Existence and being — A guest post by Samuel Wright

Note by EF: I am extremely happy to be able to post here a guest post by Samuel Wright, who is Professor at the Ahmedabad University. You can read more by him on his Academia page.

In a well-known essay, the analytic philosopher, Peter van Inwagen, discusses the overarching ontological commitments of Willard Van Orman Quine. Following Quine, van Inwagen argues that there is no difference between what is expressed by ‘there is’ and what is expressed by ‘exists.’ He writes, “[T]here are no things that do not exist. … [I]f you think that there are things that do not exist, give me an example of one. The right response to your example will be either, ‘That does too exist’, or ‘There is no such thing as that’.” On the basis of this position, van Inwagen concludes that “Being is the same as existence” (1998, p. 235). This conclusion is different from those who do distinguish between each term and argue for things such as ‘nonexistent objects’ like the fountain of youth (for more on this debate, see Reicher, 2019, especially section 1).

This blog post is a meditation on whether philosophers in premodern India held the same or similar conclusion as van Inwagen, namely, that ‘Being is the same as existence.’ My remarks below are in relation to nyāya-śāstra. I focus specifically on Raghunātha Śiromaṇi.

In general, nyāya philosophers such as Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Sārvabhauma (c. 1570) think of existence or sattā as the universal that is the most inclusive and thus the most important. And, for a variety of reasons, they argue that it is applicable only to the first three ontological categories: substance, trope, and motion. These three categories are also described as having a ‘presence’ (bhāva) (Kārikāvalī, pp. 48 and 74). This means that substance, for example, has both existence (sattā) and presence (bhāva).

However, in the early years of the sixteenth century, Raghunātha Śiromaṇi—the famous philosopher from Bengal—attempts to do away with such a conception of existence by reducing existence to presence. He argues that existence is not a universal (jāti); and must be applicable to more than just the first three ontological categories since we also apply the concept of existence to universal properties, among other things (jātyādāv api sadvyavahārāc ca) (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa, p. 96).

In arguing for reducing existence to presence, he says,

In general, we use the word ‘existing’ (sat) for some object p depending on whether object p exists or not. But, this is just another way of saying that p is present.

ghaṭādau sadvyavahāraś ca vartamānatvanibandhanaḥ | kintu bhāvatvaṃ tat | (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa, p. 96)

In other words, existence is collapsed into the notion of something’s being present or occurring at the present time. An early commentator on Raghunātha’s passage, Rāmabhadra Sārvabhauma (c. 1580), frames it in precisely these terms:

The sense of Raghunātha here is that the use of the word ‘existing’ in the case of object p is simply the result of object p being present since we do not use this word to refer to objects that existed in the past.

atītādau sadvyavahārābhāvena vartamānatvanibandhana eva tatra sadvyavahāra iti bhāvaḥ | (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa, p. 98)

In short, echoing van Inwagen’s argument above, we might say that Raghunātha wants to argue that there is no difference between what is expressed by sattā/sat and what is expressed by bhāvatā/bhāva.

Raghunātha’s position was not accepted by nyāya philosophers after him. One of his most sympathetic commentators, Raghudeva Nyāyālaṅkāra (fl. 1657), disagreed with his position that existence or sattā is not a universal property (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa, pp. 96-97). And, others such as Dinakara (c. 1635), associated Raghunātha’s position with the ‘new’ view but ultimately found it incorrect (Kārikāvalī, pp. 80-81).

Parenthetically, Raghunātha’s view may have been influenced by his engagement with Śrīharṣa’s (c. 1140) comments on existence in the Khaṇḍaṇakhaṇḍakhādya (pp. 507-509). Unfortunately, however, I am not able to determine this because, although Raghunātha wrote a commentary on Śrīharṣa’s work, this portion has not been published or he did not comment on this portion of the text. However, interested readers should turn to Ethan Mill’s superb discussion on existence by Śrīharṣa in the context of the pramāṇas (2018, chapter 7).

To return to our topic: Do these passages above demonstrate that Raghunātha was making a similar argument as van Inwagen, namely, that there is no difference between what is expressed by ‘there is’ and what is expressed by ‘exists’? A potential problem in answering in the affirmative is that these terms seem to contain, for Raghunātha, a temporal consideration not adopted by van Inwagen. For van Inwagen, we can say that “Homer existed” or that “There was such a person as Homer” (1998, p. 235). But, Raghunātha’s position means that the claim ‘Homer existed’ should not be thought of as equivalent to ‘Homer was present.’ As Homer is someone who lived in the past, we cannot use the term ‘existing’ (sat) to refer to him, especially if we are to follow Rāmabhadra’s gloss. Instead, we might imagine Raghunātha saying that the claim ‘Homer existed’ expresses an absence not sufficiently registered by van Inwagen.

Raghunātha’s argument does retain a nuance on this point. Just after his claim that saying that something exists is just another way of saying something is present, he states,

And, being present is the ‘other’ of absence.

tac cābhāvānyatvam | (Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa, p. 96)

This claim is full of intrigue; and I have taken some liberty in translating anyatva. Could we interpret this sentence to mean that because absence is the ‘flip-side’ of presence that existence also applies to instances of absence that are ‘present’? I believe we can answer yes to this question. This would mean that existence can be predicated to an absence as long as it is an existing absence, that is, as long as the abhāva is sat. Such a conclusion brings us in line with treatments on absence in nyāya by others such as Bimal K. Matilal (1968, p. 88: “[T]o say what a thing is not is itself a way of saying what it is”).

To my mind, this means that Raghunātha would accept the position that there is no difference between what is expressed by ‘there is’ and what is expressed by ‘exists.’ Consider the claim, also offered by van Inwagen, that ‘Dogs exist’ (1998, p. 235). Here, to claim that dogs exist would simply be to claim that dogs are present. I think Raghunātha would accept such a claim. In addition, I think Raghunātha would also accept this position in relation to van Inwagen’s example ‘Homer existed’ as long as we rephrase this to ‘Homer is not’ or ‘Homer is absent.’ In this rephrasing, the negation, rather than Homer, has an existence—it is present—such that what is expressed by ‘there is’ (that Homer is not) does mark the case for what exists (Homer’s absence). I can only note in passing that Raghunātha would only agree to these claims provided that the substantive is not a fictitious entity (for more on this, see Matilal 2005, pp. 99-102).

Does this mean that in the big picture Raghunātha makes a similar claim as van Inwagen that ‘Being is the same as existence’? This of course would require a longer treatment and would turn on how we define our terms, particularly the term ‘Being.’ However, at the very least, such a possibility raises interesting questions to ponder over and confounds attempts to separate ‘Indian philosophy’ from ‘philosophy’—a commitment held by many, if not all, readers of this blog (and this is a phrasing I shamelessly borrow from Elisa Freschi).


Samuel Wright is assistant professor in the Division of Humanities and Languages at Ahmedabad University where he teaches the philosophy and history of South Asia.


Primary Sources

Kārikāvalī of Viswanātha Nyāyapañcānana Bhaṭṭācārya with the commentaries of Muktāvalī, Dinakarī, Rāmarudri. Edited with Foot-notes Etc. by Ātmārām Nārāyan Jere. New Delhi: Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, 2002.


Khaṇḍaṇakhaṇḍakhādya of Shri-Harṣa. Translated by Ganganatha Jha. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1986.

Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa: Ṭīkātrayopetam. Edited by Anita Rajpal. Dilli: Amara Grantha Pablikesans, 2008.

Secondary Sources

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation: The Semantics and Ontology of Negative Statements in Navya-nyāya Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. Edited by Jonardon Ganeri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mills, Ethan. Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Reicher, Maria. ‘Nonexistent Objects.’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2019 (Winter Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/nonexistent-objects/.

van Inwagen, Peter. ‘Meta-ontology.’ Erkenntnis, 4

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

6 Replies to “Existence and being — A guest post by Samuel Wright”

  1. Fascinating stuff! I have a small comment/question. For Quine and van Inwagen, ‘there is’ and ‘exists’ are expressions of non-natural languages, a logically regimented language of our best scientific theory or Ontologese. How about Raghunātha Śiromaṇi? When he talks about meanings of ‘sattā/sat’ and ‘bhāvatā/bhāva’ does he think about them as expressions of a language people use on the streets or some refined, non-natural language?

    • Thanks for the interesting comments and question!

      Raghunātha and subsequent scholars writing nyāya works do use (and prefer) a highly technical language that operates at the very limits of natural language. In this sense, we could refer to it as an ‘ontologese’—in line with Karl Egerton’s note that ontologese is the language everyone should use to discuss metaphysics (‘Getting off the Inwagen,’ Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 4(6):1-22, 2016, citation on page 10 note 12).

      In thinking through sattā/sat and bhāvatā/bhāva, Raghunātha uses everyday examples of objects around us like pots and pieces of cloth. And, for him, the way we speak about these objects in our ‘everyday language’ is used as evidence for making larger ontological claims. For example, in commenting on Raghunātha, Raghudeva Nyāyālaṅkāra writes, “What Raghunātha is trying to get at is the idea that existence as a universal is unproven because the expression ‘an existing p’ also encompasses the expression ‘an occurrent p’ (tathā ca gha‏ṭaḥ sann ityādivyavahārasyāpi vartamānatvādiviṣayakatvena… na… sattājātisiddhir iti bhāvaḥ, see Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa
      p. 96 from Bibliography). Here, the analysis may employ an ‘ontologese’ but it is an analysis based upon the ‘language of the street’ (to borrow your phrasing), namely, an analysis based upon how we normally speak about and refer to things in the world.

  2. Hi Samuel,

    Thank you for the interesting post!

    It’s been a long while since I’ve read Quine and van Inwagen, but when they equate ‘existence’ with ‘there is’, I assume that they are identifying existence with existential quantification. (Quine’s famous dictum, “To be is to to be the value of a bound variable.”)

    In my view quantification is necessary but not sufficient for expressing existence. For we can clearly quantify over things that do not exist. E.g., a unicorn has one horn, but in saying this I have not committed myself to the existence of a unicorn’s horn (I hope!).

    On the other hand, if existence is a property or a universal, that seems to go against the modern Western philosophical consensus that “exists” is not a predicate that expresses a property. As Kant noted, imaginary 100 gold thalers have the same properties as existent 100 gold thalers.

    You write that for Raghunatha Siromani,
    (a) existence is reduced to presence, and
    (b) presence is reduced to occurring in the present time.

    I think claims (a) and (b) are separate, and require separate arguments to establish them. As you observe, presence is the “flip-side” of absence. So, both prior absence and posterior absence presuppose presence, respectively, posterior presence and prior presence. Therefore, the current posterior absence of Homer implies his prior presence. And, therefore, further argument is required to exclude prior presence from presence simpliciter.

    Aside from Siromani, it seems to me that there is a simple way of dealing with statements like “Homer exists”, whose truth value changes over time. That is to index such statements to specific times, such as “Homer exists at t” or “Homer exists from t1 to tn”. Quine calls such time-indexed statements eternal sentences. I seem to have read Nyaya philosophers doing something similar, but I forget now where I’ve read it. (What I seem to remember reading is that what is true at a given time is true at all times, perhaps in a commentary on Tarka-sangraha, but my memory can’t be trusted.)

    Anyway, if it is right that Siromani accepted claim (b), then he would be a presentist. It would be interesting to know what specific arguments he gave in support of (b) and (a).

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  4. Thanks very much, Boram, for your comments.

    You raise some interesting issues. On the point about (a) ‘existence is reduced to presence’ (sattā = bhāvatā), Raghunātha says very little in his Padārthatattvanirūpaṇa about the longer argument for this claim. So, we have to depend on the commentators who are also not very forthcoming. Both Raghudeva and Rāmabhadra argue that what is meant here is that ‘bhāvatā’ actually defines the meaning of the word ‘sat.’ This means that one could make the case that Raghunātha is a ‘presentist’—if one wanted.

    Raghunātha’s view here is not entirely original: Vyomaśiva (c.950) and Maṇḍana (c.690), writing on Mīmāṃsā, also made similar claims (see Halbfass, ‘On Being and What There Is,’ p. 153).

    Raghunātha also wrote commentaries on major works in Vaiśeṣika that dealt with these sorts of issues such as Vallabha’s Nyāyalīlāvatī (c.1140), but, unfortunately, these are still unpublished.

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