Ontological Pluralism: Generic and Specific Ways of Being

Last Updated on April 14, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Ontological pluralism is the philosophical view that there are not merely different kinds of entities but also different ways of being. For the theory to be true, there need to be at least two different ways that an entity can be said or understood to be or to exist.

But, not all ways of being are necessarily created equal. In fact, there may be a way of being that belongs to absolutely every single entity that exists. But there additionally may be ways of being that only belong to certain limited groups of entities.

In this article, we will look at how there can be multiple ways of being including a generic conception of being as well as specific ways of being. While a generic way of being belongs to absolutely every single entity that exists, specific ways of being belong only to limited ranges or domains of entities.

Someone holding a fruit in front of a man in a shady outdoor area.
A fruit and a man have different ways of being.

What Is Ontological Pluralism?

As stated above, ontological pluralism is the view that there are multiple ways of being or existing. Different philosophers throughout the history of philosophy including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Meinong, Russell, Heidegger, and most recently Kris McDaniel have at least seemingly or explicitly held this view.

When we say that there are different ways to exist, we mean that there is something over and beyond the fact that there are merely different kinds of entities, like apples, bananas, and peaches. 

Apples, bananas, and peaches are certainly three different kinds of entities. However, they seem to all have the same basic way of existing. But now think about a person, a rock, the number two, the concept of “circuses” and fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes or Batman. If these entities all exist in some way or other, it seems like they do not exist in precisely the same way.

After all, to be a person and to be the number two are so extremely different that being different kinds of entities doesn’t really seem to cover it. I can walk up and shake hands with an existing person. I definitely can’t do that with the number two. And if someone asked me to find the number two, I really wouldn’t know where to look.

Differences between different kinds of entities can be said to be ontic differences. While differences in ways of being are ontological differences. The view that there is only one way of being is called ontological monism, while the view that there are multiple ways of being is called ontological pluralism.

You can read more about what ontological pluralism is here.

Ontological Pluralism and Understanding How Being Can Differ

Does every single entity have one particular way in which it is? For example, perhaps human beings always exist but abstract objects like the number two always subsist. But these respective ways of being are static and unchanging.

I argue, as some other philosophers like Martin Heidegger have before me, that the same entity can have multiple ways of being in a certain respect. However, each entity has one primary way of being that we understand that entity to exist as.

For example, in the Heideggerian system, human beings (or “Dasein” in his coinage) exists, items of equipment like tables and hammers are available or ready-to-hand, and bare visual or mental objects like a stone on the road or my thought of a single tree are present-at-hand or concurrent.

Let’s take the stone as an example. Ordinarily, in Heidegger’s view, the stone is present-at-hand or occurrent. It just sits still and is the object of our vision. However, let’s say we pick up the wrong and use it to beat our enemy over the head to knock them out. When this is the case, we no longer understand the way of being of the rock as occurrent but rather as available.

There was no intrinsic change to the stone itself. What changed was my way of understanding the being of the stone. At first, I understood it as being present-at-hand, then ready-to-hand, and finally when I am done using and discarding the stone, I understand it as merely present-at-hand again. So in this way, the same entity can have multiple ways of being.

Read a more in-depth look at Human Understanding and Ontological Pluralism here.

Ontological Pluralism And The Generic Conception of Being

We’ve now seen how one single type of entity – a stone – can have multiple ways of being. It can do so when its existence is taken to be in a different way than how we normally understand it. So there are multiple ways of being that an entity can enjoy at distinct times.

However, there is one interpretation of ontological pluralism that states that not only does every entity have a specific way of being such as ready-to-hand or presence-at-hand, but that all entities additionally enjoy a generic way of being.

This generic conception of being is simply the fact that every single entity exists in some way or other. A nonexistence is a nonentity; it is literally nothingness. But an entity exists and the mere fact of its existence is the generic way of being that all entities enjoy.

So the aforementioned stone, in addition to primarily being occurrent or present-at-hand, also simply is. And when we reference this “is of existence” we are referring to the generic conception of being.

On this interpretation of ontological pluralism, every single entity is generically. But every single entity also has at least one specific way of being. In the Cartesian system, for example, an entity that enjoys mere existence also may exist materially, mentally, or as divinely. However, in Descarte’s system, there is never an overlap between these different kinds of entities’ ways of being.

Read more about the generic conception or way of being here.

Generic and Specific Ways of Being

It is my view that the correct way of understanding ontological pluralism is to understand that every single entity exists generically as well as specifically, Each existing thing simply exists and also exists in a specific way. However, philosophers may differ on what the specific way of existing is.

If there is both a generic and specific way of being, but all entities have one specific way of being, then ontological pluralism would be true in the limited sense that all objects both have a generic way of being but also the same specific way of being. These are still two distinct ways of being that all entities would happen to enjoy.

However, it is also my view that there are different specific ways of being. Although it may be disputed what precisely those specific ways of being are. To further flesh out ontological pluralism, we will need to dive deeper into the ontological nature of both the general and the different specific ways of being.

If you enjoyed this article on ontological pluralism and the generic and specific ways of being, you may also enjoy my post on the life and philosophy of Edmund Husserl.

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