Philosophy so often talks about the things that exist in our real world as instead things that do not exist so much in our real world, replaced by ideal concepts in easy chewable tablet form.
Concepts of things that do not exist (or do not exist as they exist) drive our imagination, fiction, sexual fantasy, ingenuity to create new concepts in science and technology for tomorrow, attempts to build a better society for future generations, art, religion, and language. Abstract concepts allow us to define the universe, our sense of self and everything else in it. We have mental images for things like time, space, atoms, genes, and light, though how science has described them differs greatly.
More specific to philosophy, however, is the idea that we can and should conceptualize all the things in existence as more than meets the eye. It is possible, after all, that our senses lie to us, that nothing really exists as we think it does, or even at all. In Plato’s ideal world, each and every thing was represented on some other ethereal plane of pure concept. Imagine, a (possibly physical) plane of the exact mental image of perfect grass, a gigantic endless ocean of pure water, a room full of ideal chairs, a dog that describes all dogs, metal, stone, marble… Literally all unattainable, but clearly somewhere there in the back of your mind, their existence is implicated heavily.
Plato himself did not think that anyone, not even the enlightened autocratic kings (who never mistype nothing), was capable of ever viewing this world. Where are the objective non-objects? Never mind all that. They’re there. Stop questioning your betters.
Various iterations of conceptually perfect existence involving an intelligent God, as in Leibnitz’ surmising led to the best-of-all-possible worlds, attempted to bridge the gap between the classical Greek aether and our own crass reality.
The argument is often made that everything exists (or exists as it does, or exists in its ideal state) simply because God said so. We can therefore surmise the existence of God (which is the same as God existing as He does, in his ideal state), they claim. Critical thinkers among us are quick to point out that this is not only circular logic, but narcissistic thinking. We are not fine-tuned, we live as one example in a set with an unknown quantity (at least containing ourselves), with an existocentric view outward, not knowing how many Big Bangs failed, how often matter failed to cohere, how many times life did not arise. Science may now be supporting the multiple dimension model, which opens up wholly new and even more ridiculous speculation on the nature of reality and existence. We are just lucky, in the same way that first-world attractive wealthy white kids are, to have shared the formality of “happening to exist.” As I have often said, reality exists because it has to; if it didn’t, then it wouldn’t, and I think I could tell a difference.
Because then there’s Alex Meinong, who stated that existence is merely a property of things that so exist.
The theory is based around the purported empirical observation that it is possible to think about something, such as a golden mountain, even though that object does not exist. Since we can refer to such things, they must have some sort of being. Meinong thus distinguishes the “being” of a thing, in virtue of which it may be an object of thought, from a thing’s “existence”, which is the substantive ontological status ascribed, for example, to horses but denied to unicorns. Meinong called such nonexistent objects “homeless”; others have nicknamed their place of residence “Meinong’s jungle” because of their great number and exotic nature.
Types of obects, according to Meinong, included the following, with even further categorization down the line:
- Existence (Existenz, verb: existieren), or actual reality (Wirklichkeit), which denotes the material and temporal being of an object
- Subsistence (Bestand, verb: bestehen), which denotes the being of an object in a non-temporal sense, includes concepts like love and irony, numbers and theorems.
- Absistence or Being-given (Gegebenheit, as in the German use es gibt, i.e. “there are”, “it is given”), which denotes being an object but not having being, such as square circles, or iron that is made of wood.
Further confused thus by the unnecessary philosophical categorization of things, we are only now starting to determine what is a thing-in-itself, and what is a thing-not-in-itself.
Immanuel Kant (as in, Kant understand it), posited the ‘existence’ of the noumenon, the thing that exists in your mind before the senses, and the thing-in-itself (ding an sich), which may or may not be synonymous, depending on your perspective. Like with Plato, these are unknowable, but must exist, otherwise we would be faced with appearances without anything actually bothering to appear. A lot of this requires intuition, effectively reducing that hypothesis to rubbish during morning meditation. This may lead to limits on knowing, with inner unknowable senses explaining parts or whole of the phenomenal world.
Certain semantic definitions or unnecessary categories of things lead to things not-being-in-themselves, while being synonymous with the thing nonetheless. Good examples of this arise with synecdoche, a figure of speechin which a term is used in one of the following ways:
- Part of something is used to refer to the whole thing (pars pro toto), such as farm hands, a set of wheels, those long-hairs, or Great Britain, or the States
- A thing (a “whole”) is used to refer to part of it (totum pro parte), such as the United Kingdom referring to England.
- A specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, like the good book, or one who is good people.
- A general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, such as bugs, your John Handcock, or genericized trademarks.
- A material is used to refer to an object composed of that material, like the good silver, brandishing cold steel, wearing threads or glasses or a rubber.
- A container is used to refer to its contents, like kegs of beer, or barrels of oil.
Or sets that are defined as containing all sets, which would include the said set in an example of a strange loop, sometimes do not contain themselves. The famous example of Russell’s paradox is of a barber who shaves all men who do not shave themselves and only men who do not shave themselves. When one thinks about whether the barber should shave himself or not, the paradox begins to emerge.
One can argue that these abstracts like synecdoche or “lists of all lists that do not contain themselves” are too absurd to exist, or would be an empty or null set. But that might not suffice for someone who believes that existence first lies buried somewhere deep in the essential being of human knowledge, true and irrefutable. As Tom Waits once wrote, “everything you can think of is true.”
These ideas in one form or another persists today, even modern philosopher Sartre defining reality as sets of being and non-being, or no thing, your calculating consciousness both creating and annihilating existence, a concept so frightening that it makes me want to futilely look behind me very quickly just to make sure. Truly, my existence predates my essence, but do we even need the latter at all?
Do these sort of puzzling concepts exist only in the mind? Was Carl Jung’s collective unconsciousness the source and repository of all of our shadowy dreams, hopes and fear? Though, without diverging on an entire tangent, I always flinch in the face of the more formidable paranormal implications of Jung.
More importantly, with modern technology and science growing more and more capable of truly defining matter and mind down to every subatomic particle and electrochemical neural impulse, could it be that this branch of philosophy’s entire field of inquiry isn’t really all that relevant anymore?