Existence Equals Essence.

This post was inspired by a comment on Wikipedia, which in turn I wouldn’t have read if it wasn’t for the Why Nietzsche? thread. That comment says:

[size=95]Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, say Existentialists frequently are confused about the verb “to be” in their analyses of “being”. They argue that the verb is transitive, and pre-fixed to a predicate (e.g., an apple is red): without a predicate, the word is meaningless.
I think this is grammatically incorrect. I have some pretty radical ideas about Indo-European grammar, one of which is this: In the phrase “an apple is red”, “red” is technically an adjective; thus “an apple is red” is technically the same as “a red apple is”. I say “to be” technically always means “to exist”.

In statements like “I am a man”, “to be” is often taken to mean “to be equal to”, like the mathematical symbol “=”. But “=” never means simply “is”, but always “is equal to”.

X = Y
X is equal to Y

The word “equal”, like the word “red” in the statement above, is an adjective.

an apple is equal
an equal apple exists

X is equal to Y
an equal-to-Y X exists

This last statement may sound awkward; feel free to rephrase it as “an X that equals Y exists”.

(1) “a red apple is”

does not mean the same thing as

(2) “an apple is red”

saying (1) is to place the emphasis on the existence of the apple, which also happens to be red, while saying (2) is to place the emphasis on the existence of the redness, which also happens to be the property of an apple

but ultimately, i think the shift in emphasis merely demonstrates your bigger point, which is that “is”, as “to be”, can have meaning independent of the predicate

one of the problems of the logical positivists was their failure to realize that the meaning of statements lies fundamentally and ultimately in the presuppositions with which they are expressed (“is” as “to be” is an activity , which is a thing with independent meaning) rather than in any literal translation of the words themselves (wherein “is” must be attached to a predicate to express anything)

Irrelevant; one might just as well say “a red apple is”.

No, because that would result in a dual emphasis on the existence of both the apple and the fact of its redness.

Emphasis is almost never irrelevant to meaning, at least in English. You can emphasize by playing with the order of the words and/or by placing verbal oomph on a particular word - doing both results in a different meaning than just doing one or the other.

for instance:

“That guy stole my bike” vs. “That guy stole my bike” vs. “That’s the guy who stole my bike” vs. “That’s the guy who stole my bike”

also notice the role the contracted “is” plays in the latter two statements = existence equals essence indeed

That’s only because you’re not used to the use of “to be” as a non-auxiliary verb.

a red apple exists

Meaning has nothing to do with grammar. Or, in other words, the meaning a sentence expresses grammatically does not need to coincide completely with the meaning intended by the speaker.

the Romans have burned the city
the Romans have the burned city

Grammatically, these two statements say the exact same thing; however, from the first sentence it’s quite obvious that the speaker is concerned with the city’s being burned (the city’s being burned or the city’s being burned; in any case, the combination of the city with flames),—not with the fact that the Romans possess the burned city (that the Romans possess it, or that the Romans possess it). The second statement, on the other hand, rather suggests a concern with the latter.

You know “to exist” is not cognate with “is”, right? Anyway, “that’s the guy who stole my bike” technically says there is a being, i.e., an existent exists, which equals both the guy who stole my bike and that.

as you just said, “to exist” is not cognate with “is” - you’re changing the emphasis and therefore the meaning by changing the word

i wouldn’t say it has NOTHING to do with grammer, but i take your point - conflating meaning and grammer is what led to the positivist critique you challenge in the OP

not entirely clear on what you’re getting at, here . . .

“Cognate” is an etymological term, not a lexical-semantic one. I’ve been saying all along that “a red apple is” means “a red apple exists”.

I’m saying that “is” in “that is the guy” etc. technically means “exists”, as it always does.

Let me put it differently. “Is” in “that is the guy” is short for “is equal to”.

that [being/existent] is equal to the guy who stole my bike
that equal-to-the-guy-who-stole-my-bike [being/existent] is/exists

I’m not sure about English, but in my native language, the “=” sign is often pronounced simply as “is” rather than as “is equal to”. (Please confirm whether this is so in English.) I think this development (dropping the “equal to” part for convenience’s sake) reflects the development of the s-root of “to be” from “existence” to “equality”: see http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=am.

How so?

The problem you are running into is the sentence structure that has been adopted, and not the terms used in the structure.

For instance, the proper statement of “the apple is red” is really, “the apple has the properties of color that are from the color spectrum of red”

This is shorthanded to “the apple is red”.
The problem is that the subject of what equals red is being dropped down to an extreme shorthand that includes with it, all properties that the apple has as the word, “apple”.
This is technically not true.

The apple is an apple, and each property of the apple is gained from another element that already exists.
It is the combination of all of the properties together that create the apple as it is sensed.

The missing element is the word, “color”, as color is what owns the property of red.

Think of it like target acquisition by a computer:

The apple has, at the very least, one of each of these.
But each one of these sub-categories is the actual owner of the following description, and not the apple itself.

So you would run the math formula like this:

if (color, red,1,
else (color, green,1,
else (not apple)

Something more like that.

It’s not:
if (apple, red,1, etc…

Because the apple isn’t red.
The apple’s color is red.

And color isn’t always red.

Because the function of the same words is the same in both statements:

“the”—definite article with “Romans”;
“the Romans”—subject [I’m aware that I’m both parsing and analysing the statements; this seems necessary to me, as English no longer has cases.];
“have”—finite verb [In fact, technically an “infinite verb” is not a verb but a noun.];
“the city”—object;
“burned”—adjective to “city” [Technically, participles are always adjectives.]

I think you continue to remove the inferred content from even possibly existing in sentences…

The Romans have burned the city.
The Romans have the burned city.

These aren’t the same.

“The Romans have burned the city”, really translates to, “The Romans have since burned the city”, or “The Romans have accomplished burning the city”.

While, “The Romans have the burned city”, translates to, “The Romans own the burned city”, or “The Romans took control of the burned city”.

These are not the same sentences.
You are focusing on English short-hand in sentence structure as if it is the method by which the language is structured on.
Short-hand is not what the language is based on; instead it is based on full sentences, and the short-hands come later after the inferred implications are understood by the structures being used.


There’s no such thing as an apple-in-itself. This is why the existence of the red apple equals its essence: its properties (e.g., having a red colour) are inseparable from it. If you would abstract all its properties from it, nothing would remain.

Properties do not exist in themselves, either.

This is a Platonic approach. Mine is the reverse: It is the disintegration of the apple that creates all of the properties as they are imagined separately.

That, too, is an abstraction: there is no “colour-in-itself”.

I can’t make sense of your computer analogy, by the way, as I know next to nothing about programming.

“And red color does not exist in each time and place.”


One of the few things I learned during my brief study of Latin in university is this:

Romani urbem captum habent, “the Romans have taken the city”, originally meant “the Romans have (i.e., possess) the taken city”. Technically, “to have” always means “to possess”.

Now you can say English is not Latin, but as both are Indo-European languages, both have the same basic grammatical structure (and this is very basic).

Compare French:

Elle est allée, “she is gone”.

Because allée is an adjective to elle, it is feminine (hence the extra ‘e’ at the end).

“To have gone” is, by the way, plain wrong (technically speaking, of course!).

Elle a aimé, “she has loved”. Note that there is no extra ‘e’ at the end. This is because aimé is not an adjective to elle. Now if it said elle a aimé une femme, “she has loved a woman”, I think it should be aimée, as then it’s an adjective to femme; I’m not sure if that’s the case in French, though (if anyone can confirm this, please do). In Latin (from which French is in many ways an advanced bastardisation), it’d certainly be the case, though: e.g., captum to urbs (though even if urbs were masculine it would be captum, as the taken city is the object of the sentence).

Yet from a grammatical point-of-view the re-positioning of “the” in those sentences is crucial to how we interpret their meaning, as Stumps has demonstrated - either as a question of setting the city alight or taking possession of it. Thus “burned” is a participle in the first sentence (thus what is at issue is the act of burning the city) and an adjective in the second (suggesting that we should be concerned more with who is in charge of the city rather than how it reached its burned state).

Expression is absolutely central to meaning.

Oh, i see - i thought it was strange that you suddenly changed your tune - but you didn’t - i stand by this though: switching “is” to “exists” in this case changes the meaning slightly - if for no other reason than the ordering of the words - “the red apple exists” is a more passive way of saying it - “the red apple is” brings it up a notch, emphasizing that the red apple exists - this is a difference that would lie in the interpretation of the statement rather than the grammatical structure

only sometimes i think - in English at least, something can be equal to something else without actually being that thing: X is equal to Y is not necessarily the same as X is Y

equivelence is not necessarily identity, in that sense, i don’t think.

right, “that” guy’s existence is his essence - which is that he is the guy who stole my bike - or essentially, his existence is such that he is the guy who stole my bike

that’s all i was getting at with the “existence” - i don’t know anything about etymology, as you can probably tell - i find that it really doesn’t help much when i’m trying to understand the practicalities of the language - but i guess it works for some people . . .

There seem to be three meanings of “to be” (or “is”)

  1. The “is” of predication. “The apple is red”.

  2. The “is” of identity. “John is our postman”

  3. The “is” of existence. “Elephants are (exist)” Unicorn are not" (do not exist).

I am sure the Logical Positivists knew about, and distinguished, all three meanings, and did not believe that the “is” of predication (1 above) was the only meaning of “is”.

The apple is gone.
The apple is imaginary.
The apple is destroyed.