Ontological Pluralism and Understanding Ways of Being

Last Updated on April 12, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Ontological pluralism in philosophy is the view that there are different ways of being. If it’s correct, then different entities, such as a person, a tree, and a number, can have different ways of being.

However, is it also possible that the same individual entity can have multiple ways of being? Or does every single entity merely have one way of being? And if it is possible, what does it mean for the selfsame entity to have multiple ways of being?

On my view, every single entity has one primary way of being. However, there are times when –  despite an entity’s primary way of being – a person can take or understand the way of being of a particular entity to be some kind of being different from its primary way of being. In this sense, the selfsame entity can have multiple ways of being.

This “taking an entity as some other way of being” does not represent any change in the entity itself. Rather, it simply represents a change in the way a person understands that entity in a given situation.

In this article, I will further explain what I mean when I say that ontological pluralism means that the very same entity can be understood as having different ways of being. But it always has one primary way. Let’s take a look at one entity as an example: a stone.

A large tone in the water
Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

An Example: The Way of Being of a Stone

The way of being of an entity is how an entity is fundamentally understood by people to exist. Let’s take a rock or stone as an example. According to ontological pluralism, an entity like a rock has a specific way of being.

Different ontological pluralists might categorize this way of being in different ways. For our purposes, let’s say that the rock exists as “nature.” That something like naturality is its way of being.

But let’s imagine for a moment that we are a soldier hiding in the weeds or amongst the trees in the midst of a heated battle. We are getting ready to attack an enemy soldier when we spot a large rock. It is large enough to seriously injure or even kill the enemy soldier if we hit him over the head with it. 

Suddenly, you no longer see the rock as merely a thing of nature; as a natural object. Instead, you see it as equipment. It is equipment used for killing an enemy soldier.

Following Heidegger’s version of ontological pluralism, let’s say that the way of being of items of equipment is “availability”, or “readiness-to-hand.” Now, you no longer see the rock as merely a natural object, but rather as an item of equipment. That means that the kind of being you understand the rock to have has changed from naturality to readiness-to-hand.

But has anything changed in the rock itself?

No. The ontic structure of the rock is still the same. It is the same single entity. The rock is simply a rock. And yet – something has indeed changed. Your understanding of the way of being of that rock has temporarily shifted.

A Changing Understanding of Ways of Being

When you pick up the rock and strike your enemy over the head, your understanding of the way of being of the rock has from naturality shifted to readiness-to-hand. But that is because you are now overlooking the primary way of being of this entity, naturality, and thrusting a different understanding of that entity’s way of being upon it, availability.

Your shift from understanding the rock as natural to understanding it as available represents a shift in your understanding of this entity’s being, not a shift in the entity itself. In other words, it is an ontological shift, not an ontic shift. Fundamentally, you still know that a rock is a natural object. It was not some item of equipment manufactured in a plant somewhere.

And yet, you are taking the rock as if it were a piece of equipment. You are using the rock as if its way of being were primarily readiness-to-hand rather than naturality. Once you are finished killing your enemy combatant, you will most likely go back to seeing the rock as a mere natural object. The idea that the rock is actually equipment is not sustained beyond its actual use by you.

Primary Ways of Being

Every entity has a primary way of being which we understand when we consider or encounter that entity. For example, a rock may be primarily natural. A pen may be primarily ready-to-hand. A bird may be fundamentally alive. A person may fundamentally exist. And a number might primarily subsist.

You could dispute any of these particular characterizations of the way of being of each of the listed entities. But what remains true is that each entity has one primary and specific way of being. And an ontological pluralist holds that there are at least two such specific ways or kinds of being.

Some ontologists will likely argue that the stone qua nature and the stone qua equipment are two distinct entities. 

They are not.

The difference between the stone qua nature and the stone qua equipment is not an ontic distinction (a distinction about entities) but rather an ontological one. It is a distinction of being.

The entity itself has not undergone a change. And there are not two entities in the rock example, one being a natural entity and one being an equipment entity. They are always the same one single unified entity, simply understood differently as to its way of being.

An ontological pluralist should hold the view that one entity has a primary way of being but can be situationally understood as if it had a different kind of being. Such a shift in understanding does not affect the object itself, although it may affect how you interact with it. But an ontological shift is never a mere ontic change. It is always an ontological shift.

If you enjoyed this article on Ontological Pluralism and Understanding Ways of Being, be sure to check out my post on “Ontological Pluralism and the Generic Conception of Being.”

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