Ontological Pluralism and the Generic Concept of Being

Last Updated on April 7, 2022 by Lil Ginge

In his paper, “Ontological Pluralism and the Generic Conception of Being”, Byron Simmons rightly points out that, “Entities have both a being and a nature.” So a distinction is drawn here between “being” and “nature.” Simmons also says that “being” can be understood also as ‘existence” or “thatness” while “nature” can also be understood as “essence” or “whatness.” In other words, “being” is that a thing is and “nature” is what a thing is.

A statue of a three headed dragon
Photo by Vlad Zaytsev on Unsplash

Ontological Pluralism versus Monism

Simmons goes on to say that an entity’s nature, or its whatness, includes both essential and accidental characteristics. Essential characteristics are those that must belong to an entity of such and such a kind, while accidental characteristics are those that may belong to an entity of such and such a kind, but do not have to. For example, it may be essential that dragons breathe fire and have the ability to fly, but accidental that they are purple or named “Smaug.”

Ontological pluralists believe that entities can have different ways of being or different ways of thatness. But ontological monists think that all distinctions between entities that a pluralist may call a difference in being are actually just a difference in nature or a difference in whatness. In other words, what a thing is can be different from another thing, but how it exists cannot. A giraffe and the number “two” can have different natures but not different ways of being.

To understand what an ontological difference, or a difference in being, might look like between two entities with different ways of being, Simmons points to the difference between an abstract object like the number “two” and a concrete object like a nightingale. Simmons writes:

Take, next, the difference between a number and a nightingale. A nightingale has a determinate size, shape, and weight. These properties help to make up its nature. But while a number appears to determinately lack any of the properties that help make up the nature of a nightingale, the true extent of the difference between them does not seem to be captured solely by a difference in their natures. There is a further and, it seems, fundamentally ontological difference between them: one is abstract, the other is concrete.

Byron Simmons, “Ontological Pluralism and the Generic Conception of Being

So according to Simmons, the difference between abstract objects like a number and a concrete object like a nightingale is an ontological difference or a difference in their way of being. It is not merely a difference in the kind of entity it is but rather in its way of existing. 

According to Simmons, if there truly is a difference in the way of being between a number and a nightingale or any abstract object versus any concrete object, then ontological pluralism is true. Because ontological pluralism simply is the existence of different ways of being. 

The Generic Concept of Being

One question raised by ontological pluralists and discussed further by Simmons is whether, in addition to there being different ways of being that different kinds of entities might not share, there is also one overarching generic way of being that all entities in fact do share. In other words, is there a generic concept of being that simply points to the fact that something exists without specifying in what particular way it exists.

If there is a generic concept of being that applies to every single entity, then every single entity enjoys being in the generic form – the simple fact that it exists – and possibly in addition also a way of being that specifies in what way it exists.

So, for example, let’s look again at the number “two.” It is quite possible that the number two simply exists – being in the generic sense – and in addition, exists as an abstract object. If this is true, then the number two has both a generic and specific way of being.

On my understanding of ontological pluralism, every entity would at the very least have to enjoy either a specific or generic way of being, and at least some entities enjoy a specific way of being. Ontological monism would be either the view that all entities either enjoy the generic way of being or only one total specific way of being, but not both.

The Implications of a Generic Concept of Being

It is possible that the generic way of being – the mere fact that an entity exists – cannot be described in any further detail as to the way of being of all entities. To say that baseballs, baseball players, and the concept “baseball” have generic being is simply to state that all three of these entities exist.

But it is also possible, I think, that the generic way of being could have thicker content. For example, one might say that the generic concept of being not only implies that all entities have being, but that the way of being of all entities is qua concrete objects. In other words, all entities that exist are necessarily concrete objects, and being a concrete object is the only way to exist.

Regardless, it seems rather fundamental to me that at the very least every existing thing enjoys being in the most generic sense that it has mere existence. Whether this sense of existence can be elaborated as one or more specific ways of being – the latter confirming that ontological pluralism would be true, remains to be seen.

If you enjoyed this article on “Ontological Pluralism and the Generic Concept of Being”, I invite you to check out my recent article, “What Is Ontological Pluralism in Philosophy?”.

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  1. Pingback: Ontological Pluralism: Generic and Specific Ways of Being | Lil Ginge

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