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Realism and its relevance

At about this time of year there died in the year 1274 one of the greatest thinkers that our western culture has ever produced. His name was Thomas and he was born near a village in the South of Italy called Aquino

where his father was the local squire. His achievements were multiple, and made all the more astonishing as he was less than fifty when he died. He is probably best known for working out what have become known as “the five ways” or arguments for God’s existence. He is also important because of the manner in which he integrated the then newly rediscovered thought of Aristotle into the Christian view of the world he had inherited. He is commonly called Thomas Aquinas and the philosophy he developed is called Thomism.

His integration of Greek and Christian ideas means that his work was in fact one of the most crucial pathways through which the achievements of the ancient world became part of our culture. It is thanks to Thomas that Christians have been able and willing to account for their faith in front of the sometimes harsh tribunal of reason. Perhaps most crucially Thomas was an ardent defender of the view that human beings could get a direct knowledge of the stuff around them.

The answer to the questions of how and to what extent we can understand reality, is of great importance, as if we cannot get such a grip then the range of what we can attempt to do as human beings is greatly limited. If we cannot know reality, we are left only with the ideas that we have about reality. And some philosophers have relished this conclusion. For example John Locke, believed, or said that he believed, that what we knew were not the objects themselves, but merely images of them. The obvious difficulty with this is that it seems to multiply entities for no good reason. Moreover Locke fails to explain why if we cannot experience an object, why it is that we are able to acquire an accurate picture of an image.

In any event, Thomas was having none of it. For him the philosopher’s task was not to deny or ridicule the way in which ordinary people look at and describe the world. Rather it was to explain in more detail exactly how such knowledge was gained, and to draw out the implications of the intellectual operations involved in this acquisition.

For Thomas- and here I am plagiarizing  Martin Walsh’s book “A History of Philosophy”- all our experiences are experiences of something real. We express our experiences in affirmations of our experiential and conceptual knowledge of reality. Thus for example we say “this thing exists,” this thing is hard,” and so forth.

According to Thomas our knowledge of reality is neither of ideas, nor of the representation of things, but of things themselves. How can this be?  Because plainly the pictures ( the being as imaged ) that we have in our heads when we make an affirmation are not the same as the thing itself. I can have a picture of the front gate of TCD when I am in Seattle. How then does this differ from the idea of the front gate present in my mind according to the Lockean view that all I can ever have in my head are representations?

Here it gets technical. The point is not that the “phantasm” postulated by realist thinkers appears different from the “idea” of the Lockeans. For Locke the representation is all that we have to rely on. But for the realist the phantasm is the means by which we have to understand reality. For Thomas the phantasm was the bridge by which we get to know the object itself- not just a representation of it. According to Mortimer Adler writing about Aristotle, and the same is true for Thomas, “the mind is the place where the forms that are in things become our ideas of them.” But how do we get at the core of the object?  According to the neo- Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, human beings possess what he has described as a kind of intellectual x- ray. This so to speak, extracts the object from the phantasm and then allows us to identify its essence.

According to Maritain there are only two ways in which the mind might be able to do this. The first would be if the objects concerned had a kind of extension that penetrated into the mind of those who know them. ( This incidentally was the explanation that I came up with as a child!) The obvious difficulty here is that we have no sense that such material extensions exist. The chair that I see does not in any material way exist within my mind. In Maritain’s analysis the second way in which we might be able to know external objects would be if these objects were to be present in some other immaterial way within the human mind. And this is the view Thomas adopted.

The case is given greater precision by Edward Feser in his book about Aquinas. According to Feser, Aquinas distinguished between the passive and active intellects in man. The passive intellect is that faculty that we have which senses the existence of objects other than ourselves. The existence, though, of a chair is shown to us by the passive intellect. The existence though of chairs in general, considered as things upon which it is possible to sit, is shown to us by the active intellect. “Producing ideas,” Adler explains, “is the very opposite of producing things; we put the ideas [ of a chair for example ] that we have in our minds into [ making ] things…In producing ideas, our minds, [ by way of the active intellect ]… turn them [ i.e. the objects we observe ] into ideas whereby we understand the nature of things that have this or that form.”

In other words our active intellect- Maritain’s x ray- gives us access to universals. “Universals” is the term given by realist philosophers to the characteristic that links all objects of a particular kind together. Our passive intellect sees a chair; then if we are so predisposed our active intellects, as Feser puts it “strips away all particularizing or individualizing features of a phantasm so as to produce a truly universal concept.” In other words our active intellect extracts from the phantasm of the chair which we have in our minds, the universal which links all chairs together namely the fact that they are objects on which it is possible for human beings to sit which have backs to them. This universal of the chair has no physical existence outside the multiplicity of existing chairs but is nevertheless as real as they are.

To those raised on an intellectual diet of modern scepticism and aggressively secularised science, these universals must seem very dubious propositions – perhaps no more than the product of the merest mumbo-jumbo. But are these doubts well founded? In discussing this it is as well to remember Churchill’s famous remark about democracy, namely that it was the worst form of government except for all the alternatives. There are in essence only two alternatives to the realist position. There is empiricism, and there is idealism. The empiricists, and this is, of course, to simplify horribly, believe that the only statements which count are those which can, at least in theory, be tested by some kind of scientific procedure. The difficulty here is that this proposition fails the test that it itself demands for meaningful discourse. How can the claim that only testable claims are justified itself be verified?

There are as many forms of idealism as there are idealists. But all forms of idealism lay a great stress on the role that the mind plays in structuring experience. There is obviously much truth here. There is clearly a higher degree of subjectivity about our perceptions than the scholastic realists sometimes implied. Getting at the truth can be difficult. But there is there not surely though an over subtlety in idealism too? Are we really just describing our ideas or representations in our minds when we talk about “chairs?” Or do we have access to the reality of them. Of course the idealists want to have both their representational theories and access to reality, but the very multiplicity of their proposed solutions, suggests to me that there may well something fundamentally wrong with their approach. This seems to be the implication of what the existentialists are saying with their focus on choice and authenticity rather than acquisition of any objective knowledge of reality. Despite its optimistic packaging idealism in practice leads only to angst, because a philosophy which identifies the truth not with the knower rather than the known, cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood.

For my money, Thomistic realism, or something quite like it, is the sounder view. It explains the sense that we have that we are indeed in touch with reality and not just with representations. The realist account seems to make more sense than empiricism does of our ability to get a grip on underlying realities. But I think we need to be careful here too. Getting at the truth is difficult; and we are not all equally good at it. Some cultures are better at some things, others at others. It is, though, the realist approach that is important, not so much the details of the argument.

I think we should look at realism in much the same way that we look at evolution. Between them Wallace and Darwin revolutionised our understanding of the world. Natural selection working within vast epochs of time has obviously moulded what has gone on in our planet. No fully informed human being can now seriously approach geological and above all biological reality without taking what Darwin had to say into account . Evolution must be the background to all our enquiries in such fields. But is this to say that natural selection can explain all the changes to biological structures that they have undergone or will ever undergo? That seems to me to go beyond the evidence. Similarly I think that realism is the most productive single way of understanding the world, and it should always be in the background as we face the multitude of competing ideas about how we should live, most of them today grounded in the notion that truth is unattainable, and that in effect we should invent it for ourselves.

Philosophical realism reveals a world very different from that prevalent in our mass culture. The realist description of how we view the world implies a high but not hubristic understanding of human nature. Realism says that man can gain an understanding not simply of the objects around him but of their relationships with one another, and the underlying realities ( i.e. the universals ) that unite them. This understanding is derived from the objects themselves and not from structures within the human mind. In so far as human beings impose a truth on the world which is not be found within it they are deluded. If their actions are based on these delusions they are certain to prove harmful, and perhaps disastrous. Realism teaches further that our knowledge of the world can only be accounted for by the fact that we have capacities which point beyond the material reality, and this in turn tells us that our nature itself is not exclusively a material one. A realist account of our knowledge is then consistent with the immortality of man, and all the implications that this has about how we should live.

All this has social and political importance.  We must ever be mindful of the fact that while the immateriality inherent in our understanding provides powerful confirmation that we are free, this same immateriality allows us to make real ethical discoveries which are not just personal choices. Consequently our politics need to reflect both these insights. The freedom to explore and to make mistakes is important. There can be no virtue without freedom. But if we can understand the essence of things there are inescapable implications, implications that, for example, must be deeply significant for the debate about the right to life. The art of politics is the art of navigating between the value of freedom, and the danger of relativism.

Realism also has important things to say about the role of religion in society. Realism raises what for some will be uncomfortable questions about the idea that religion should be regarded as being a purely private matter outside the purview of the state. If indeed we can gain access to the truth by philosophical reflection, then there is at least possibility, however unwelcome it may be to contemplate, that a religion could spread doctrines that are so false and hence so damaging to society as a whole that a sect which espoused them might have to be officially discouraged. On the other hand ( and more positively )  philosophical realism raises at least the possibility that religious belief could be a window into the truth and hence be of real value to the ordering of society. Consequently our management of these issues  should then be grounded not in dogmatic assertions about religious freedom, or about the supposed need for the separation between church and state, but on a critical engagement between the secular and the sacred to see what each can learn from the other.

In such intensely political and contentious discussions there often seems to be a contradiction between the way in which conservatives talk about their love of tradition and of the particular, and their equally heartfelt support for eternal verities. Here again realism offers a resolution to this apparent paradox. Should we not perhaps see traditional views and practices not as relics from a barbarous past- although, of course, they may sometimes be this-  but rather ( snitching a word from Marx in a different context )  the “congealed” understanding of past generations? Before we reject a tradition, we need to explore the context in which it grew up, to see what insights it is expressing.

Sometimes, certainly, we will discover a mistake, in which case we are better off without the tradition ( serfdom and slavery for example ), sometimes we will realise that we now have a clearer understanding than those that came before us ( the death penalty?) But more often we will find that the practices of the past are grounded not in prejudice, but in the insights of wise men. If Thomas Aquinas has done no more than to give us the confidence to rediscover this, then he has well earned our gratitude for steering us across the troubled waters of our experience towards the truth about the world in which we live, because, as Thomas put it, the “highest felicity of man consists in the speculation through which he is seeking the knowledge of truth.”


The usual caveat about how my pieces here are not academic applies in an accentuated from in this instance. Usually I try at least to read the original sources, but here I have quite shamelessly relied on what others have written. I have made no study Aquinas’ own writings. There is a massive discussion of the epistemological matters I mention here in Etienne Gilson’s “The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas” ( New York, No date, but originally 1929 ) p 233- 276. Gilson focuses on the “species” of the various objects which are the subject of perception, rather than on any sense or X- ray as in Maritain’s description ( see below ) of the process. There may be no way of reconciling these two views of what Thomas was saying.

Of the books I have used, first place must go to Edward Feser’s ( b. 1968 ) “ “Aquinas, a beginner’s Guide” ( London, 2009 ) which contains a full bibliography or recent writing about Aquinas, and is consequently a crucial resource for anyone interested in the subject. There has recently been a considerable revival of interest recently in Thomistic thought among philosophers that has been missed by popular culture.

I have also made extensive use of  Jacques Maritian’s “An Introduction to Philosophy” ( London, 1979, 1930 ).  This little book was originally written as a text book for French seminarians. It is a classic of exposition. Along with Etienne Gilson, Maritian was one  of the leading Thomists in the twentieth century. Gilson’s “Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge” ( 1939, English trans, San Francisco, 1983) is an interesting polemic against those Catholic thinkers who tried to combine Thomist epistemology, with elements of idealism. The English translation has a preface by Frederick ( Fritz)  Wilhelmsen ( 1923-1996 )  another twentieth century Thomist- and very fine writer- who should not be forgotten. The Thomist revival in the late nineteenth century should be much better known than it is- see De Wulf, “Scholasticism Old and New, an introduction to scholastic philosophy medieval and modern” ( London, 1907.) It is a story dominated by the figure of that very remarkable ecclesiastic Cardinal Mercier ( 1851- 1926 ) of Louvain, whose “Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy,” two volumes, ( London, 1923 ) are of interest, although the science that is included is, of course, hopelessly out of date. I have made use of Mercier’s treatment of epistemological questions- vol 1, p 343 ff. Some of the other older Thomists are though reluctant to address the theory of knowledge directly. They tend to follow Aristotle in placing their discussion of such matters within the context of metaphysics. Maritain refers the issue on p.119. Also of interest here is John Wild’s valuable “Introduction to Realistic Philosophy” ( Washington, D.C. 1948 ) which relegates epistemological questions to its penultimate chapter.

I have also referred to and quoted from Mortimer Adler “Aristotle for Everybody, difficult thought made Easy” ( New York, 1979 )

A general work which no one should be without is Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” etc. ( London, 1946 ). Russell was a child of the enlightenment, and a master of English composition, however no one should be bewitched by the elegance of his style into accepting his conclusions. Sometimes he is frankly unfair, but he is always entertaining. More useful though for the sort of thinking discussed here is Martin Walsh’s “A History of Philosophy”   ( London, 1985 ) from which I have borrowed extensively. Walsh began his book as a kind of summary of F.C. Copleston’s well known “History of Philosophy”, but it became far more than this, and should be much known than it is.

Those interested in exploring the five ways should refer to Feser’s book, and perhaps also to E.L.Mascall’s “He who is, a study in traditional Theism” ( London, 1943, ) although the revised edition is much better.

I badly don’t want to get too far into the whole evolution mess here. There are some really terrible books on offer.  But Alan Hayward’s book “Creation and Evolution, the facts and Fallacies” ( London, 1985) to my mind stands out in the other direction. Not everybody will agree with what the late Alan Hayward wrote. I certainly don’t. But anyone who opens his book will see that he thought deeply, hard, and absolutely fairly about the issues involved, and can therefore hardly avoid having their own thoughts on the subject clarified. Hayward’s book has the additional advantage of being to some extent a bibliography of what is now the older literature on this vexed question.