Archive for the ‘Etienne Gilson’ Category


A Handbook for Beginning Realists – Étienne Gilson

December 26, 2013


"It is not in Montaigne," wrote Pascal, "but in myself that I find everything I see within." And we can equally say here, "It is not in Saint Thomas or Aristotle, but in things, that the true realist sees everything he sees." So he will not hesitate to make use of these masters, whom he regards solely as guides toward reality itself.

“It is not in Montaigne,” wrote Pascal, “but in myself that I find everything I see within.” And we can equally say here, “It is not in Saint Thomas or Aristotle, but in things, that the true realist sees everything he sees.” So he will not hesitate to make use of these masters, whom he regards solely as guides toward reality itself.

The first step on the realist path is to recognize that one has always been a realist; the second is to recognize that, however hard one tries to think differently, one will never manage to; the third is to realize that those who claim they think differently, think as realists as soon as they forget to act a part. If one then asks oneself why, one’s conversion to realism is all but complete.

Most people who say and think they are idealists would like, if they could, not to be, but believe that is impossible. They are told they will never get outside their thought and that a something beyond thought is unthinkable. If they listen to this objection and look for an answer to it, they are lost from the start, because all idealist objections to the realist position are formulated in idealist terms.

So it is hardly surprising that the idealist always wins. His questions invariably imply an idealist solution to problems. The realist, therefore, when invited to take part in discussions on what is not his own ground, should first of all accustom himself to saying no, and not imagine himself in difficulties because he is unable to answer questions which are in fact insoluble, but which for him do not arise.

We must begin by distrusting the term “thought”; for the greatest difference between the realist and the idealist is that the idealist thinks, whereas the realist knows. For the realist, thinking simply means organizing knowledge or reflecting on its content. It would never occur to him to make thought the starting point of his reflections, because for him a thought is only possible where there is first of all knowledge.

The idealist, however, because he goes from thought to things, cannot know whether what he starts from corresponds with an object or not. When, therefore, he asks the realist how, starting from thought, one can rejoin the object, the latter should instantly reply that it is impossible, and also that this is the principal reason for not being an idealist. Since realism starts with knowledge, that is, with an act of the intellect which consists essentially in grasping an object, for the realist the question does not present an insoluble problem, but a pseudoproblem, which is something quite different.

Every time the idealist calls on us to reply to the questions raised by thought, one can be sure that he is speaking in terms of the Mind. For him, Mind is what thinks, just as for us the intellect is what knows. One should therefore, insofar as one can, have as little as possible to do with the term. This is not always easy, because it has a legitimate meaning, but we are living at a time when it has become absolutely necessary to retranslate into realist language all the terms which idealism has borrowed from us and corrupted. An idealist term is generally a realist term denoting one of the spiritual antecedents to knowledge, now considered as generating its own content.

The knowledge the realist is talking about is the lived and experienced unity of an intellect with an apprehended reality. This is why a realist philosophy has to do with the thing itself that is apprehended, and without which there would be no knowledge. Idealist philosophers, on the other hand, since they start from thought, quickly reach the point of choosing science or philosophy as their object.

When an idealist genuinely thinks as an idealist, he perfectly embodies the essence of a “professor of philosophy”, whereas the realist, when he genuinely thinks as a realist, conforms himself to the authentic essence of a philosopher; for a philosopher talks about things, while a professor of philosophy talks about philosophy.

Just as we do not have to go from thought to things (knowing that the enterprise is impossible), neither do we have to ask ourselves whether something beyond thought is thinkable. A something beyond thought may well be unthinkable, but it is certain that all knowledge implies a something beyond thought.

The fact that this something-beyond-thought is given us by knowledge only in thought does not prevent it being a something beyond. But the idealist always confuses “being which is given in thought” with “being which is given by thought”. For anyone who starts from knowledge, a something beyond thought is so obviously thinkable that this is the only kind of thought for which there can be a beyond.

The realist is committing an error of the same kind if he asks himself how, starting from the self, he can prove the existence of a non-self. For the idealist, who starts from the self, this is the normal and, indeed, the only possible way of putting the question. The realist should be doubly distrustful: first, because he does not start from the self, secondly, because for him the world is not a non-self (which is a nothing), but an in-itself. A thing-in-itself can be given through an act of knowledge. A non-self is what reality is reduced to by the idealist and can neither be grasped by knowledge nor proved by thought.

Equally, one should not let oneself be troubled by the classic idealist objection to the possibility of reaching a thing-in-itself, and above all to having true knowledge about it. You define true knowledge, the idealist says, as an adequate copy of reality. But how can you know that the copy reproduces the thing as it is in itself, seeing that the thing is only given to you in thought.

The objection has no meaning except for idealism, which posits thought before being, and finding itself no longer able to compare the former with the latter, wonders how anyone else can. The realist, on the contrary, does not have to ask himself whether things do or do not conform to his knowledge of them, because for him knowledge consists in his assimilating his knowledge to things. In a system where the bringing of the intellect into accord with the thing, which the judgment formulates, presupposes the concrete and lived accord of the intellect with its objects, it would be absurd to expect knowledge to guarantee a conformity without which it would not even exist.

We must always remember that the impossibilities in which idealism tries to entangle realism are the inventions of idealism. When it challenges us to compare the thing known with the thing-in-itself, it merely manifests the internal sickness, which consumes it. For the realist there is no “noumenon” as the realist understands the term.

Since knowledge presupposes the presence to the intellect of the thing itself, there is no reason to assume, behind the thing in thought, the presence of a mysterious and unknowable duplicate, which would be the thing of the thing in thought. Knowing is not apprehending a thing as it is in thought, but, in and through thought, apprehending the thing as it is.

To be able to conclude that we must necessarily go from thought to things, and cannot proceed otherwise, it is not enough to assert that everything is given in thought. The fact is, we do proceed otherwise. The awakening of the intelligence coincides with the apprehension of things, which, as soon as they are perceived, are classified according to their most evident similarities. This fact, which has nothing to do with any theory, is something that theory has to take account of Realism does precisely that and in this respect is following common sense. That is why every form of realism is a philosophy of common sense.

It does not follow from this that common sense is a philosophy; but all sound philosophy presupposes common sense and trusts it, granted of course that, whenever necessary, appeal will be made from ill-informed to better-informed common sense.

This is how science goes about things; science is not a critique of common sense but of the successive approximations to reality made by common sense. The history of science and philosophy witness to the fact that common sense, thanks to the methodical use it makes of its resources, is quite capable of invention. We should, therefore, ask it to keep criticizing its conclusions, which means asking it to remain itself, not to renounce itself.

The word “invention”, like many others, has been contaminated by idealism. To invent means to find, not to create. The inventor resembles the creator only in the practical order, and especially in the production of artifacts, whether utilitarian or artistic. Like the scientist, the philosopher only invents by finding, by discovering what up to that point had been hidden. The activity of his intelligence, therefore, consists exclusively in the exercise of his speculative powers in regard to reality. If it creates anything, what it creates is never an object, but a way of explaining the object from within that object.

This is also why the realist never expects his knowledge to engender an object without which his knowledge would not exist. Like the idealist, he uses his power of reflection, but keeping it within the limits of a reality given from without. Therefore the starting point of his reflections has to be being, which in effect is for us the beginning of knowledge: res sunt.

If we go deeper into the nature of the object given us, we direct ourselves toward one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysics of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning toward a psychology, which will reach completion in a metaphysics of knowledge. The two methods are not only compatible; they are complementary, because they rest on the primitive unity of the subject and object in the act of knowledge, and any complete philosophy implies an awareness of their unity.

There is nothing, therefore, to stop the realist going, by way of reflective analysis, from the object as given in knowledge to the intellect and the knowing subject. Quite the contrary, this is the only way he has of assuring himself of the existence and nature of the knowing subject. Res sunt, ergo cognosco, ergo sum res cognoscens. [Things exist, therefore I know, therefore I am a knowing subject.] What distinguishes the realist from the idealist is not that one refuses to undertake this analysis whereas the other is willing to, but that the realist refuses to take the final term of his analysis for a principle generating the thing being analyzed. Because the analysis of knowledge leads us to the conclusion “I think”, it does not follow that this “I think” is the first principle of knowledge. Because every representation is, in fact, a thought, it does not follow that it is only a thought, or that an “I think” conditions all my representations.

Idealism derives its whole strength from the consistency with which it develops the consequences of its initial error. One is, therefore, mistaken in trying to refute it by accusing it of not being logical enough. On the contrary, it is a doctrine which lives by logic, and only by logic, because in it the order and connection of ideas replaces the order and connection between things. The fatal leap (saltus mortalis) that catapults the doctrine into its consequences precedes the doctrine. Idealism can justify everything with its method except idealism itself, for the cause of idealism is not of idealist stamp; it does not even have anything to do with the theory of knowledge — it belongs to the moral order.

Preceding any philosophical attempt to explain knowledge is the fact, not only of knowledge itself, but of men’s burning desire to understand. If reason is too often content with summary and incomplete explanations, if it sometimes does violence to the facts by distorting them or passing them over in silence when they are inconvenient, it is precisely because its passion to understand is stronger than its desire to know, or because the means of acquiring knowledge at its disposal are not powerful enough to satisfy it.

The realist is just as much exposed to these temptations as the idealist, and yields to them just as frequently. The difference is that he yields to them against his principles, whereas the idealist makes it a principle that he can lawfully yield to them. Realism, therefore, starts with an acknowledgment by the intellect that it will remain dependent on a reality which causes its knowledge. Idealism owes its origin to the impatience of a reason which wants to reduce reality to knowledge so as to be sure that its knowledge lets none of reality escape.

The reason idealism has so often been in alliance with mathematics is that this science, whose object is quantity, extends its jurisdiction over the whole of material nature, insofar as material nature has to do with quantity. But while idealism may imagine that the triumphs of mathematics in some way justify it, those triumphs owe nothing to idealism. They are in no way bound up with it, and they justify it all the less, seeing that the most mathematically oriented physics conducts all its calculations within the ambit of the experimental facts that those calculations interpret. Someone discovers a new fact and what happens? After vain attempts to make it assimilable, all mathematical physics will reform itself so as to be able to assimilate it. The idealist is rarely a scientist, more rarely still a research scientist in a laboratory, and yet it is the laboratory that provides the material which tomorrow’s mathematical physics will have to explain.

The realist, therefore, does not have to be afraid that the idealist may represent him as opposed to scientific thought, since every scientist, even if philosophically he thinks himself an idealist, in his capacity as a scientist thinks as a realist. A scientist never begins by defining the method of the science he is about to initiate. Indeed, the surest way of recognizing false sciences is by the fact that they make the method come first. The method, however, should derive from the science, not the science from the method. That is why no realist has ever written a Discourse on the Method. He cannot know how things are known before he knows them nor discover how to know each order of things except in knowing it.

The most dangerous of all the different methods is the “reflective method”; the realist is content with “reflection”. When reflection becomes a method, it is no longer just an intelligently directed reflection, which it should be, but a reflection that substitutes itself for reality in that its principles and system become those of reality itself. When the “reflective method” remains faithful to its essence, it always assumes that the final term of its reflection is at the same time the first principle of our knowledge. As a natural consequence of this it follows that the last step in the analysis must contain virtually the whole of what is being analyzed; and, finally, that whatever cannot be discovered in the end point of the reflection, either does not exist or can legitimately be treated as not existing. This is how people are led into excluding from knowledge, and even from reality, what is necessary for the very existence of knowledge.

There is a second way of recognizing the false sciences generated by idealism; in starting from what they call thought, they are compelled to define truth as a special case of error. Taine did a great service for good sense when he defined sensation as a true hallucination, because he showed, as a result, where logic necessarily lands idealism. Sensation becomes what a hallucination is when this hallucination is not one. So we must not let ourselves be impressed by the famous “errors of the senses”, nor startled by the tremen- dous business idealists make about them. Idealists are peo- ple for whom the normal can only be a particular instance of the pathological. When Descartes states triumphantly that even a madman cannot deny his first principle “I think, therefore I am”, he helps us enormously to see what hap- pens to reason when reduced to this first principle.

We must, therefore, regard the arguments about dreams, illusions, and madness, borrowed by idealists from skeptics, as errors of the same kind. The fact that there are visual illusions chiefly proves that all our visual perceptions are not illusions. A man who is dreaming feels no different from a man who is awake, but anyone who is awake knows that he is altogether different from someone who is dreaming; he also knows it is because he has had sensations, that he afterward has what are called hallucinations, just as he knows he would never dream about anything if he had not been awake first.

The fact that certain madmen deny the existence of the outside world, or even (with all due respect to Descartes) their own, is no grounds for considering the certainty of our own existence as a special case of “true delirium”. The idealist only finds these illusions so upsetting because he does not know how to prove they are illusions. The realist has no reason to be upset by them, since for him they really are illusions.

Certain idealists say that our theory of knowledge puts us in the position of claiming to be infallible. We should not take this objection seriously. We are simply philosophers for whom truth is normal and error abnormal; this does not mean it is any easier for us to reach the truth than it is to achieve and conserve perfect health. The realist differs from the idealist, not in being unable to make mistakes, but principally in that, when he does make mistakes, the cause of the error is not a thought which has been unfaithful to itself, but an act of knowledge which has been unfaithful to its object. But above all, the realist only makes mistakes when he is unfaithful to his principles, whereas the idealist is in the right only insofar as he is unfaithful to his.

When we say that all knowledge consists in grasping the thing as it is, we are by no means saying that the intellect infallibly so grasps it, but that only when it does grasp it as it is will there be knowledge. Still less do we mean that knowledge exhausts the content of its object in a single act. What knowledge grasps in the object is something real, but reality is inexhaustible, and even if the intellect had discerned all its details, it would still be confronted by the mystery of its very existence.

The person who believed he could grasp the whole of reality infallibly and at one fell swoop was the idealist Descartes. Pascal, the realist, clearly recognized how naive was the claim of philosophers that they could “comprehend the principles of things, and from there — with a presumption as infinite as their object — go on to knowing everything”. The virtue proper to the realist is modesty about his knowledge, and even if he does not practice it, he is committed to it by his calling.

A third way of recognizing the false sciences which idealism generates is by the fact that they feel it necessary to “ground” their objects. That is because they are not sure their objects exist. For the realist, whose thought is concerned with being, the good, the true, and the beautiful are in the fullest sense real, since they are simply being itself as desired, known, and admired.

But as soon as thought substitutes itself for knowledge, these transcendentals begin to float in the air without knowing where to perch themselves. This is why idealism spends its time “grounding” morality, knowledge, and art, as though the way men should act were not written in the nature of man, the manner of knowing in the very structure of our intellect, and the arts in the practical activity of the artist himself. The realist never has to ground anything, but he has to discover the foundations of his operations, and it is always in the nature of things that he finds them: operatio sequitur esse.

So we must carefully avoid all speculation about “values”, because values are simply and solely transcendentals that have cut adrift from being and are trying to take its place. “The grounding of values” is the idealist’s obsession; for the realist it is meaningless.

The most painful thing for a man of our times is not to be taken for a “critical spirit”. Nevertheless, the realist should resign himself to not being one, because the critical spirit is the cutting edge of idealism, and in this capacity it has the characteristics not of a principle or doctrine but of zeal for a cause. The critical spirit expresses, in effect, a determination to submit facts to whatever treatment is necessary so that nothing in them remains refractory to the mind. To achieve this, there is only one policy; everywhere the point of view of the observer must be substituted for that of the thing observed. The discrediting of reality will be pursued, if necessary, to its most extreme consequences, and the harder reality resists, the more determined the idealist will be to disregard it. The realist, on the other hand, should always recognize that the object is what causes knowledge and should treat it with the greatest respect.

Respecting the object of knowledge means, above all, a refusal to reduce it to something which complies with the rules of a type of knowledge arbitrarily chosen by ourselves. Introspection, for instance, does not allow us to reduce psychology to the level of an exact science. This, however, is not a reason for condemning introspection, for it seems probable that, the object of psychology being what it is, psychology ought not to be an exact science, not at least if it is to remain faithful to its object.

Human psychology, such as a dog knows it, ought to be at least as conclusive as our science of nature, just as our science of nature is about as penetrating as human psychology as known by a dog. The psychology of behavior is therefore very wise to adopt the dog’s outlook on man, because as soon as consciousness makes its appearance, it reveals so much to us that the infinite gulf between a science of consciousness and consciousness itself leaps to the eye. If our organism were self-conscious, who knows whether biology and physics would still be possible?

The realist must, therefore, always insist, against the idealist, that for every order of reality there is a corresponding way of approaching and explaining it. He will then find that, having refused to embark on a critique preliminary to knowledge, he is free – much freer than the idealist — to embark on a critique of the different branches of knowledge by measuring them against their object; for the “critical spirit” criticizes everything except itself, whereas the realist, because he is not a “critical spirit”, is continuously self-critical.

The realist will never believe that a psychology which in order to understand consciousness better starts by placing itself outside consciousness will give him the equivalent of consciousness; nor will he believe, with Durkheim, that the real savages are those found in books, or that social life consists essentially of prohibitions with sanctions attached, as though the only society we had to explain were the one described in Leviticus. Nor will he imagine that historical criticism is in a better position than the witnesses it invokes to determine what happened to them or discern the exact meaning of what they themselves said.

That is why realism, in subordinating knowledge to its objects, places the intelligence in the most favorable position for making discoveries. For if it is true that things did not always happen exactly as their witnesses supposed, the relative errors they may have made are a trifling matter compared to those our imaginations will embroil us in if we start reconstructing facts, feelings, and ideas we never experienced, according to our own notions of what seems probable.

Such is the liberty of the realist. We can only choose between deferring to the facts and so being free in thought, or being free with the facts and the slave of thought. So let us turn to the things themselves that knowledge apprehends, and to the relationship between the different branches of knowledge and the things that they apprehend, so that, conforming itself ever more closely to them, philosophy can progress once more. It is in this spirit, too, that we should read the great philosophers who have preceded us on the realist path.

“It is not in Montaigne,” wrote Pascal, “but in myself that I find everything I see within.” And we can equally say here, “It is not in Saint Thomas or Aristotle, but in things, that the true realist sees everything he sees.” So he will not hesitate to make use of these masters, whom he regards solely as guides toward reality itself. And if the idealist reproached him, as one of them has just had the kindness to do, with “decking himself out in hand-me-downs taken for truths”, he will have his answer ready: much better to deck oneself out in truths that others have handed down, as the realist, when necessary, is willing to do, rather than, like the idealist, refuse to do so and go naked.


The Fundamental Truth 3 – Etiénne Gilson

November 8, 2012

“Through this intellect, every man is a person and through the same intellect he can see exactly the same truth as any other man can see, provided they both use their intellects in the proper way. Here, and nowhere else, lies the foundation for the very possibility of a philosophia perennis; for it is, not a perennial cloud floating through the ages in some metaphysical stratosphere, but the permanent possibility for each and every human being to actualize an essence through his own existence, that is to experience again the same truth in the light of his own intellect. And that truth itself is not an anonymous one. Even taken in its absolute and self-subsisting form, truth itself bears a name. Its name is God.”
Etiénne Gilson

It does no good to praise Aristotle’s method if we refuse to follow it, and above all if we misconstrue its meaning. The last chapter of the Posterior Analytics is extremely important in this regard. Aristotle speaks there of the knowledge of principles. The assumption that they are innate is absurd, because if they were we would possess, unknown to ourselves, knowledges more certain than any demonstration. On the other hand, how could we formulate these principles within ourselves without having a faculty or power to acquire them?

What is this power? In order to satisfy the conditions of the problem, it is necessary, Aristotle says, “that that power be superior in accuracy to the knowledge itself of principles (Posterior Analytics 2.19, 99b31-34). This statement has been interpreted to make it say less than it does, but in vain, for however the agent intellect is conceived in Aristotle’s doctrine, even if it is reduced to the status of an indeterminate light and as indifferent to the intelligible apprehensions it causes, the statement of the Posterior Analytics means that this light belongs to a higher order and certitude than that of the principles it makes us know.

It is not easy to state clearly St. Thomas’s opinion on the subject, but we have to get used to a certain way of not understanding, which is nothing but a modest stance in the face of a purely intelligible object. One who understands everything is in great danger of understanding badly what he understands and not even to suspect the existence of what he does not understand.

The obscurity surrounding the origin of principles is exactly the same as that which partly hides their nature. It is agreed that in the Thomistic epistemology the agent intellect immediately conceives the principles by way of abstraction from sensible experience, and that is correct. It is added, then, that the intellect suffices for this operation, that it accomplishes it by its own natural light, without needing for its explanation to have recourse to the additional illumination of a separate Intelligence, not even, as some Augustinians would have it, to the light of God, the Sun of minds, the interior Master, finally the Word who enlightens everyone coming into the world.

And that too is correct, but it is not the whole truth. Thomas is the less scrupulous about not taking away anything from nature as, completely filled with the presence of God, like air with light, nature cannot be belittled without doing injury to the creator. Nothing can be denied to the essence of a being that God has made to be what it is.

In this spirit, at the very moment when St. Thomas in his Summa theologiae (1.84.5) places limits on the Platonic noetic of St. Augustine (qui doctrines Platonicorum imbutus fuerat) nevertheless holds the essence of the Augustinian thesis and the truth of his words. The intellectual soul knows material things in the eternal reasons, but this does not require the assistance of divine light added to that of the intellect.

The latter suffices, “for the intellectual light within us is nothing else than a certain participated resemblance of the uncreated light, in which are contained all the eternal reasons (that is, Ideas). So it is said in Psalm 4:7, “Many ask: who will make us see happiness.” The psalmist replies: “The light of your countenance is imprinted on us, O Lord.’ It is as though he said: Everything is shown to us by the very seal of the divine light within us.”

Thus, while maintaining the necessity of sensible experience at the origin of all human knowledge, St. Thomas intimately binds the human intellect to the divine light itself. It is because that light (which is the divine esse) includes, or rather is, the infinity of divine ideas (which are the divine esse) that the agent intellect of each one of us, being a participation in the divine light, has the capacity of forming intelligible concepts on contact with the sensible world. That intellect is not the divine light; if it were, it would be God.

But it is a created product of that light, and in a finite way it expresses it and imitates its excellence. Hence its capacity to discover in beings, which are also made in the image of the divine ideas the intelligible forms in which they participate. The agent intellect in itself has the power to recognize outside itself the resemblance of the first cause, which is the source of all knowledge and intelligibility.

We shall have to return to this theme after trying to grasp St. Thomas’s very special notion of participation. For the moment, let us simply examine that doctrine of knowledge such as it is; or, rather, let us attempt to do so, for how can we succeed? In one sense it begins by following Aristotle, but the genuine Aristotle who, from the level of sensation, sees empirical notions develop in an ascending induction, experience itself being the starting point of art in the order of becoming and of science in the order of being.

But above science and its demonstrations there is an intuition of principles. Because demonstrations depend on principles, they themselves are not objects of demonstration. They do not provide science with its demonstrations; science does this for itself in their light. And since their light is thought itself, in the final analysis it is the intellect itself that is the cause of science (Post Analytics 2.19).

If this is so, why are we surprised that principles do not yield their full meaning always and to everyone? Their evidence and necessity themselves constrain the intellect which they rule by enlightening it, but which submits to them for want of being able to make their certitude that of a science, which the intellect itself would cause. The only way to approach these supreme intelligibles is with respect and modesty. The various simple formulas used to dispatch them in a few words are tautologies only for those who do not try to plumb their depths.

In a second sense — already implicit in the first and nourishing it from within and giving it infinite riches –, St. Thomas follows the Augustinian way, which itself belongs to Christian philosophy. What is astonishing is that, with St. Thomas, these two ways become one in his own doctrine. Even when he happens to name them, they can no longer be distinguished, for the two have become identical.

The universe we know is henceforth composed of things created in the likeness of a God whose essence, that is to say, the act of being, is at once their origin and model. The intellect that knows these things is itself the product and image of the same God. In this doctrine, in which everything in nature is natural, but in which nature is essentially a divine product and a divine image, it can be said that nature itself is sacred. It is not surprising that the first intelligible object an intellect of this sort discerns in such a real world is the primary notion of being, and that with this origin, this notion surpasses in every way the mind that conceives it

Here is the truth dimly perceived by those who mistakenly, teach the unity of the agent intellect They are wrong in that respect, but it is true to say that Aristotle calls our agent intellect a light that our soul receives from God. In this sense it is even truer to say with Augustine that God illumines the soul, of which it is the “intelligible sun.” These philosophical disputes over: details lose their sharp edge from the theological heights we have reached. In Augustine’s view, knowing is contemplating in the soul a reflection of the Ideas; in Aristotle’s opinion, knowing is an act of the agent intellect throwing light on the intelligibility of the sensible world. The doctrines differ in structure, but in the final analysis they are in agreement: “It matters little whether we say that it is the intelligibles themselves in which the (intellect) participates from God, or that the light producing the intelligibles is participated.” [Aquinas, Tractatus de spiritualibus creaturis 10 ad 8m] In either case God is at the origin of knowledge.

From St. Thomas himself to his most recent interpreters this truth has often been lost from sight Turned to folly, it was sometimes corrupted in ontologism. Reduced, in reaction, to the limitations of an almost physical empiricism, it cut itself off from its source, which is the being of God himself. Preserved in its fullness, it offers itself as a naturalism similar to that of the Greeks, but in which, owing to its dependence on God in its very being, nature is filled with a divine energy and so to speak always points to infinitely more than what it is.

Since this is true of knowledge as well as of being, it should be enough to banish the phantom of a metaphysics based on nothing but regulative formulas. Wisdom begins with notions that are certainly abstract but endowed with a content extracted from the real world by a mind whose light discovers in forms the light itself of which our mind is an image. For metaphysics, the primary notion of being is given to us before all others; it is at the same time apprehended as such and illuminated by the light of Him Who Is, the cause of every intellect and of every intelligible object.

This datum, and the intellectual experience we take from it, is the true principle of metaphysics. All philosophical wisdom is virtually contained in the meaning of the word “is.” So we should not make it a “starting point,” as some call it We must dwell on it at length and leave it only to come back to it as quickly as possible. Being is the most universal and evident of all notions, but it is also the most mysterious, as befits the very name of God.

This is the only reason for the differences among metaphysics. As Suarez very aptly said, it is evident an ens sit (that being is), but not quid sit ens (what being is). Ens does not signify a word but a thing, and that thing is so simple that it cannot be defined but only described.

Every metaphysics presupposes a notion of being, presented for the metaphysician’s reflection, as a truth of that simple intuition which Aristotle justifies by the surpassing excellence of the intellect over the principles themselves that it posits. There is no science of the cause of science. Moreover, the controversies among great metaphysicians are fruitless as long as they oppose each other on the level of conclusions, without first confronting each other on the level of principles.

But they do not like to compare their interpretations of principles, for they have the same first principle, they only understand it differently. No demonstration will make them understand it in the same way, as we see from the fact that all the great Christian philosophies continue to exist side by side. In all of them God is being. As Augustine says, “He is ‘Is.” [Deus non aliquo modo est, sed est est: Confessions 13.31 (46)]

But for one, ‘Is’ means the Immutable Being; for another, that whose nature it is to exist (natura existendi, natura essendi); for still others being is real essence, the inner principle and ground of all the actions and operations of a subject The objection should not be raised that these are concepts of real being, not of the being of reason which is the concern of metaphysics.

If metaphysics were only directed to an abstract notion it would be nothing but a logic. As a science of reality, the first philosophy has for its object existing being, and that is why, again in the apt words of Suarez (DM 2.2.29), if there were neither God nor angels there would be no metaphysics. [DM 2.2, Vives ed. 25: 79 §29. In §30 Suarez says that if no immaterial beings existed there would probably still be room for one part of metaphysics concerning being and the transcendentals.] Everything happens as though the metaphysicians were dispersed within the same intelligible space, which is too immense for them to have the good fortune to meet each other.

There is no trace of skepticism here. We only ask not to be placed in the position of playing the role of the indisciplinatus by demonstrating that whose nature does not allow it to be demonstrated. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that the first principle is being. Even those who dispute it, as Descartes did in a certain sense, are obliged to use it. What did he assert when he said “I am”?

Finally, it is possible and even necessary for a metaphysician to relate at length the meaning he ascribes to the first principle to the contents of experience. If he can find a meaning of the word that does justice to all the properties of beings inasmuch as they are beings, and that arranges them in thought in the order they have in reality, the philosopher will give his assent to that notion without qualification, hesitation, or doubt It will be his first principle, and most certainly, because as he conceives it this notion dispenses with all the others, for it includes them eminently, whereas all the others taken together do not measure up to its intelligibility.

Accordingly, metaphysics is a science from the moment when, having laid hold of the principle, it begins to deduce its consequences; but the fate of the doctrine depends on the understanding of the principle. A true metaphysician will rarely be caught in the act of contradicting himself. At the start he must adopt his doctrinal positions, and he must meditate at length on the mind’s first approach to its formation of principles before committing himself to them. The capacity of the principle to elucidate reality under all its aspects will undoubtedly confirm its truth in the course of constructing the doctrine, but it is the principle’s own evidence, which the mind sees in the very act of conceiving it, on which its certitude essentially rests. Once the meaning of the principle is grasped, the doctrine unfolds in its light It does not make the doctrine true, it simply makes its truth evident

In teaching metaphysics, then, the main concern should not be the sequence of conclusions. Dialectic masters this so easily that it can correctly deduce all the conclusions of a principle without seeing its truth or understanding its meaning. This is the source of the impression opponents in a dispute have of always being misunderstood. And indeed they are, for each judges the other’s sequence of conclusions in the light of his own understanding of the meaning of the principles.

This is not how the good teacher of philosophy proceeds. After lengthy reflection, he says what he sees and tries to lead others to see it. For this purpose, before undertaking to demonstrate what is demonstrable, he elucidates the truth that is indemonstrable to show the evidence for it

This is a whole art in itself. As old as metaphysics, the art is so well known since Plato that there is no need to insist on it here. Starting with images, we must transcend them in order to reach, as by flashes of light, the intelligible principle. Though we only catch a glimpse of it, we can expect that this insight will arouse others to see it as well, as we proceed to an explanatory analysis of the contents of the notion. That will only happen by stepping down a little below it, every time we use our judgment to clarify its pure intelligibility. We can withdraw from it, provided that we do not for a moment lose our hold on it, as we must step back a little from a beautiful face in order to see it

The elucidation, then, should take place at the center of this intelligible insight itself. It need not be very extensive; it is sufficient for itself. As far as others are concerned, it can only lead the way to invite them to set out in pursuit Moreover, because it is linked to the simple apprehension from which the first judgment springs, it will soon run short of words, as is all too evident from what has just been said about it.


The Fundamental Truth 2 – Etiénne Gilson

November 7, 2012

“Not merely to learn philosophy, but to become a philosopher, this is what is now at stake. It does not involve giving up philosophy as a science; it rather involves aiming at possessing philosophy in a different and more exalted way as included in wisdom itself, to which it is in the same relation as a body to its soul. Then also does the philosophical life truly begin, and its beginning does not consist in any addition to already acquired learning; it rather looks like falling in love, like answering the call of a vocation, or undergoing the transforming experience of a conversion.”
Etiénne Gilson

St. Augustine never thought of God in any other way than in terms of essence. Commenting on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, he explains its meaning as follows: “In fact, since God is the supreme essence, that is, since he supremely is, and therefore is immutable, he has given being to the things he has created from nothing, but he has not given them the supreme being he himself is. He has given to some more being and to others less, and thus he has arranged natures according to the degrees of their essences.”

There can be no misunderstanding this notion of God. Finite essences are arranged in a hierarchy according to the degrees of being. At the summit there is the supreme essence, which is not more or less but purely and simply the highest essence. Being the fullness of essence, it has nothing to gain or lose. The sign of its supremacy in the order of essence is its immutability. We should weigh St. Augustine’s words themselves, as he tries to understand better (perspicacius intelligere) what God said to Moses through his angel in Exodus 3:14: Cum enim Deus summa essentia sit, hoc est summe sit, et idea imrnutabilis sit … [De civitate Dei 12.2]

St. Thomas is far from denying any of this. On the contrary, he finds in these words the starting point of the fourth way (of proving the existence of God), ex gradibus quae in rebus inveniuntur (from the degrees found in things [SummaTheologicae 1.2.3]). This is all very well, and the mind can stop there. He himself, however, takes a further step. Penetrating more deeply into this summa essentia which is called ‘Is’ (Est), Thomas adds, et haec Dei essentia est ipsuin suum esse (and this essence of God is his very being [CC 1.22.7]). Thomas grants very correctly and without reservation that God is the supreme essence. He simply specifies that the sole essence God has is his being: Deus igitur non habet essentiain quae non sit suuin esse (God, therefore, does not have an essence that is not his being: Contra Gentiles 1.22.2).

This is the exact moment when we go beyond the theology of Augustine and enter that of Thomas Aquinas. The transition presupposes that we have already conceived, or that we conceive at the same time, the notion of being as an act beyond essence, or, if you prefer, that of an essence whose whole essentiality is being. Augustine had no idea of this; neither had John Damascene nor Anselm of Aosta. Alerted by Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus preferred to stay on the path opened up by St. Augustine, adding to it, in the spirit of John Damascene, the important precision introduced by the notion of the divine infinity. Ens infinitum, for Duns Scotus, is the proper object of our theology.

There is no room for uncertainty here, for he too, as was only natural, commented on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, and in his interpretation he does not refer to the Thomistic esse but to the Augustinian essentia. Not only is God essence, but perhaps he is the only one who is. God is an entitas realis, sive ex natura rei, et hoc in existentia actuali. Or, in the language of Augustine himself, because being most truly and properly belongs to God, we should say that he is most truly essence: verissime dicitur essentia. [Gilson, Jean Duns Scot: Introduction]

So we come back to the same problem: In order to interpret the statement of Exodus, where, when, and how did St. Thomas demonstrate that, on the level of being, it was necessary to go beyond the notion of a being (ens), conceived until then as a simple notion, to divide it into two others, namely essence and being (esse), and then to assert that one of these two notions, namely being (esse), denotes within a being. itself the supreme perfection and actuality of the other? St. Thomas clearly crossed this threshold. The only question is: how did he justify it? No reply is forthcoming. If he delivered the proof, neither Duns Scotus nor Suarez understood it or was convinced by it, and they were no mean metaphysicians.

The only reasoning that resembles a proof begins with the contingency of creatures. If essence is other than being in a finite being, being and essence must coincide in God in order to preserve his simplicity.

But, as we have seen, the non-necessity of a finite being does not require that it actually be composed of essence and being. The point would be expressed no less exactly if we were to say, along with most theologians, that the actual existence of a finite substance, whose essence of itself is a pure possibility, is contingent. A finite being does not possess its existence from itself. In order to be it must receive being from necessary being, which is God. But this is in no sense a proof that in order to confer actual existence on a finite being God must con-create within it an essence endowed with an act of being which, though distinct from it, forms with it a being (ens) or that-which-has-being.

If it is difficult to find a proof of this, it is not because St. Thomas neglected to speak of it When he does talk about it, however, it is usually to say that, without a limitation of the act of being by an essence, this act will be the pure act of being and it will be infinite, that is, it will be God (Contra Gentiles 1.43.5). Thus everything depends here on the Thomistic notion of God: “We have shown (Contra Gentiles 1.22) that God is his subsistent being. Therefore nothing besides him can be its being. So it is necessary that in every substance besides him the substance itself is other than its being” (Contra Gentiles 2.52.2).

This amounts to saying that, if the essence of God is his being, everything else must be composed of being and an essence other than this being. And nothing is clearer if it has really been demonstrated that God is the pure act of being. Now, as we have seen, eminent theologians either have not read that truth in the text of scripture; or, even alerted to the fact that it was there, they have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge it is there. They did not find it in scripture for the simple reason that it did not enter their mind.

Here we are apparently caught in a kind of dialectic, the two terms of which perpetually evoke each other. God is pure being because, if in him essence were distinct from being, he would be a finite being and would not be God. Conversely, the essence of a finite being is other than its being because if its essentia were identical with its esse, that being would be infinite and it would be God. There are external signs of this difficulty, of which it will suffice to mention one: the very widespread resistance the Thomist notion of esse meets not only, as is natural, in other theological schools, but even in the one claiming the name of St. Thomas. Aquinas. And that is curious, to say the least, but it is a fact.

The worst attitude to adopt in the face of this difficulty is to deny its existence or to banish it from the mind as an annoying’ thought The Church recommends Thomism as the norm of its theological teaching. How would it have made this choice if the doctrine in the last analysis were based on a vicious circle? The objection should not be made that here it is not a matter of philosophy but of theology. That is true, but it does not remove the problem. St. Thomas’s theology is a scholastic theology.

Its object is God, known through his word, but it tries to understand it, and it cannot do this without bringing into play the resources: of philosophy. A master must have the skill to train the servants he employs for his service, and these servants must exist and be themselves in order to render the services he expects of them. If the theologian put into play a philosophy that would be nothing but a disguised theology, as long ago Averroes very unjustly accused Avicenna of doing, he would deceive himself before deceiving others.

There is no more frequent objection made to scholasticism. Authentic Lutheranism on the one hand, and philosophical rationalism on the other, have never ceased accusing it of corrupting everything: the word of God by philosophy, and philosophy by faith in a revelation unsupported by reason. The persistent attempts of certain Christian philosophers to clear themselves of the suspicion of teaching a “Christian philosophy” have no other source than the fear of seeing themselves charged with a hybrid speculation that is neither faith nor reason: something equally contemptible to those who are concerned to preserve intact the supernatural transcendence of faith, and to those whose absolute respect for reason resists every compromise with the irrational, or, what amounts to the same thing for them, anything super rational.

Here it is fitting to recall the bitter controversies that have made Christian speculative thought so unproductive, but we should not dwell on them. First, because the controversy is quieting down. Though it was necessary at one time, it itself was an inferior form of mental exercise. Above all, however, because it is not in one’s power, speaking for the truth, to dispose minds to receive it, and lacking this, his words are really addressed to the deaf. It is good, however, to speak to oneself, to open one’s mind to the truth, and to oppose the accusation of giving way to prejudices, with the firm resolve not to entertain any of them, neither those with which we are charged, nor those with which they who impute them to us are unconsciously imbued.

After all, it is not certain a priori that all the sins against reason are on the side of those who profess to be its true witnesses and claim to monopolize its use. Too many scholastics have forgotten the true nature of philosophical knowledge because they yielded to the unfounded demands of some of their opponents. It was they, however, and not their opponents, who stood for the full use of reason in its complete independence.

We cannot admire enough the attitude of these scholastic philosophers who are well aware of having two wisdoms at their disposal and find it so easy to divide their domains. “Wisdom, or perfect science,” one of them said, “is twofold: one that proceeds by the supernatural light of faith and divine revelation, the other that proceeds by the light of human reason. The latter is philosophy, the former is Christian theology, a science supernatural in its roots and by reason of its principles. Philosophy, then, will be defined as knowledge of ultimate causes proceeding by the natural light of reason.”

These statements are completely true and they conform to the teaching of St. Thomas. They raise no problem as long as we remain on the level of formal distinction. Problems pile up,” on the contrary, if it is claimed that these two wisdoms cannot” live and work together in the same person, in the same mind. Will philosophy have nothing to say about the teachings of theology, a science whose principles are supernatural? And will theology give no thought to the teachings of philosophy, which proceeds by the light of natural reason?

St. Thomas, at least, asserts the exact opposite, for he holds so strongly the formal distinction of the two lights and the two wisdoms only to allow them to collaborate better, without any possible confusion, but intimately and without any false scruples. St. Thomas wanted to make the natural light of reason penetrate right into the most secret parts of revealed truth, not in order to do away with faith and mystery, but to define their objects.

Even the mystery of transubstantiation can be formulated in philosophical language. But the opposite relation can be established as well, for the theology of St. Thomas has the right of inspection in its philosophy, and it does not neglect to exercise it for the greatest good of philosophy. Those who claim the contrary are mistaken, and if they do it for apologetic reasons they miscalculate, for there is no other effective apologetic than the truth.

What is most remarkable in this regard is that they would like to separate revelation and reason to satisfy the requirements of a notion of philosophy that never existed. No philosopher ever philosophized about the empty form of an argument lacking all content. It is one and the same thing to think of nothing and not to think. If we mentally remove everything specifically religious in the great Greek philosophies from Plato to Plotinus, then everything specifically Christian in the philosophical speculation of Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, even Kant and some of his successors, the existence of these doctrines becomes incomprehensible.

A religion is needed even to make it stay “within the limits of reason.” The importance of Comte in this regard is that, having decreed that theology was dead and its transcendent God forgotten, he realized that in order to build up a philosophy whose tenets would be drawn from science, he had to look for the principles outside of science.

In order to find them, he created a new religion and substituted for the God of Christianity a Great Fetish, furnished with its church, its clergy, and its pope. The early “positivists” were indignant about this as a deviation from the doctrine, but Comte knew what positivism is better than they. They understood nothing about it, as can be clearly seen in the pitiful history of their “absolute positivism,” reduced today to a verbal dialectic whose object is science, but for whom science itself becomes incomprehensible.

For all wisdoms draw life from the highest among them, and if religion is eliminated, metaphysics dies with it, and philosophy in its turn dies along with metaphysics. Neo-Scholasticism is not immune to this malady, when it wanted to be a-Christian, it quickly degenerated into an abstract formalism whose utter boredom is bearable only by its authors, for to bore is not always boring. Sometimes it is asked with concern why this philosophy is so lifeless. The reason is that it is deliberately tied to a metaphysics that has no object.

There is a twofold mistake in saying that the object of metaphysics is the concept of being as being, explicitated in the light of the first principles. First, metaphysics does not treat of the concept of being as being any more than physics treats of the notion of becoming. If they did, these sciences would be turned into logics. Physics has to do with changing being itself, as metaphysics has to do with being insofar as it is being. We emphasize, with being itself and not only with the concept of being. Nothing can be inferred from the concept of being as being; everything can be said about being as being. But for that we must first reach it, and if we do not comprehend it, at least we get in touch with it, and then never lose contact with, it, under pain of losing our way in an empty verbalism.

The facility enjoyed by the dialectician is his greatest danger. It is always possible to begin with nominal definitions, of being, substance, and cause in order to deduce their consequences with the help of the first principle. If it cannot be done easily, it can at least be done successfully. Some even do it with the mastery of virtuosos that compels admiration, but they gain’ from it nothing but an abstract sketch of a possible metaphysics. At best, they give themselves the pleasure of picturing it to themselves after the event, portrayed all at once in a kind of synthesis that enables them to embrace it with a single glance.

But at that moment it is lifeless; they should not have gone about it like this in the first place. From this arises the deadly conflict between the mode of exposition and the mode of invention. For those who “exhibit” are very rarely those who invent; or when they are the same, while exhibiting they conceal from us their act of invention, so that we ourselves do not know how to reinvent by following in their footsteps, which is, however, the only way to learn. Then, too, when lectures are afflicted with this curse, we see students learning without understanding, while others lose confidence in their own philosophical abilities, even though the best proof of these abilities is that students at least realize that they do not understand.

These tendencies are particularly hard to explain in masters who claim to follow Aristotle’s philosophy and defend its sound empiricism against the idealism of their contemporaries. Professing in all matters to begin with experience, it is paradoxical for them to turn away from it in metaphysics, whose principles govern the whole body of knowledge. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s work is there, and if one is not interested in how it was constructed, the repeated statements of its author should be a sufficient warning of the danger.

Speaking of the absolutely primary rules of judgment, namely the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, Aristotle points out that each scientist uses them as valid within the limits of his own science (Posterior Analytics. 2.11, 77a22-25). When it is a question of the knowledge of reality, one does not reason about reality from principles but in agreement with them and in their light.


The Fundamental Truth 1 – Etiénne Gilson

November 6, 2012

Thomas is held in the Catholic Church to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood. The works for which he is best-known are the Summa theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. One of the 35 Doctors of the Church, he is considered the Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.

Et sic fit ut ad ea quae sunt notissima rerum, noster intellectus se habeat ut oculus noctuae ad solem, ut II Metaphysicorum dicitur (Summa contra Gentiles 1.11.2).
["So it comes about, as is said in Metaphysics 2, that our intellect is related to the most knowable things as the eye of an owl is related to the sun." Aristotle, Metaphysics 2.1, 993b9.]

Few philosophers avoid the temptation of philosophizing without other presuppositions than thought itself. Fichte yielded to it without reservation in building his well-known immense structure. No Christian philosopher has gone that far, but some of them do not conceal their displeasure when they are urged to consider and, if possible, to see a primary truth which as such cannot be demonstrated. That is why, holding the composition of essence and existence in finite beings as the fundamental truth of Christian philosophy, they could not tolerate the idea of leaving it as an arbitrary assertion and have tried to demonstrate it.

In order to avoid any confusion, let us say at the outset that the distinction (or composition) of essence and being in finite beings is indeed demonstrable under certain conditions, but it is extremely important to understand their nature.

An excellent study of the De ente et essentia reduces to three the main types of arguments by which St. Thomas establishes the famous scholastic distinction. The first, which certainly originates in Avicenna but which St. Thomas could have read in the works of William of Auvergne, is clearly set forth in De ente et essentia : “Everything that does not belong to the concept of an essence or quiddity comes to it from without and forms a composition with that essence, for no essence can be conceived without its parts. Now, every essence or quiddity can be conceived without knowing anything whatsoever about its existence. I can conceive what a man or a phoenix is and yet not know if they exist in reality. It is clear, therefore, that being is other than essence or quiddity.”

The argument is irrefutable, but what does it prove? First of all that actual being is not contained in the notion of an essence. As Kant will later say, in the notion of a hundred thalers the notion of a thaler is the same whether it be a question of simply possible thalers or real thalers . [Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A 599/B 627, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1933)]

Next, as St. Thomas explicitly says, it proves quad esse est aliud ab essentia vel quidditate (that esse is other than essence or quiddity). For an essence to pass from possibility to being, then, an external cause must bestow actual existence on it No Christian theologian or metaphysician has ever doubted the soundness of this conclusion. Because a finite being is not the cause of its own existence, it must hold it from a higher cause, who is God.

In this sense, what is called the distinction between essence and being simply means that every finite being is a created being. Now all theologians grant this, but many refuse to conclude from it that a finite being is composed of two metaphysical principles: its essence and an act of being through which it exists. It is one thing to say that the essence of a finite being does not contain the cause of its being, which is all the dialectical argument of Avicenna, taken up by William of Auvergne and St. Thomas, proves. It is another thing to say that in this same finite being existence comes from an actus essendi to which it owes precisely its actual being. This by no means follows from the above argument

Here is a good subject for meditation. Excellent philosophers and theologians have devoted their lives to the study and teaching of the Thomistic doctrine without ever suspecting the true meaning of this fundamental thesis. They have seen in it only a formula, a little more abstruse than others, for saying that every finite being is contingent and created. If nothing more than this were involved, every theologian without exception would teach the distinction between essence and existence, which we know well is not the case.

Let us move on to the second group of arguments. They are said to have the following general form: “There must be only one being in which essence and existence are not distinct, whose essence itself is its existence, because it could not be multiplied without being diversified, and there is no way in which it can be diversified. Hence being is distinct from essence in all created beings.

Once again, the argument is conclusive, and now it results in establishing the truth of the distinction between essence and existence. Here is undoubtedly the theologians’ royal and favorite road, for if God is the pure act of being he is the only one who can be it. What would lay claim to this title would be ipsum purum esse, and this would be God. That is why so many Thomistic theologians often accuse of pantheism those who, deaf to their arguments, deny the distinction between essence and existence in finite beings. These theologians give themselves an easy advantage, for in order that their demonstration be conclusive it would first be necessary to establish that, for God, to be Being is to be the pure act of esse, whose essence is being itself. Hence the value of the argument depends entirely on the validity of a certain notion of God which, whatever its real worth, never seems to have entered the mind of many theologians, some of whom were saints.

The proofs in the third group, “drawn from the nature of created being, corroborate these conclusions.” The historian summarizes them for us with great subtlety. Since by definition it is caused by another, “created being does not subsist by itself, as the being whose essence is to exist subsists necessarily. On the other hand, being an effect cannot be a property of created being because of being itself; otherwise every being would by essence be an effect, and there would not be a first cause. Hence being an effect is a property of created being by reason of a subject distinct from its being.”

Nothing makes us see more clearly the fundamental difficulty all these demonstrations face. The proof that, because created being is not essential to being itself it can only belong to being by reason of a subject distinct from its being, presupposes the conclusion it was intended to demonstrate. For if we grant the premises of the argument, how do they lead to the conclusion that the subject of created being is really distinct from its being? Now it is precisely this and nothing else that is at stake.

Every theologian will agree that by definition a created being is not identical with its existence. It is not, because, being created, it must receive existence in order to be. But, on the other hand, for a created essence to exist it suffices that God make it exist, which properly speaking is to create it. It might be true that God cannot create a finite being without conferring on it an act of esse really distinct from its essence, but supposing this to be demonstrable; the argument has not demonstrated it.

These arguments, and all those of the same type, are alike in. presupposing the conception of being, not in the sense of a being (ens, habens esse, that which is), but rather of the act of being (esse) which, combining with essence, makes of it precisely a being, a habens esse. Now, as soon as this properly Thomistic notion of esse is conceived, there is no further problem; there remains nothing more to demonstrate.

To be convinced of this we have only to refer to the texts of. St. Thomas which his interpreter cites by way of proofs. Two things clearly stand out in them. First of all, that the notion of pure being (ipsum puruin esse) thus understood is always presented in them as something taken for granted. Second, it is taken for granted in them only because, for the theologian, it is the proper name of God. To think pure esse is to think God.

The progressive dialectic of the Summa contra Gentiles leads St Thomas to establish “that in God being and essence are the same” (Contra Gentiles 1.22). He already conceives, then, the possibility of their distinction. Now, if he does conceive it, the question is already answered. Indeed, engaged here in establishing God’s simplicity, St. Thomas must deny of him every conceivable distinction. That is what he does in demonstrating, with Avicenna, that when there is a necessary being (tertia via) it exists of itself. Now it would not exist of itself if it had an essence distinct from its being, for in this case its being would belong to that essence and depend on it (Contra Gentiles 1.22.2). More briefly, and even as briefly as possible: “Everything is through its being. Hence, what is not its being is not through itself a necessary being. Now God is through himself a necessary being. Therefore God is his being” (Contra Gentiles 1.22.5).

It is impossible to go further along the same road, for only one other operation would remain to be carried out if this were possible. This would be to prove that the necessity of necesse esse is indeed the same as the necessity of what St. Thomas calls ipsuin esse, the pure act of being, beyond essence itself, which in this unique case is as it were consumed by it. Now it must be admitted that a great number of theologians are in doubt about this notion or even dispute its validity.

As far as we know, St. Thomas himself nowhere gives a demonstrative proof of it No doubt he argues, “If the divine essence were other than its being (esse), the essence and being would thereby be related as potency to act. But we have shown that there is no potency in God but that he is pure act God’s essence, therefore, is not other than his being” (ContraGentiles 1.22.7).

This is undeniable, but the conclusion would be the same if, instead of conceiving being as the act of essence, it were simply conceived as the actual essence itself. Far from being unthinkable, such a notion of God seems to be common to all the theologians who, coming before or after St. Thomas, have adopted a metaphysics of being different from his own.


Why Gilson? Why Now? – Dr. Peter Redpath

October 17, 2012

“Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful.” Étienne Gilson

A speech at Warsaw Poland in April of 2008 at the founding of the International Étienne Gilson Society. From a recent intellectual biography of Gilson: “To let Gilson gently fade away into the limbo of secondary thinkers would be a disservice to mankind. This book is a stimulus to remaining awake about the intellectual debates unfolding today in the Catholic Church.” Much the same this speech shouldn’t be left in some hole of oblivion. God bless you Dr. Redpath.


Before I start my talk I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to join us today in Warsaw for this historic founding of the International Étienne Gilson Society. I wish to talk to you today about why, at this precise time in history, founding an international Étienne Gilson Society is crucial to recovering in the West today proper understandings of human nature and of philosophy and why without recovering these proper understandings, within a short time, we will not be able to heal growing cultural antagonisms within the West and Western culture will likely fall victim to a new form of totalitarianism.

In 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and concordist euphoria that was sweeping Western Europe, I presented a paper at a prestigious international colloquium on “Transition in Eastern Europe” in Italy. Attendees at this meeting included heads of different European parliaments, university dons, and international corporate leaders.

Much to the chagrin of a one audience member closely connected with the conference organization (who stood up, screamed at me several times to “shut up,” and cut off my speaking time), I argued that, instead of being signs of growing world concord, the transitions then occurring in Europe were “readily recognizable as convulsions within the Western conception of man.”

Following the thinking of Gilson, I maintained that, for centuries, a Cartesian conception of human nature has been infecting and weakening Western cultural institutions. I indicated that these institutions had come into existence centuries before Descartes and had been rooted in an entirely different understanding of human nature than the one Descartes proposed. I claimed that, by this time in Western  history (1990), this weakening of our cultural institutions had become so severe that these misunderstandings were “causing a death rattle within these institutions” that could not be stopped by charms, amulets, contemporary economic theory, or politics of Left or Right.

Instead of attempting to restore the West through such misguided means as economic theory and politics, I held that only a complete purging of Western cultural institutions of the Cartesian understanding of human nature would be able to restore Western culture to health. If this view of the human self continued to dominate Western culture, I predicted that (1) the West would “self-destruct in a cultural collapse” and (2) “this collapse will, in all probability, be issued in by new and more exotic forms of fundamentalistic political perversions of the totalitarian state attempting to unify human society around monolithic myths of the race, mechanistic reason, blind evolution, materialistic progress, and so on.”

The reason I could so confidently make these predictions is not mysterious. Decades ago I had had the good fortune to read Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience.  In this work Gilson had outlined how, since the dawn of the modern world in the seventeenth century, Western culture had started to engage in a reckless adventure to abandon the Greek philosophical vision of the universe.

Gilson called this Greek philosophical vision the “Western Creed,” and he saw it as the essential foundation of all Western cultural institutions. Simultaneous with the West’s attempt to abandon the Western Creed, Gilson saw the West attempting to replace the Greek philosophical vision with something Gilson called the “Scientific Creed.” As far back as the 1930s Gilson was pointing to Cartesian thought as a cultural revolution that had attempted to reduce all philosophy, sense realism, and science to the practical mechanistic science of mathematical physics.

In ancient times philosophy and science were considered identical. And philosophical sciences like metaphysics, ethics, and politics could make claims to have a foundation for their principles in the sense world, in a sense realism, sense wonder. All these sciences could claim, in some way, to be rational, realistic, true.

After Descartes and the Protestant Reformation had come on the scene, Gilson thought that something had been radically altered in the relationship between modern mathematical physics and the classical sciences of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Just like the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, Descartes showed a distrust for natural reason. Despite the fact that Descartes is celebrated for his declaration that truth lies in “clear and distinct ideas,” Descartes had actually located all human truth and error in strength and weakness of the human will, in what Friedrich Nietzsche would famously later identify as the “Will to Power.”

As Descartes saw the human condition, we human beings are spirits encased in machines. We are essentially two substances that cannot communicate with each other. God is the only cause of communication between these two substances, our mind and body. Hence, for Descartes the proper object of human science is clear and distinct ideas, not real, or mind-independent, beings that we grasp with the help of our bodily senses.

Moreover, Descartes thought “science” is a name that we give to different logical deductive systems of clear and distinct ideas. Descartes reduced all philosophy, science, to differing kinds of systematic logic.

Outside restraints placed upon the human imagination by reasoning systematically under the influence of clear and distinct ideas like God, the soul, and extension, Descartes thought our unrestrained imaginations tended to cause our wills to wander, to become weak and unable to focus on ideas, see them clearly, grasp truth, and provide us with true science.

In the area of physical science, Descartes maintained that just this sort of wandering occurs when we try to determine the essence of the sense world independently of the use of mathematical ideas. Hence, for Descartes, because it uses clear and distinct ideas to view the sense universe, mathematical physics is the only science that can tell us anything true about the essence of the sense world. And because they use clear and distinct ideas to study human freedom, while human sciences like metaphysics, politics, and ethics can tell us something true about the human spirit, they can tell us nothing true about the existence and use of freedom in the sensible world.

Within a century and a half of Descartes dream of re-establishing science on the foundation of a system of clear and distinct ideas, and after the wondrous success of Newtonian physics, the Lutheran thinker Immanuel Kant sought to go beyond Descartes and simultaneously protect the fundamentalistic Lutheran understanding of faith by effectively divorcing philosophical disciplines of metaphysics, politics, and ethics completely from science and sense reality and reducing all scientific reasoning and sense realism to mechanistic mathematical physics. By so doing, Kant solidified a divorce that Descartes had introduced between truth and freedom, faith and science, and the philosophical disciples of metaphysics, ethics, and politics from contemporary mathematical physics, science, and sense reality.

At present, this several-hundred year project to divorce philosophy from science and reduce science to mechanized mathematical physics has created an essential conflict within Western cultural institutions, within our intellectual, political, and religious organizations.

In Cartesian thought, truth and freedom are properties of will, not reason. Hence, freedom and truth are essentially non-rational. And rationality is essentially not free or true. This means that, while modern physical science might wish to make claims to truth, if it claims to be rational, it can only make true statements when by “true statements” we mean statements expressing non-rational feelings or “beliefs.” Truth in Cartesian science can be no more than an intense feeling about an idea or system of ideas. Hence the propensity of so many thinkers today to refer to physical science as a “belief system.”

This essential opposition between reason and will, freedom, and truth means that, within a Cartesian conception of science, we can never be free by acting rationally because free behavior is essentially non-rational. Hence the propensity of so many Western youth today to identify being free with doing “crazy” things.

Moreover, this essential opposition between of reason and will, freedom, and truth means that, within a Cartesian conception of science we have totally abdicated any means for rationally judging, evaluating, truth in any of our intellectual, cultural, or political institutions or disciplines. Hence the rampant madness, falsehood, and dishonesty that increasingly infect Western cultural institutions (like universities, politics, media, business, sports) in their essential operations.

After all, if we buy into the Cartesian worldview, if we want to be scientifically political, politically truthful, we cannot expect to behave reasonably. And if we want to be politically rational we cannot expect to say anything true. If we want to scientifically intellectual, we have to express our feelings. And these feelings have to be intensely non-rational if we expect them to express any truth, and not truthful if we expect them to be in any way rational. If we want to be successful, behave reasonably, in business, sports, or media, we have to lie and be dishonest because the rational is the opposite of what is true.

Given the essential madness of Cartesian thought, over the past several centuries, Western thinkers have attempted to use several intellectual frauds, different forms of sophistry, to help maintain the intellectually unjustifiable modern reduction of all science to physics and the divorce of truth and freedom from rationality. Chief among these frauds has been modern socialism, which has called upon neo-gnostic thinkers like Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin and pseudo-politicians like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Josef Stalin to fabricate the myth that the essential flaw within modern Western Cartesian thought has actually been a necessary historical moment in the march of the human spirit to emerge from some form of backward historical consciousness into that of an Enlightened socialism bringing into being a new scientific world order.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Gilson wrote a powerful work entitled The Terrors of the Year 2000 in which he predicted that, instead of learning its cultural lesson about the need to reconcile the divorce between classical philosophy and modern physical science, the post-World War II era would yield no lasting peace and would become a time “where science, formerly our hope and our joy, would be the source of greatest terror.” [Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

At the close of World War II, Gilson claimed, with the help of Nietzsche, we human beings brought the modern conflict between rationality and truth and freedom to a new level. With the bombing of Hiroshima, we in the West had made our most astounding scientific discovery: “the great secret that science has just wrested from matter is the secret of its destruction. To know today is synonymous with to destroy.”[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

With Nietzsche’s short sentence, “They do not know that God is dead,” Gilson thought that the transvaluation of Western values had started in earnest. Postmodern man wished to make himself divine, usurp God’s place, become God.

Gilson considered Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death “the capital discovery of modern times.” Compared to Nietzsche’s discovery, Gilson maintained that, no matter how far back we trace human history, we “will find no upheaval to compare with this in the extent or in the depth of its cause.”[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)] Gilson thought that Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death signaled a metaphysical revolution of the highest, widest, and deepest order.

From time immemorial, Gilson thought we in the West have based our cultural creed and scientific inspiration, our intellectual and cultural institutions, upon our Western Creed, which included the conviction that gods, or a God, existed. No longer. All of a sudden, God no longer exists. Worse, He never existed! For Gilson the implication is clear: “We shall have to change completely our every thought, word and deed. The entire human order totters on its base.”[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

If our entire cultural history depended upon the unswerving conviction that God exists, “the totality of the future must needs depend on the contrary certitude, that God does not exist,” on a subliminal hatred of the Western Creed. Gilson thought that Nietzsche’s message was a metaphysical bomb more powerful than the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima: “Everything that was true from the beginning of the human race will suddenly become false.” Moreover, mankind alone must create for itself a new self-definition, which will become human destiny, the human project: To destroy.[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

Gilson maintained that Nietzsche’s discovery of God’s death signaled the dawn of a new age, a new political world disorder, in which the aim of postmodern culture, its metaphysical project, had become to make war upon, to overthrow, traditional truths and values. To build our brave new world order, we have to go beyond Descartes and overthrow the metaphysical foundations of Western culture.

“Before stating what will be true, we will have to say that everything by which man has thus far lived, everything by which he still lives, is deception and trickery.” As Nietszche says, “He who would be a creator, both in good and evil, must first of all know how to destroy and to wreck values.” The new world disorder is one in which we are busy “preparing the brave new world of tomorrow by first of all annihilating the world of today.”[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

As Gilson saw it, postmodern man, the man of the new world order, is essentially Nietzschean.[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)] And his “mad ambition,” to become totally free of any external moral restraints on moral or political behavior, is impossible to achieve. We might wish to become absolutely free creators, creators ex nihilo, totally free, but, at best, our wish is an impossible dream. “We shall perhaps be great manufacturers,” Gilson says. “[B]ut creators — never. To create in his turn ex nihilo, man must first of all reestablish everywhere the void.”[Étienne Gilson, The Terrors of the Year 2000 (Toronto: St. Michael’s College, 1949)]

Mad ambition, then, has become postmodern man’s project: everywhere to reestablish the void, a new world disorder, by wrecking traditional Western values. Gilson sees this  Nietzschean project to be a continuation of the Enlightenment project, to create a utopian new world order in which, against the backward intellectual and moral traditions of Jews, Christians, and ancient philosophers, the mad dreams of the poetic human imagination and utopian socialists replace reality.

The new world disorder is universal surrealism, total release of human reason, of creative free spirit, from all traditional metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic controls; the poetic spirit, the spirit of the artist gone totally mad with the intoxicating, surrealistic power of destruction.

Gilson maintained that the father of postmodern man’s post-World War II existential project is Sisyphus. Our destiny has become “the absurd” and “truly exhausting task” of perpetual self-invention without model, purpose, or rule. Having turned ourselves into gods, we do not know what to do with our divinity. Finding ourselves totally free to engage in the perpetual task of endless self-creation, Gilson said we resemble a soldier on a twenty-four hour leave with nothing to do: totally bored in the tragic loneliness of an idle freedom we cannot productively use.

Gilson considered our postmodern story to be really quite old. Like the Jewish people in the time of Samuel, tired of being really free, we seek expand our freedom by putting ourselves under the rule of a king. Having freed ourselves from divine rule, the necessary political consequence for postmodern man is political enslavement by a totalitarian State. Having refused to serve God, we have no one left to judge the State, no arbiter between us and the State.

To Gilson’s ears, the explosion of Hiroshima resounded a solemn metaphysical assertion of postmodern man’s statement that, while we no longer want to be God’s image, we can still be God’s caricature. While we cannot create anything, we now possess the intoxicating power to destroy everything.

As a result, feeling totally empty and alone, postmodern man offers, to anyone willing to take it, the futile freedom he does not know how to use. “He is ready for all the dictators, leaders of these human herds who follow them as guides and who are all finally conducted by them to the same place — the abbatoir” (the slaughterhouse).

At present, we in Western culture find ourselves in a condition of cultural confusion precisely because, as Gilson understood, we have lost our sense realism and have turned our understanding of science into an enemy of truth and a friend cultural destruction. Having lost our sense realism we have lost our philosophical minds, our philosophical minds have lost touch with reality and have developed a subliminal hatred for our cultural traditions and institutions.

Having lost our understanding of the nature of philosophy, we can no longer find any rational arguments by which to justify and sustain our different cultural institutions, which, increasingly we are encouraged to loathe. Having become so completely lost intellectually, we have increasingly transformed ourselves into universal skeptics, prime subjects for enslavement by dictators.

Western culture has traditionally justified its cultural institutions by use of classical philosophical arguments rooted in the common philosophical convictions that man is a rational animal and God exists. Having lost our faith in these essential precepts of the Western Creed, we in the West have largely lost our ability to think philosophically. Thus, we can no longer rationally and philosophically justify Western culture itself.

Why Gilson? Why now? Because, among all the leading intellectuals of the past or present generation no one has better diagnosed the philosophical ills of Western culture and better understood the remedy for those ills than has Gilson.

Decades ago Gilson asked a very sobering question for our time: “Can a social order, begotten by a common faith in the value of certain principles, keep on living when all faith in these principles is lost?”[Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience] Gilson answered this question in the negative. He told us we were losing our freedom because we were “looking at irrationality as the last bulwark of liberty.”[Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience] We were looking to ground human freedom and Western culture on the corpse, and subliminal hatred, of the Western Creed, including the corpse of Western philosophy.

Unhappily, as Gilson has shown us through repeated appeals to philosophical experience, trying to build a social order on the carcass of philosophy is doomed to fail because it ignores “The First Law of Philosophical Experience”: “Philosophy always buries its undertakers.” This is true whether the undertakers be individuals, politicians, religions, or whole cultures.

Since postmodernity’s chief problem is that we have lost our reason because we have lost our sense realism, philosophy, and God, Gilson thought that the solution to our ills to be simple. We will not find our reason again until we have “first found God again.” And we will not find God again without the willingness “to receive what still remains of grace today.” To do that, we must turn our minds again to the world, to have them measured by the being of things, not by our unbridled and unmoored poetic imaginations.

To Gilson, this meant that, to recover our culture, we would have to attempt once again to inhabit the universe of St. Thomas in which the service of God and reason are compatible and produce in us order, beauty, and joy — not nausea — because, in this world, unlike the postmodern Nietzschean world, the necessary condition for the existence of one does not entail the necessary destruction of the other. For, sharing the same cause as part of the same creation, the order of our freedom, thoughts, truth, and, reality complement, they do not contradict, one another.

By ignoring the reality that science is principally a habit of mind, not a system, or body of knowledge, and that the being of things constitutes part of philosophy’s life-blood, modern “philosophers,” including many Thomists, have largely lost our under-standing of philosophy as rooted in reality, in principles of sense wonder. In so doing we have all somewhat contributed to a loss of respect for the philosophical realism that underpins the Western Creed that sustains our cultural institutions.

The hour is late. We in the West no longer have the luxury of ignoring a return to philosophical realism and to a philosophical defense of our Western Creed, including our belief in the existence of God. The choice before us is clear: Philosophy or the slaughterhouse, Gilson or Nietzsche. I choose philosophy. Hence, I also choose Gilson. I hope you will join me and my colleagues to help others do the same.


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.


The Idealist Consequences Of Cartesianism And The Rock of Common Sense – Étienne Gilson

August 2, 2012

It is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some “census communis.”

“When Thomas Reid recounted this remarkable story of Descartes philosophy [Thomas Reid, Oeuvres completes, published by T. Jouffroy (Paris, 1828), 3:148-223; "Essay on the Intellectual Faculties of Man", essay 6, chap. 2: "On Common Sense".] he was one of the first to discern its meaning, and it was his intent to escape the magic circle in which philosophers since Descartes had been trapped, mesmerized by the cogito and idealism without ever managing to get out….”

Gilson continues with our story….


It was in large measure his resolute rejection of the Cartesian approach that led Reid to elaborate his doctrine of “common sense”. Reid never pretended that he had discovered common sense, but he tried to give the expression, which itself had become common, a technical philosophical meaning.

For Cicero, common sense was primarily the common manner of feeling, the views of the crowd whose tastes the orator had to take into account if he were to influence them. [Cicero, De Oratore, I, chap. 3 to the end. Cited by J. Lachelier in A. Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (Paris: F. Alcan, 1926), 2:75, n. One may find, op. cit., 749-51, other texts of Franck, Jouffroy, etc., on common sense.] However, it was also an ensemble of spontaneous judgments with which all men are naturally endowed and which permits them to discern good and evil. [Cicero, De Oratore, III, chap. So; cited by T. Reid, op. cit., 39.]

This double meaning, commonly accepted opinion and opinion founded upon nature and reason, is almost always found in definitions of common sense. The movement from one meaning to the other is natural and easy. It is not surprising, then, that before Reid, and in a text which Reid himself used, Fenelon had appealed to this spontaneous feeling which guarantees the truth of certain human judgments. “What is common sense?” asks Fenelon.

Nothing but those notions that all men hold concerning the same things. Common sense, which is always and everywhere the same, which foresees every test, which renders the examination of certain questions ridiculous … , this sense which is common to all men, waits only to be consulted, is evident at a glance and discovers in an instant the truth or absurdity of questions; what else could it be but what I call my ideas?
Fenelon, De l’existence de Dieu, part 2, chap. 2, second proof. Cited by T. Reid, op. cit., 38, and in Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 2:751.

This fund of self-evident knowledge, which Fenelon supported with his doctrine of ideas and which he used to prove the existence of God, was described even more simply by Fr. Buffier in his Traite des premieres verites et de la source de nos jugements:

`By `common sense’ I understand the disposition given by nature to all men or, manifestly, to the great majority, so that when they have attained the use of reason they may pass common and uniform judgment concerning various objects of private opinion individually perceived. This judgment is not the consequence of any prior principle.
Buffier, S.J., Oeuvres philosophique, ed. Francisque Bouillier (Paris: Charpentier, 1843); Traite des verites premieres, part 1, chap. 5, 15.

In his Catalogue des Ecrivains du siecle de Louis XIV, Voltaire says of Fr. Buffier: “There are in his metaphysical treatises certain sections which Locke himself would not have disdained, and he was the only Jesuit whose works contained a reasonable philosophy”; ed. cit., introduction, I.

One will note that in this passage Buffier begins by distinguishing his conception of common sense from that of the scholastics (op. cit., 14-15). We will return to this point later

For our purposes, the most interesting aspect of Buffier’s doctrine of common sense is that he placed it in direct opposition to the Cartesian methodology of the inner sense, and he did so precisely because the Cartesian principle condemns philosophy to solipsism. When you ask the philosophers of the inner sense “if it is self-evident that bodies exist and that we receive sensations through the body, they flatly reply: No. …”[ Buffier, Traite des verites premieres, part 1, chap. 2; ed. cit., 9.]

“The first consequence of this principle (of the inner sense) is one we have already touched upon. Since it is not evident that material bodies exist, we cannot be certain that our own bodies exist.”[Buffier, op. cit., part 1, chap. 3, 10. The text clearly has Malebranche in mind, whom Buffier knew Berkeley followed. Cf. op. cit., part 1, chap. 2, n. 15; 9.]

Thus, it is against Cartesianism and the idealism which flows from it that Buffier directs his own doctrine of common sense when he cites as the first example of judgments guaranteed by the certainty of common sense: “There are other beings and other men besides myself in the world.”[ Buffier, op. cit., part i, chap. 5, n. 34; i5. T. Reid knew Buffier, whom he cited many times, notably in his Essays on the Intellectual Faculties, essay 2, chap. 10, and essay 6, chap. 2. In the latter text Reid speaks of Buffier's writing as "published fifty years ago". The first example of common-sense truths cited by Buffier becomes, in Reid's work, the fifth principle of common sense in the order of contingent truths: "Fifth principle. The objects which we perceive by the agency of the senses really exist, and they are such as we perceive them to be." Op. cit., essay 6, chap. 5; vol. 5, 106.]

So, as far back as 1732, this man, disturbed by the idealist consequences of Cartesianism, could see no other means of avoiding them than by recourse to common sense, that necessary complement to the inner sense, as a guarantee that the external world exists.

Adopted by Reid, then by Jouffroy, Buffier’s doctrine could not fail to gain the attention of Catholic theologians, especially when Lamennais espoused it, with modifications, as the foundation for an apologetic of the Christian religion. The danger was obvious. Since common sense was conceived as a sort of sense for the truth, at once infallible yet unjustifiable, every attempt to support Christianity by means of this doctrine ran the risk of becoming an irrationalism.

Therefore, theologians and Christian philosophers undertook to do what they had attempted so many times: to prevent the spread of an unhealthy idea while recalling its supporters to an acceptable and already received doctrine. Since common sense seemed to so many troubled souls to be an efficacious remedy to skepticism, why not search the traditional philosophy of the schools for the elements of a healthier form of the doctrine of common sense?

Attempts of this kind are not without risk, and although the history of this particular attempt has not yet been written it is not difficult to discern, by means of the internal law which controlled its evolution, the problems that were encountered.

[FootNote: Such a history would not be entirely useless. It would have to take account not only of Liberatore's work, whose position we have analyzed, but also of Sanseverino's Institutiones seu elements philosophiae christianae cum antiqua et nova comparatae, the fourth volume of which (Theologia naturalis) appeared in 1870. Cf. "Concerning Common Sense", in the edition of Signoriello (Naples, 1885); 1:626-30.

T. M. Zigliara, Summa philosophica in usum scholarium (Rome, 1876). Cf. 8th ed. (Lyon and Paris, 1891), 1:257-59 and 277-81. Also seep. 279 of Sanseverino's I principali sistemi della Filosofia sul Criteria, cap. 3, 2.

One will note the effort which these authors made to eliminate from their notion of common sense any implications of irrationality such as are found in Reid. The example of Reid seems to have led them to give common sense, as understood by Cicero and Seneca, a more important and more explicitly defined status than that which it had in classical scholasticism with the speculative or practical realm (Summa Theologica, I, II, q. 94, a. 4, Resp.). Here it is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some census communis.] 

At first glance it did not seem impossible to introduce a doctrine of common sense into the economy of Thomism, but the attempt quickly became far more complicated than anyone had imagined it would be. In the first place, nothing called common sense can be found in St. Thomas except for a psychological thesis with no bearing on the question at hand. In his commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, St. Thomas defines common sense according to the strictest letter of the peripatetics: Sensus enim communis est quaedam potentia, ad quam terminantur immutationes omnium sensuum.[St. Thomas Aquinas, De Anima, bk. a, lect. 13]

Four centuries later Bossuet faithfully restated this definition: “This faculty of the soul which organizes sense impressions … so that one unified object is formed from everything received by the senses is called common sense. This term is sometimes transferred to the operations of the intellect, but its proper meaning is the one we have just pointed out.”[Bossuet, Traite de la connaissance de Dieu et de soimeme] Truth to tell, there had been no transfer of the term; it was simply that sensus can signify both “sense” and “sensation”. It was impossible to translate άναίσθητος other than by sensus communis, just as it was impossible to translate the sensus communis of Cicero and Seneca other than by “common sense”. It was simply a case of equivocation, and Bossuet, who knew the two possible meanings, did not hesitate to maintain that the proper meaning was the first.

Nevertheless, this equivocation was an open invitation to look for a passage whose meaning fell somewhere between the psychology of Aristotle and the rhetoric of Cicero. The ευαίσθητος of Aristotle satisfied the need. “I call the principles of demonstration,” says Aristotle, “which serve as the basis for all proofs, common beliefs [άναίσθητος], such as: everything must of necessity be either affirmed or denied, and: it is impossible for anything to both exist and not exist at the same time, as well as all other premises of this kind.” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, B, II, 996b 27-31] The meaning of this text is clear.

As St. Thomas observed, Aristotle is simply saying that every proof presupposes certain evident principles which are themselves indemonstrable. These dignitates, or axioms, are naturally and immediately known by all men, thus the name άναίσθητος; “et quia talis cognitio principiorum inest nobis statim a natura; concludit [Aristotle], quod omnes artes et scientiae, quae sunt de quibusdam aliis cognitionibus, utuntur praedictis principiis tanquam naturaliter notis.

[Footnote: St. Thomas Aquinas, In Metaphysics, bk. 3, lect. 5; Cathala edition, n. 389. It is necessary to add to these principles their obvious implications. Thus, "communis conceptio dicitur illa cujus oppositum contradictionem includit; sicut omne totum est major sua parte ... "; but also: "naturam animae rationalis non esse corruptibilem, haec est communis animi conceptio" (De Potentia q. 5, a. 3, ad 7).

Thus, the Thomist idea of communes conceptiones is flexible. One may first distinguish here, with Boethius (De Hebdomadibus, init.), two kinds of common ideas: those that are known by everyone and those that are known only by the learned. Therefore, each instance must be examined separately. Everything the opposite of which is contradictory is res per se nota and communis conceptio both for the many and for the learned, but there are degrees of certitude for truths of this sort. For example: ex nihilo nihil  was considered a communis conceptio by Aristotle; and it is, but only in the order of secondary causes, for an exception must be made in the case of creation (Summa Theologica, 1, q. 45, a. 2. ad is De Potentia, q. 3, a. i, ad i).

The existence of God is not res per se nota, and St. Thomas neither affirms nor denies that it is a communis conceptio in the technical sense; he merely says that we have an innate knowledge of this truth in the sense that all men have the ability to arrive at it (De Veritate, 10, 12, Resp. and ad 1). If you apply the strict Thomistic definition from the commentary on the De Hebdomadibus, cap. is "communis animi conceptio, vel principium per se notum, (est) aliqua propositio ex hoc quod praedicatum est de ratione subjecti" (ed. Mandonnet, 1:170), it seems hard to say that the existence of God could be, in this sense a communis conceptio, at least as far as we are concerned.

In the case of natural law St. Thomas explains in great detail the difference between the community of principles and the conclusions drawn from them, according to whether we are dealing with the speculative or practical realm (Summa Theologica, I, II, q. 94, a. 4, Resp.). Here it is clear that once we leave the realm of principles the status of a communis conceptio is extremely variable, depending upon the degree of removal from the principles and the aptitude of the individual reason to grasp their consequences. No text has ever come to our knowledge in which St. Thomas considers these common conceptions to be the product of some census communis.]

This is the ensemble of “common conceptions” understood in the Thomist sense which Lamennais’ adversaries decided to call “common sense”.

Thus understood, the common sense of the neo-scholastics became, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century, something entirely different from that of Lamennais or Reid. Liberatore was too good a Thomist not to be fully aware of the real nature of the work he had accomplished, and Sanseverino and Zigliara were not inferior to him in that respect. For them, common sense, as understood by their adversaries, remained an opinatio quaedam rejicienda [Matteo Liberatore, Institutiones philosophicae; prima editio novae formae] which had been combined with the doctrine of Reid.

They therefore rejected this badly defined innate faculty, concerning which all that was known was that it promulgated infallibly true judgments, although these judgments were neither immediately self-evident nor founded upon experience nor were conclusions of a process of reasoning. In reality, the apologetics of common sense attempted to restore Reidianism — Reidianum commentum restaurat — that is, it attempted to base the whole edifice of true knowledge upon instinctive and, therefore, irrational judgments.

Nothing, says Liberatore, is more pernicious than such a doctrine, nothing more contrary to reason. For if thought is unable to reject these judgments, although they are neither evident nor demonstrated, it will have to submit to certitudes which are at once in conformity with reason, inasmuch as reason does accept them, yet irrational, since they cannot be justified: all of which is contradictory and impossible. In fact, although invented as a remedy to skepticism, common sense thus conceived is quite at home with it. It has landed us upon the very rock from which it was meant to save us.


The Worthlessness of the Cartesian Proof – Étienne Gilson

August 1, 2012


To the Most Wise and Illustrious the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris.
We have faith that the human soul does not perish with the body, and that God exists, but it certainly does not seem possible to persuade infidels of any religion, or of any moral virtue, unless, to begin with, we prove these two facts by natural reason.

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.


After passing twenty centuries as the very model of those self-evident facts that only a madman would ever dream of doubting, the existence of the external world finally received its metaphysical demonstration from Descartes. Yet no sooner had he demonstrated the existence of the external world than his disciples realized that, not only was his proof worthless, but the very principles which made such a demonstration necessary at the same time rendered the attempted proof impossible.

Descartes had first postulated that all self-evident knowledge arises from thought, and from thought alone. From this it follows that the existence of the external world cannot be considered immediately evident, but Descartes hoped to demonstrate the existence of the external world by applying the principle of causality to our sensations.

Like everything else, sensations must have a cause. Now, we are not conscious of being their cause; rather, we undergo sensations. Nor are we conscious of receiving them directly from God; on the contrary, we feel that we receive them from beings external to our thought. Since we have no clear and distinct idea that would authorize us to regard God as the cause of our sensations and, on the contrary, have a very strong natural inclination to regard them as caused within us by certain other beings, we must affirm that those beings do exist. For God is perfect and therefore unable to deceive us, but he would be deceiving us if he himself were to give us such ideas directly, all the while allowing us to be controlled by our irresistible natural tendency to believe that sensations come from something outside of us. Therefore, it has been proven that the external world exists.

FootNote: See R. Descartes, Discours de la methode, commented upon by E. Gilson (Paris: J. Vrin, 1925), 358-59, concerning moral certitude, which is not, however, an immediate metaphysical proof of the existence of the external world. Concerning the Cartesian demonstration itself, see E. Gilson, Etudes sur le role de la pensee medievale dans la formation du systeme cartesien (Paris: J. Vrin, 1930), 234-35.

It may be worth mentioning here that Descartes himself affirms that his proof of the external world is based upon causality: “It should be noted that this axiom must necessarily be admitted since it alone is the foundation of our knowledge of all things, both sensible as well as those which cannot be grasped by the senses. For how else, for example, do we know that heaven exists?” (Descartes, Secondes reponses, ed. Adam Tannery, 9:128).

In opposition to this interpretation, which an analysis of the proof itself confirms abundantly, some have tried to maintain that Descartes proves the existence of the external world by means of the divine veracity. This is an obvious distortion which will not suffice to place in doubt the nature of what Descartes did and said that he did. Certainly, divine veracity enters into the proof, but only to prove that the external cause of our sensations is not God. Descartes had foreseen Berkeley and in this way sought to exclude his position. Far from eliminating the proof by causality, the fact of God’s veracity actually renders it possible. The divine veracity in effect legitimizes this particular application of the principle of causality, thus permitting him to affirm that the external cause of sensations is indeed the material world of extended bodies.

As for the historical consequences of the Cartesian proof of the existence of the external world, see E. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Scribner’s, 1937) chap. 2, “The Cartesian Experiment”, 125-220.

Thus reduced to its essentials, this demonstration has three main parts.

  1. First, an analysis of sensation which makes it appear, in contrast with images, as a fact independent of the will and imposed upon thought from without.
  2. Second, an appeal to the principle of causality which permits us to posit, beyond thought, a cause of our sensations.
  3. Third, an appeal to the divine veracity to assure us that the true cause of sensations is in fact the existence of created beings distinct from thought, and not God.

By proceeding in this manner, Descartes has afforded us a perfect example of a doctrine in which the existence of the external world is arrived at as the result of a deductive proof, using thought itself as a starting point. This is, as was later said, an “illationism”, a name which may be applied to any doctrine which proves the existence of the external world by applying the principle of causality to a particular content of thought.

FootNote: This is why it is impossible to deny that the doctrine of Cardinal Mercier constitutes, on this very point, an illationism of the Cartesian variety (see E. Gilson, Le Realisme methodique [Paris: Tequi, n.d.], 18-32). The arguments advanced to distinguish his position from Descartes’ are rather curious.

It is said that Cardinal Mercier does not base his proof, as did Descartes, upon divine veracity. Nobody claims that he did. Let us say, first of all, with Descartes himself, that the Cartesian proof is based upon the principle of causality, as is Cardinal Mercier’s. In order to distinguish the two on this point it would be necessary to prove the contrary.

But the most remarkable argument consists of maintaining that Cardinal Mercier merely developed various illationist arguments in passing without incorporating them into his doctrine and, we are assured, without abandoning the immediatism which he had professed from the first. It seems we must choose between making him an immediatist, an illationist or a babbler. I, for one, believe that he was a very coherent illationist. Msgr. L. Noel prefers to maintain, at the same time, the illationism of the Cardinal, which he can hardly deny, and the persistence of his original immediatism, concerning which he adds: “How, then, can we say that his thought is coherent?

Here we are reduced to hypotheses, perhaps not entirely satisfactory, which leave us in a certain amount of confusion which it may be impossible entirely to avoid” (“Les Progres de 1′epistemologie thomiste“, in Revue neoscolastique de philosophie 34 [1932]: 430). In other words, he admits to having contradicted himself in order to have one chance in two of being correct. But we need not become involved in such a discussion, for if it is true, and Msgr. Noel assures us it is, that Cardinal Mercier always admitted “a proof of the external world based upon the principle of causality” (art. cit., 431), then the rest of his thought must be interpreted as a function of this constant.

This may not be as difficult as we have been told it would be. The texts cited by Msgr. L. Noel (Notes d’epistemologie thomiste [Paris and Louvain, 1925], 221-23) are not at all opposed to illationism, for they affirm:

1) the existence of an internal reality, starting point for this illationism;

2) a knowledge of the passivity of our sensations, which will authorize as with Descartes, a search for the cause outside the sensing subject;

3) the fact that the mind, from the outset, represents all that it grasps in nature as existing in itself, which, for Cardinal Mercier, serves to prove that we have a self-evident certitude of the existence of substance.

The texts from Criteriologie cited by Msgr. Noel in “Les progres de 1′epistemologie thomiste” (432, n. 2) present no more problems than the first group of texts. In this group the Cardinal affirms two ideas that he always maintained at the same time and that are not in the least bit contradictory:

1) “We have a direct sensible intuition of external things”; direct, in that we first perceive actual things rather than the fact that we do perceive them;

2) “But it is impossible for us to affirm with certainty the existence of one or many extramental realities without making use of the principle of causality.”

The basic idea throughout seems to be that the act by which we directly, and without any reflexive intermediary, receive perceptions of the real as real nevertheless does not guarantee any certitude as to the extramental existence of this reality. I must therefore insist that Cardinal Mercier held to a perfectly coherent form of illationism and that he was in agreement with Descartes in that they both considered it necessary to prove the existence of the external world. This could be done by starting from the passive character of sensation and then completing the proof with the aid of the principle of causality. This is the extent of my thesis. It cannot be refuted by disproving what I did not include in it.

Whatever one may think of Descartes’ proof, it has this merit: it openly relies upon a deductive process. And it must, since it regards as insufficient our natural feeling that the existence of the beings apprehended in virtue of the union of body and soul is self-evident. Instead, it relies upon a special operation of the understanding to confer an intellectual certitude upon our natural feeling, guaranteeing it by means of the principle of causality.

The flaw in this doctrine is not in the reasoning itself, which is impeccable, but in the fact that Descartes was unable to explain sensation without admitting the substantial union of body and soul. Now, although Descartes himself did not realize it, such a union is incompatible with his demand for their complete and real distinction. [My emphasis – DJ] As a result, although they also started with a thought which is thought alone, Regius, Geraud de Cordemoy, Malebranche and, generally speaking, those called “Cartesians” quickly arrived at the conclusion that sensation does not imply any action of the body upon thought. [On this subject, see the very clear and well-documented study by H. Gouhier, La Vocation de Malebranche (Paris: J. Vrin, 1926), chap. 3, "Le Principe des cartesiens", 80-307.]

From this it follows that no content of sensation can serve the principle of causality as a starting point from which the existence of the external world may be deduced. Indeed, it was precisely because it was necessary for them to prove the existence of bodies that their proof was impossible. But it mattered little to them. If they 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 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. [For a short but more detailed study of this historical problem, see E. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Scribner's, 1937), chap. 6, 376-97]

When Thomas Reid recounted this remarkable story [Thomas Reid, Oeuvres completes, published by T. Jouffroy (Paris, 1828), 3:148-223; "Essay on the Intellectual Faculties of Man", essay 6, chap. 2: "On Common Sense".] he was one of the first to discern its meaning, and it was his intent to escape the magic circle in which philosophers since Descartes had been trapped, mesmerized by the cogito and idealism without ever managing to get out.

It was in large measure his resolute rejection of the Cartesian approach that led Reid to elaborate his doctrine of “common sense”. Reid never pretended that he had discovered common sense, but he tried to give the expression, which itself had become common, a technical philosophical meaning.


The Thomistic Hierarchy Of The Universe — Etienne Gilson

April 8, 2011

This sense of hierarchy shows the profound influence of the PseudoDionysius on the thought of St. Thomas. There is no denying this influence; and it explains why some have wished to rank the author of the Summa Theologiae among the disciples of Plotinus. Only when we strictly limit its range does such a thesis become acceptable. The Areopagite furnishes the framework of the hierarchy. He firmly implants in thought the need for a hierarchy. He makes it impossible not to consider the universe as a hierarchy. But he left for St. Thomas the task of completing it; and even though Dionysius assigns the various grades in the hierarchy, he does not know the law which governs their arrangement and distribution.

But is it true to say that St. Thomas thought of the content of this universal hierarchy in a neo-Platonic spirit? If we except with numerous reservations the case of pure spirits, it is quite apparent that the answer is no. The God of St. Thomas the Christian is the same as St. Augustine’s. That St. Augustine was under neo-Platonic influence does not mean that his God could be confused with the God of Plotinus. Between Plotinian speculation and the theology of the Fathers of the Church there stands Jehovah, the personal God who acts by intelligence and will, and who freely places outside Himself that real universe which His Wisdom chose from an infinity of possible universes.

Between this freely created universe and God the Creator there is an impassable abyss and no other continuity than the continuity of order. Properly speaking, the world is an ordered discontinuity. Must we not see that we are here far removed from neoPlatonic philosophy? To make of St. Thomas a Plotinian, or even a neoPlatonizer, is to confuse him with the adversaries he resisted so energetically.

The distance between the two philosophers is no less noticeable when we move from God to man. We said that St. Thomas’s God was not the God of Plotinus but the Christian God of Augustine. Neither is St. Thomas’s man the man of Plotinus. The opposition is particularly sharp right at the heart of the problem: in the relation between soul and body, and in the doctrine of knowledge which results from this. In Platonism there is the affirming of the extreme independence and almost complete aseity of the soul; this allows for Platonic reminiscence and even for the momentary return to the One through the ecstatic union. But in Thomism there is a most energetic affirming of the physical nature of the soul and vigilant care to close all paths which might lead to a doctrine of direct intuition of the intelligible in order to leave open no other road than that of sense knowledge.

Platonism locates mystical knowledge in the natural prolongation of human knowledge; in Thomism, mystical knowledge is added to and co-ordinated with natural knowledge, but is not a continuation of it. All we know about God is what our reason teaches us about Him after reflecting upon the evidence of the senses. If we want to find a neo-Platonic doctrine of knowledge in the Middle Ages, we will have to look elsewhere than in St. Thomas.

This becomes clearer when we put aside the consideration of this particular problem and examine directly the Thomistic hierarchy of the universe. We have had a great deal to say about God and His creative power, about the angels and their functions, about man and his operations. We have considered, one after the other, all creatures endowed with intellect, and the First Intelligence itself. What we have seen is that the nature and compass of the many kinds of knowledge it has been given to us to acquire have varied very considerably according to the greater or less perfection of the reality which was its object. One who wishes to extract a clear notion of the spirit of Thomistic philosophy must first examine the ladder of being, and then inspect the values which locate each order of knowledge in its proper degree.

What is knowing? It is apprehending what is. There is no other perfect knowledge. Now it is immediately apparent that all knowledge, properly so-called, of the higher degrees in the universal hierarchy is relentlessly refused us. We know that God and pure intelligences exist, but we do not know what they are.

There is no doubting, however, that the awareness of a deficiency in our knowledge of God leaves us with a burning desire for higher and more complete knowledge. Nor can it be doubted that, if knowing consists in grasping the essence of the object known, God, angels and, generally speaking, anything of the purely intelligible order, is by definition beyond the grasp of our intellect. This is why, instead of having an intuition of the Divine Essence, we have but a vast number of concepts which, taken together, are a confused sort of imitation of what would have been a true notion of the Divine Essence. When all that we have been able to say about such a subject is put together, the result is a collection of negations or analogies, nothing more.

Where, then, does human knowledge find itself at home? When is it in the presence of its own object? Only at that point where it comes into contact with the sensible. And although it does not here totally penetrate the real, because the individual as such implies or presupposes matter and is therefore beyond expression, still reason is in control of the field in which it is working. In order to describe man, that is, the human composite, to describe the animal and its operations, the heavenly bodies and their powers, mixed bodies or the elements, rational knowledge remains proportioned to the order or rank of the objects it is exploring.

Although its content is incomplete, it is nevertheless positive. What is original and truly profound in Thomism is not an attempt either to establish science more solidly or to extend it. St. Thomas places the proper object of the human intellect in the sensible order, but he does not consider the study of this order to be the highest function of the knowing faculty. The proper object of the intellect is the quiddity of the sensible, but its proper function is to make the sensible intelligible. [Summa Theologiae II-II, 180, 5, ad 1]

From the particular object on which its light falls it draws something universal. It can do this because this particular object carries the divine image naturally impressed upon it as the mark of its origin. The intellect is, in the proper sense of the term, born and made for the universal. Hence its straining toward that object which is by definition vigorously inaccessible, the Divine Being. Here reason knows very little, but what little it knows surpasses in dignity and value any other kind of certitude. [ Summa Contra Gentiles I, 5, ad Apparet]

All great philosophies, and St. Thomas’ is no exception, present a different front according to the particular needs of the age which turns to them. It is hardly surprising, then, that in a time like ours when so many minds are seeking to re-establish between philosophy and concrete reality bonds which idealism has broken, Thomists of different varieties should be insisting upon the notion of the act-of-being in his philosophy. The fact that they have reached analogous conclusions quite independently of one another makes their convergence still more significant. Restricting ourselves to recent statements, we can find any number of remarks like the following: The proper object of the intelligence is being, “not only essential or quidditative but existential.” Or again: The entire thought of St. Thomas “seeks existence itself, though not, as in the case with practical philosophy, to produce it, but to know it.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being), London, Sheed and Ward, 1943, PP. 2r, 24. The lectures published in this volume date from 1932 to 1933.] Or again: “Thomistic philosophy is an existential philosophy.” Mr. Maritain, the author of these statements, explains them at length in a special section of his A Digression on Existence and Philosophy.

When Maritain speaks in this way about St. Thomas, he is trying to make us understand that all human knowledge, including the metaphysician’s, begins from sense knowledge and ultimately returns to it “not in order to know their essence. It (i.e., metaphysics) does so to know how they exist, for this too metaphysics should know, to attain their mode of existence, and then to conceive by analogy the existence of that which exists immaterially, which is purely spiritual.” Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)

This is a lesson of the greatest importance. The only trouble is that the various statements of it are so compact that they tend to obscure its full significance. To insist on the existential character of Thomism in the above sense is to resist the very natural tendency of the human mind to remain on the level of abstraction. The very art of teaching fosters this tendency. How is anyone to teach without explaining, simplifying, abstracting? We tend to keep both ourselves and others on this level of conceptual abstraction which is so satisfying to the mind. First we disentangle essences from concrete reality; then we hold back the moment when we must again blend these essences into the unity of the concrete. We are afraid that we may fall back into the confusion from which we set out and which it is the very object of analysis to remove.

Some hold back this moment so long that they never allow it to arrive. In this case, philosophy is reduced to making cuts into the real, following the cleavage-plane of essences, as if knowing from what essences the real is composed were the same as knowing existing reality. This reality is only directly apprehended by us in and through sensible knowledge and this is why our judgments only attain their object when, directly or indirectly, they are resolved into it: “In other words the res sensibilis visibilis, the visible object of sense, is the touchstone of every judgment, ex qua deberus de aliis judicare, by which we must judge of everything else, because it is the touchstone of existence.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)]

Lest the metaphysician forget this principle, or rather, lest he be unaware of the point of view which it imposes on him, he should immerse himself in existence, enter ever more deeply into it “by means of as keen a sensitive (or aesthetic) perception as possible, and also by his experience of suffering and of existential conflicts, in order that, away up in the third heaven of the natural intelligence, he may devour the intelligible substance of things.”

After this comes the almost inevitable remark: “Need we add that the professor who is only a professor, who is withdrawn from existence, who has become insensible to this third degree of abstraction, is the direct opposite of the true metaphysician? Thomistic metaphysic is called scholastic, from the name of its most bitter trial. Scholarly pedagogy is its particular enemy. It must ceaselessly combat and subdue the professorial adversary attacking from within.” [Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (Seven Lessons on Being)]

It could hardly be put better. But just let us see what happens when we neglect to push judgments beyond abstract essences to the actually existing concrete. St. Thomas has noted that the properties of the essence are not the same when it is taken abstractly in itself as when taken in the state of concrete actualization in a really existing being. In fact he explains himself so explicitly on this point that we might as well let him speak for himself.

“Whatever be the object considered in the abstract, we can truly say that it contains no foreign element, that is, nothing outside and beyond its essence. It is in this way that we speak of humanity and whiteness and everything else of this kind. The reason for this is that humanity is then designated as that by which something is a man, and whiteness as that by which something is white. Now, formally speaking, a thing is only a man by something pertaining to the formal reason of man. Similarly, a thing is only formally white by what pertains to the formal reason of whiteness. This is why abstractions like these can include nothing foreign to themselves.

It is quite different in the case of something signified concretely. Indeed, man signifies something possessing humanity, and white, something that has whiteness. Now the fact that man has humanity or whiteness does not prevent him from having something else which does not depend on the formal reason of humanity or whiteness. It is enough that it be not opposed to it. This is why man and white can have something more than humanity and whiteness. Moreover, it is for this reason that whiteness and humanity may be called parts of something, but are not predicated of concrete beings themselves, because a part is never predicated of the whole of which it is a part.”
[In Boet. de Hebdomadibus, II, in Opuscula Omnia, ed. P. Mandonnet, I, 173-174]

If we apply these observations to philosophy, we shall see how, in the approach to problems, perspectives vary according to whether we avoid or face them. The philosopher begins with the experience common to everyone. And he ought in the end to return to this same common experience in so far as it is this which he set out to explain. The only way to succeed is to begin with an analysis, pushed as far as possible, of the various elements included in the factual data which go to make up this experience.

Here we have as first task the breaking up of the concrete into its intelligible elements. Whatever we find out has to be separated into its parts and each part isolated from the others. This can only be done by means of a distinct concept for each element. A necessary condition in thus distinguishing any concept is that it contain everything its definition includes, and nothing else.

This is why every abstract essence is distinguished from the others as its concept is from theirs, and is only distinguished from them in that it excludes them. Humanity is that by which a man is a man, and it is that exclusively. So far is humanity from including whiteness, that there are men who are not white. Inversely, whiteness is that by which what is white is white. This does not include humanity. There can be an incredible number of white beings none of them men. Thus our inquiry into the real leads us to break down the confusion of the concrete into an enormous number of intelligible essences each quite distinct insofar as it cannot be reduced to the others.


The Constants In St. Thomas’ Philosophical Outlook — Etienne Gilson

April 7, 2011

From an online bio:  “Étienne Henri Gilson was born into a Roman Catholic family in Paris on 13 June 1884. He was educated at a number of Roman Catholic schools in Paris before attending lycée Henri IV in 1902, where he studied philosophy. Two years later he enrolled at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1907 after having studied under many fine scholars, including Lucien Lévy Bruhl, Henri Bergson and Emile Durkheim.

Gilson taught in a number of high schools after his graduation and worked on a doctoral thesis on Descartes, which he successfully completed (Sorbonne) in 1913. On the strength of advice from his teacher, Lévy Bruhl, he began to study medieval philosophy in great depth, coming to see Descartes as having strong connections with medieval philosophy, although often finding more merit in the medieval works he saw as connected than in Descartes himself. He was later to be highly esteemed for his work in medieval philosophy and has been described as something of a saviour to the field.

Gilson’s Gifford Lectures, delivered at Aberdeen in 1931 and 1932, titled ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, were published in his native language (L’espirit de la philosophie medieval, 1932) before being translated into English in 1936. Gilson believed that a defining feature of medieval philosophy was that it operated within a framework endorsing a conviction to the existence of God, with a complete acceptance that Christian revelation enabled the refinement of meticulous reason. In this regard he described medieval philosophy as particularly ‘Christian’ philosophy. In 1951 he relinquished his chair at the College de France in order to attend to responsibilities he had at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada, an institute he had been invited to establish in 1929. Gilson died 19 September 1978 at the age of ninety-four.” The following are reading selections from a chapter devoted to a summary of Thomism.


One has no doubt perceived the unified character of a doctrine which provides an explanation of the universe and of man from the point of view of human reason. This character is due to the fact that the texture of Thomism is made from a very small number of principles which are finely interwoven. Perhaps, when all is said and done, all these principles are various aspects of one central notion, the notion of being. Human thought is only satisfied when it grasps an existence; but our intellection of a being never limits itself to the sterile apprehension of a given reality.

The apprehended being invites our intellect to explore it; it invites intellectual activity by the very multiplicity of aspects which it reveals. Inasmuch as a being is not distinguished from itself, it is one. In this sense we can say that being and oneness are the same. No essence divides itself without losing at the same time its being and its unity. But since a being is by definition inseparable from itself, it lays the basis of the truth which can be affirmed about it. To say what is true is to say what is, and is to attribute to each thing the very being which it is. Thus it is the being of a thing which founds its truth; and it is the truth of a thing which underlies the truth of thought.

We think the truth of a thing when we attribute to it the being that it has. It is thus that accord is established between our thought and its object; and it is this accord which provides the basis for what is true in our knowledge just as the intimate accord which subsists between its object and the eternal thought which God has of it establishes the truth of the thing outside our thought. The line of the relationships of truth is therefore only one aspect of the line of the relationships of being.

We find exactly the same thing in the case of the good. Every being insofar as it is knowable is the basis of truth. But insofar as it is defined by a certain quantity of perfection and consequently insofar as it is, it is desirable and presents itself to us as a good; and hence the movement to take possession of it which arises in us when we find ourselves in its presence. Thus the same being without the addition of anything from outside, displays before us its unity, its truth and its goodness. Whatever the relationship of identity which our thought can affirm in any one of the moments of the doctrinal synthesis, whatever the truth we set forth or good we desire, our thought always refers to being in order to establish its accord with itself, in order to assimilate its nature by way of knowledge or to enjoy its perfection through the will.

But Thomism is not a system if by this is meant a global explanation of the world deduced or constructed, in an idealistic manner, from a priori principles. The content of the notion of being is not such that it can be defined once and for all and set forth in an a priori way. There are many ways of being, and these ways must be ascertained. The one most immediately given to us is our own and that of corporeal things among which we pass our life.

Each one of us “is,” but in an incomplete and deficient manner. In the field of experience directly accessible to us we only meet substantial composites analogous to ourselves, forms engaged in matters by so indissoluble a bond that their very “engagement” defines these beings and that God’s creative action, when it puts them into existence, directly produces the compounds of matter and form that constitute their beings.

However imperfect such a being may be, it does possess perfection to the extent that it possesses being. We already find in it transcendental relations of unity, truth, goodness and beauty which are inseparable from it and which we have defined. But we note at the same time that, for some deep reason which we have still to determine, these relations are not fixed, closed, definite. Everything takes place — and experience verifies this — as though we had to struggle in order to establish these relationships instead of enjoying them peacefully. We are, and we are identical with ourselves, but not completely so. A sort of margin keeps us a little short of our quiddity. [vocab: In scholastic philosophy, quiddity was another term for the essence of an object, literally its "whatness," or "what it is."] We do not fully realize human essence nor even the complete notion of our individuality.

Hence, it is not simply a matter of being, but of a permanent effort to maintain ourselves in being, to conserve ourselves, realize ourselves. It is just the same with all the other sensible beings which we find around us. There are always forces at work. The world is perpetually agitated by movements. It is in a continual state of becoming, like man himself ceaselessly passing from one state to another.

This universal becoming is normally expressed in terms of the distinction of potency and act, which extends to all given beings within our experience. These notions add nothing to the notion of being. Act always is being; potency always is possible being. Just as Aristotle had stated the universal extension of this principle without attempting to define it, St. Thomas readily uses it without explanation. It is a sort of postulate, a formula stating as a fact the definite modes of being given to us in experience. Any essence which does not completely realize its definition is act in the measure in which it does realize it, potency in the measure in which it does not, and privation in the measure in which it does not realize it. Insofar as it is in act, it is the active principle which will release the motion of realization.

It is from the actuality of form that all endeavors of this kind proceed; it is the source of motion, the reason of becoming; it is cause. Once more, it is the being in things which is the ultimate reason of all the natural processes we have been stating. It is being as such which communicates its form as efficient cause, which produces change as motive cause, and assigns to it a reason for being produced as final cause. We are dealing, then, with beings which are ceaselessly moved by a fundamental need to save and complete themselves.

Now we cannot reflect upon an experience like this without becoming aware that it does not contain the explanation of the facts it places before us. This world of becoming which grows active in order to find itself, these heavenly spheres continually seeking themselves in the successive points of their orbits, these human souls which capture and assimilate being by their intellect, these substantial forms forever searching out new matters in which to realize themselves, do not contain in themselves the explanation of what they are. If such beings were self-explaining, they would be lacking nothing. Or, inversely, they would have to be lacking nothing before they could be self-explaining. But then they would no longer move in search of themselves. They would repose in the integrity of their own essence realized at last. They would cease to be becoming and enjoy the fullness of being.

It is, therefore, outside the world of potency and act, above becoming, and in a being which is what it is totally, that we must look for the cause of the universe. But this being which thought can reach is obviously of a different nature than the being we have been talking about, for if it were not different from the being which experience gives, there would be no point in positing it. Thus the world of becoming postulates a principle removed from becoming and placed entirely outside it.

But then a new problem arises. If the being we postulate from experience is radically different from the one given to us in experience, how can we know it through this experience and how shall we even explain it in terms of this experience? Nothing can be deduced or inferred about a being from some other being which does not exist in the same sense as the first one does. Our thought would be quite inadequate to proceed to such a conclusion unless the reality in which we moved formed, by its hierarchical and analogical structure, a sort of ladder leading toward God.

It is precisely because every operation is the realization of an essence, and because every essence is a certain quantity of being and perfection, that the universe reveals itself to us as a society made up of superiors and inferiors. The very definition of each essence ranks it immediately in its proper place in this hierarchy. To explain the operation of an individual thing, not only must we have the notion of this individual, but we must also have the definition of the essence which it embodies in a deficient manner. And the species itself is not enough because the individuals which go to make up the species are ceaselessly striving to realize themselves. Thus it becomes necessary either to renounce trying to account for this operation or else to seek for its explanation at a higher level, in a superior grade of perfection.

From here on, the universe appears essentially a hierarchy and the philosophical problem is to indicate its exact arrangement and to place each class of beings in its proper grade. To do this, one principle of universal value must always be kept in mind: that the greater or less can only be appraised and classified in relation to the maximum, the relative in relation to the absolute. Between God who is Being, pure and simple, and complete nothingness, there come near God pure intelligences known as angels and near nothingness material forms. Between angels and material nature come human creatures on the borderline between spirits and bodies. Thus the angels reduce the infinite gap separating man from God and man fills in the gap between angels and matter.

Each of these degrees has its own mode of operation since each being operates according as it is in act and as its degree of actuality merges with its degree of perfection. The orderly and arranged hierarchy of beings is thus made complete by the orderly and arranged hierarchy of their operations, and in such a way that the bottom of the higher degree invariably comes into close contact with the top of the lower. Thus the principle of continuity gives precision and determination to the principle of perfection. Actually, both of these principles but express the higher law governing the communication of being. There is no being save the divine being in which all creatures participate; and creatures only differ from one another by reason of their greater or lesser degree of participation in the divine being.‘ Their perfection must, accordingly, be measured by the distance separating them from God. It is in thus differentiating themselves from one another that they arrange themselves into a hierarchy.

If this is true, it is analogy alone which enables our intelligence to arrive at a transcendent God from sensible things. It is analogy, too, which alone permits us to say that the universe has its existence from a transcendental principle and yet is neither confused with it nor added to it. The similarity of the analogue has, of course, to be explained, and it can only be explained by means of what the analogue imitates: “For (being) is not said of many equivocally, but analogically, and thus must be reduced to unity.” 2

But at the same time that it possesses enough of its model’s being to require it as its cause, it possesses it in such a manner that the being of this cause does not become involved in that of the thing caused. And because the word “being” signifies two different modes of existence when applied to God and to creatures, no problem of addition or subtraction can arise. The being of creatures is only an image, an imitation of the divine being. Even as reflections appear about a flame, increasing, decreasing and disappearing, without the substance of the flame being affected, so the likenesses freely created by the divine substance owe all their being to this substance. They subsist only through it, yet borrow nothing from its per se mode of being, a mode very different from their own. They neither add to it nor subtract from it even in the least degree.

These two principles, analogy and hierarchy, enable us to explain the creature through a transcendent Creator. They also permit us to maintain relations between them and to extend bonds between them which become the constitutive principles of created essences and the laws which serve to explain them. Whatever physics or natural philosophy ultimately shows to be the nature of things, it has necessarily to remain subordinate to a metaphysics of being. If creatures are similitudes in what concerns their basic origin, then it is to be expected that analogy will serve to explain the universe just as it explains creation. To account for the operation of a being, we shall always have to show that its operation is based, beyond its essence in its act-of-being. And to give account of this essence will always be to show that a definite degree of participation in being, corresponding exactly to what this essence is, ought to have a place in our universe.

But why was such a determined similitude required by a universe like ours? It is because the similitudes of any model can only be essentially different if they are more or less perfect. A finite system of images of an infinite being must have all the real degrees of likeness which can appear within the bounds assigned to the system by the free will of the Creator. The metaphysical explanation of a physical phenomenon must always be concerned with putting an essence in its place in a hierarchy.


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