Being vs Becoming: Philosophy and History

In philosophy, “becoming” is often contrasted with “being.” The discussions about being vs becoming are debated in metaphysics. Being represents a static and unchanging present. On the other hand, the idea of becoming is about change and transformation over time.

The study of being versus becoming asks what’s real and what it means to exist.

Metaphysics is about contemplating the nature of being. It explores questions such as: What does it mean to exist? How do things come to be? Can being be understood independently of perception or consciousness? Is there a distinction between being and non-being?

For centuries, philosophers have been curious about being and becoming. Here, we examine some of these ideas.

What is being in philosophy?

Being in metaphysics refers to existence. So, something in the state of being has a material or immaterial existence.

In other words, the concept of being covers all that exists, including physical objects, living beings, abstract ideas, and even spiritual entities.

Questions about being are closely tied to the nature of the universe and reality. In general, the concept of being is defined in two ways:

  1. Being as existence: This includes everything that exists, such as physical objects, concepts, and metaphysical ideas. For example, a tree exists as it stands in a forest.
  2. Being as essence: Essence refers to the characteristics that define an existence, the inner nature of their being. For example, a tree has unique qualities, like its trunk, branches, leaves, etc. These qualities define its essence or its “tree-ness”

For Aristotle, beings are “things there are.” In Categories, Aristotle divides beings into ten categories:

  1. substance
  2. quantity
  3. quality
  4. relatives
  5. somewhere
  6. sometime
  7. being in a position
  8. having
  9. acting
  10. being acted upon

In summary, the idea of being is fundamental to our understanding of reality and our place in the universe. The view of reality as a collection of beings focuses on the idea that reality is made of fixed entities. Similarly, objects exist in a stable and unchanging state. So, reality is a collection of separate beings with defined properties and characteristics. Each entity keeps its identity and essence over time. As a result, change is often superficial or secondary.

What is becoming in philosophy?

In philosophy, becoming is often viewed as the opposite of being. Becoming is about change, growth, and transforming into something new. While “being” is about existing, “becoming” is more about how things change and grow over time.

The view of reality as becoming focuses on existence’s dynamic and fluid nature.

Here, reality is a process of constant change, transformation, and evolution. In this perspective, entities are not static beings. Instead, they are dynamic processes that continually evolve. So, change is fundamental to the nature of this reality as it is always in flux, growth, and emergence.

For example, a tree is never in a static state and thus it is always changing, and growing.

Let’s summarize these perspectives with being vs becoming examples:

  • Being as existence: In this point of view, a tree is an independent physical object.
  • Being as essence: The essence is about innate characteristics. For a tree, “tree-ness” characteristics like its trunk and leaves define its being.
  • Becoming: In this perspective, a tree is connected to everything else. Rather than a static, independent entity, a tree is an organism that is part of the larger ecosystem, and is always changing and growing.

Next, we explore different philosophical perspectives on the relationship between being and becoming.

Heraclitus and the flux of reality

Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed that “everything is always flowing in some respects.”

For Heraclitus, reality is in a state of flux and transformation. So, one can not step into the same river twice. Heraclitus goes on to suggest that there are no static beings. Instead, everything is in constant change, governed by universal laws.

It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state.


For Heraclitus, the Fire element is the principle of all things. Fire was a physical element, a metaphysical concept, and a symbol of change.

However, Johnathan Barnes argues that Heraclitus is a material monist and believes that all things are modifications of fire.1

What is material monism?

Material monism says the world is made of just one substance. In material monism, everything can be reduced to that single substance.

This substance is usually thought to be matter or energy.

One aspect of material monism is that everything in the universe is connected. Because it grounds reality in a single source.

Parmenides and unity of beings

Parmenides was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived around the 5th century BCE. His writings are fragmented, with much of his work not surviving the ages. However, his influence and ideas appear in the writings of later philosophers.

In a poem, Parmenides describes being visited by a goddess who unveils the nature of reality to him. The goddess reveals to him that there is an unchanging core in reality and shows him that true existence is eternal and unchanging.

So, Parmenides believes that reality is a single continuous, undividable existence. It is “all that can be said about what truly exists.” It is motionless and unchanging, and the past and present have no meaning.

For Parmenides, the physical world is a “deceitful show” and he claims that reality is “something utterly different from the world in which each of us supposes himself to live. (Guthrie 1965, 51)”2

As opposed to Heraclitus, Parmenides observes the world as a single being. As a result, motion, change, and transformation are illusionary and results of our faulty perception.

So, you could argue that Parmenides’ philosophy emphasizes the primacy of “being” over “becoming”.

Being vs becoming in ancient Greek philosophy

Although different, Heraclitus and Parmenides’ ideas challenge the concept of reality.

Heraclitus’ philosophical idea of becoming challenges our perception of reality. Since we only grasp a snapshot of the continuous process of becoming. Our understanding is limited by our ability to perceive the big picture.

Similarly, Parmenides questions the reliability of our senses to distinguish true reality from appearances.

So, according to both ancient Greek philosophers, our perceptions are illusionary and don’t align with the true reality.

Being vs becoming in Whitehead’s process philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was a British mathematician and philosopher. He entered philosophy after a career as a scholar at Cambridge University.

Whitehead’s philosophy is influenced by mathematics, quantum mechanics, and relative theory. His philosophy views reality as a constant state of becoming.

More like Heraculis, Whitehead believes that everything is always becoming something new. This means that “things” are always transforming and evolving.

However, Whitehead’s holistic view observes being and becoming as a continuous process.

In Whitehead’s view, the world is not made of “things”, like books, trees, and roads. Instead, the reality is made of a series of happenings that he calls actual entities.

For example, it translates to something like: the experience of being a tree is happening in this place.

Whitehead and modern physics

Whitehead’s philosophy is influenced by the modern physics of the 20th century. In quantum mechanics, an electron in superposition can be in different places at the same time. However, after interaction with the environment, the electron collapses into a specific position. Upon collapse, the electron becomes observable. It transitions from a quantum state to a classical state, resembling classical matter. This process of “becoming” gives electrons well-defined properties.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, actual entities make up the reality. These entities undergo the process of becoming and emerge as a “being.” At the same time, they keep the possibility to transform further.

So, for Whitehead, being and becoming are not separate but parts of a dynamic universe. “Being” is a state of existence that emerges from becoming. At the same time, becoming is the ongoing potential for change in every being.

Perception, reality, being

Emmanuel Kant has this phrase that says “das ding in sich.” Referring to the idea that we can never experience the thing in itself. Instead, we experience the physical world through our perception.

Our perception filters what is “out there” and creates a map of reality for us. So, subjective reality is formed not only by what exists but also by our senses and thoughts.

This means that the perception of “things” is entangled with the senses and the mind. For example, a tree, as we perceive it, is not separate from the conscious mind. Rather, the experience of seeing the tree is a conversation between our mind, our senses, and what is “out there”.

So, the idea of being, as a physical being or as an essence, is always defined through our subjective experience.

Being and becoming in Eastern philosophy

The dynamics between being and becoming have been long explored in Eastern traditions. In Eastern philosophy, the concepts of being and becoming are defined in their relatedness. The idea of “being” is often referred to as the essence of existence and the fundamental nature of all things.

Also, the notion of becoming appears through discussions about all beings’ interconnectedness and underlying unity.

Indra’s net and being

The idea of the universe as a web of “beings” and “becoming” is well illustrated in the metaphor of Indra’s net in Hinduism.

In this metaphor, Indra, the Hindu god of the heavens, has a vast net that stretches in all directions which is referred to as Indra’s Net. At each intersection of this infinite net, there is a perfectly polished jewel. Each jewel reflects the light from every other jewel. In turn, this creates an infinite array of reflections. 3

In Indra’s Net, each jewel in the net represents a being in the universe. Although separate, each being (jewel) is connected to others and reflects the changes and characteristics of other beings (jewels). So, there is this process of change and becoming which happens through infinite reflections.

Wu Wei and becoming

In Daoist philosophy, the idea of being and becoming are connected to the Dao.

In Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) we have:

The Way produces the One.

The One produces two.

Two produces three.

Three produces the myriad creatures

The Daodejing of Laozi, Chapter 42, T.Philip J. Ivanhoe

The Way or the Dao produces all that there is. So, all beings come from the Dao. Since everything comes from the Dao there is an inherent interconnectedness in all the universe.

The becoming is the process of “being” by the rhythms of the Dao. For example, a tree grows in harmony with the Dao.

So, the being exists under this strong element of connectivity and change.


Understanding being and becoming are usually tied to metaphysics and what we know as reality.

The idea of reality as a collection of individual beings is more present in Western philosophies. An important element of accepting this universe is the separation of entities. For example, when it comes to physical objects, a tree, a bird, or a dog are all separate beings. However, defining and categorizing such entities is closely tied to our limited and biased perception.

Reality as becoming is about connectedness and change and is more present in Eastern traditions. The idea of becoming in metaphysics echoes the dynamic aspect of nature and transformation and the transient time.

Being vs becoming summary

What is being in philosophy?Being refers to existence; it includes all that exists, both material and immaterial. It can be viewed as existence or essence.
What is becoming in philosophy?Becoming is the opposite of being, representing change, growth, and evolution over time. It focuses on the dynamic nature of reality and constant transformation.
Heraclitus and the flux of realityHeraclitus believed in the constant flux of reality, where everything is continually changing. His philosophy challenges static notions of being.
Parmenides and unity of beingsParmenides emphasized the unity of beings, viewing reality as an eternal and unchanging existence. He questioned the reliability of our senses in perceiving true reality.
Being vs becoming in Whitehead’s philosophyWhitehead’s process philosophy sees reality as a continuous state of becoming, influenced by modern physics. It views being and becoming as interconnected processes.
Perception, reality, being, and becomingPerception filters reality, shaping our understanding of being and becoming. Our subjective reality is entangled with our minds, influencing our perception of reality.
Indra’s Net and beingIndra’s Net illustrates the interconnectedness of all things, emphasizing the dependence of beings on each other in the universe.
Wu Wei and becomingWu Wei, or effortless action, aligns with the natural order of the Dao, emphasizing the constant process of becoming.
Being vs Becoming Summary


  1. Barnes, Jonathan, 1982, The Presocratic Philosophers, revised ed., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ↩︎
  2. Guthrie, W. K. C., 1962. A History of Greek Philosophy, i: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎
  3. R. Robertson, Indra’s net: alchemy and chaos theory as models for transformation, 1st Quest ed. Wheaton, Ill: Quest Books/Theosophical Pub. House, 2009. ↩︎