Book Review of Etenne Gilson’s “Thomist Realism & The Critique of Knowledge”

ImageThroughout his Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, Etienne Gilson’s principal aim is to establish the impossibility of conjoining the Cartesian and Kantian critique of existence/knowledge to Thomist realism. Gilson examines several examples of philosopher’s attempts to make this impossibility possible, in order to “legitimize” their initial ostensible acceptance of Thomist first principles. These “pathological” forms of realism are examined in light of Gilson’s question, “is a critical realism possible?”

The principle endeavor of a critical realist philosophy hinges on the desire to shore-up the Thomist indemonstrable principle of being with the Cartesian or Kantian critical method; and accordingly, the existence of the material world and the conditions for the possibility of knowledge are subsequently placed, depending on the critical realist’s preference, under the scrutiny of the Cartesian or Kantian critique. Having carried out this operation, the Thomist principle of being can then be confidently posited by the critical realist as a conclusion — a conclusion, Gilson observes, implicitly (if not hypocritically) assumed from the beginning of the supposed critique. This kind of operation is directly opposed to, and deliberately skirts around, the primary ontological principles of Aquinas’ thought, which directly addresses sensible perception as having “the nature and value of a principle of knowledge,” which is to say, the knowledge of being.

Common sense realism is the first form of critical realism addressed in Gilson’s volume. Thomists, Gilson points out, relate every manifestation of life to the ultimate and primary, that is, being, and consequently, all forms of experience become more sharply defined. The realism of common-sense philosophy diffuses the self-evident principles of Thomism by smuggling in bankrupt versions of the Cartesian doubt and “inner sense” in order to guarantee that God and the external world both exist. Having paid this ostensible compliment to the Cartesian method, these philosophers make an about-face and call the “conclusions” discovered by this obscure inner sense “common sense,” and declare these “truths” to be the most general to, and most easily apprehended by man.1 Thus, common sense realists start with a tautological statement derived from inner sense — “I know because I know,” then import Cartesian skepticism so as to give the appearance of justifying the assumption; then in the final transformation, posit the paradox, “I know what is known by everyone because I know it.” Gilson points out that common sense, “although invented as a remedy to skepticism… is quite at home with it. It [common sense] has landed us upon the very rock from which it was meant to save us.”2 Gilson sums up his discussion of common sense realism, noting that “[t]o reduce realism to the level of common sense is to reduce it to the status of infraphilosophic knowledge”;3or, in other words, realism is reduced, at best, to a pseudo-inference, and at worst, to pragmatic personal truths.

A notable difference between the Cartesian critique and the Kantian critique is that neither Kant nor the Kantian begins with the methodological doubt, but assumes that the material world (the world of appearances), in some form, exists. Aquinas makes this assumption as well, but Kant and Aquinas’ conclusions about the nature of man’s knowledge of the material world are radically different: “Between the transcendental abstracted from experience by Thomist realism and the transcendental condition of experience [the Kantian critique of reason] is an unbridgeable gulf.”4 The same can be said regarding the Cartesian cogito, in which sensory experience as a form of knowledge of being is abrogated from the outset. Those philosophers who accept the Thomist principle of being, then, because the critical pose demands it, progress from a Thomist to a Cartesian or Kantian position, necessarily strip the respective rationalist and idealist critique of what Gilson terms its “essential properties.” All commerce between Aristotelianism/Thomism and the Kantian or Cartesian critical position amounts to intellectual simony. Gilson maintains that being, in the sense of being as the first principle of all knowledge, must be asserted at the beginning of any realist philosophic inquiry into the nature of knowledge or existence. The failure to assert this principle accounts for why the same failings of common sense realism are repeated in the thought of Cartesio-Thomist philosophers — it is the corrupting of Thomism by contaminating it with the methodological doubt.

Adopting a circuitous route in the investigation of the so-called problem of existence/knowledge, i.e., going through Kant and Descartes to get to Aquinas, never allows the critical realist philosopher to legitimately achieve what is given the most primary placement in Thomist realism: being. Reality, according to critical philosophies, is either a function of, or is constituted by, knowledge; Gilson asserts, as a Thomist, that knowledge is a function of reality. Through contact with the sensible world, being is necessarily “the first of all the objects of thought,” and being is apprehended by a dual operation of the senses and intellect on experience of the sensible world. There is no Kantian operation of the understanding imposing or mediating between what Gilson refers to (after Aristotle and Aquinas) as sensation and intellection (these become in Kant’s system the intuited manifold and the judging of concepts by the understanding): “The apprehension of being by the intellect consists of directly seeing the concept of being in some sensible datum.”5 Thus, to begin with the established Cartesian or Kantian position, i.e., positing reality as a function of knowledge, and then conclude with Thomist first principles is to marry impossibility to irrationality:

Once we [as critical realists] are introduced by the cogito into realist metaphysics, we will be able to do without Descartes and Kant, since the aptitude of thought for grasping a being, insofar as it is what it is, guarantees this aptitude in regard to all being. Therefore, it will be necessary to pretend to solve Kant’s problem by pretending to solve Descartes and, in order to do this, we will have incorrectly stated the only problem we really wished to solve: why do we say that the external world exists?6

Gilson iterates in several places that, given the self-contradictory nature of the aims of critical realism, the critical realist philosopher is ultimately forced to confront his intellectual equivocating head-on: “it is necessary to choose between Aristotle and St. Thomas (truth is the conformity of intelligence with what is) and Kant in his logic (truth is the accord of reason with itself).” This choice extends to any Thomist seeking to reckon realism together with any species of rationalism as well.

Having inspected an assortment of pathological forms of critical realism in the first six chapters, Gilson sets about prescribing a remedy for the problem in the last two chapters — i.e., a return to the realism of knowledge articulated in the writings of Aquinas and Aristotle. In reviving the unadulterated wisdom of Aquinas and Aristotle, Gilson does not claim to have produced any philosophic innovation, but only the use of the tools proper to the intellectual historian of philosophy.7 Thomist realism is, properly speaking, fenced off from the critique of the first principle of being — and necessarily so — in the struggle to discover, locate and critique being qua being, critical realist philosophies evaporate in the pursuit of finding concepts to apply to reality, rather than measuring concepts against reality. Requiring no demonstration of demonstration, Thomist realism is a method proper to itself, and not in need of a critical method prior to, or outside of itself — which is to say, it is a method proper to man’s faculties for apprehending and for knowing existence:

To locate the principle of his [man’s] proper activity beyond or above him is simply to say that man is not man. No question can be validly approached from the standpoint of sense or intellect alone; everything must… be related to the conjunctum, to man, who is the only concretely existing knowing subject.8

Existence is apprehended and known (or thought) through a conjunctive act of the senses and the intellect. Some existing object must first be “given” to the subject, who then “knows” or abstracts the object through the intellect. Pure being, as Kant rightly understands it, is not an object of sensual experience. However, the “being of concrete substances,” as a Thomist understands it, “whose sensible qualities affect our senses”9 certainly is. The apprehension of being is inextricably bound up with perception, and the existence of objects is known without mediation between the knowing subject and the object apprehended by the senses. Knowledge of existing things is abstracted by the intellect, and the abstraction that exists in the intellect is “inseparable from the existence from which it is abstracted.”10 On these terms, to approach the sensible world as an idealist or a rationalist is, as Gilson observes, “to think the unthinkable;” moreover, efforts to think as an idealist must remain a barren and fruitless path of inquiry for realist philosophers. From a realist perspective, “in the order of existential judgments, sensible perception has the nature and value of a principle of knowledge.”11 Sense perception is “the first principle of the content of the first principle, [and the senses] are at the same time the first principle of all real knowledge.”12 This is, in a summarily conceived form, the bedrock of Gilson’s reinstatement of Thomist realism. To the question, “What makes existence knowable?” the latter quotation supplies a thoroughgoing response. “[P]erhaps,” Gilson declares, “it is we [as philosophers] who have mistaken the nature of existence and as a consequence have also been mistaken concerning the conditions that would make existence knowable to us.”13 This is Gilson’s final estimation of the problem and its consequences surveyed throughout the book, and it is also the answer to the question posed from the beginning, “is a critical realism possible?” Gilson leaves his readers with no doubts concerning the necessary Thomistic conditions for the possibility of knowledge.

A “Critical” Aside

Gilson makes reference to the philosophy of George Berkeley only a few times in a book that is clearly not concerned with the Berkelian system per se, or with situating it in any precise relation to critical realism. Yet the few places where Berkeley is mentioned necessarily strike anyone with a passing familiarity with Berkeley’s philosophy as being fundamentally mistaken on some key points. Berkeley, for Gilson, is the philosopher who, in denying the existence of matter, denied common sense, and constructed, out of stark insensibility, an “immaterialist” edifice whose power to confound and confuse common sense only has a rival in Parmenides’ ontological absolute. The following are those passages wherein anything of substance pertaining to Berkeley can be found:

If they [the Cartesians] could not prove that the external world exists, they believed it through faith in revelation. Then came Berkeley, who simply observed that nothing in the Genesis story [of creation] was changed whether one accepted or denied the existence of matter. He then concluded, and quite logically, that, if it is neither possible to know nor necessary to believe that the external world exists, the wisest thing to say is simply that matter does not exist.15

Was the existence of the external world in question? Bodies exist, replied Liberatore’s common sense, and voila, the matter was settled, as if Malebranche had not considered a proof of their existence to be impossible and Berkeley denied their [body’s] existence in the name of common sense itself.

Idealism,” writes Reinstadler, “is the error of those who, rejecting the trustworthiness of the senses and the common sense of all, deny or cast doubt upon the existence of bodies.” The refutation of Berkeley and Fichte presents no problem to this champion of common sense, for their positions contradict common sense…16

As for Berkeley, it is evident that our sensations come to us through our sense organs and that they are not produced in us immediately by God… Berkeley took care to establish that our sense organs are themselves ideas. Moreover… if you wish to argue on the basis of common sense it will be necessary to first ask why, since common sense is universal by definition, Berkeley and Fichte were the only two men deprived of it.17

Berkeley’s Spirits are phantoms with the same origin as the Cartesian Thoughts, for although the reality of bodies ceased to exist for the Bishop of Cloyne, his pure spirits absorbed their substance and, since they could no longer borrow their ideas from an external world of things, they perceived as beings what they said were only ideas. As Berkeley repeated so many times, things are what we perceive them to be because our ideas are the things. His naïve philosophy believes it has saved the world from what he calls DesCartes and Locke’s skepticism by solving the problem of the connection between knowledge and reality with a simple suppression of reality… What gives Berkeley’s experiment its special interest is that it is the most naïve realism the world has ever known.18

1 It is a fallacy to maintain that the existence of God is a self-evident fact by the same reasoning as when we say the most basic geometrical or arithmetical laws are self-evident facts. The difference between mathematical laws and whether God exists or does not exist can be demonstrated by applying the principle of non-contradiction: to say 2+2= 5 is a violation of reason since the predicate 4 is implicitly contained in the subject 2+2. To say God exists or God does not exist contains no such manifest contradiction any more than the statement that all apples are green, or conversely, no apples are green — in neither case is the predicate contained in the subject (in the case of the statement, all men are mortal, it would be a contradiction to say — no, some, or some men are not — mortal, since the predicate mortal is contained in the subject man).

Further, if the principle of sufficient reason be applied to the question of God’s existence, the statement God exists carries no more necessity than the statement God does not exist (God is simply a point in equal relation to the extremes). Whether or no God exists can be compared to the position of my pencil on the page — there is no necessary reason that my pencil should be at this point on the paper rather than that. The position of, adding to, or subtracting from a thing, necessarily changes that thing into something else. A thing that is true, real or existent must have sufficient reason why it must be thus (true, real, or existent) and not otherwise. If a thing can in any sense be doubted as true, real or existent, it fails the criteria. Conversely, to say ex nihilo nihil fit would be to make a statement that carries necessity — a thing that exists is something and not a nothing; or, a thing that does not exist is a nothing — there can be no something that does not exist. A thing that exists owes its existence to something else, and not to nothing, unless that thing exist without a cause, in which case it exists from eternity or is self-generated; thus, it is necessary that from nothing comes nothing (it goes without saying that there can be no eternally existing or self-generated nothing).

2 Etienne Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge; tr. Mark A. Wauck (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996), p. 39. The following quotation is also useful in assessing the tribulations common sense philosophy bequeathed to those philosophers who were loath to be mere common sense dogmatists (p 45): “Common sense was a poor ally, a cause of weakness to the philosophy which attempted to establish a firm foundation upon it, and its inadequacies became apparent when those who had relied upon it tried to use it to prove the existence of the external world. They began by affirming it [the external world’s existence] as a truth of common sense, then undertook to justify this certitude itself and, almost without realizing it, yielded to the very idealism they had intended to refute.”

3 Ibid., 48.

4 Ibid., p 145. Italics in original.

5 Ibid., p 197.

6 Ibid., p 168.

7 Frederick D. Wilhelmsen points this out in his forward to the book.

8 Ibid., p 174.

9 Ibid., 205.

10 Ibid., p 206.

11 Ibid., p 183.

12 Ibid., p 185.

13 Ibid., p 199.

14 Ibid., pp 209-10.

15 Ibid., p 31.

16 Ibid., pp 44-5.

17 Ibid., p 46.

18 Ibid., p 207-8.

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