What Is Ontological Realism?

Last Updated on October 9, 2022 by Lil Ginge

Ontological realism is a metaphysical position that is realist about what there is (what exists). Metaphysical Realism, in general,  is the metaphysical position that something or some type of thing is real. Ontology is the science (study) of being or existence.

To take a straightforward example, if I assert that hammers are real, I am taking an ontologically realist position as regards to hammers; that they really exist. To take another example, if I assert that dragons are real in a robust sense, then I am asserting (falsely) that dragons exist as real entities (in their being).

A hammer about to pound a powdered metal.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Another way of claiming that something like hammers or dragons are ontologically real is to claim that it is an objective fact or objectively true that such things as hammers or dragons are real. But not all ontological realists would necessarily assert the objectivity or factuality of their realist claim. They may simply claim that such things exist as real entities, period.

A further claim that many ontological realists tend to be making is that if something or some type of thing is ontologically real, it is also in some way independent of the human mind. For example, to say that hammers are real is to assert that the reality of the existence of hammers is not simply just our idea or concept of hammers. But rather, without any human mind or understanding of hammers, there would still be hammers that exist.

The same could be said, as an example, about dragons. So, ontological realism is a position that tends to assert that some being or types of beings exist as real, that this is objectively true or factual, and that this fact is somehow mind-independent.

Compatible and Incompatible Theories of Metaphysics and Mind

There are some metaphysical theories and philosophies of mind that are compatible with ontological realism such as: 

  • various forms of physicalism and emergent materialism 
  • various forms of dualism about the mind-body connection 
  • and even some forms of idealism like objective idealism.

On the other hand, there are theories that ontological realism tends to be completely incompatible with. These include various forms of subjective idealism like phenomenalism and solipsism.

Ontological Realism vs. Realism About Ontology (Metaontological Realism)

Realism about ontology (metaontological realism) is a slightly different concept from ontological realism, but sometimes the two could be confused if one isn’t careful. Realism about ontology is the claim that ontology as a philosophical discipline is a legitimate metaphysical project and that it is debating a substantive topic.

The opposing views to realism about ontology are various deflationary theories of ontology. These argue that, somehow, ontology as a philosophical discipline is not legitimate or is not arguing about substantive topics. The philosopher Ted Sider (Rutgers University) is an example of someone who claims to be a robust realist about ontology. But that does not make him an ontological realist in our ordinary sense.

Ontological Realism and Ontological Pluralism

Ontological pluralism is the view that there are multiple or different ways of being. For example, an ontological pluralist may argue that existing as a physical object and existing as a mental object are literally two different ways of being.

In theory, ontological realism and ontological pluralism can be consistent. So can ontological monism, the philosophical view that there is only one way of being. But it is possible that an ontological pluralist may also not be an ontological realist.

If you found this article on ontological realism helpful, I would love for you to check out my article on ontology in modern philosophy.

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