What Is Ontological Pluralism in Philosophy?

Last Updated on April 5, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Ontological pluralism in philosophy is the metaphysical view that there are different ways of being. In other words, it is the doctrine that there are multiple ways in which it can be said that things or entities exist. Different philosophers have held this view from ancient Greek philosophy, such as Aristotle, all the way down to contemporary philosophical thinking in the United States, such as Kris McDaniel. The view is the opposite of ontological monism, the view that there is only one way in which things are or can be said to exist.

Contemporary philosophers that have participated in the debate over the truth of ontological pluralism in metaphysics include philosophers Jason Turner, Kris McDaniel, and Peter van Inwagen. While McDaniel and Turner argue for the viability of ontological pluralism, Peter Van Inwagen vehemently denies that such a position is correct.

Making Ontological Pluralism Concrete

To make this debate a little bit more concrete, let’s imagine three different objects: a human being, the number “two”, and the television show Law and Order. Obviously, most non-philosophers would agree that all three of these very different types of entities exist. There is such a thing as a human being, the number two, and the television show Law and Order.

Not only do they seem like very different types of objects, but ontological pluralists might also argue that all three of these objects exist in very different ways. For example, they might say that a human being exists as a physical object, the number two as an abstract or mental concept, and the television show Law and Order as a piece of entertainment or a narrative fiction shared among a vast number of people.

Who Started the Current Debate on Ontological Pluralism?

Kris McDaniel kickstarted the contemporary dialogue in philosophy on the topic of ontological pluralism with his essay “Ways of Being” and his follow-up book The Fragmentation of Being. Jason Turner also contributed to launching the debate by coining the term “ontological pluralism” itself.

One form of the contemporary debate on ontological pluralism in philosophy has to do with logical quantifiers, such as the existential and universal quantifiers. But quantifiers are an invention of contemporary or analytic philosophy dating back to Frege and have little to do with the philosophies of such pluralists as Aristotle or Heidegger.

Ontological Pluralism Vs. Competing Ontologies

Some people seem to confuse the concept of ontological pluralism with the notion that some philosophers have different and competing ontologies. Competing ontologies are philosophical views that different sets of entities exist. So for example, philosopher A might say that numbers exist and philosopher B might say, “Well actually no, numbers do not exist.”

These two philosophers have different or competing ontologies. But that does not mean either is an ontological pluralist in the strict sense. An ontological pluralist would, instead, say, “numbers have a specific way of existing that differs from other types of things that exist like bees and pencils and the fictional conception of Batman.” It is important to not collapse the distinction between multiple competing ontologies and ontological pluralism.

Jason Turner has correctly disambiguated these two different ways the term “ontological pluralism” has sometimes been used. But the term is used more appropriately with the view held by philosophers like Aristotle, Heidegger, and McDaniel that there are multiple ways of being or existing.

The Views Of Some Prominent Ontological Pluralists in Philosophy

In his paper “Ontological Pluralism”, Jason Turner argues that according to the ontological pluralist, there are different ways, kinds, or modes of being. This seems correct, but it remains somewhat unclarified if there is a distinction to be made between a “way”, a “kind”, and a “mode” in this context, or in the views of other philosophers who hold the position.

In his most famous work, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger argues for three dominant ways of being: 

  1. Existenz, the human way of being or the kind of being that “Dasein” has
  2. Readiness-to-hand or availability, the way of being that equipment has
  3. Presence-at-hand or occurrentness, the kind of being that theoretical objects have

On this view, many if not most of the confusions in the history of philosophy can be traced back to philosophy’s adherence to considering all entities as present-at-hand or having occurrent being. Much of the Being and Time project goes to correcting this view and shedding light on these three extremely different ways of being entities.

If you enjoyed this article on the nature of ontological pluralism in philosophy, I invite you to check out my article on the philosophy of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.

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