Existence Exists

Reginald Firehammer

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXIX-- January 4, 2005

The following question about Ayn Rand's famous statement of the axiomatic concept, "existence exists," is an important one. I am reproducing the question and my answer because someone told me they found it very helpful in understanding the meaning of, "existence exists."

The Question

"It's still not clear to me how to treat existence. Specifically, is it a property? If it is, then are we saying that a property can be a property of itself—that existence can be a property of existence? How does this make sense and doesn't this lead to an infinite regress, e.g. existence is a property of existence, which is a property of existence...? If it's not a property, then what is it?"

My Answer:

The problem is partly due to the fact we use the word existence to designate two different concepts, and we are not usually very careful to distinguish between them. Ayn Rand, herself, I think, made that mistake. In fact, her famous "existence exists" uses both meanings.

Existence, as a concept for, something, is the concept for, "all that is," without regard to what actually is or the actual nature of anything that is. It is, every entity, attribute, action, event, or phenomenon (which would include phenomena of consciousness, for example) that is at that moment. It does not include everything that, "has ever existed or will ever exist," because some past things no longer exist and future things do not yet exist, and neither can be part of what now exists. It is very important and must be emphasized that existence, as a, "something," only means, "all that is," which means, "all existents." There is no existence apart from existents that are, "right now."

The other meaning of existence is the universal quality or attribute (a property) of everything that exists, and pertains to every existent, and nothing else. Now the question is, what, exactly, is the attribute called existence?

The interesting thing is, as an attribute, existence describes nothing about existents themselves, its meaning is not ontological, but epistemological and it has two functions.

Synthetic Concepts 

The first function of the concept existence as an "attribute" is to distinguish between concepts that have actual ontological extension (units or referents) and those concepts which exist as concepts but have no ontological extension. Concepts without ontological extension are always synthetic. They include such obvious concepts as the phoenix, Pegasus, and unicorns. They are constructed of components (attributes and characteristics) derived from concepts that do have real ontological extension, such as the qualities of a horse and the qualities of a bird (wings) used to synthesize the concept Pegasus. Existence is used, in this context, to answer the question, "does such'n'such exist?" meaning, does this concept have actual ontological referents.

[Invention and fiction both use synthetic concepts. In the case of invention, some synthetic concepts will have ontological extension if the invented idea is actually made concrete.]

Contingent Concepts

The second function of the concept existence as an "attribute" pertains to things that possibly exist, but, within a certain contexts, may not exist. In this sense, the context must always be specified (or understood) and the existents in question must be possible ontological existents. This meaning is so common, we almost do not notice it, and frequently use other words to mean the same thing.

For example, if there is a cookie jar full of cookies everyone has been helping themselves to, someone might ask, are there any cookies left. If there are none left, we might say, "there are no more cookies," or we could say, "none exist," (within the context of the cookie jar) which is perfectly correct, if somewhat awkward. In a more serious way, scientists make many tests for the "existence" of things all the time, chemists for trace elements, nuclear scientist for certain particles, astronomers for new heavenly bodies or phenomena. These things are all actual existents or possible existents, but the fact of their existence within the specified context is in question.

Both uses of existence (the attribute), however, require there first to be a concept about which there is a question, "is there actually an ontological extension of this concept?" or "are there any actual existing entities identified by this concept within this particular context?" The concept actually serves no purpose except where the existence of something is in question.

Existence Exists Means What?

When we say existence (all that is) exists (has the attribute existence), since the "attribute" exists means, "this concept (existence) has actual ontological referents," and the, "something," existence means, "everything that is," its ontological referents just happen to be, "all there is."

Ayn Rand's use of the expression, "existence exists," is one of the most profound of all her marvelous insights. It says in these two words, everything that is, is identified by the concept existence, which is a legitimate concept, because that which it identifies are real ontological existents. Its significance is both ontological and epistemological.

Ontologically it says, essential to every valid concept is the fact of existence.

Epistemologically it says, existence is not a synthetic concept and there is no context in which what it identifies is not a fact.

Reginald Firehammer is a filosofer and author of the book: The Hijacking of a Philosophy: Homosexuals vs. Ayn Rand's Objectivism. He is the author and host of The Autonomist, an online intellectual journal, and a prominent contributor to the SoloHQ forum, as well as a contributor to The Rational Argumentator. In the future, he intends to produce a comprehensive treatise on ontology, consciousness, and ultimately filosofy itself. Mr. Firehammer can be contacted at regi@usabig.com.

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