Ontological Pluralism

Ontological Pluralism is an idea put forward by Arturo Escobar in his book Designs for the Pluriverse. The more I think about it, the more it messes me up.

I’m sure I’m getting it wrong in important ways, but the basic idea as I understand it is a flavor of live-and-let-live focused on which futures are allowed to exist.

My way of being is different than your way of being. But both ways deserve to co-exist. They both also deserve to have futures where they continue to exist.

If I decide your way of being is wrong, and I attempt to change it, then I am reducing the number of futures where your way continues to exist.

I might force you to adopt my way of being. This is just another path to eliminating your way from the world, eliminating your way’s futures.


In contrast to Ontological Pluralism, the default way that we attempt to perceive the world is one of universality — one way, that we all share.

The resulting conflict centers on what is allowed to be in our one way and what isn’t. There is only one way! Only one kind of future that we make possible.

The consequences of one way is that we routinely kill off all other ways, removing futures where they get to exist. We terraform other ways in our image, whatever image that happens to be.

It’s Everywhere

You’ll start to see this universalist future-killing in any circumstance where some way of being is restricted by a force attempting to do the terraforming. There are pavers and pavees.

There are no simple lines. It’s a tangled mess of forces vying for the future. Some want to live and be left alone. Others want to own all futures.

The challenging thing with confronting universalism is that some things you hold sacred might be destroyed.

Take abortion. A universalist will argue for one particular kind of future for everyone. Abortion as a human right. Abortion as murder. Abortion as (some other nuanced view).

An ontological pluralist, however, would have to accept futures where some people view abortion as a human right, some view it as murder, some view it as only appropriate when “medically necessary”, others as a religious rite (looking at you, Satanism)…. AND all of these ways of being get to exist, and have futures, even the ones you don’t like.

It’s a challenging way to imagine the world.

The Limits

There is one problem, of course. What happens when one way of being’s way of being seeks to eliminate other ways of being, as universalism does?

After all, don’t all ways of being deserve futures?

The paradox of tolerance applies. That way of being gets exiled. Or possibly eliminated. (With a hard limit on getting recursive.)

That sounds scary. And it is. But to put things into perspective, Universalism means that all other ways of being not conforming to The One Way of Being are having their futures eliminated right now by default.

Wrapping Up

All this is a confusing mess in my head right now, but I keep finding new ways to appreciate how ontological pluralism offers a different way to see the world, and to elevate the ongoing elimination of ways of being as a thing happening right now.

It also looks suspiciously like an honest kind of libertarianism, but that’s a hot take I’m not ready to defend!

As a parting confession, I am not a particularly good philosopher. I find reading books like Escobar’s difficult. That probably means I misunderstand some aspects. But I do apply what I (mis)understand. And so I learn. If you notice something I could be learning better, please share!

2 responses to “Ontological Pluralism”

  1. I’m probably going to buy that book now :). Sounds quite like an acceptance of difference in other people? I suppose the difference is in whether you see difference as temporary before converging, or as something that will be sustained and grow (I just imagined a ‘garden of onotologies’ :))


    • Yeah! Sustained difference is a useful distinction. Also…. Ahhh! I love the ontology garden! The cool thing too is the cross-pollination that happens. Just because different ways are sustained, doesn’t mean they can’t learn from each other!


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