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What is Philosophical Realism?

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

 

Philosophy is the attempt to understand the most basic facts about the world we inhabit and so far as possible to explain these facts. This enterprise is not the exclusive concern of certain specialists, but one in which every human being is deeply involved, whether or not he is clearly conscious of it.

Every way of life is based upon a way of looking at life. The way you look at life is your philosophy. Just as there are many ways of life, so are there many philosophies, some more true and some less true. So important is this basic enterprise of man, so much hinges upon the avoidance of confusion and error, that since the time of the ancient Greeks a certain discipline has been set aside for the concentrated consideration of philosophical problems and for the careful comparison and criticism of different ways of answering them. This discipline is called philosophy.

While there are many philosophies, and many of these contradict one another and others have even led to and supported terrible acts of barbarism against mankind, there is one philosophy that has stood the test of time, been accepted by virtually all ordinary men, and forms a rational foundation for truth and morality. This philosophy is called the philosophy of Common Sense, Critically Examined and Expanded. It is not ordinary common sense opinion, but common sense opinion subjected to rigorous examination and criticism. It is an authentic philosophy of Realism, based on demonstrated principles of objective truth and using objective evidence as its sole criterion of truth.

Why an authentic philosophy of Realism? For three reasons:

  • This philosophy has been pursued and developed by great minds from the fifth century B.C. in ancient Greece throughout the whole of Western history down to the present day and it has stood the test of time.
  • This philosophy of Realism does not violate any basic insight of what we call common sense, possessed by all rational men at all times.
  • This philosophy of Realism contains an important core of truth which cannot help but enlighten the individual intellect as it starts out and continues its quest for understanding and truth.

 

The Philosophic Battlefield

Our culture and society today are decidedly under the influence of a philosophy of Subjectivism, an unrealistic, and even anti-realistic, philosophy which is both relativistic and pragmatic. Subjectivism is the result of the intellectual battle which has waged between the philosophies of Idealism (actually Idea-ism) and Materialism (or Naturalism) for the past several centuries.

According to Subjectivism (whether Idealist or Materialist), there is no such thing as objective truth (truth is relative) and there are no objectively defined, universally true principles of moral behavior (morality is relative). This has led to the current situation which is permeated with intellectual chaos, resulting in disastrous practical consequences for everyone.

There is little doubt among knowledgeable observers that our present age is on the verge of conceptual collapse. Consider this:

  • If Subjectivism is valid, then all truth is relative, and the laws of physics and the laws of civil society are simply arbitrary.
  • If Subjectivism is valid, then morality is merely a matter of opinion and personal taste, and personal responsibility is simply a figment of our collective imagination.

Subjectivism also undermines empirical science, undermines our entire concept of jurisprudence, and undermines any attempt to promote a human and humane morality. We are all subject to the whims of the moment and are all victims of the latest public poll.

The only reason our culture and society have not totally collapsed is because there are still enough remnants of authentic Realism around to keep the present situation from falling into an intellectual "black hole." How long this situation will last is anyone's guess. This makes a solid presentation of the philosophy of Common Sense all the more important. We need to promote a philosophy of authentic Realism, with its principles of objective truth and objectively defined morality. If for no other reason, we need to do this in sheer self-defense.

We must keep this in mind:

  • If there is no such thing as objective truth, then any - that means any - proposition has a claim to truth, no matter how insane or absurd.
  • If there is no such thing as a universally valid principle of morality, then any behavior or human act of any type can be permitted, no matter how heinous it may be.

Should this be the case, then we all will be subject to the latest social conventions, no matter how insane or absurd, and our pleas for being judged by objective standards of truth and morality will be for naught.

Incidentally, the latest practical application of Subjectivism (and by far the most dangerous) is something we might call Politicism. This means that every human problem is considered to be basically political, needs to be solved by political means, and all decisions regarding truth and morality are decided by public polls. If you think this is an extreme statement, consider that not so long ago, some of the worst criminals ever to walk the earth, members not of a "primitive" society but a "civilized" culture, justified their horrible behavior by saying: "I was just following the orders of my superiors." (and one can substitute leaders, or government, or church, etc.).

Truth does exist and it does matter. Moral principles exist and they do matter. The philosophy of Common Sense, Critically Examined and Expanded, provides a solid rational foundation for these principles, using the spontaneous convictions of ordinary people, coupled with the criterion of objective evidence, utilizing the correct principles of philosophical analysis and subject to the rules of logic and accepted scientific methods. This philosophy is the genuine philosophy of Realism, to which our society must return if it is to be reformed and transformed into a true civil society of free and equal individuals.

 

What is an Authentic Realism?

Realism is the name given to a certain philosophic way of thought first inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle, developed and refined in the Middle Ages, and still living at the present time. This unique record of historic continuity gives Realistic Philosophy a certain advantage over other alternatives. It can truly be said that Realistic Philosophy has been adopted and cultivated by more great minds for a longer time and in more diverse cultural settings than any other philosophy available to us.

Realistic Philosophy is opposed to the fundamental doctrines of metaphysical idealism and materialism, ethical relativism, and epistemological subjectivism. It holds that philosophy is a genuine science in its own right, a systemized order of true knowledge, and that its principles and judgments are based on objective evidence open to any observer.

Although realistic philosophers may disagree with one another on some specific practical issue or on the application of realistic principles to any particular problem, all realistic philosophers agree on three basic theses:

  • There is a world of real existence, a world made up of substantial beings related to one another, which exists independently of any human opinions or desires, a world which men have not made or constructed.
  • The substances and relations that are part of this world of real existence can be known by the human mind as they are in themselves. Truth is the correspondence between mind and thing, and certitude is possible. The criterion of truth is objective evidence in whatever form it is presented to the knowing mind.
  • Such knowledge can offer sound and immutable guidance for individual and social action and is, in fact, the only reliable guide to human conduct, individual and social.

Realistic Philosophy is perfectly in accord with what our common sense tells us. We inhabit a world consisting of many things which are what they are, independent of any opinions and desires we may have, and by using our reason, we can know something about these things as they actually are. Furthermore, this knowledge is the safest guide to human action.

Common sense holds these opinions, but vaguely and confusedly without critical examination. Common sense is largely unaware of the implications of these principles and their interrelations with one another. And because common sense uncritically accepts these principles, it is often unable to defend them against objections and, therefore, is easily led astray into non-realistic modes of thought.

Realistic Philosophy, on the other hand, precisely formulates these principles and judgments, analyzes their component concepts, and examines them in the light of the evidence. Realistic thought has discovered many implications and systematic connections between and among these principles. Because of its more exact analysis and critical examination of the evidence, Realistic Philosophy is able to undertake the arduous task of defending its insights against alien ways of thought and of answering critical questions.

Every realistic theory in whatever field must be checked by the original data of experience as they are apprehended either by sense or by reason. In this sense, every realistic discipline is radically empirical. The main disciplines of realistic philosophy are:

  • Realistic Metaphysics: the study of being or first philosophy, which examines the fact of existence which reason discovers in every empirical datum of whatever sort. It includes the subdisciplines of ontology (study of being qua being), cosmology (study of material being), philosophical anthropology (study of animate being, including man), and theodicy (the philosophical study of God or First Cause).
  • Realistic Epistemology and Logic: the study of human knowledge and how, by means of concepts and other mental representations, we know extra-mental objects, and how concepts must be arranged in propositions and arguments if they are to become the instruments of true knowledge in any field of thought.
  • Realistic Ethics: the study of the human good and those acts which are required by human nature for its perfection, including the habits of choice, or virtues, which must be developed to produce these acts, and the common good of all individual men that is the final end of rational action, including the cooperative structures of habit and choice that are required for the attainment of this end. Ethics, in its capacity as an applied philosophy, includes the subdisciplines of esthetics, political philosophy, social philosophy, jurisprudence, philosophy of education, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion.

The basic insights of Realistic Philosophy are as old as the human race. The first important name in the history of realism is that of Socrates, who lived in ancient Greece from 470 to 399 B.C. He left no writings but we know of him through his pupil Plato (427-347 B.C.), who refined and expanded on the foundations laid down by his teacher and founded a school of philosophy at Athens called the Academy.

 

The Influence of Plato

Realistic Philosophy is indebted to Plato for asserting the distinction between the faculty of sense, by which we apprehend something that is ever changing and relative to us, and the faculty of reason, by which we apprehend something changeless, as it is in itself. This knowledge is attained by concepts or ideas, which are universal, changeless, and invisible. Concepts or ideas are very different from material things, which are individual, ever-changing, and visible to us. If truth is to be obtained, the ideas must not only be clearly grasped, but also be analyzed and synthesized according to the necessary nature of things.

Plato thought that the universe we live in is independent of us, not made by us, and remains whatever it is regardless of what we may think or desire. Moreover, the universe is very complex and probably includes many things about which we have no knowledge at all. Man is a composite being, composed of a material body and something which moves and animates it, which he called the soul or psyche. The body and all other things are in a constant state of change and are a mixture of two components: something vague and indefinite from which they emerge and a definite form which makes them what they are.

 

The Influence of Aristotle

Plato left many philosophical questions unsettled and many of his theories are not clear. It is to Plato's pupil Aristotle (384-332 B.C.) that we turn for further systematic development of realistic philosophical thought. He was the first great realistic thinker to achieve a comprehensive system of realistic philosophy through reading, meditation, and study. You may know that Aristotle was also one of the teachers of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian prince who went on to conquer most of the known world of his day. Aristotle apparently did not approve, however, of the means by which Alexander went about his conquering, and he left the Macedonian capital, returned to Athens, and founded a philosophical school of his own called the Lyceum.

Aristotle did not accept many of Plato's doctrines and he went on to correct many of Plato's errors. Aristotle systematized philosophy and built a comprehensive world-view which was truly remarkable. He used the scientific knowledge of his day, much of it the results of his own investigations and analyses, and he built his philosophy on solid empirical grounding. We now know, of course, that much of his scientific work contained errors, but the principles of his philosophical endeavors are still as valid today as they were then. He set the foundations for all realistic philosophy to come.

The Aristotelian school survived to the third century A.D. Greek philosophy began to decline once it moved away from the firm principles set down by Aristotle and a revised Platonism, called Neo-Platonism, began to catch hold. Worse still, new philosophical schools, including Stoicism and Epicureanism, began to attract students. These newer schools of thought eventually resulted in a philosophical skepticism which accompanied the cultural decline of Greece and the Roman empire.

 

The Influence of Thomas Aquinas

For many years, the work and thought of Aristotle was lost to the western world. During the twelfth century, however, his works began to seep into western Europe and the value of Aristotle's philosophy was recognized by a few of the Christian scholars of the period, particularly Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who finally succeeded in working out a more comprehensive and penetrating realistic synthesis, based on Aristotle's principles, than had ever before been done. His works are among the great classics of Realistic Philosophy.

There are problems, however, with the great synthesis developed by Thomas Aquinas. His work is marred by some scientific observations which we now know are false. His subordination of philosophy to Catholic theology has raised many problems for some realistic philosophers. The social philosophy of Aquinas contains some outdated and, by today's standards, reprehensible social notions such as a defense of slavery. All this aside, the Thomistic synthesis remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of philosophy.

Unfortunately, instead of correcting the errors and defects in the system of Thomas Aquinas, the philosophers who came after him began to go off into non-realistic modes of thought. Their theories brought about a decline in realism and provided the basis for what would become known as "modern" philosophy, a movement which has led to the intellectual chaos which we see around us today.

 

The Beginnings of Modern Subjectivism

René Descartes (1596-1650) is the philosopher most noted for the beginning of the philosophic disaster which was to come. He sharply separated reason from the senses and, being distrustful of sense knowledge, declared that only through our clear and distinct ideas could we have valid knowledge. Ideas were not based on sense knowledge, but were innate in the mind and could be brought to consciousness and developed into knowledge without the aid of experience. This and many other nonrealistic principles were introduced by Descartes into modern thought.

Philosophy had now taken a suicidal turn. What was once a genuine science of philosophy now divided into two camps of opposing theories, neither of which was based on realistic thinking. One group was called the Rationalists, and included thinkers like Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried von Leibnitz (1646-1716). They distrusted sense knowledge and taught that only reason and a priori insights provided a valid foundation for knowledge. The other group was called the Empiricists, and included John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776). They denied the capacity of reason to apprehend external existence and based all knowledge on sensation. The prejudice shared by Rationalism and Empiricism is that we cannot know things directly but we can only grasp their impressions. Rationalism is concerned with the impressions made on the intellect, Empiricism with the impressions on the senses.

Dissatisfied with both Rationalism and Empiricism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) attempted a synthesis of both. He failed miserably and his failure resulted in the rise of a philosophy called Idealism (actually it should be called Idea-ism), which ended up being a modern form of Subjectivism. Subjectivism denies that any objective truth can be ascertained at all. The real world of existence cannot be known in itself. Truth is relative.

The undisciplined speculations of the Idealists brought philosophy itself into disrepute and intellectual thought had drifted a long ways away from realistic principles. Philosophy today is dominated by three nonrealistic modes of thought:

  • There is a movement toward radical skepticism and disillusionment which includes Positivism, Scientism, and Existentialism, all of which deny the possibility of attaining objective truth in any comprehensive sense.
  • There is another movement which searches for irrational substitutes to replace reason. Pragmatism is one such movement. Truth is relative and amounts to what works or what is successful in bringing about a satisfying conclusion.
  • Still another movement is Materialism or Naturalism, which asserts the self-sufficiency of nature, denies any strictly immaterial existence, and considers knowledge as a sort of complex, material process. This inevitably leads to Subjectivism, that truth is relative and reality cannot be known in itself.

This is where we are today. The world of intellectual thought has been dominated by nonrealistic philosophies for the past three centuries and we can now see the result of such intellectual chaos. If we cannot really know the world as it is, then all truth is relative and anyone's truth is as good as another's. If we cannot really know the world as it is, then there are no universal and objective principles of morality, and moral behavior and the evaluation of it becomes merely a personal preference, a matter of "taste" rather than a matter of truth.

 

The Solution to Modern Intellectual Chaos

There is a solution to the problems and intellectual chaos created by Subjectivism, Relativism, and Materialism. We must return to the realistic philosophic principles originally set down by Plato and Aristotle and then refined and expanded during the Middle Ages, and use these principles to further develop Realistic Philosophy in light of today's scientific advances.

Realistic Philosophy is not a closed system of thought, as many critics have mistakenly supposed. It is a genuine open system of investigation, a comprehensive and continually developing world-view, capable of using new knowledge from the natural and social sciences to expand our intellectual horizon and provide practical solutions to the many problems we face today.

As already pointed out, the foundational beliefs of an authentic Realism are:

  • There is a world of real existence which men have not made or constructed;
  • This real existence can be known by the human mind;
  • Such knowledge is the only reliable guide to human conduct, individual and social.

In summary:

  • The three basic doctrines listed above are held by all men of common sense. But an authentic Realism is not just common sense. It is common sense, critically examined and expanded. Ordinary common sense holds the above doctrines as opinions, but vaguely and confusedly without critical examination. An authentic Realism precisely formulates these principles, analyzes their component concepts, and examines them in the light of the evidence.
  • Common sense opinion is largely unaware of the implications of these principles and their interrelations with one another. Authentic realistic reflection has discovered many implications and systematic connections. Because of its uncritical acceptance of these doctrines, common sense opinion is often unable to defend them against objections and thus is easily led astray into nonrealistic modes of thought, such as has happened today.
  • A philosophy of common sense, critically examined and expanded, an authentic Realism, because of its more exact analysis and critical examination of the evidence, is able to undertake the arduous task of defending these insights against alien ways of thought and of answering critical questions.

For books about Classical Realism, see Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty's Recommended Bookshelf for Students of Classical Realism


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