A Look at Realism



 By Fr. Raymond Taouk,



1.    Realism is opposed to :


·      Idealism since knowledge has for object the real thing, not the idea,

·      scepticism since it affirms that we can know truth, and hold a dogmatic position,

·      empiricism and rationalism at the same time since we know through experience and reason.


2.    These other theories contradict common sense and are difficult to triumph at its tribunal, but have the advantage of being easily understood philosophically, easy to define and to maintain, since they are simple and unilateral.


3.    Realism, on the other hand, is easy on the plane of common sense because every man in the street instinctively acts as a dogmatic realist.  But it is difficult to sustain it on the philosophical level since it is as complex and nuanced as reality is.  However, besides its philosophical value, it is important to prove it for the Christian as a remote preambulum fidei.


I.  the schools


Two schools divide the realist position, the platonic school followed by St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure to finish with Descartes and Malebranche, and the Aristotelian school culminating with St. Thomas and the entire Thomist school.  The difference is firstly metaphysical and 2drly epistemological.


1) Metaphysics


1.    Plato reduces the sensible world to a non-being existing.  Science is saved by doubling the sensible world with the intelligible world of susbsisting Ideas, the object of science.

2.    Aristotle criticizes his master and demonstrates that separate ideas do not exist.  These forms are immanent within the sensible things, they are the essence of concrete things and exist in them in an individual state.  Thus we know :

1º the sensible real world by means of the senses,

2º the intelligible material essences by the intellect which abstracts the essence from the sensible thing. Abstraction is the key to int. knowledge.

3.    As it passes to the Christian thought, the Greek philosophy is purified of its errors, esp. regarding the origin of the world and the dogma of creation.


2) epistemology


1.    St. Augustine :

·      without denying sensation, does not admit it as a knowledge since its object is mutable.

·      However, do we not have judgments of contingent facts?  What is then the foundation of their truth?  Not man because he is unstable, but the transcendent Truth, God Himself.  When man knows the truth, he knows it by an illumination from God.

·      The whole question is to know whether, in order to pass from the sensible to the intelligible, the human illumination of the agent intellect suffices to abstract the essence from the sensible thing, without having to go through God (vs St. Aug.) : all knowledge is radically mystical.


2.    St. Thomas saves St. Augustine :


·      Summary of St. Augustine’s position : “St. Aug. did not admit that the essences existing in things subsist by themselves (Plato).  Instead, he placed the reasons of all things in the divine intellect.  Not that we  see these divine reasons directly, this would be impossible wo seeing the divine essence.  But these supreme reasons impress (their seal) into our minds.”[1]

·      St.Thomas Aquinas saves St. Augustine. “It is of little importance to say that the intelligible things participate in God (SA) or to say that the light which makes them intelligible participates in God (ST).” Seen from above, yes; but for epistemology, no!

·      St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with St. Augustine only at the end of his analysis : of course this light of the Agent Intellect is itself a participation of the infinite divine Intellect, thus : “we know everything in the divine light” means, not that in God is the intelligible essence of things, but rightly that God gives man the light of created intelligence.[2]



ii.  Realism and idealism


In modern philosophy, the main choice to be made is between realism and idealism.  We must firstly define realism, and then show its absolute contradiction with idealism.


1) definition of realism


1.    False definitions : the realism we must vindicate is not the caricature which the idealists sustain like :

·      Berkeley believed to have restored realism when he said that, at the same time as he changed things into ideas, he had changed ideas into things!

·      Kant ‘refutes idealism’(!?) when he fulminates against Descartes and Berkeley, and restores the ‘ding an sich’.

·      any idealist, even Hegel, speaks of the ‘being in itself’, but it is only an object (thought in thought!)


2.    Essential Theses of Realism :

·      Every knowledge begins with being and turns around being.  In fact, ‘I think because I am’ vs the cartesian cogito :I am because I think’. Something is known because and only because it is.  If we know nothing, we simply do not know; to know means to know something, and even to know oneself reflexively is to know oneself as a being.

·      Things and the world which we perceive exist, ie. they have a proper act of existence, which places them outside nothingness, outside their causes and outside our thoughts.[3]


2) contradiction


1.    Dilemma :

·      Either every being is posited by the human mind, or some being is not posited by it,

·      Either everything can be reduced to the knowledge we have of it, or some being is irreducible to knowledge of it.


2.    False solutions :

·      Bergson tries to solve the contradiction by rejecting both theories : “realism cannot explain how matter, pure exteriority in space, can engender consciousness, pure interiority outside space.  Idealism likewise cannot explain how purely subjective states can engender the appearance of material objects.”  Clear enough?  No, since Bergson is here confusing realism with materialism.  He himself ended up recognizing his ambiguity, and admitted that the real world exists besides our consciousness and that we can know it as it is (realism).

·      Sartre tries to solve the contradiction by making a synthesis, which concludes with Phenomenism (idealist).[4]


iii.  the immediate realism


While idealism was king in philosophy, the Thomists tried a way towards realism from the idealist field.


1) general solution


1.    The ‘problem of the bridge’ is insoluble[5] : to a hook painted on the wall we can hang only a painted cloak.  Idealism is a jail out of which one can never exit.

2.    If we know only our ideas, there is no way of comparing one idea except with another idea (destruction of all critical judgt).

3.    Couldn’t the principle of causality, applied to the passive sensation, conclude to the existence of a ‘thing in itself’?  No, it does not prove being but a thing thought, stg immanent, and Fichte says that such sentiment of passivity may be explained by our unconsciousness whereby we think of things in the mind as if they were only ‘received’ when in fact they were ‘produced’ by the mind.


2) particular solutions


1.    Starting from the cogito, can we conclude to the ex. of the thinking subject, a real being?  Such a logical conclusion from the cogito is valid, since ST uses it, but under the conditions that one have opted for realism, criticized the principle of immanence, and admitted that knowledge can grasp being in itself.


2.    Can we pass from phenomenical & immanent object to the extramental object itself? 

·      Fr. Maréchal wants to prove it based on the realism of the appetite, “a natural desire cannot be vain.” He applies it to the intellect, since our mind aspires to the ultimate end, the Absolute of being. 

·      Yet, besides the internal character of the int, and its difference from the appetite of the will, the main objection is that Fr. Maréchal has started from the immanent object and found the logical conditions of its possible existence.  Has he built the bridge between mind and reality? No!  He has built a new idealist system, far superior to that of Fichte, but of the same type.



iv. conclusion


            Against Gilson who considers it a contradiction to speak of a ‘critical realism’, we maintain that the immediate realism can be called critical, without falling into Kantism with the Critique of pure reason, without demonstrating it since we only need to explain it : we are doing a critical work by saying that realism is evident.


[1]De spiritualibus creaturis 10 ad 8.

[2]I 84, 5, 88,3 ad 1, explanation of the Ps. ‘Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui, Dñe; in lumine tuo videbimus lumen.’

[3] Exsistere, ex-sistere = esse extra nihil et extra causas.

[4] “The existent is only the sum total of its appearances; but the being of the existent is trans-phenomenal and appears only under diverse aspects”, which would bring the conclusion that being never appears because the totality never appears.  He concludes by endorsing the idealist theory.


[5]cf. Noël, disciple of Card. Mercier, Louvain.