The nature of reality is something many people like to know. A regious person believes in god(s), a physicist be in particles and fields, or an Aboriginal believes in Dreamtime.

So different cultures believe different things to exist.

What makes it for some (most) philosophers hard to digest? What are their arguments?

I make this edit as a reaction on a comment. It says that different people might believe different things to exist but that that people want to know what's real or not. This is exactly what I mean by the hard to digest part. Different believes claim to know what is real or not. A particle physicist believes his elementary particles are real and these make him know all about them. He has to think they are real. It would be very strange if he wouldn't presuppose them to be real, truly existent. Likewise, an Aboriginal believes the Dreamtime is real and its real existence is what lets them know things about it.

They can say nothing about the reality of their fellow men. The physicist might consider the Dreamtime as non-existent while the Aboriginal might consider quarks and leptons as the ultimate chimeara.

Believe and reality can't be separated as is assumed by the anti-relativists. People from different cultures are not able to understand each other, so is the claim. Which is obvious non-sense. Truth and believe can siply be identified by people lying or not. Someone believing in quarks or leptons cannot be thought to lie. He can be proven wrong in the believe-system of science though.

So why is it hard to digest that there can be different objective realitie?

In the first comment to this question we can read:

Is "ontological relativism" supposed to be that existing things are what people believe them to be? That is hard to digest, and most people do not believe that despite believing different things. For one, existing things tend to upset what people believe about them, all the time.

This comment illustrates my point exactly. It ask though if this relativism is that things are believed to be different. The same thing can believed to be a different thing in different cultures. This is not what I mean. I mean the believe in different things altogether. In my example, the Dreamtime is a different thing than quarks or leptons. In different cultures they might be looked differently upon (with a frown or a nod of approvement) but the things stay the things. The Freamtime stays the Dreamtime and the quarks and leptons stay quarks and leptons (though they can turn into one another). Different believes can assign them different values though and they can be connected with different valus though.

So the question is: Why is ontological relativism so hard to digest?

  • 4
    Arguments about what exactly? Different cultures believe different things to exist, but people would like to know what does exist. Neither is hard to digest. Is "ontological relativism" supposed to be that existing things are what people believe them to be? That is hard to digest, and most people do not believe that despite believing different things. For one, existing things tend to upset what people believe about them, all the time.
    – Conifold
    Aug 9, 2021 at 9:43
  • @User53342. There's a dearth of information about ontological relativism on the 'net. Are you able to provide any references which discuss it? Aug 9, 2021 at 12:56
  • The test of a belief is whether it makes good predictions or not. Without that it is just a security blanket.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 8 at 13:15
  • Short answer: Power. To have power. It is well worth reading Foucault on this subject. And then read "Of Reality" by Gianni Vattimo. Regards
    – Gordon
    Jan 9 at 6:36

4 Answers 4


You should look at relativism more generally, and epistemic relativism in particular https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/#EpiRel

If you hold everything is relative, you have to deal with apparent universals, like geometry and mathematics. The persistence of objects & systems in influencing people whether or not they accept their reality, is also an issue.

Individuals don't exist, for physics, they are a conceptual shorthand for a certain lump of complex chemistry. So who do things really get to be relative to? Substance dualism, implicitly taken up by many scientists, holds a concealed 'mind of god' perspective, that will be the ultimate arbiter of what is objective.

These problems and others, like the Private Language argument, are resolved by considering intersubjectivity. This way of thinking is something like a peer-to-peer reality, with widely taken up behaviours altering how the whole system functions. Language makes humans highly networked in their reality-making. Claiming ontological relativism without limits, ignores that and risks becoming a form of solipsism.

  • “Individuals don't exist, for physics, they are a conceptual shorthand for a certain lump of complex chemistry. So who do things really get to be relative to?” Interesting. I have not heard this argument before. Do you know what works expound on this idea? Aug 12, 2021 at 5:02
  • @JustSomeOldMan: Buddhist philosophy
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 12, 2021 at 13:51
  • Do you know what school or work? I presume the arguments were for skepticism, not realism. However, what you wrote seems something a physicalist would sign off on. Aug 13, 2021 at 0:32
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    @JustSomeOldMan: I had in mind intersubjectivity, what is sometimes called 'interbeing', represented by the Indra's Net metaphor. With no privileged viewpoint at all, you have to take the intersubjective view. Thinking of identities as essences, and the idea of a 'mind of god' view are pervasive cognitive biases, that need to be unwoven from our thinking. Buddhist thought with it's scepticism about conventional notions of self and non-dualism, does this. Hume's bundle theory is maybe another example.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2021 at 1:51
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    Intersubjectivity seems to me a thoroughly underappreciated concept.
    – J D
    Jan 5 at 21:13

It seems you muddle the difference between ontic and ontological thinking - which admittedly is probably the main reason for the term 'ontological relativism' in the misguided sense the question alludes to.

Ontic thinking is strictly about how entities exist in relation to and interact with their environment. In this sense, obviously different species, different human cultures, and even different human individuals can exist in different ontic realities. It ideally is descriptive in nature.

Ontological thinking strictly looks at the underlying entities and mechanisms that make the different ontic realities and interaction between them possible. It ideally is explanatory in nature.

Thus, as soon as there is some interaction between very different ontic realities possible like in interaction between species and different cultural backgrounds, ontological thinking comes naturally.

Of course, the strict division between ontic description and ontological explanation is hard to uphold since the most natural human question is "why?!". On the other hand, there are quite a few philosophical strands like some flavours of transcendental philosophy, phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, and pragmatism that reject ontological thinking out of epistemological reasons. They state that since the ultimate boundary of our ability to gain knowledge about ontological reality is our ontic reality (ie. the extent and way of us interacting with our environment), reaching beyond that is nothing but futile (sometimes called the anthropological or hermeneutical circle).

In other words: Strictly speaking, proponents of ontological relativism will have a hard time justifying that every ontic reality (read: realm of basic entities individuals supposedly interact with) is equally valid. They often rather descriptively point out that there are different ontic realities and that there is no prima facie reason to reject any of them as long as they "work" for and have practical impact on these individuals, ie. that this needs good arguments. In the end, it all comes down to the question "How to tell which one is (more) correct?", ie. epistemological questions. This is also the reason many famous philosophers of the 20th century proclaimed that ontology ultimately collapses into (can be reduced to) epistemology.

Long story short

In a sense, there are four kinds of philosophers when it comes to ontology: Those who believe that there is only one ultimate reality and we can know it (vast majority, mostly believers in scientific ontology), those who believe that there is only one ultimate reality but we cannot know it (minority but many rigorous philosophers, suspending ontology altogether), those who believe in different ontologies but really think ontically while doing so (IMHO, bad philosophers) and - a very small minority - those who explicitly believe in multiple ontologies being real. Thus, most philosophers will not subscribe to ontological relativism because there are good reasons to think that it is a mistaken position.

  • Am I still in the first of your 4 kinds of philosophers if I believe we can't know "it", but we can know a little about it? I mean, "knowing reality" is kind of absurd. I can feel that way, but it is a passing feeling. I'm saying that we can have systematized knowledge that works, but that's not knowledge of 'reality'. Maybe I'm in category 2?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 8 at 13:24
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    @ScottRowe As you are reflected enough to make that distinction, I'd say category 2. Most critics just don't understand that this does not preclude working, systematic knowledge about ontic reality, nor that this ontic reality is plastic and able to change depending on, for example, technological abilities.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 8 at 13:57

Your question asks about the psychology of philosophy. If you have a familiarity with the history of philosophy, you will know that a matter of debate in Germany in the nineteenth century is the question of the relationship between logical and the psychological. Men like Frege and Kant argued that logic was essentially a disembodied, a priori science, and opponents argued that logic in part or whole reduces to psychology. Frege argued anti-psychologism in a long tradition of the formal sciences (math and logic) being viewed in the light of Platonic Forms, a position still held widely by many prominent philosophers. This sort of debate is one of a number that pits internalism versus externalism in regards to knowledge. The source of meaning is another.

From a naturalistic perspective, the human mind is viewed as evolving to represent the world around it, which for a very long time has found a home in philosophical representationalism, the notion that minds somehow have representations of the outside world. But note that this itself is a meta-ontological commitment one needn't follow. For instance, Searle defends a form of direct realism that sees the belief in the existence of mental representations as a misstep in the canonical thought of philosophy of mind. There's are also meta-ontological commitments possible in the philosophy of logic regarding the Laws of Thought, such as the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Principle of Bivalence. These sorts of commitments might be analyzed and adduced to support a simple metaphilosophical proposition: there's only one accurate ontology to represent the world, which is a highly realist position. Anti-realist thinking would nudge towards traditional thoughts on nominalism or present modern views on underdetermination of scientific truth to support Duhem's vision of instrumentalism which vastly oversimplifies to "thought is just a model". But if you don't believe in representations to begin with, that might be a meaningless statement. Einstein infamously clung to realism in the face of the Copenhagen interpretation.

But what of the psychology? Well, there's a growing and rather robust collection of scientific evidence that human beings are imperfect thinkers and have a hard time determining even if they know they know. (Gasp!) There is a long philosophical tradition going back at least to Kant and Descartes that introspection is the foundation of all reliable knowledge (which today's science strongly refutes). On the one hand you have extreme skeptical philosophies that nothing can be known, and on the other hand, traditional rationalist and phenomenological thinking takes introspection as the foundations of truth. What men like David Dunning and his partner, Amos Tversky, Daniel Ariely, and Daniel Kahneman have been claiming, is that human introspection is fallibilist. This has produced a body of work, such as The Psychology of the Closed Mind (GB), that suggests that people make deep axiological decisions at an intuitional and subconscious level rooted in neurological mechanisms like the limbic system. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues that the science shows a very strong correlation between emotional dispositions and political views in his The Political Mind. That is to say, there are biological origins to political orientation.

So, in less high falutin' language, some philosophers think there is one-true way to view the world, whereas other take a more relativistic approach. My experience has been that philosophers who are inflexible in their ontology are easy to spot because of their insistence on prescribing rather than describing philosophy. (Dialetheism is nonsense! The philosophy of sexuality isn't philosophy! Belief in supernaturalism is ridiculous! Something is either art or mathematics, but not both!) Eric Hoffer characterized this state of mind way back in his The True Believer, so it should come as no surprise that philosophy, like physics or religion, has its fair share of the crackpots and know-it-all's. One doesn't need psychology or philosophy, but mere life experience to see that one can sort people into buckets of those who adjust to the world, and those who try to force the world to adjust to them. Ontological inflexibility, then, would simply be a clever strategy by proscribing other's thoughts by denying the reality of their foundational concepts of their worldview.

  • What do we call the philosophy that nothing can be known, but we can be pretty sure about some things?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 8 at 13:38
  • @ScottRowe I'd say by current thinking, such a characterization is mixing psychological and logical claims. Logically, to know is to have justified, true belief. Psychologically, to be pretty sure is to have relatively certain belief. Thus, to be certain that knowledge doesn't exist isn't a philosophical position, per se, but is an attitude towards epistemology. Philosophers call this a propositional attitude. Thus, what you describe is part position, part attitude. I'd suggest your sentence describes "a radical skeptic who is certain".
    – J D
    Jan 8 at 17:07
  • That would seem to be a bit of an oxymoron if you take logical justification as the only path to certainty. How can you be certain you know what is true, if knowing isn't possible? There doesn't seem to my way of thinking to square that circle, but instead forces the claimant to go with faith, intuition, divine relevation, etc.
    – J D
    Jan 8 at 17:09
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    Yes, good points. I would say that striving to be certain in an uncertain world is a human psychological defect. What's so horrible about admitting that we are not certain? Just learn to sleep at night anyway. The fanaticism to be sure has caused a lot of human problems, and it's not so good for the rest of the world either. Maybe we need psychology more than philosophy? We can be certain that we will die. After that, meh.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 9 at 11:13
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    @ScottRowe Fear of being eaten, and fear of being judged in an afterlife are separated by a gulf of immediacy; think boiled frog. Religion is simply a tribe, and humans are wired for in-group-out-group thinking.
    – J D
    Jan 10 at 14:56

Ontological relativism consists in the fact that for different people, creatures, objects the world exist in different ways: it does not seem different, but is really different: it is real for each of them. People are VERY similar to each other, that's why we can talk about "objective reality" that is common to all of us. See more here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10516-021-09589-w

  • Re: (from link) "reality is interaction, “I interact—hence, I exist”" — However, what one interacts with is shot through with misdirection and camouflage. From Heidegger, "the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the twofold form of refusal and obstructing. Fundamentally, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny [un-geheuer]. ... Truth, in its essence, is un-truth. We put it this way emphatically to indicate, with a perhaps off-putting directness, that refusal in the mode of concealing is intrinsic to unconcealment as clearing." GA5 p 31. All adds uncertainty. Jan 8 at 9:57
  • This obstruction can apply to the perceiver too, e.g. shot through with inherited preconceptions, risky assumptions or affects of psychological defence mechanisms, denial etc. Jan 8 at 10:39
  • I'm grateful for evolution every day. False beliefs are doomed. (True beliefs are doomed too, but later on.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 8 at 13:30
  • Any information exists only for those who perceive it, because they are able to perceive it. Like any objects, they exist only for those who (what) interact with them, since they are able to interact with them. It is impossible to say "this information is true" or "this information is false" without specifying for whom and under what circumstances. Jan 9 at 15:19
  • Anything is true that makes (or is capable of making) any object/us more of a existing. And that which makes or is capable of making less existing is a lie. Jan 9 at 15:29

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