Being and Existence

Being and existence in philosophy are related and somewhat overlapping with respect to their meanings. Classical Greek had no independent word of “existence.” The word “existence,” as distinguished from the word “being,” arose in the Middle Ages. Influenced by Islamic philosophy that recognized the contingency of the created world as compared with God the Creator, Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas used the Latin word “existere” (“to exist” or “to appear”) as distinct from “esse” (“to be”) or “essentia” (“essence“). The Medieval distinction between essence and existence in the world, however, was critiqued by later theologians and philosophers for various reasons.

Modern Existentialism maintained the distinction between essence and existence, but reversed the Medieval priority of essence over existence. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who critiqued the Thomistic theory of the causal relationship of difference between God and the world as well as its related theory of the distinction between essence and existence, dealt with the question of being in a very new way that involved the human being as Dasein (“being-there”), which to him is synonymous with existence.

The majority of analytic philosophers have rejected the distinction of being and existence. But, for philosophers and theologians who consider the distinction between being and existence an important one, there are two significant issues: teleology and individuation or embodiment. For what purpose do individual things exist? How do things become individual embodiments of their corresponding universals? A notable approach to the first issue was proposed by the American theologian Schubert Ogden, who combined existentialism with process theism to explain the unity of reality centering on God’s aim. The Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suárez approached the second issue by proposing that the form and matter of a substance in union determine the individuality of that embodied substance.

God Infinite Infinity Endless Spirit Spiritual

God is Infinity

Relationship of being and existence

Greek philosophy

History shows a rather complex relationship between being and existence. The classical Greek equivalent of the English verb “be” was “einai,” but there seems to have been no classical Greek equivalent of the English verb “exist.” It was only in the Middle Ages that the Latin word “exsistere” was made from a combination of “ex” (“out of”) and “sistere” (“to cause to stand”) to mean “to exist,” “to appear,” or “to emerge.” The reason why classical Greek did not have any distinct concept of “exist” was that in Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle the primary project was a veridical one of articulating truthfulness in reality through copula sentences of the form “X is Y.” The theory of predication was central, and the theory of existence peripheral. So, even when Greek philosophers wanted to express the concept of existence, they did so only in the predicative form; “X exists” was expressed as “X is something.” Thus, the word “einai” (“be”) had to be used more widely than its predicative meaning. It was in the context of this wider use of “einai” (“be”) that Aristotle referred to the concept of existence as “hoti esti” (“that it is”) as distinguished from “ti esti” (“what it is”), which would mean essence.

Of course, in late Greek philosophy the old Greek verb “hyparkein” (originally, “to make a beginning”) started to be used non-technically to mean “to exist”; but, it and its early Latin rendering “exsistere” still continued somewhat ambiguously to retain the predicative meaning as well, and furthermore the use of the noun exsistentia (“existence”) was not popular yet.

Medieval Christian philosophy

Eventually, however, the concept of “existentia” (“existence“) was established amongst Medieval Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas as a technical term contrasted with “essentia” (“essence“), an abstract form of the presumed present participle of “esse” (“to be”). While essence apparently meant “what a thing is,” existence meant “that a thing exists.” According to Charles H. Khan, this development of the modern sense of existence occurred under the influence of Islamic philosophy, which distinguished existence (wujud) from essence (mahiat) in its radical revision of Greek ontology in light of a biblical metaphysics of creation within Islam which distinguished the created world (contingency) from God (necessity). Thomas adopted this, maintaining that the essence and existence of each and every contingent, finite creature are distinct, while essence and existence are identical within God, who is therefore preeminent over the world. According to him, God causes each and every finite creature to “exist” with its “essence.”

Thomas, however, indicated this causal relationship of difference between God and the world in terms of the “analogia entis” (“analogy of being”), referring to God and each finite creature as “ipsum esse subsistens” (Self-subsistent Being) and “ens” (being), respectively. This means that in spite of the development of “existentia” (“existence”) as a new word with a distinctive meaning in the Middle Ages, still the term “esse” (“to be”) was used more generally to cover the meaning of existence as well. Modern existentialism’s emphasis upon the priority of existence over essence was still alien.

Later criticisms of the Thomistic position

The Thomistic distinction between essence and existence in the created world was criticized by later theologians and philosophers for various reasons. Critics include Duns Scotus, Francisco Suárez, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. But, especially existentialim’s criticism was notable because of its attempt to reverse the order of priority between essence and existence. Søren Kierkegaard denied the importance of the objective essence of a thing in favor of the subjective appropriation of it. He, thus, held that there is no truth in objective knowledge of essence itself, and that the truth about reality is revealed only in the human subject’s “passion of the infinite” as a believer. In talking about the essence and existence of a human being, Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom existentialism meant an atheistic humanism, went so far as to say that because there is no Creator, existence precedes essence.

The most notable critic, however, was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. According to Heidegger, Thomas’ theory of the causal relationship of difference between God and the world through the analogy of being, and his related theory of the distinction between essence and existence in the world, are far from answering the fundamental question of the meaning of being, which was not answered in the long philosophical tradition in the West anyway because being itself was taken for granted as self-evident or undefinable. Therefore, in order to let the human being constantly pursue the question of “being” (Sein), Heidegger referred to that human being as “Dasein” (literally “being-there”), who, as a “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-sein) thrown out to the temporal and phenomenological world of “beings” (Seiendes), is faced with angst and mortality there, but who nevertheless is expected to experience authenticity by standing in the openness of “being” in the midst of “beings.” Here, the sense of “being” to be experienced is pre-conceptual and non-propositional in the everyday situation of human life; and the causal relationship of difference between God as “Self-subsistent Being” (ipsum esse subsistens) and the created world of “beings” (ens) in Thomas’ metaphysics is superseded by the distinction between “being” (Sein) and “beings” (Seiendes) in Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology in pursuit of the meaning of “being.” For Heidegger, the word “existence” (Existenz) is simply synonymous with Dasein: “The ‘essence‘ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

Being and existence in analytic philosophy


Many analytic philosophers in the twentieth century such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and W.V. Quine, believed that being and existence are identical, that is, that what there is, is precisely what exists. It is basically so-called “actualism,” and it maintains that there is no kind of being beyond actual existence. The identity of being and existence also means that every predicative proposition can be translated into an existential one without changing meaning. For example, adding “exists” to “a wise man” to give the complete sentence “A wise man exists” has the same effect as joining “some man” to “wise” using the copula to say “Some man is wise.” So, the “exists” of the existential proposition takes the place of the copula. This view is the basis of the dominant position in modern Anglo-American analytic philosophy: that existence is asserted by the existential quantifier.


Of course, there is a school called “possibilism,” which distinguishes between being and existence, that is, between what there is and what exists, saying that the latter comprises a relatively small portion of the former. According to this, although there are things that actually exist, there are also things that do not exist: they are what there merely are, not having existence or actuality, which only things that actually exist have. Such things are non-existent possible things like Santa Claus, unicorns, aliens, and people that were never born. They could have actually existed, but as it happens, they simply do not. To this possibilist realm of the non-existent, some of the followers of Alexius Meinong such as Terence Parsons would add impossible objects like square circles and wooden iron, which have contradictory properties.

Adjusted possibilism

But, scholars such as Quine, for whom there is no distinction between being and existence, have critiqued possibilism, by saying that we cannot embrace non-actual possible objects since there is no real criterion of identity for them: “No entity without identity.” This critique from Quine has given rise to an adjusted version of possibilism, which now agrees that being and existence are identical, saying that everything there is exists, but which nevertheless insists that not everything that exists is actual, that is, that there exist things that fail to be actual. This, however, looks like a word game, simply renaming being as “existence” and existence as “actuality.” Thus, a more advanced version of possibilism, which takes Quine’s objection more seriously, has been developed by David Kellogg Lewis.

Modal realism

While agreeing with the adjusted version just mentioned above that being and existence are identical, but that actuality is to be distinguished from existence, Lewis has a new understanding of actuality, treating it in terms of relation. Thus, according to Lewis, when people say that there are things that exist but are not actual, it means that there are things that are spatiotemporally unrelated to the world, although they exist in a full-fledged sense in other worlds. The word “actual,” then, is an indexical, whose reference on any given occasion of utterance is determined by the context or world in which the utterance occurs. So, when one utter, “New York City is actual” (or more naturally, “New York City actually exists”), its truthfulness is made not because actuality is some intrinsic property of New York City but rather because New York City occupies the same world as the speaker. Lewis’ version of possibilism is sometimes called “modal realism,” and it is quite Quinean.

Different realms of reality

The issue on whether or not there are different worlds or realms of reality is not new. Ancient Greek philosophy observed that there are concrete, material beings in the spatiotemporal world in the sense of physical reality which is detectable by physical senses or physical instruments, while there are also ideas and values such as love, justice, and good which however are not of the same physically sensible material. For Plato, those ideas and values in an incorporeal realm of the world are real beings because they are self-existent and immutable, while material beings in the corporeal world are merely their ephemeral “shadows” far from real beings. For Aristotle, by contrast, only individual things called substances in the spatiotemporal world are fully existent beings, and other beings, called categories, such as relation, quantity, time and place, and Plato’s ideas and values, have a derivative kind of being, dependent on those individual things. In the Middle Ages, based upon a biblical metaphysics of creation, the notion of existence was established to show the emergence of the created world, distinguishable from being in general and also from essence.

The Plato-Aristotle tension above was echoed in the Medieval controversy between realism and nominalism. The approach of realists was to argue that the sentence “Socrates is wise,” which contains a noun reference only for “Socrates,” can be rewritten as “Socrates has wisdom,” which apparently proves the existence of a reference for “wisdom” as well. This argument, however, was inverted by nominalists such as William of Ockham in arguing that “Socrates has wisdom” can be rewritten as “Socrates is wise,” which contains a reference only for “Socrates.” The nominalist method has basically been inherited in analytic philosophy, which holds that there is hardly any kind of being beyond actual existence.

Teleology, being, and existence

The teleological nature of reality was discussed by Plato and Aristotle. Plato identified the Idea of the Good as the ultimate cause or measure in the whole of reality, saying that things that are gain their usefulness or value from it. Aristotle maintained that each substance has its final cause, which guides it throughout various changes it goes through to reach what it is. According to him, the final cause is virtually identical with the formal and efficient causes because all these can be attributed to the form of each substance, which is immanent in it, although God as “pure form” is the ultimate final, formal, and efficient cause, towards which all things tend. This teleological approach does not believe that the final causes of different substances are incompatible with one other, but rather that they are for one another. Hence, “extrinsic finality,” through which the harmonious relationship of different individuals is made possible, is distinguished from the “intrinsic finality” of each individual, through which it is directed towards what it is. Aristotle’s teleology was inherited to the creationist theology of Thomas Aquinas and others in the Catholic Church.

With the coming of the modern period, philosophers began to question teleology. Francis Bacon and René Descartes cautioned against the abusive attribution of Aristotelian final causes to various things and events. One of the few exceptions was Gottfried Leibniz’ notion of “pre-established harmony” of monads programmed by God. Immanuel Kant rejected not only the Aristotelian teleology of nature, but also the possibility of traditional metaphysics itself. Kant limited teleology to the subjective realm of mind and explored its possibility within the realms of ethics and aesthetics. Although Hegel temporally revived teleology in his speculative metaphysics, most post-Hegelian philosophers were not interested in ontology with its teleology of nature.

Analytic philosophers refused metaphysics itself and limited the question of teleology to the realm of conceptual analysis of languages. However, in the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger brought back ontology as a central question of philosophy. Combining the two trends of thought of his time, phenomenology and hermeneutics, Heidegger developed ontology as a hermeneutic phenomenology. Within the framework of hermeneutic phenomenology, which still incorporated the Kantian skepticism of speculative metaphysics, he discussed the teleology of being, conceptualizing the interconnected mode of human existence as “being-in-the-world” (In-der-Welt-sein).

Also with the emergence and development of existentialism, the question of the purposiveness, value, and relatedness of being has been addressed in a new way. Martin Buber, for example, dealt with it in the context of the “I-Thou” relationship. Gabriel Marcel came up with the mutual, communal activity of being. However, although Buber and Marcel were theists, existentialism in general has often been critiqued of being fundamentally humanistic. Therefore, any teleology or theory of value developed by existentialism, no matter how insightful it may sound, has tended to be blamed for being self-made. At the same time, traditional Aristotelian teleology has been criticized of not being able to successfully establish the true relations not only amongst different individual substances but also between them and God because of the Aristotelian notion of God as self-contained “pure form” or “unmoved mover.” To address these possible weaknesses of both existentialism and Aristotelianism, Schubert Ogden proposed to link the experiencing human subject in existentialism and the experiencing God of dipolarity in process thought, hoping that the linkage of existentialist humanism and process theism in this regard would bring in a situation in which the unity of the whole of reality is realized centering on God’s aim.

Existence as individuation or embodiment

The world of phenomena is the world where many particular things exist. Each particular thing is considered to have been developed or determined from its corresponding category or universal idea. The universal idea, then, is considered to have been individuated or embodied in that particular thing.

Catholic philosophy

Medieval Catholic philosophy dealt with the issue of individuation. According to Thomas Aquinas, the cause of individuation is matter, because different horses, for example, result when their common universal idea of “horseness” is individuated by matter in each of them. It is just like today many different cars of the same model come into existence when its common mold is stamped to materials, which therefore turn out to be the cause of individuation. Thomas called matter with this function “materia quantitate signata” (“matter signed in quantity”). According to Duns Scotus, however, formless matter, which is itself indeterminate, cannot serve to make “horseness” into this horse or that horse. Although horseness itself may be common and repeatable, the horseness of this horse is to be distinguished from that of that horse. Scotus held, therefore, that individuation is caused by a determination called a haecceitas (“thisness”). It is not a bare particular in the sense of a substance but rather a non-qualitative property of a substance. It is something like a form. Francisco Suárez, a Spanish Jesuit philosopher in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, went one step further, by maintaining that the principle of individuation is both this matter and this form of a substance in union, although the form is the chief principle: “adaequatum individuationis principium esse hanc materiam et hanc formam inter se unitas, inter quae praecipuum principium est forma.”


In many religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity, enlightened people are considered to be individual embodiments of universal truth. Concrete existence is understood to have an intricate relationship with truth. Daoism, for example, sees Lao Tzu as the embodiment of Tao. In Christianity, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Here, truth is even understood not as some kind of property or object one can possess or lose, but as existence itself. So, Jesus did not say, “I have the truth,” but “I am the truth.” Christian theology identifies him as the Logos Incarnate. Avatamsaka Sutra in Buddhism describes the world as the manifestation of truth.

See also


  • Aristotle. The Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred. London: Penguin Books, 1998. ISBN 0140446192
  • Arnauld, Antoine, and Pierre Nicole. Logic, or, The Art of Thinking: Containing, Besides Common Rules, Several New Observations Appropriate for Forming Judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521482496
  • Eagleton, Terry. The Meaning of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0199210705
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. ISBN 0060638508
  • Heraclitus. Fragments. Translated by Brooks Hexton. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 0142437654
  • Kahn, Charles H. “On the Terminology for Copula and Existence.” In Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: Essays Presented by His Friends and Pupils to Richard Waltzer on His Seventieth Birthday. Edited by S. M. Stern, Albert Hourani, and Vivian Brown. London: Bruno Cassier, 1972.
  • Kahn, Charles H. “Why Existence Does Not Emerge as a Distinct Concept in Greek Philosophy?” In Philosophies of Existence: Ancient and Medieval. Edited by Parviz Morewedge. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982. ISBN 082321060X
  • Loux, Michael J. Ockham’s Theory Of Terms. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974. ISBN 0268005508
  • Magee, Bryan. The Story of Philosophy. New York: DK Pub., 1998. ISBN 078943511X
  • Mill, John Stuart. A System of Logic. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884.
  • Ogden, Schubert. The Reality of God and Other Essays. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1992. ISBN 087074318X
  • Plato. The Republic. Translated by Sir Henry Desmond Pritchard Lee. London: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 0140449140
  • Prior, Arthur Norman. “Existence.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. ISBN 0028949900
  • Quine, W.V. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. ISBN 0231033079
  • Quine, W.V. “On What There Is.” In From a Logical Point of View. New York: Harper, 1953.
  • Suárez, Francisco. Disputationes Metaphysicae, disputatio V. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
  • Charles H. Kahn, “Why Existence Does Not Emerge as a Distinct Concept in Greek Philosophy?” in Philosophies of Existence: Ancient and Medieval, ed. Parviz Morewedge (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 15.
  • Ibid., 7.
  • Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 67.
  • W.V. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 23.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Teleology.” Retrieved September 10, 2008.
  • Schubert Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1992).
  • Francisco Suárez, Disputationes Metaphysicae, disputatio V, sectio VI, 15. Retrieved August 12, 2008.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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