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It has occured to me that in trying to define what "existence" is (as in "Existence exists"), I end up with a definition that's pretty much identical to that of the universe: everything that exists. The Ayn Rand lexicon quotes Leonard Peikoff defining the universe thus:

The universe is the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an equally succinct definition of existence. So, obviously, my question is, what is "existence" as distinguished from the universe?

And, on further thought, the lexicon also quotes Galt's speech:

Reality is that which exists; (...)

How is that different?

I have a strong sense that these terms mean different perspectives on the same basic set of referents, but I can't quite put my finger on the distinction, so I'd appreciate it if someone could help me.

asked Dec 16 '11 at 13:34

FCH's gravatar image


While addressing a question of the relationship of 'existence' to 'existent' from the appendix of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology(ITOE):

AR: [T]he concept "existence," at least the way I use it, is in a certain way close to the concept "universe"—all that which exists.
Prof. B: "Existence" is a collective noun almost.
AR: That's right. An existent is, then, a particular which exists.

Existence and identity are an integration of the units which consist of 'every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist.' This too, comes is parsed from pg. 56 of ITOE.

Existence carries with it a certain way of regarding the universe as 'a state of being' or 'the fact of being'.

The universe can used to mean the entirety of existence, or the world of human experience, or sometimes just the elements relevant to a particular discussion or problem [Merriam-Webster]

Reality carries with it the state or quality of being real. In this sense reality is something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily. [Merriam-Webster]
I may be stepping out on a limb here, but this seems to fit in with:

A fact is "necessary" if its nonexistence would involve a contradiction. To put the point positively: a fact that obtains "by necessity" is one that obtains "by identity." Given the nature of existence, this is the status of every (metaphysically given) fact. Nothing more is required to ground necessity. [pg 24 Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR)]

answered Dec 17 '11 at 08:15

dream_weaver's gravatar image

dream_weaver ♦

edited Dec 17 '11 at 13:47

Ah, so I was indeed not the first to notice the proximity of those concepts. Hm... Contrasting "Existence exists" with "The universe exists"... Does the latter say more about which particulars exist? I.e. does "the universe" focus more on the particulars as they actually exist, rather than just saying that whatever exists exists? Ok, I think I'm getting carried away a little...

(Dec 17 '11 at 12:36) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Well, I understand where you're coming from, and I certainly don't mean to uphold an analytic-synthetic dichotomy here. Still, there's got to be some kind of difference between saying "Existence exists" and "the universe exists", has there not? And would it not be at least worthy of consideration that the difference might be where the focus is? On all existents in virtue of being existents vs. on all existents in virtue of comprising the whole?

(Dec 17 '11 at 21:27) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Also, while "existence" certainly isn't a floating abstraction, can you nevertheless really say that "existence exists" expresses something about what kinds of things exist? Don't you form this concept by abstracting away all measurements until you get to existence itself? By analogy, if I say "chairs exist", does that statement really say that, say, armchairs in particular exist? I would say no. Armchairs are included, but there's a reason why they're not explicitly mentioned, and that's because their properties beyond being a chair is irrelevant to the issue at hand. What's wrong with that?

(Dec 17 '11 at 21:30) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Say a mother teaches tells her child "Hot stoves are hot. Stay away from them." The child learns to repeat this, and learns to distinguish between hot stoves and cold stoves (by the fact that hot stoves glow red, and cold stoves are black). He touches cold stoves, but stays away from hot ones. One day his little sister starts to go near a hot stove and he tells her "Stay away. Hot stoves are hot."

One day he is feeling rebellious. He decides to go up and touch a hot stove. He burns his hand and thinks to himself "Oh, hot stoves are hot".

(Dec 19 '11 at 07:37) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The moral of the story is that the two word phrase "existence exists" does not, in itself, express anything about what kinds of things exist. But to know that existence exists, one must know something about what kinds of things exists - that things that exist (i.e. things) possess an identity.

One might know the sentence "hot stoves are hot", be able to distinguish between hot stoves and cold stoves, know not to touch hot stoves, but still not realize that hot stoves are hot. Similarly, one might repeat the sentence "existence exists" but still not consistently accept that existence exists.

(Dec 19 '11 at 07:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image

From Anthony: "...the two word phrase 'existence exists' does not, in itself, express anything about what kinds of things exist."

Correct. "Kinds" of things pertains to identity.

From Anthony: "But to know that existence exists, one must know something about what kinds of things exists - that things that exist (i.e. things) possess an identity."

Also correct. The axiomatic concept of existence is not among the first concepts man forms. It is a conceptual integration of the evidence of man's sensory-perceptual observations and more concrete integrations. Ayn Rand explains this in some detail in ITOE.

(Dec 19 '11 at 15:36) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
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In the comments, the questioner also asks about the relation between the statement, "Existence exists," and the statement, "The universe exists." The excerpts on the topic of "Universe" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon do, indeed, seem to treat "universe" as more or less the same as "existence." This is an example of "universe" as that term is typically used in philosophy. What may be confusing is that physicists often tend to use "universe" more narrowly, referring specifically to the physical "world" or "universe," i.e., the presently understood physical universe, from a primarily physical perspective.

Philosophically, the statement, "The universe exists," may leave open the possibility that there may be "non-universe" things that also exist. If someone says, "The universe exists," that may create the impression that other things might exist, too, in addition to the universe. The redundancy of saying that the universe exists isn't as obvious as in the statement that existence exists. "To exist" is being used as the fundamental concept, so why not express the idea that there is an existence by saying that "existence exists" rather than confuse the issue by switching to "universe" instead of "existence"? We have to use the term "exist" anyway, so why confuse the issue by switching to "universe" when we could simply say "existence"? "Existence exists" focuses on existence per se, while "universe" focuses on the all-inclusiveness of "existence," which is a further development beyond existing at all.

Ayn Rand has commented that the most axiomatic statement about any axiomatic concept is in the form of a redundancy:

...one must remember the axiom: Existence exists. (This, incidentally, is a way of translating into the form of a proposition, and thus into the form of an axiom, the primary fact which is existence.) Please bear in mind the full statement: "Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists." (Atlas Shrugged.) [Quoted from ITOE, Introduction.]
The axiom form of "reality" would be "reality is real." In Galt's Speech, for example, Ayn Rand writes: "A savage is a being who has not grasped that A is A and that reality is real." The opposite of "real" would be "unreal" and would be capable of "existing" only in a consciousness, as some form of idea (in consciousness) that does not correspond to reality, i.e., to existence. In other words, "reality" expresses an element of "identity" that is only indirect and implicit in "existence." "Reality" highlights the identification that "existence is identity."

Update on "Universe"

For further insight on Ayn Rand's usage of the term "universe," refer to her article, "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," reprinted as Chapter 3 in Philoosophy: Who Needs It. One excerpt from that article is included in the topic of "Universe" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, along with the lead excerpt by Dr. Peikoff.

answered Dec 18 '11 at 03:38

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 20 '11 at 20:14

Anyway, I think it's a good question. Rand defines "universe" as "all that which exists". And she defines "existence" as "every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist", further clarifying with "existence exists" and "only existence exists".

It's unclear to me whether Rand intended the concept of "universe" to include that which has ever existed, or will ever exist.

Peikoff apparently does (he says “Time applies only within the universe”). But then, Peikoff is not Rand. It'd be nice to get a quote from Rand.

(Dec 19 '11 at 22:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image

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Asked: Dec 16 '11 at 13:34

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Last updated: Dec 20 '11 at 20:14