creatures differ as different entities. Others, among them Dominicus Soto, Lepidi, etc., seem to prefer a distinction other than real. The Scotists, affirming their "formal distinction", which is neither precisely logical nor real, but practically equivalent to virtual, decide the point against a real distinction. Francisco Suárez, with many of his school, teaches that the distinction to be made is a logical one. ...


  • If essence and existence were but one thing, we should be unable to conceive the one without conceiving the other. But we are as a fact able to conceive of essence by itself.


  • It is inconceivable how the existence of a real or physical essence should differ from the essence of its existence.

Chris Degnen

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