In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nonexistent Objects

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Parmenides and Plato
  • Degrees of Existence
  • Quantifier Variance
  • Existence as a Predicate
  • The Phenomenological Tradition and Existentialism
  • Fictionalism
  • Pretense Approaches to Nonexistence
  • Neutralism

Philosophy Nonexistent Objects
Jody Azzouni
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0197


The issues that nonexistent entities pose for metaphysics and philosophy of language are among the oldest in philosophy, dating back to Plato and Parmenides. These issues arise because of the very natural view that true statements and false statements have the status they have only because they are about objects—broadly speaking—and they’re true (or false) depending on whether they describe those objects correctly or not. If, however, statements are about something nonexistent, it seems they cannot be true or false because there is nothing for them to be true or false of—the very phrase “something nonexistent” sounds oxymoronic. It even strikes some that attempts to say something meaningful about a nonexistent object (or some nonexistent objects) cannot succeed because there is nothing for such statements to be about. And yet we say meaningful things about nonexistents daily: “Sherlock Holmes is more famous than any real detective,” “There are as many gods as goddesses in Greek mythology,” “Hob and Nob are thinking about the same nonexistent witch.” The philosophical tangles that arise when trying to explain our talk about the nonexistent show up everywhere in philosophy, and not just in discussions of fictions, hallucinations, or dreams. If one is a proponent of nominalism in philosophy of mathematics, for example, then one has to explain (or explain away) the usefulness, the indispensability even, of mathematical statements, because such statements—on the nominalist’s view—are not about anything real. The literature on the nonexistent is a bewildering maze of strategies for circumventing or dissolving the problem of how we talk about what doesn’t exist. The key to understanding how influential concerns with nonexistence have been in philosophy is seeing the wealth of different solutions (often implicit in a particular philosophical tradition) that have been invented to solve the puzzle of how we talk, think about, and even perceive what does not exist.

General Overviews

A general discussion of the philosophical issue of nonexistent objects in the broad sense that we are using here cannot at this time be found either in articles, in books, or online. There are specific online articles, such as Reicher 2014, but despite the breadth of the title (“Nonexistent Objects”) the topic of the article is narrowly focused on Meinongian and Neo-Meinongian solutions to the problem of nonexistent objects. So too, there are books on nonexistent entities, Azzouni 2012, Everett 2013, and Sainsbury 2010, and books with significant discussion of this topic, for example, Crane 2013, but all of these approach the topic from a very specific philosophical framework, and they consider alternative frameworks only in polemical settings.

  • Azzouni, Jody. Talking about Nothing: Numbers, Hallucinations, and Fictions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    A general discussion of the philosophical issues of nonexistent objects that handles them with neutral quantification.

  • Crane, Tim. The Objects of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199682744.001.0001

    A study of the metaphysics of the objects needed for an understanding of intentionality. The position is a form of Meinongianism.

  • Everett, Anthony. The Nonexistent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674794.001.0001

    Follows a pretense approach to the semantics and truth of statements apparently about fictional entities.

  • Reicher, Maria. “Nonexistent Objects.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward M. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Satnford University, 2014.

    Provides an overview of Meinongian and Neo-Meinongian approaches to the problem of nonexistent objects. Some discussion of paraphrase and pretense approaches. First published 2006.

  • Sainsbury, R. M. Fiction and Fictionalism. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Provides an in-depth discussion of an approach to statements apparently about nonexistent objects using a version of free logic. Also discusses and evaluates objections to Meinongian and pretense approaches to nonexistence discourse.

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