Thomists Wrestle With Common Sense — Étienne Gilson

August 3, 2012

Better known by its absence than by a definition.

Étienne Gilson (1884-1978) was a renowned French philosopher and historian of philosophy, and a member of the prestigious French Academy. He was a prominent leader in the 20th century resurgence of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is part three of his essay on Realism and Common Sense.


Thus far Liberatore’s position is beyond reproach; but it is more difficult for Thomists to say what common sense is than to say what it is not. When common sense is reduced to the communes sententias of St. Thomas, two problems inevitably arise: the first concerns the nature of common sense, and the second concerns its content. First,- its nature. Is it a new faculty attributable to reason? Or is it reason itself exercising its spontaneous and natural function? As long as you are content to speak of communes conceptiones animi, as St. Thomas was, the problem does not arise, since these “common conceptions” are simply judgments formulated by reason in the light of the principle of contradiction.

But the problem does arise when the ensemble of these judgments is attributed to a vague sensus communis. Hence the marked hesitation by Liberatore in his definition of common sense: “[Vis ilia] a natura rationali proveniens, seu ipsa ratio naturalis, prout sponte sua in ejusmodijudicia prorumpit, appelatur sensus communis.” [Liberatore, op. cit., 1:162] No formula could be better balanced, but it would be nice to know if this new common sense is a faculty of reason or is reason itself. Liberatore carefully avoids telling us, for if common sense is not reason itself we fall into Reid’s irrationalism once again; but if it is reason itself it will not serve as a replacement for that instinct for the truth with which he sought to oppose skepticism. If it is to be more than just a word, it must be something: something adapted to carrying out the specific function it was developed to perform.

Liberatore’s indecision can be still better understood if we ask just what the content of this new common sense is. A good Thomist, Liberatore begins by defining the truths of common sense as judicia haec quae Aristoteles communes sententias appellavit. This was both wise and legitimate, but his decision obliged him to limit the list of the truths of common sense to the communes conceptiones animi of St. Thomas, that is, those facts which are self-evident in light of the principle of contradiction and its immediate applications. Certainly there was nothing to prevent him from limiting the truths of common sense in this manner; in fact, his definition actually invited such a procedure, but the doctrine of common sense would then have become as useless for him as it was for St. Thomas.

If the sensus communis had been reduced to the self-evidence of principles, it would not have been able to guarantee those truths which Liberatore wanted it to. The truths he had in mind were actually those which Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch had used common sense to justify, rather than the ευαίσθητος of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Briefly, what was needed was to extend the self-evidence of the metaphysical communes conceptiones to the sensus communis of rhetoric. It was necessary to expand the first until it included the second and to consolidate the second while absorbing it into the first. I do not want to say that this is impossible, but it is not easy; and Liberatore seems to have finally come up short in the attempt.

Let us consider his examples of the truths of common sense. Along with genuine communes conceptiones are found others of much more doubtful origin: bodies exist; God exists; the human soul survives the body; the good will be rewarded and the evil punished in a future life; and others of this sort. [Matteo Liberatore, Institutiones philosophicae; prima editio novae formae]

In these statements Liberatore sees so many conclusions of natural reason, distinguishable from philosophical conclusions in only two respects. In the first place, they do not belong to any particular individual but to the whole human race. Secondly, they are spontaneous conclusions, not products of conscious reflection:Sine artis praesidio et sola vi naturalis ingenii“. [Matt. Liberatore, Institutiones philosophicae; prima editio novae formae] I will certainly not deny the existence or the widespread acceptance of these spontaneous convictions, nor will I contest either their rhetorical and persuasive value or the considerable importance which their existence holds for philosophy.

[FootNote:  The most sustained effort to integrate a doctrine of common sense into Thomism is that of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Le Sens commun, la philosophie de 1’e’tre et les formules dogmatiques (Paris: Nouvelles Librairie National), 81-87. For him common sense is philosophy, the perennis quaedam philosophia Leibniz speaks of, but in a rudimentary state (84). Therefore, he proposes a “conceptualist-realist theory of common sense: which, it seems, can easily be drawn out of the writings of Aristotle or of the great scholastics” (85).

Naturally, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is unable to find a single text from Aristotle or the great scholastics to cite in favor of common sense. When he says that it “reappears” in Fenelon, he neglects to mention where it had previously appeared as a philosophical doctrine. Except for Fenelon, he — like everyone else — can only cite Reid and Jouffroy, after which he calmly concludes: “The scholastics expressed themselves in the same manner” (87). Who are these scholastics? The only one he cites is Cardinal Zigliara (Summa Philosophica, 1:257).

The same question arises once more. Why, if realism had always been critical, did the scholastics fail to realize this until after they had read Kant, or why, if their philosophy had always been the philosophy of common sense, did the scholastics fail to realize it until after they had read Reid? If “common sense” is truly a distinct faculty, why not show us what role it plays in the Thomistic description of the knowing subject.

If it is merely a “quality common to all men, equal in all and invariable” (87), common sense begins to break down into its constituent parts: on the one hand, first principles of the intellect and spontaneous judgments of speculative or practical reason (which are sufficiently explained by the intellect and reason without any need for recourse to a new and distinct faculty), on the other hand, confused social opinions and prejudices which rational reflection will expose as pseudo-certitudes, which no “common sense” has the right to uphold against reason.

The particular “quality” which is invoked to explain the generality of the contents of common sense points out nothing more than the essential universality of intellect and reason. It is impossible to introduce “common sense” into the Thomist synthesis without introducing a dose, no matter how infinitesimal, of Reid, and thus sowing the seeds of its destruction. Unless, of course, it is only introduced as a formula devoid of all content in order to clothe the perennis philosophia in the passing fashion of the day, which offers nothing of philosophical interest. When Bergson defines the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle as “the natural metaphysics of the human intellect”, he speaks as a true philosopher. This is a profound formula which does not make natural metaphysics into a “common sense”.

The general characteristics of these certitudes are their relative universality, their stability and their persistence. [Liberatore, op. cit., 1:162.] I would not even care to deny that, as the happy expression of Seneca has it, the belief of all men is an indication of or an argument for the truth. [Seneca, ad Lucil., epist. 117] The real difficulty begins when the attempt is made to assimilate such beliefs into the “common opinions” of classic scholasticism and place them on an equal plane as regards their nature and certainty.

If the certitudes of common sense are, according to Liberatore’s definition, judicia haec quae Aristoteles communes sententias appellavit, it is necessary to attribute to this formula the same narrow meaning that Aristotle himself gives it. And if this is done, it immediately becomes necessary to make at least one important exception to the universal belief in the immortality of the soul as well as to the belief in a future life of rewards and punishments.

Although he learned about these doctrines from his master Plato, Aristotle says nothing to us about them, and nothing entitles us to suppose that he numbered them among “those common opinions which serve as the basis for all demonstration”. Among such “common opinions” of Aristotle as: everything must necessarily be either affirmed or denied, or: it is impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time, the further proposition that the good will be rewarded and the evil punished in a future life would be totally out of place.

To be sure, all these formulas are rational, but not all in the same way. It is simply arbitrary legislation to group, under one “common sense”, both the knowledge of those principles whose self-evidence governs all certitude and the obscure anticipations of reason which seize upon the truth without actually seeing it. But there is more. If the certitudes of common sense are identified with the communes conceptiones of St. Thomas, can we consider “God exists” to be one of them? This presents, at the very least, a serious difficulty.

In his commentary on the De Hebdomadibus St. Thomas defines what he calls communis animi conceptio vel principium per se notum as a proposition in which praedicatum est de ratione subjecti. Now, everyone knows that according to St. Thomas the existence of God is not a proposition known per se quoad nos. If every common conception is a principle known per se, or can be immediately reduced thereto, the existence of God cannot be a common conception.

If, therefore, the truths of common sense are identified with the common conceptions of St. Thomas, “God exists” is not a truth of common sense. St. Thomas would probably reject such a conclusion if he were alive today, but not without noting that the sensus communis of Cicero and Seneca cannot be likened to the common conceptions, at least not as he and Aristotle understood them. Every common conception is part of common sense, but everything which is part of common sense is not necessarily a common conception. Common sense, such as Liberatore had conceived it, was therefore an equivocal notion whose inherent contradictions presented numerous difficulties to his successors.

Like so many before and after him, Liberatore had allowed himself to be seduced by the promise of aid which his misguided efforts seemed to offer to classical metaphysics. Endeavors of this sort always end in defeat. In order to confer a technical philosophical value upon the common sense of orators and moralists it is necessary either to accept Reid’s common sense as a sort of unjustified and unjustifiable instinct, which will destroy Thomism, or to reduce it to the Thomist intellect and reason, which will result in its being suppressed as a specifically distinct faculty of knowledge. In short, there can be no middle ground between Reid and St. Thomas.

Because they believed that there was such a middle ground, Liberatore and his successors introduced a foreign body into the structure of Thomist epistemology, and its presence is still considered a threat. To equate the obscure certitudes of common sense with the common conceptions and, at the same time, confer upon common sense the self-evidence of the latter was to introduce the most far-reaching and deplorable tendencies into philosophy.

From this moment on many authors of philosophical treatises gave in to the temptation of defending the fundamental verities of Thomism by crushing their opponents under the weight of common sense, which had only to be affirmed to be justified. 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 existence in the name of common sense itself.

The most serious problem with such a method was that by calling this false friend to the aid of metaphysical certitude the impression was given that metaphysical certitude could not do without common sense. 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 relied upon it tried to use it to prove the existence of the external world. They began by affirming it as a truth of common sense, then undertook to justify this certitude itself and, almost without realizing it, yielded to the very idealism which they had intended to refute.

The criteriology of Sebastian Reinstadler whose manual represented the purest Thomism for generations of professors and students, [Sebastian Reinstadler, Elementa philosophiae scholasticae (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1904). The description of common sense as testimonium doctrinale of the truth is found in his Criteriologia, vol. i, cf. the Elementa, 198-99] is a remarkable witness to the ravages caused by this method.

From the moment the problem of idealism is mentioned there can be no doubt concerning this author’s position nor the ease with which he will vindicate it, for he defines idealism as an error, which makes its refutation much simpler. “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.” [Reinstadler, op. cit., 1:172]

The refutation of Berkeley and Fichte presents no problem to this champion of common sense, for their positions contradict common sense: “In idealismo refutando non est cur tempus teramus: ejus enim doctrina sensui communi tam aperte contradicit, ut nemo sit, qui absurditates ejus facile non detegat.” [Reinstadler, op. cit., 1:174] Against Fichte it will suffice to invoke the testimony of the inner sense, which assures us of the passive character of our sensations. 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.

These two arguments would have carried weight if Fichte and Berkeley had not already conceded both of them, for Fichte searched at length in the ego for the opposition which the ego creates, and Berkeley took care to establish that our sense organs are themselves ideas. Moreover, these arguments fail to reach the heart of the matter, for 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. And after that question has been answered we must also explain why their lack of common sense has given philosophers so much food for thought. What is most remarkable, however, is that, despite the offhand manner in which Reinstadler treats this question, his common sense itself does not escape unscathed.

For it too is subject to the law which requires that every refutation of an error founded upon the consequences of that very error must inevitably fall back into the same error from whose consequences it took its starting point. This can be seen quite clearly in the arguments marshalled by Reinstadler against idealism, for, although said to be drawn from the purest common sense, in fact they reproduce the exact arguments by which Cartesian idealism tried to avoid its own proper consequences: “Experimur enim nos sensationes saepe habere, quando nolumus, non habere et contra saepe, quando maxime eas volumus.” This is one of the principal supports of the Cartesian proof of the external world, and it enjoys a remarkable popularity in contemporary neo-scholasticism.

[FootNote:  A detailed comparison of Descartes' and Cardinal Mercier's texts can be found in Le Realisme methodique, 18-3z. The argument seems to have been popularized among modern scholastics by J. Balmes, La Philosophie fondamentale, bk. 2, chap. S. However, Balmes was uneasy as to the possible consequences of his attitude, as can be seen from the beginning of chap. 6. In contrast, the argument was adopted without hesitation by J. S. Hickey, Summula philosophiae scholasticae, 4th ed., (Dublin, 1915); 1:212. For Reinstadler's text, which we have just cited, see the following note.]

Of course this argument proves nothing, since the facts are explained equally well by Berkeley’s thesis that our ideas are the language the Author of nature speaks to man. Even before Berkeley, Malebranche had already noted that if one accepts occasionalism and the vision of God which results from it, the existence or nonexistence of the external world is a matter of indifference as far as the content of our thought is concerned. If our sensations come to us from God, they are as independent of our will as if they came from an external world of bodies. This is why Descartes, foreseeing the possibility of an absolute idealism, had completed his proof by adding that a God who himself causes our sensations while allowing us to believe that they were caused by an external world of bodies would be a deceitful and therefore imperfect God, a contradictory and impossible concept.

One can but marvel at the docility with which Reinstadler and other scholastics followed Descartes down this blind alley: “De actione Dei immediata in nobis nihil omnino conscientia refert“, and: “Repugnat enim Deum, veritatis amantem et infinitate bonum, creaturam suam rationalem in errore invincibili his in terris perpetuo • velle detinere.” [29 Reinstadler, 174-75. The author refers, for further information on this point, to Frick, Logica, 19off., and to Mercier, Criteriologiegenerale, 352ff. Cf. J. S. Hickey, Summula philosophiae scholasticae, loc. cit.]

Whatever the intrinsic merit of this argument, it is easy to see why Descartes used it, for he had proven the existence of God before the existence of the external world. God is able to guarantee the external world in a philosophy that uses the idealist method, but it is truly surprising that a scholastic realist for whom the existence of God is proven by means of the external world should, at the same time, undertake to prove the existence of the world by means of the existence of God. Such an attitude is not even eclecticism: it is sheer intellectual chaos.

How could they fail to see the results of such a method? If it is truly divine veracity that guarantees the reliability of our sensations, the existence of the external world is no longer self-evidently certain and can in turn only be guaranteed by the existence of God. But then how can God’s existence be proven from the existence of the external world, since before being sure that there is an external world we must first be sure that God exists? There is no escape from this dead end.

Whoever sticks a finger into the machinery of the Cartesian method must expect to be dragged along its whole course. For, after all, as soon as the problem of the existence of the external world was presented in terms of common sense, Cartesianism was accepted. Descartes never denied that the existence of the external world was a common-sense truth. On the contrary, he expressly affirmed that it was, positing this truth as a moral certitude that for the most part suffices for the needs of life.

Only a hyperbolic doubt would ever question it. The problem was to transform this common-sense certitude into a metaphysical certitude. This is why, forced by his method to deny that the existence of the external world is evident, he had to undertake its proof. To reduce realism to the level of common sense is to reduce it to the status of infraphilosophic knowledge, and this is what Descartes did first. He then borrowed its arguments to free himself from the impasse in which he found himself.

 Now, nothing prevented the realist Reinstadler from holding that the existence of the external world is self-evident. Descartes had been mistaken in this matter, but he, at least, had been philosophically mistaken and sank in his own ship, whereas Reinstadler sank with him but in a ship which was not his own and upon which he had no right to embark.

Perhaps. some might be surprised that we attach so much importance to the fact that the contradictory nature of these attempts dooms them to failure. The reason we do is because, although devoid of any philosophic value, they are in a certain measure responsible for much of the contemporary controversy concerning the possibility of critical realism. By the very scorn which it inspired in the better interpreters of Aristotelian realism, common-sense realism sent them in the opposite direction; or rather, since they were deceived as to principles, their horror at this pseudophilosophy induced them to invent false classifications for which there was no need.

[FootNote: This preoccupation is evident, for example, in Msgr. L. Noel, "L'Epistemologie thomiste", in Acta secundi congressus thomistici internationalis (Taurini-Romae: Marietti, 1937). There, Msgr. Noel opposes certain adversaries whom he leaves unnamed, but he tells us that these "excellent minds" contest "the necessity and even the legitimacy of epistemology" which, in their eyes, is a useless exercise foreign to the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas, and even "necessarily ruinous" (32). I admit that I do not know who maintained such a position, and I regret that I do not know who it was who said that it is necessary "to reject all epistemology, to extricate ourselves from the 'problem of knowledge', which is nothing but a false problem, and to renounce any intention of attempting a rapprochement between the scholastic and modern points of view, which can only result in confusion; rather, we should point out their honest differences so that clarity may result" (32).

The problem is, having only recently used the expression "honest disagreement" (Le Realisme methodique, 82), I must ask, with some uneasiness, am I the one in question here? The least reference to the authors responsible for these positions would have reassured me. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, I must be permitted to reiterate that the disagreement between Msgr. Noel and myself has nothing to do with a denial of the legitimacy or necessity of epistemology but with the method which he follows in his epistemology.

I cannot accept Msgr. Noel's position that epistemology has priority in relation to metaphysics or, as he would say, that "the ontological theory of knowledge is logically posterior to epistemology" (art. cit., 58. Cf. 45, art. 1). What I am asking for is a realist epistemology within metaphysics. If Msgr. Noel objects, "It is hard to see what could be put in place of epistemology, and certainly there must be something with which to oppose idealism" (32), I will simply reply that the conflict is not between realism and epistemology but between realist epistemology and idealist epistemology. True, we need something with which to oppose idealism, and that something is realism.]

If ever there was a naive realism, common-sense realism was it. In reaction to it, these philosophers announced that they intended to adopt a philosophical attitude in these matters. Their realism was therefore styled “critical realism”, as opposed to the naive realism of common sense.

[FootNote:  “Immediate realism is inevitable because it is an obvious fact beyond which it is impossible to proceed further. This does not mean, however, that Thomist realism should be a naive realism; on the contrary, it is a realism which is perfectly well aware of its basis in reason, and that is why it truly deserves the name `critical’.” (R. Jolivet, Le Thomisme et la critique de la connaissance [Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1933], III).

Thus, immediate realism is a self-evident fact based upon reason and therefore is an immediately critical fact. Even if we were to resign ourselves to using this bizarre terminology, we would still have to ask why the reasons which form the basis of this self-evident fact are couched by preference in terms of a “critical doubt” (117), a “realist cogito” (91) and a “realist critique” (30). It would seem that “critical realism” is just another name “generally applied to Thomism” (29). But since when has this been so? Can the expression be traced back beyond Kant?

Or should we say that Thomism performed the critique of knowledge for centuries, just as M. Jourdain wrote prose, without knowing it? To avoid making Thomism into a naive realism it has been transformed into a naive criticism which was unaware of what it was doing until it donned its new Kantian clothing. This is hardly progress.]

That is all the more clear-sighted among them wanted to say, and it must be admitted that they said it, but it would have been better to have said it differently.

[Footnote: This is what the following lines of Msgr. Noel suggest: “They [the ancients] did not hesitate to affirm common sense realism as a postulate; they had thought out the fundamentals of the position, although still only in a rough outline….” Art. cit., 32. As for the above, it should be noted:

1) that to posit the existence of the external world as self-evident for man is not the same as regarding it as a postulate. A postulate is not self-evident; what is self-evident is not postulated, it is seen.

2) It should also be observed that Msgr. Noel’s formula simply equates reflective knowledge and critical knowledge; if this were true, critical realism would be the same as philosophical realism, and there would be no point in even using the word “critical”.

The same remark applies to those excellent pages devoted by J. Maritain to the reconciliation of philosophy and common sense (Elements de philosophie, 6th ed. [Paris,1921], 87-94). I can think of nothing to add to what he has said; it clearly appears that for J. Maritain philosophical knowledge requires a reflection upon the givens of common sense, which is what the critic does (90; 3, a; cf. 91; b, 2) and also what the philosopher does. Thus, it is easy to see why J. Maritain insists upon using the term “critical realism” (Les Degres du savoir [Paris: Desclee, 1932], 137-58). He concludes by asking: “After these explanations, will M. Gilson finally be convinced that the objections against the possibility of a critical Thomism are not insurmountable, and that the concept of a critical realism is not self-contradictory, like the concept of a square circle?” (156).

To which I simply reply that if critical knowledge is the same as philosophical knowledge, a philosopher who defends any epistemology does it as a critical philosopher, but the word “critical” adds nothing to the concept of philosophy. So it is true that within the philosophical order the expression “critical realism” will either lose all distinct meaning (in which case it will not be self-contradictory), or else it will signify a certain manner of posing the problem, which consists of admitting that realism can be a postulate but denying that it is immediately self-evident. The general thesis of the present work is that as soon as “critical realism” acquires a distinct meaning it becomes self-contradictory.]

This mode of expression supposes that “critical” and “naive” are opposites, as if whatever is not naive has the right to be called critical. At this rate all philosophy would be critical by definition, since all philosophy involves reflection. Certainly it is possible to take that position, but it is unnecessary to express oneself in that way. Moreover, such language involves many drawbacks. It is unnecessary, for if it is true that the mode of knowledge proper to common sense is infraphilosophic, naive realism cannot be elevated to the level of philosophy.

Therefore, there is no reason to use the expression, as if it were necessary to distinguish, outside of philosophy, between a realism that is naive and one that is not. If it is naive, realism is simply not philosophy; if it is philosophy, realism cannot be naive. Aside from the fact that neither Aristotle nor St. Thomas did, we need not style ourselves critical realists for the simple fact that we are realists of the reflective sort, which is the manner of philosophy itself. So let us say that we hold a philosophical realism and, since the problem only arises among philosophers, content ourselves with calling it realism, plain and simple.

For not only is there no need to use the expression “critical realism”, it also presents serious drawbacks. If it were merely a matter of protecting Kant’s rights to the word “critical”, we would hardly take the trouble. The word belongs to everyday speech in its usual sense of “to judge”. Therefore, all philosophy has the right to use it, even in a philosophical sense, provided only that a distinct meaning corresponds to the use to which it is put.

This is what Kant did when he decided to call his idealism “critical”, as opposed to all other forms of idealism and, consequently, of philosophy. If a realist intends to reclaim the title for his own doctrine or wants to use this term to signify that his realism is conscious of its foundations, justified by reflection rather than the spontaneous certitude of common sense, either “critical realism” will simply mean “philosophical realism” or else “critical” will acquire a meaning distinct from “philosophical”. In the latter case, experience shows and reason proves that it will become necessary to justify realist conclusions with the help of an idealist method. It is precisely this question, whether the latter approach is intrinsically possible, that we must examine.

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