In Gordon Clark's article Atheism (1983), he wrote, under a subsection entitled The Meaninglessness of Existence, the following:
The idea existence is an idea without content. Stars exist-but this tells us nothing about the stars; mathematics exists-but this teaches us no mathematics; hallucinations also exist. The point is that a predicate, such as existence, that can be attached to everything indiscriminately tells us nothing about anything. A word, to mean something, must also not mean something. For example, if I say that some cats are black, the sentence has meaning only because some cats are white. If the adjective were attached to every possible subject-so all cats were black, all stars were black, and all politicians were black, as well as all the numbers in arithmetic, and God too-then the word black would have no meaning. It would not distinguish anything from something else. Since everything exists, exists is devoid of information. That is why the Catechism asks, What is God? Not, Does God exist?
This idea is found elsewhere in Clark's writings, especially later in his life:
The verb to be must always be a copula, and never the unintelligible verb exist… Ousia means being (a participial noun), reality, or definition... Ousia doubtless means “reality.” But not only are trees and rocks “real,” dreams are “real” too. They are real dreams. The number three is real. Everything is real, and thus the term has no meaning. (The Trinity, 2010, pgs. 70, 79, 86-87)
The earliest precedent for this that I could find is found in Three Types of Religious Philosophy (1973), although Clark had not by this point - as he does later, per the preceding quote - equated that which exists with that which is real, since he here contrasted the latter with the imaginary:
If a predicate can be attached to everything without exception, it has no distinct meaning, and this is to say that it has no meaning at all…Here then in the conclusion: The predicate existence can be attached to everything real or imaginary without exception. Dreams exist, mirages exist, the square root of minus one exists. These statements, however, are meaningless; they tell us nothing about dreams and the square root of minus one…Anything exists, so far as the term has any faint meaning at all. But it makes a great difference whether God is a dream, a mirage, or the square root of minus one. (Christian Philosophy, 2004, pg. 41)There could be other instances where Clark says something along these lines. I think these suffice for the following comments.
If "existence" were an idea without content - or if "[x] exists" is a statement in which the intended verb is without content - then the use of these words (or their equivalent parts of speech) wouldn't signify anything. They would be conceptually bankrupt, and any statement in which they are found would be unintelligible. It would be no idea at all.
But is "existence" meaningless? I don't think so, and it appears "late Clark" didn't either, as he used the word "existing" and "exists" to describe his own positions:
The possible views are these: There are three independent gods; there is only one God who appears and operates in three ways; there is but one Person who is God and Christ was his first creation; and finally there is one Godhead existing in three Persons. (The Trinity, 2010, pg. 20)
We reply that God’s act of will is eternal. Thus the begetting of the Son occurs, and the Son as a Person exists, by a necessity of the divine nature – the nature of the divine will. Later this theme may become complicated, or simplified, by the identification of the Father’s will, the Son’s will, and the Spirit’s will as one will.
John Gill, otherwise so excellent, falls into this temporal trap at one place. “God exists necessarily,” he says, and this is true… (The Trinity, 2010, pgs. 135-136)
When now the theist speaks of theism as a practical postulate, he is not indulging in any “as-if” philosophy. He means that God exists and that one should conduct his daily life by that belief. It is called a postulate because it is an indemonstrable first principle and not a theorem derived from more ultimate premises. (A Christian Philosophy of Education, 1988, pgs. 42-43)
Certainly, the burden of proof lies on those who deny the propositional construction of truth. Their burden is twofold. Not only must they give evidence for the existence of such truth, but first of all they must make clear what they mean by their words. It may be that the phrase non-propositional truth is a phrase without meaning. (God's Hammer, 1995, pg. 35)And this is only for Clark's uses of the variants of "existence." As "late Clark" equated "existence" with "reality" and "reality" with "being" and "definition," one could easily cite hundreds of cases in which Clark had previously (or even concurrently) argued for his own views using these words, suggesting he must have thought they had meaning. If Clark did indeed change his mind from one position to another later in his life, it was strange that he did not mention how such affected his own prior or concurrent use of said words.
Rather than view Clark as being inconsistent, I think it makes more sense to suppose that in the first trio of quotes in this post, he was just imprecise. The point Clark intends to drive at is that merely stating some subject "exists" gives us no idea as to the individuality of that subject. But this doesn't imply that "existence," "exists," etc. are meaningless terms, for what it does do is qualify the subject as capable of functioning as a subject. Such a capability or potential is necessary for there to be any discussion of what something actually is.
In a past post (link), following a quote by Clark in which he differentiated between denotative and connotative definitions, I argued:
Denotatively, the upper limit of classification can be said to be existence, reality, or being. These words are simply meant to encompass what “is,” viz. everything. Clark’s dislike of using these words as predicates stems from the fact that they can, in some sense, be applied to every subject. Because they cannot distinguish any one subject from another, they don’t really serve a useful connotative function: can anything fail “to be [real or existent]”? No. Everything qualifies ipso facto. This is why Clark considered himself to be a Realist. On the other hand, an exhaustive denotative list of everything is useful because knowledge requires distinctions and distinctions imply multiple subjects or material from which a hierarchy of classifications can be demonstrated, the total sum of which is just existence, reality, or being that an omniscience would know.
This would be very similar to how "early Clark" himself seemed to implicitly define "existence" at one point:
…demonstration is knowledge, and there can be no known of the non-existent. The premises, therefore, must be statements of what exists or what is so, i.e., they must be true. (Thales to Dewey, 2000, pg. 102)In sum: reality, existence, and being - these nouns refer, in the broadest sense, to everything and anything (more words Clark had no problem using). To define or explain what these are, we would have to list out every possible subject, taking note of the fact these subjects have certain meanings (propositional) and refer to certain things (propositional or non-propositional). To call something real, to say it exists, for it to be - these verbs refer, in the broadest sense, to the principle according to which we could even formulate a list of everything and anything.
So the next time someone says "existence" is meaningless because it is applicable to anything and everything, just ask what anything and everything mean or refer to.
[Or come up with your own definitions of these terms.]