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How Is the Question 'Is Existence a Predicate?' Relevant to the Ontological Argument?

Author(s): J. William Forgie


Source: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Dec., 2008), pp. 117133
Published by: Springer
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IntJ Philos Relie (2008) 64: 117-133


DOI 10. 1007/s 11153-008-9 166-9

How is the question 'Is Existence a Predicate?9relevant


to the ontological argument?
J. William Forgie

Received:23 July 2007 / Accepted: 18 December2007 / Publishedonline: 5 September2008


SpringerScience+BusinessMedia B.V. 2008

Abstract It is oftensaid thattheontologicalargumentfails becauseit wronglytreats


existence as a first-levelpropertyor predicate.This has proveda controversialclaim,
and effortsto evaluateit are complicatedby the fact thatthe words 'existence is not a
havebeenusedby philosophersto makeat leastthreedifferentnegproperty/predicate'
ative claims:(a) one aboutafirst-levelphenomenonpossessed by objects like horses,
stones, you and me; (b) anotheraboutthe logical formof assertionsof existence;and
(c) still anotherabouta second-levelphenomenonpossessed by concepts when they
are instantiated.I arguethatonly the last of these claims, originallyvoiced by Kant,
is both plausibleand relevantto the ontological argument.And I try to show thatthe
relevanceof the Kantianversioncomes fromits providingthe underlyingjustification
for a different,and far less controversial,criticismof the ontologicalargument.
Keywords God Ontologicalargument Existence Predicates Gassendi
Kant Caterusobjection
It is frequentlysaidthattheontologicalargumentforthe existenceof God fails because
it wrongly treatsexistence as a first-levelpredicate(property,attribute),1a property
of horses,stones, you and me. But the doctrinethatexistence is not a property(I shall
assume 'first-level'propertyunless indicatedotherwise)has meantdifferentthingsto
its differentproponents.Can we find a sense for the doctrinesuch that it is both true
and can relevantlybe used in criticizingthe (or some) ontologicalargument?
The ontologicalargumenthas traditionallybeen characterizedas an attemptto infer
the existence of God from the natureof God, i.e., to infer that God is from a claim
^ I will use these terms
interchangeably,tryingat any given momentto use the preferredterminologyof the
philosopherthen being discussed.
J. W. Forgie(El)
Universityof California,SantaBarbara,CA 93106, USA
e-mail: forgie@philosophy.ucsb.edu

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118

about what God is. Suppose we believe it is God's nature to have a certain property (p.
Prominent examples of (p have included being a supremely perfect being, being that
than which nothing greater can be conceived and having maximal greatness. Suppose
also that we are convinced that, necessarily, anything having (pexists. Then we could
argue as follows:
God has cp;
Necessarily, anything having <pexists;
Therefore, God exists.
I will treat this "skeletal" version as our representative ontological argument. If we
can get clear on the relevance even to this argument of the doctrine that existence is
not a property, that will be progress enough. So let us ask: How does this argument
treat existence as a property? And how is it wrong for it to do so?
Before we begin, it will prove helpful to have before us another well-known type
of objection to the ontological argument. I will call it the Caterus Objection.2 According to this criticism, the first premise of our skeletal argument is a conceptual truth. It
expresses a relation between concepts, i.e., it asserts that the concept of God is, at least
in part, the concept of something that has <p9or that the concept having (p is included
in, is part of, the concept of God. So understood, the premise asserts that having cpis
a necessary condition for anything's instantiating the concept of God. Accordingly,
that premise is really a disguised conditional statement. It can be translated roughly
as follows: if anything is God, it has (p. Now suppose we accept the premises of the
skeletal argument. Then we can, in a sense, come to know the conclusion that God
exists. But our knowledge will lack existential import. For because of the conditional
nature of the first premise, what we will have come to know in this way is only the
conditional proposition:
(i) if anything is God, it exists.
But we still won't know whether the concept of God we started with is instantiated,
i.e., whether:
(ii) some existing thing is God.
And obviously it is (ii) that we want to know. Since (i) is the most that is established,
and since (i) is compatible with the atheist's claim, 'nothing is God' or 'there is no
God', it is too weak to prove what was intended.
It is important that this criticism be put epistemically.3 Some philosophers maintain
that if (ii) is true at all, it is necessarily true. In that case (ii) would, quite trivially,
2 So named because of the forceful
way one version of it is presented by Caterus in his response to
Descartes' ontological proof in the fifth Meditation. This sort of objection is also endorsed by Aquinas in
the Summa Theologiae I, q2, a 1, and more fully in the Summa Contra Gentiles, 1, 1 1, 3, and by Kant at B62 1624 of the first Critique. A particularly striking version has been presented by Shaffer (1962, pp. 307-325).
What unites these several versions, allowing us to see them as expressions of the same criticism, is - to
put it in terms of our skeletal argument - the idea that since the first premise of our argument is merely a
conditional statement, the conclusion eventually derived from it is also conditional and so lacks existential
import.
3 The
point in this paragraph is well-made by Rowe (1975, pp. 196-197) in reconstructing Samuel Clarke's
objection to the ontological argument.

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follow validly from (i). It would then not be correct to say that although the ontological
argument can get us to (i) it is nonetheless to be rejected because (i) is metaphysically
compatible with there existing no God, i.e., that (i) does not entail (ii). The objection
needs to be that even if the skeletal argument can get us to (i) and even if (i) entails
(ii) - as it will if (ii) is necessarily true- still (i) does not justify us in concluding (does
not provide evidence, does not enable us to know, etc.) that there exists a God. Let us
therefore understand the Catenas objection to be making the claim that epistemically
speaking, the skeletal ontological argument yields a conclusion with no existential
import; it tells us at best what conditions anything must meet to count as God, to be
an instance of the concept of God, but does not tell us (does not enable us to come to
know) whether anything actually is an instance of that concept.4 The Caterus Objection can thus be seen as an application of the more general idea- we will call this
Principle Q- that whatever is included in the concept of a thing, even if existence is
included,5 it remains a further question whether that concept is instantiated.6
I will assume that the Caterus objection is a cogent objection to the ontological
argument, at least to our skeletal version.7 But our question concerns the relevance
to the ontological argument of the doctrine that existence is not a predicate. I will
argue that at least three different things have been meant when philosophers have
declared that existence is not a predicate. This multiple ambiguity is in part due to
the fact that not all who proclaim this doctrine mean the same thing by existence. I
will also argue that only Kant's version bears any relevance to the ontological argument, even our skeletal version. And I will suggest, finally, that the relevance of the

4 If the Caterus
Objection is cogent, then it will not matter what is substituted for <p- 'a supremely perfect
being', 'a being than which nothing greater can be conceived', 'a being who has omniscience, omnipotence
and perfect goodness in all possible worlds', or whatever. Nor will it matter whether we replace 'exists' with
'exists in reality', 'necessarily exists', 'exists in all possible worlds', or whatever. So long as one can read
our conclusion as a conditional statement, it will (epistemically speaking) lack existential import and will
be something the atheist could accept. Even if our conclusion read, 'God necessarily exists', or 'God exists
in all possible worlds', if it is translatable as a conditional - viz., as 'if anything is God it necessarily exists
(or exists in all possible worlds)' - it will still be (epistemically) compatible with the claim that nothing is
God.
^ If
having <pis included in a concept and having (p entails existence, then we will say that existence is also
"included" in that concept.
^ Sometimes that further
question can be answered a priori in the affirmative - as, for example, with the
concept being a prime number between 24 and 30 but it is still a further question. And putting existence
in the concept makes no difference. We also know a priori that the concept being an existing prime number
between 24 and 30 is instantiated, but it is not the inclusion of existence which tells us that. And we know
a priori that the concept being a prime number between 47 and 53 is not instantiated. If we add existence
and get the concept being an existing prime number between 47 and 55, we still know a priori that the
augmented concept is not instantiated.
7 One of the virtues of the Caterus
Objection is that it is able to explain away any initial appearance that
the argument proves the existence of God. It does not reject any premise of the argument as false or brand
any inference invalid. It treats the argument as sound, and so accepts the conclusion, "God exists". But the
appearance of success is illusory. For once we accept the translation of the first premise and the conclusion
into conditional statements, we see how and why that conclusion lacks existential import.
I have tried to show that other, seemingly more sophisticated versions of the ontological argument, in
particular Anselm's version and various contemporary "modal" versions, while on the surface appearing to
avoid the Caterus Objection, nevertheless in the end are vulnerable to it. See Forgie (1990).

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IntJ Philos Relig (2008) 64:1 17-133

Kantian version comes from its providing a justification for Principle Q, the principle
that finds application in the Caterus Objection.
I
To my knowledge, Gassendi is the first to have based a rejection of the ontological
argument on the claim that existence is not a property.8 His argument for that claim
can be set out as follows:9
(a)
(b)
(c)
(d)

If existence were a property, something lacking existence would be lacking a


property;
But existence is necessary for anything to have or lack any properties;
So, something lacking existence cannot lack any properties;
Therefore, existence itself is not a property.

It is not my aim to discuss the merits of this argument. But one issue needs to be mentioned. Suppose we agree that existence is a necessary condition for having or lacking
properties. Why should we conclude that existence is therefore not itself a property?
Why should we not conclude, instead, that it is a universal property, a property of
everything (or, what is the same, of everything having any properties at all)? This is
exactly the view argued half a century ago in an elegant paper by George Nakhnikian
and Wesley Salmon.10 On this latter view, one could accept (b) in Gassendi's argument
while rejecting (a)- holding that 'exists' does not admit of internal negation11 and
that therefore nothing "lacks" existence in the sense in which a soldier, together with
all his other properties, might nevertheless lack the attribute of courage.
For our present purposes we do not need to decide between Gassendi and
Nakhnikian and Salmon. But the dispute does draw attention to a feature of
Gassendi's view that needs to be stressed. Even after denying that existence is a
perfection or property, Gassendi is not shy about talking of existence as something
8 The claim that existence is not a
property was made long before Gassendi. Nicholas Rescher has pointed
out that such a view was maintained by al-Frb in the ninth century and by Averroes in the twelfth. See
Rescher (1960). And Aristotle seems to suggest the same view in the Posterior Analytics, 90a. However, the
context for these earlier claims concerns the distinction between essence and existence, not the ontological
argument.
I am here condensing an earlier discussion of Gassendi's views that appears in my "Gassendi and Kant
on Existence" (Forgie 2007). Gassendi's views are found in Gassendi (1984, vol. II, pp. 224-225). For a
justification of the reading of Gassendi presented rather dogmatically here, the reader should consult my
2007 paper.
10 See Nakhnikian and Salmon
(1957, pp. 535-542). It is worth noting Russell's response to the sort of
view Nakhnikian and Salmon espouse:
There is no sort of point in a predicate which could not conceivably be false. ... if there were such
a thing as this existence of individuals that we talk of, it would be absolutely impossible for it not
to apply, and that is the characteristic of a mistake.
(Russell 1956, p. 241). On the other hand, Gareth Evans, also speaking of existence, proclaims: "There is
absolutely no objection to recognizing the existence of a concept-expression true of everything." (Evans
1962, p. 348). For present purposes, we do not need to resolve this dispute.
11
160).
SeeOppy(1995,p.

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that is had by things (objects). It is something that is possessed by, or applies to objects, even though it is not a property of those objects. It is something that operates at
first level, though not as a property. Let us call this a first-level pseudo-property. So
the dispute between Gassendi, on the one hand, and Nakhnikian and Salmon on the
other, is a dispute about whether something, which both sides agree operates at first
level, is a property or only a pseudo-property. Existence, on both views, is something
possessed by objects; and, again on both views, an object must have existence in order
to have any properties at all. The only real issue seems to be whether something that
is a necessary condition for having properties is itself a property.
Suppose Gassendi is right; suppose existence is a first-level pseudo-property. How
would that affect our skeletal ontological argument? The first premise ofthat argument
tells us that God has cpand the second that, necessarily, anything having <pexists. On
Gassendi's view this second premise is completely unproblematic and doesn't distinguish (p from having any property whatsoever. Indeed, the second premise is not
needed at all. Since existence is necessary for having any properties at all, if God has
(p it will follow immediately that God exists. So what is supposed to be wrong about
the ontological arguer finding existence included in the nature of God? If all properties
are existence-entailing, then if it is part of the nature of God to have (p, whatever (p
may be, then it is part of the nature of God that God exists. Proponents of ontological
arguments don't need to argue that there is something special about properties like
being supremely perfect or being such that nothing greater can be conceived or having
maximal greatness such that those properties in particular entail existence. Gassendi's
view seems to make the ontological arguer's task easier. He seems to vindicate the
procedures of the ontological arguer, not undercut them.
Of course, there will now be nothing special about the nature of God. We will in
no better position to prove that God exists, because it is God's nature to have the
existence-entailing property having <p,than we are to prove that horses exist because
it is part of the nature of a horse to have the equally existence-entailing property being
an animal. The absurdity of this latter ontological "proof" of horses might reasonably
be taken to provide a prima facie reductio objection to our skeletal ontological proof
of God. But it would at best only suggest that there was something wrong with the
skeletal argument, not what the error is. We need an explanation of why the skeletal
argument and the horses "proof fail even if, as Gassendi's view seems to suggest,
existence is included in the nature of everything. The Caterus Objection, cited earlier,
can provide such an explanation; Gassendi's claim is not even relevant to the task.

II
Sometimes the words 'existence is not a predicate' (or "'exists' is not a predicate")
are used to make a point about what we are doing - or not doing - when we make
existence statements. When we make statements of the form 'A's exist/do not exist'
or 'N exists/does not exist', it may seem that we are ascribing or denying a property
of existence to A's or to N. The claim that existence is not a predicate is sometimes
used to deny that this is the case. Strawson provides a good example of this use of
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IntJ Philos Relig (2008) 64:1 17-133

the doctrine. He offers the following definition of the expression 'subject-predicate


statement':
Let us give the logical title of 'subject-predicate statements' to statements in
making which we use one part of our sentence to play the referring role and the
remainder to play the ascriptive or classificatory role.12
He then goes on to claim that no existential statement can be a subject-predicate
statement:
An immediate consequence of giving the sense I propose to 'subject-predicate'
statement is that the existential statements presupposed by subject-predicate
statements will not themselves count as subject-predicate statements; . . . For
the four forms are to be so interpreted that the question of the truth or falsity
of a statement exemplifying one of them does not arise unless there are things
(or there is a thing) referred to by the subject-term. Consequently, if we tried
to assimilate a statement of the pattern Vs exist' to any of the four forms, or
to regard it as a subject-predicate statement at all, we should be faced with the
absurd result that the question of whether it was true or false could arise only if
it were true; or, that, if it were false, the question of whether it was true or false
did not arise. This gives a new edge to the familiar philosophical observation
that 'exists' is not a predicate.13
Strawson's argument depends on his claim that subject-predicate statements "presuppose" existence statements. Earlier he had said:
... a statement, S, presupposes a statement, S\ in the sense that the truth of S'
is a precondition of the truth-or-falsity of S ... 14
And it is clear from other remarks15 that when he speaks of a precondition he means
a necessary condition.
Given this notion of presupposition, Strawson is able to develop an argument purporting to show that no existence statement can be a subject-predicate statement. If
an existence statement of the form 'A's exist' is a subject-predicate statement, then
it presupposes a statement that asserts that A's exist. That is, the existence statement
presupposes itself. But to say a statement presupposes itself is to say that it is true or
false only if it is true, and that if it is false, it is neither true nor false. And of course
these consequences are absurd; if a statement is false, then it is not neither true nor
false. Since it is thus absurd to suppose that a statement presupposes itself, the view
that existence statements are subject-predicate statements must be rejected. So when
we say A's exist we are not referring to A's and ascribing existence to A's.
12 Strawson(1952,
13 Ibid.,

p. 182).
pp. 190-191. By the "fourforms"Strawsonmeans the A, E, I and O statementsof categorical

logic.
14 Ibid., 175.
p.
15 See, for
example, ibid., p. 175.

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Strawson evidently takes himself to be showing, in a new way, that existence is not
a predicate. He thus seems to regard the doctrine that existence is not a predicate as
expressing a view about what we may call the "logical form" of existence statements,
the view that existence statements are not subject-predicate statements. On the surface,
at least, Strawson's claim that existence (or 'exists') is not a predicate differs from
Gassendi 's claim that existence is not a property. For Gassendi is making a claim about
existence itself, viz., that it is not like being red or being a house in being a property
or attribute of things.
But some philosophers try to make a connection between these two sorts of claims,
maintaining with Gassendi that existence itself is not a property, but arguing for that
claim by making, like Strawson, a point about the logical form of existence statements.
Ayer provides a good example of this approach. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer
warns of the danger of trying to establish metaphysical conclusions based on features
of the grammar of our language. We can easily be misled, in this way, to think that
existence is an attribute of things:
... in our language, sentences which express existential propositions and sentences which express attributive propositions may be of the same grammatical
form. For instance, the sentences 'Martyrs exist' and 'Martyrs suffer' both consist
of a noun followed by an intransitive verb, and the fact that they have grammatically the same appearance leads one to assume that they are of the same logical
type. It is seen that in the proposition 'Martyrs suffer,' the members of a certain
species are credited with a certain attribute, and it is sometimes assumed that the
same thing is true of such a proposition as 'Martyrs exist'.16
But this would be a mistake, for indeed:
. . . existence is not an attribute. For, when we ascribe an attribute to a thing, we
covertly assert that it exists: so that if existence were itself an attribute, it would
follow that all positive existential propositions were tautologies and all negative
existential propositions self-contradictory; and this is not the case.17
Because of their grammatical similarity to attributive, or subject-predicate, propositions, we may be tempted to think that existential propositions ascribe an attribute of
existence to things, and thus to think that existence is an attribute. But in fact existence is not an attribute, and we are supposed to see this because - and this is the
only support Ayer offers - despite the grammatical similarities, existential propositions have a different logical form (or, in Ayer's language, are of a different "logical
type") than attributive propositions: they do not ascribe an attribute of existence to
things. So while disdaining appeals to similarity in grammatical form to establish the
metaphysical conclusion that existence itself is an attribute, Ayer is quite willing to
appeal to alleged dissimilarities in logical form to show that existence itself is not an
attribute.
16
17

Ayer(1946, p. 42).
Ibid., p. 43.

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Int J Philos Relig (2008) 64: 1 17-133

I shall not discuss Ayer's argument that existential propositions are not attributive
propositions.18 Instead I will assume that both Ayer and Strawson are correct in their
negative claim about logical form, viz., that in making existence statements we are not
ascribing or denying a first-level property of existence to things/objects. My interest
instead is in whether, as Ayer seems to suppose, this claim can be used to show that
existence itself is not an attribute and thus to settle the issue dividing Gassendi from
Salmon and Nakhnikian.
If we accept the claims about logical form made by Strawson and Ayer, then the
question naturally arises: if existence statements are not subject-predicate, or attributive, statements, what are they? What is their "real"logical form. One common answer
is that in making such statements we are making a statement about a concept or a property. To claim that horses exist, but dragons do not, is to claim that the concept horse is
instantiated but the concept dragon is not (or that the property being a horse is exemplified, but the property being a dragon is not). With singular existence statements,
e.g., 'Ronaldhinho exists' and 'Hamlet does not exist', a corresponding view might
be that in these cases we are saying that the concept being identical to Ronaldhinho
is instantiated and the concept being identical to Hamlet is not.
Suppose, then, that we accept some such view of existence assertions, regarding
them not as statements in which we ascribe or deny a first-level property of existence to
objects but instead as statements in which we ascribe or deny a second-level property
to a concept or to a property.19 What implications does this view about the logical
form of existence statements have for existence itself - at least for what Gassendi is
calling existence - and for the dispute we have highlighted between Gassendi on the
one hand and Salmon and Nakhnikian on the other? It does not seem to have any
implications at all. One could accept the claims about logical form and go on to say
this: It is true that when we make existence statements we ascribe or deny the second
level property being instantiated to a concept. But the property being instantiated can
be described as the property having instances among things that exist. Of course, if
Gassendi is correct, this reference to "things that exist" is redundant- only things
which exist could instantiate concepts or have properties. But even if it is redundant
(indeed, because it is redundant) it will not change the truth of the claim it is added
to. If it is correct to claim that in asserting, e.g., that horses exist we are saying of
the concept horse that it is instantiated, it is also correct to claim that in making that
assertion we are saying of the concept horse that is has instances among things that
exist.20 And once we parse the notion of being instantiated in this manner, the way is
open to read having instances among things which exist as having instances among
things which have the first-level property of existence (or simply being co-instantiated
with the first-level property of existence). (Again, a complaint of redundancy can be
seen as simply a reaction to the fact that existence, if a property at all, is a universal
18 For critical discussion see Nakhnikian and Salmon
(1957).
19 There are other
accounts, but we need not linger over the details, for my aim here is to suggest that
whatever view we take about the logical form of existence statements will have no bearing on whether what
Gassendi calls existence is a property.
20
Frege discusses the redundancy or vacuity of adding 'among things which exist.' See the dialogue on
existence with Bernard Pnjer in Frege (1979, pp. 53-57).

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one.) In other words, it appears that one could accept the claims by Strawson and
Ayer about the logical form of existence assertions and still maintain, with Salmon
and Nakhnikian, that existence - the existence Gassendi is discussing, at any rate- is
after all a property, albeit a universal property, of objects.21 When we say 'horses
exist' or 'Ronaldhinho exists' we may not be ascribing a property of existence to such
objects as horses or Ronaldhinho, but it would be as much a mistake to infer from that
that existence itself is not a property as it would to infer that horses and Ronaldhinho
themselves are not objects.
So far we have focused on what Gassendi calls existence. Gassendi 's existence
is evidently something operating at first-level, something objects have. We want to
know whether Gassendi is right when he claims that existence is not a property of
those objects that have it. This ball is white and spherical; it also exists. Why should
we believe that although presumably being white and being spherical are properties
of this ball, existence is not? What is peculiar about existence that makes it so different from these ordinary properties? The only peculiarity Gassendi points to is that
existence, presumably unlike these other two properties, is itself necessary for anything to have (or lack) properties. But this isn't enough to favor Gassendi's conclusion
that existence is itself not a property over the view of Salmon and Nakhnikian that
existence is a universal property. We have noted that the doctrine that existence is not
a predicate is sometimes meant to mark a view about the logical form of existence
statements, viz., that they are not statements in which we ascribe or deny Gassendi's
existence to objects. Sometimes, as illustrated by Ayer, the doctrine that existence is
not a predicate, when it is a claim about logical form, is used to support the doctrine
that existence is not a property, when that is a claim, as it was for Gassendi, about
existence itself. But even if the claim about logical form is correct, it does not help us
decide the original issue about existence itself.22
Ill
I believe that as long as we focus on what Gassendi means by existence we will not
find any good reason to accept the doctrine that existence is not a property, and we
will thus be far away from seeing how that doctrine provides a cogent criticism of
21 Each
party in the dispute between Gassendi, on one side, and Salmon and Nakhnikian, on the other,
could accept and explain the point about logical form while maintaining its original outlook about existence
itself. Gassendi would say that of course existential propositions are not attributive because existence isn't
a property at all and so, a fortiori, is not a property ascribed or denied to objects in asserting existential
propositions. Salmon and Nakhnikian could accept the point about logical form and suggest that this is just
a consequence of the fact that existence is a universal property, a property everything has. Since anything
we can refer to already has existence, there is no need for a linguistic practice of first referring to something
and then saying that it exists - that would be redundant- nor, even more obviously, any need for a way of
referring to something and then going on to deny existence of it. Since we do assert existential propositions,
then, they must serve some other role, i.e., have some other logical form.
22 We will return to considerations about the
logical form of existence statements when we consider Kant
in Sect. 3 below. In the present section I have been concerned only to suggest that points about logical form
have no implications for what Gassendi calls existence. Such points will play a more useful and effective
role in Kant's discussion of existence, but that is partly due to the fact that Kant and Gassendi mean different
things by existence.

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the ontological argument. If we are going to make any headway here, we must turn to
Kant. While Gassendi maintained that existence is not a property, Kant said that it is
not a "real predicate." It is commonly supposed that both are making the same claim.
Some have even thought that they advance essentially the same argument for that same
claim.23 I believe none of this is correct. Gassendi and Kant offer different arguments.
And they are arguing for different conclusions. These differences stem from a more
fundamental one: they mean different things by existence.
The famous passages in the first Critique about existence and the ontological argument are difficult to understand and have been variously interpreted. I believe the
arguments presented there are relatively compressed variations of the argument Kant
expressed more clearly and more fully in the 1763 pre-critical essay, 'Der einzig
mgliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes' (hereafter
'Beweisgrund').24 In that essay25 Kant employs the notion of what we can call a
"complete" concept of a "merely possible" object. He invites us to consider the concept God might have of Julius Caesar prior to the creation of the world and of Caesar
himself. God's concept would be complete, i.e., included in the concept would be
every predicate (property) that Caesar would have were he to exist. Kant uses this fanciful example to make the claim that it is possible to have- it is possible for there to
be- a complete concept of a merely possible object. Kant then adds to this the crucial
claim that existence cannot be included in the concept of a merely possible object. If
existence were included in God's pre-creation concept of Caesar, Kant says, then God
would no longer know Caesar as a merely possible being. The suggestion appears to
be that, in that case, Caesar would be an actual being and God would know him as
such. Now if it is possible to have complete concepts of merely possible beings, and
if existence cannot be in a concept of a merely possible being, it follows that if one of
those beings were later to exist, existence would not be one of its predicates. We can
set out this argument as follows:
(1)
(2)
(3)

It is possible to have a complete concept of a merely possible being, N;


Existence cannot be included in a concept of a merely possible being;
Therefore, if N were to exist, existence would not be one of its predicates.

This argument looks nothing like Gassendi 's. If Kant and Gassendi are arguing for
the same conclusion, they are doing so in quite different ways. But deeper differences
emerge when we consider step (2) of the 'Beweisgrund' argument. Why can't existence be included in the concept of a merely possible being? If we approach Kant's
argument thinking of what Gassendi is talking about when he discusses existence, this
will seem a most implausible claim. Suppose we understand the claim that a predicate
23

See, for example, Malcolm (1965, pp. 139-141).


'Beweisgrund' can be found in Kant (1922, vol. II, pp. 67-172). See especially pp. 76-79. For a full
defense of the claim that the first Critique arguments are variants on the 'Beweisgrund' argument see Forgie
(1975, pp. 563-582). The assessment of Kant's arguments offered in that essay commits the mistake I am
trying to call attention to in the present paper, viz., the mistake of assuming that in discussing existence
Kant is talking about the same thing Gassendi discussed.
25 In the
following exposition of Kant's 'Beweisgrund' argument I am again condensing material that
appears in my "Gassendi and Kant on Existence" referred to earlier (see note 9). Readers should consult
that earlier paper for a more thorough development and justification of the reading of Kant offered here.
24

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<pis included in the concept of a thing to mean that having <pis a necessary condition for
anything to be an instance ofthat concept. Then there is no problem in supposing that
existence - what Gassendi calls existence ("G-existence" for short)- can be in a concept of a merely possible being. Here we can simply apply Principle Q, the principle
referred to earlier in outlining the Caterus Objection. Suppose that in God's concept
of Caesar are the predicates PI, P2, ... Pn and existence. This commits us only to
supposing that there are several necessary conditions any being must meet in order to
be an instance of that concept - it must exist and it must have properties PI, P2, . . .
Pn. Now although existence is in God's concept, it might be that nothing meeting that
condition meets all the other conditions necessary for being an instance of that concept. It might be, in other words, that nothing which exists has the predicates PI, P2
. . .Pn, i.e., that God's concept has no instance. Indeed, it is easy to see that if a concept
containing PI, P2, . . . Pn but not including existence, has no instance, then the related
concept containing PI, P2, . . . Pn, including existence, also has no instance. The claim
that there exists no instance of the first of these concepts is logically equivalent to the
claim that there exists no instance of the second.
It seems, then, that even if G-existence were included in God's concept of Caesar,
Caesar might still be (and God might still know Caesar as) a merely possible object.
Principle Q appears to cast doubt on step (2) of the 'Beweisgrund' argument at least
if Kant is talking about G-existence. However, Kant himself endorses Principle Q, and
it would be odd if anything in the 'Beweisgrund' argument were to violate it. Indeed,
it is Kant's acceptance of Principle Q that underlies and explains - rather than casts
doubt on- his claim that existence cannot be in a concept of a merely possible being.
Once this is apparent, we will see that Kant is not talking about G-existence at all.
When Kant says that existence cannot be in the concept of a merely possible being
he means not that we cannot include G-existence among the necessary conditions
anything must meet in order to be an instance of the concept a claim which seems
if
is
to
be
false
Gassendi
would
have
correct)- but simply that nothclearly false (and
indicates
whether its object is actual
in
a
in
that
way
concept
ing which we do include
that
or
not
indicates
whether
or merely possible, i.e.
concept is instantiated.26 That,
On
this
a
is
further
as Principle Q maintains,
understanding, Kant's claim
question.
a
of
included
in
the
that existence cannot be
concept
merely possible being will be
in
trivially true. For if something included God's concept of Caesar in our earlier sense
indicated that that concept was instantiated, then Caesar would actually exist and not
be a merely possible being.
Kant is not discussing G-existence. What he is calling "existence" seems to be the
property being instantiated or having instances. Today we would call this a secondlevel property. We would say that it is a property o/concepts, and thus not something
we would expect to find in concepts of objects (though we might find it in concepts of
concepts). And so, of course, Kant's "existence" will not be a property of objects; it
will not operate on the right level for that. But Kant's argument cannot be as slick, or
as quick, as this. For in the 'Beweisgrund' argument outlined above he does not talk of
"levels" of properties; his argument makes no explicit reference to different levels of
26 For a fuller
development and justification of this interpretation, see my "Gassendi and Kant on
Existence".

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predication. He simply notes that no matter how complete a concept of an object might
be, that is (epistemically) compatible with its being a concept of a merely possible
being. In other words, whether the concept is one of an actual or merely possible being
is not itself something included in the concept. He puts this point by saying existence
is not included in the concept of a merely possible being. And this is all he thinks he
needs, once we grant the claim it is possible to have a complete concept of a merely
possible being, to conclude that existence - what Kant refers to as existence, at any
rate (call it "K-existence") - is not a property of those objects that do exist.
Although the argument we have been considering does not itself invoke the notion
of various "levels" of predication, elsewhere in 'Beweisgrund' Kant does explicitly
suggest that K-existence is something that (as we would say) operates at secondlevel. And he develops this suggestion by appealing to the logical form of existential
propositions. Consider the following pair of passages:
If I say, 'God is an existing thing,' it appears that I express the relation of a
predicate to a subject. But there is an incorrectness in this expression. Expressed
exactly, it should say: something existing is God, that is, those predicates that
we designate collectively by the expression 'God' belong to an existing thing.27
. . . [existence] appears in common usage as a predicate, not so much as a
predicate of the thing itself, as it is of the thought one has of it. E.g. existence
belongs to the sea-unicorn but not to the land-unicorn. This is to say nothing
more than: the conception of the sea-unicorn is a concept of experience, that is,
the conception of an existing thing . . . Not: regular hexagons exist in nature,
but: the predicates which are thought together in a hexagon belong to certain
things in nature.28
In the first of these passages Kant points out that when we say 'God is an existing
thing,' or just 'God exists,' the grammatical structure of the sentences we utter makes it
look as though we are ascribing the predicate being an existing thing, or the predicate
of existence, to God. But this appearance, he claims, is misleading. What we are actually doing is ascribing the predicate belonging to an existing thing to the predicates
of divinity; we are not saying that God has a first-level predicate of existence, but
rather that the (first-level) predicates of omnipotence, omniscience, etc., belong to an
existing thing. In short, we are not ascribing a first-level predicate to God, but rather
ascribing the second-level predicate belonging to an existing thing to some first-level
predicates.
We find a similar theme in the second of the two passages just quoted. With his
hexagon example Kant seems to be making the claim that when we say 'regular hexagons exist in nature' or just 'regular hexagons exist,' we are not ascribing a first-level
predicate of existence, or the predicate existing in nature, to hexagons, but instead
are ascribing a second-level predicate to those predicates included in our concept of a
hexagon. We are saying that those predicates "belong to certain things in nature."In the
sea-unicorn example Kant appears to be making a slightly different claim. When we
27 Kant
(1922, pp. 78-79) (translationmine).
28 Ibid.
pp. 76-77 (translationmine).

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IntJ Philos Relig (2008) 64: 117-133

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say 'sea-unicorns exist' we are not ascribing a predicate of existence to sea-unicorns,


but are instead ascribing the second-level predicate being a concept of experience , or
being a concept which applies to an existing thing, to the concept of a sea-unicorn.
Although they differ in detail, Kant's three examples appear to make the same general point- a point about the logical form of existential propositions - namely, that in
claiming that something exists we are not ascribing a first-level predicate of existence
to some thing (object) but are rather ascribing a second-level predicate to something,
whether it be a concept or a collection of predicates. And it is this second-level property that Kant has in mind when he talks of existence.29 For the several examples are
intended to support the claim with which the second passage begins, the claim that
existence is a predicate alright, not of things but rather of the thoughts we have of
things. (His examples indicate he could say, instead of "thoughts," "concepts," or "a
collection of predicates.")30
It is important to note the difference between Kant's appeal here to points about
logical form and the appeal we discussed earlier in Sect. II. In that earlier section
we suggested that claims about the logical form of existential propositions have no
implications for G-existence; they cannot be used to show that G-existence is not
a first-level property. Kant's use of points about logical form is quite different. He
makes no claims about G-existence, and nothing he says contributes to resolving the
issue that divides Gassendi on the one hand and Salmon and Nakhnikian on the other.
Instead he is making a claim about K-existence, the existence that he has argued is
not included in even a complete concept of a merely possible object, the existence
that he thus infers is not a predicate of objects. And he is saying, in effect, that if we
look at the logical form of existential propositions, we will see that K-existence is
indeed being predicated of something: it is being predicated of concepts (or thoughts
or collections of predicates, etc.) In short, Kant uses the points about logical form
to illustrate something about K-existence - that it is a second-level predicate- not to
infer something about G-existence, viz. that it is not a first-level predicate. Suppose
we accept the following claim about logical form: that (1) in asserting existential
propositions, we are not ascribing or denying G-existence to objects (things); instead
29 Kant's
originality here is not widely appreciated. In speaking of existence as a second-level property,
Kant is the first to articulate a view more commonly associated with, and frequently thought to have originated with, Frege more than a century later. Frege writes: "Because existence is a property of concepts
the ontological argument for the existence of God breaks down." (Frege (1960) section 53. This work first
appeared in 1884, 121 years after 'Beweisgrund'.)
30 Kant's claims that K-existence is not to be found in a
concept of an individual, but that it is instead a
(variously describable) second-level predicate, provide a way of understanding the following famous words
at B626 of the first Critique:
'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. It is merely the positing of a thing, or a certain determinations, as
existing in themselves. (Kant 1958, B626).
These two sentences can plausibly be read as follows: existence is not a "real", i.e., first-level predicate,
one that could be included in, and so added to, the concept of a thing; rather it is a second-level predicate
used to say of those predicates (determinations) that are included in a concept of a thing that they "belong
to certain things in nature" or "belong to an existing thing". See the excellent, though oddly titled, paper by
Edgar Morscher, 'Was Existence Ever a Predicate?' (Morscher 1985-1986, pp. 269-284).

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we are ascribing or denying K-existence to concepts. From this it will not follow
that (2) G-existence is not a first-level property. But it will follow trivially that (3)
K-existence is a second-level property.
The difference between G-existence and K-existence can be brought out in the
following way. Notice how Kant at one time characterizes the second-level predicate
at issue. He says it is the predicate belonging to an existing thing. But the reference
to an "existing thing" appears to invoke G-existence. We might just as well describe
the second-level predicate as that of belonging to things which exist, i.e., to things
which have the first-level property, or pseudo-property, of existence. K-existence is
a second-level predicate, and it is something that can be explicated using Gassendi 's
first-level notion of existence.
IV
The words 'existence is not a property/predicate' have been used to make at least three
different negative claims:
(a)
(b)
(c)

G-existence is not a property of objects;


In making existence statements we are not ascribing or denying G-existence to
objects;
K-existence is not a property of objects.

Of these, (b) may be true but has no bearing on (a). And (a), even if true, has no bearing
on our skeletal ontological argument. Claim (c) seems obviously true and, moreover,
it is straightforwardly relevant to our skeletal argument. The proponent of the skeletal
argument claims to find in the concept to God a magical property, having <p,which
entails existence. But any properties included in the concept of an individual will be
first-level properties, features which we conceive the object of the concept (an individual, a thing) to have. Moreover, any property entailed by a first-level property will
presumably also be a first-level property.31So an exhaustive listing of the contents of a
concept of an individual X may contain G-existence, but will not include K-existence,
since K-existence is a second-level predicate. It will include only predicates X is conceived to have, not predicates the concept itself may or may not have. In this way, the
realization that K-existence is a second-level predicate provides theoretical underpinning for Principle Q; it explains why no matter what is contained in a concept it is a
further question, not yet answered, whether that concept is instantiated, i.e., whether
K-existence belongs to the concept. The Caterus objection simply applies this idea to
our skeletal ontological argument. It points out that the procedure of the ontological
arguer is wrong-headed. There is a mismatch between his aim and his methods. He
needs to discover that the concept of God has a certain second level property- that is
what he needs to learn in order to determine that God is an actual, and not a merely
possible, being - yet his methods restrict him at best to discovering what first level
properties are in the concept of God, i.e., what properties anything must have if it is
31 I am
assuming that property A entails property B just in case it is necessarily true that if anything has
A, it also has B. Thus property B will be of the same level as property A.

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to be an instance of that concept. So in the end he is left with a conclusion with no


existential import.
We originally posed two questions about our skeletal ontological argument. How
does that argument treat existence as a predicate? And how is it wrong to do so? We
can now answer those questions. The skeletal argument tries to find something in the
concept of God that entails that God exists, i.e., that the concept of God is instantiated.
It therefore treats K-existence as one of the predicates it will eventually discover in the
concept of God. But this is a mistake, because it is only first-level predicates that will
be found in the concept of an individual, and K-existence is not a first-level predicate.

V
Our discussion has not uncovered any new or unfamiliar criticisms of the ontological
argument. Instead it has tried to get clear as to how the doctrine "existence is not a
predicate", a doctrine that is frequently used against the ontological argument, but that
has meant different things to different advocates, has a sense - the Kantian sense - that
is plausible in its own right and whose relevance to the ontological argument stems
from how it fits with and underlies an already familiar and widely-accepted criticism
of that argument. There is a need for clarity here, for the overwhelming bulk of the
literature on the question of whether existence is a predicate/property assumes that it
is G-existence that is at issue.32 This is unfortunate, for it not only reveals a failure to
appreciate Kant's originality and his difference from Gassendi, but it also, in consequence, makes it difficult to see how the doctrine that existence is not a predicate could
be at all relevant to the ontological argument. J. L. Mackie provides a good example
of these blind spots. In The Riddle of Existence', Mackie characterizes ontological
arguments as follows:
What the defender of an ontological proof holds is that we have a concept of an
X, or of the X, or can define a term 'X', such that it will be self-contradictory to
say 'An X does not exist' or The X does not exist'.33
Mackie then lumps Kant with Gassendi and says:
It was to block all such moves that Gassendi and Kant and their followers propounded the discredited thesis that existence is not a predicate.
The point of the discredited thesis was to rule out as improper . . . the . . . inclusion
of existence in a concept or definition.34

32 For

prominentexamples see Malcolm,op. cit.; (1972, p. 46); Barnes(1972, p. 46); Plantinga(1967, p.


35); Broad(1953, pp. 182-183); Shaffer,op. cit.; Alston (1965, pp. 86-1 10); Moore (1965, pp. 71-85);
and Salmon(1987, pp. 49-108). I have made the same presuppositionin Forgie(1972, 1974, 1975, 2000).
The presentpaperis an attemptto make amendsfor those earlierlapses.
33 Mackie(1976, 261).
p.
34 Ibid.
pp. 261-262.

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On Mackie's view, however, Kant provided other, and more successful, grounds for
rejecting ontological arguments. In stating what those "more successful" grounds are,
Mackie cites our Principle Q:
... we have general grounds for rejecting any ontological proof of this sort. Even
if existence were somehow included in a definition or concept, we could still
coherently deny that there was anything that actually satisfied the definition or
instantiated the concept.35
I conclude, then, that there is a general objection to all forms of ontological
proof, and an objection on which Kant put his finger, and that this objection
survives and stands out more clearly when it is freed from embarrassing entanglement with the doctrine that existence is not a predicate and cannot therefore
be included in a definition or concept.36
Mackie appears to think there is a single doctrine that existence is not a predicate, and
he adds his voice to those who treat Gassendi and Kant as co-advocates ofthat univocal
claim. He believes the intent of the doctrine is to show that it is improper to include
existence in the concept of a thing. But Mackie calls the doctrine "discredited", and
so presumably nothing will prevent us from including existence in a concept. Nevertheless, the ontological argument still fails, because even if existence were included in
the concept of God, one could still maintain that the concept itself is not instantiated.
Anyone persuaded by the present paper is entitled to make the following remarks in
response to Mackie. First, there is no single doctrine that existence is not a predicate.
Second, Gassendi and Kant are making quite different claims when they discuss existence - because they are discussing quite different things. Third, there is no problem
in including G-existence included in a concept. So if Mackie sees the doctrine that
existence is not a predicate as trying, and failing, to rule out such inclusion, he evidently takes that doctrine to be claiming that G-existence is not a predicate. And finally,
the "general objection" that Mackie adopts to the ontological argument- that one can
still maintain that an existence-including concept of God is not instantiated- is in
fact just an application of the claim that K-existence is not a (first-level) predicate.
Since K-existence is a second-level predicate then no matter what is included in a
concept of God, even if G-existence is included, it remains (epistemically) a further
question - and thus one that one can answer in the negative - whether that concept
is instantiated. So Mackie's "general objection" to the ontological argument, so far
from avoiding "embarrassing entanglement" with the doctrine that existence is not
a predicate, is in fact a consequence of that doctrine when we understand it in the
way Kant does. The Kantian version is not discredited; indeed, one can say that it
succeeds in the very objective Mackie assigns to the doctrine- it shows how, and in
what sense, existence, i.e., K-existence, is not something to be included in a concept
of an individual.

35 Ibid. 263.
p.
36 Ibid. 264.
p.

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