BY JONATHAN DOLHENTY, Ph.D.
Our understanding of common sense can be approached in two ways. First, there is the wide, popular meaning of common sense. Here common sense is the conglomeration of generally helpful opinions and beliefs, more or less well founded, more or less mixed up with error and prejudice, which make up the voice of the community.
Then there is the narrow, technical meaning of common sense. In this case common sense is a spontaneous activity of our intellect, the way in which it operates of its own native vigor before it has been given any special training.
Philosophy and common sense, especially in the narrow, technical sense of that term, have an intimate relationship with one another. Common sense holds many opinions about Reality, but it holds these opinions in a vague and confused way. These opinions have not been subjected to rigorous and critical examination. Common sense tends to accept opinions without realizing the many implications they contain and interrelationships they have. Often, then, common sense is unable to defend its opinions against attack, even when those opinions are true and conform to a philosophical realism.
Common sense can easily be led astray. False philosophies crop up all over the intellectual landscape. These false philosophies promote doctrines which many times are counter to what our common sense tells us. This is where Realistic Philosophy comes into play. It precisely formulates its principles and judgments, analyzes their component concepts, and examines them in the light of the evidence. This Realism is basically Common Sense, critically examined and expanded. If a commonsense opinion is false, Realistic Philosophy will determine that and explain how to correct the opinion. If a commonsense opinion is true, Realistic Philosophy will be able to defend it against attack.
There are certain truths we know as a matter of common sense because we have, as human beings, the native capability to know the most elemental aspects of Reality. For example, we know:
1. The existence of things, including myself;
2. The first principles of being:
- a. Principle of Identity,
- b. Principle of Noncontradiction,
- c. Principle of Excluded Middle;
3. The secondary principles which flow from the first principles:
- a. The Principle of Sufficient Reason,
- b. The Principle of Causality.
Both philosophy and common sense use these principles. They simply differ in the way they use them. Common Sense uses them unconsciously, unreflectively, and uncritically. They can be obscured or deformed by factors such as faulty education, cultural prejudices, and deceptive images of our sense organs. Realistic Philosophy, on the other hand, uses them critically, consciously, and scientifically. It can get at things demonstratively, through their causes. It can defend and communicate its knowledge.
Realistic Philosophy is essentially common sense perfected by scientific reasoning. It is common sense reflecting critically upon itself. Realistic Philosophy, then, is common sense, critically examined and expanded. Realistic Philosophy and common sense take all of reality for their province. Realistic Philosophy seeks the comprehensive, all-inclusive view of reality; the knowledge of all things.
We can now define Realistic Philosophy as the knowledge of all things in their first principles or causes as seen by the natural light of reason. Furthermore, Realistic Philosophy has the supreme task of determining man’s position in relation to all other things.
False Philosophical Doctrines
Philosophical Realism is intellectually opposed to the twin pillars of modern thought: Cognitive Subjectivism and Moral Relativism. Furthermore, this Realism is opposed to both metaphysical Materialism and metaphysical Idealism and all those pseudo-philosophies which are derivatives of them.
Subjectivism is the doctrine that there is no such thing as absolute truth. What is true, according to subjectivists, is whatever we as individuals or we as a society decide. Subjectivism takes many forms and can range from outright universal skepticism (nothing exists at all) to qualified skepticism (something may exist but we can’t know about it) to pragmatism (truth is whatever “works”) to pure subjective individualism (there is my truth, your truth, and so on, but no objective truth).
Moral Relativism is the doctrine that there is no such thing as an absolute moral principle. Whatever is right or wrong, according to relativists, is whatever we as individuals or we as a society decide. Moral Relativism is the logical consequence of Cognitive Subjectivism. If there is no objective truth, then there is no possibility of any moral truth. The practical consequence of this doctrine is the principle that “might makes right.” The social consequence of this doctrine is that no human behavior, no matter how heinous, may be morally criticized on philosophical grounds.
Metaphysical Materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter in some form or other and all matter operates according to mechanical laws. Metaphysical Idealism is the doctrine that nothing exists except Idea, or Thought, or Mind, or Mental Activity, or Spirit. Both Materialism and Idealism have given birth to other pseudo-philosophies such as existentialism, positivism, and naturalism.
Subjectivism and Relativism are the twin pillars which give support to the four most influential trends in contemporary human thought: Scientism, Politicism, Determinism, and Collectivism.
Scientism is the doctrine which states that empirical science is the only source of knowledge and what can’t be measured doesn’t exist. Scientism is metaphysical materialism in its purest form.
Politicism is the doctrine which states that all personal, social, and moral problems are political in nature and the solutions to these problems must be politically determined.
Determinism is the doctrine which states that human beings have no free will and are simply subject to the mechanical laws of nature. The determinist, of course, has a serious problem dealing with personal accountability and should, to be logically consistent, be opposed to any criminal justice system.
Collectivism is the doctrine that every individual human being exists solely for social ends and purposes and the greatest good for the individual is to serve the political economy.
Doctrines of Philosophical Realism
Although realistic philosophers may disagree with one another on some specific practical issue or the application of realistic principles to some particular problem, all realistic philosophers agree on certain basic doctrines.
Philosophical Realists assert that there is a world of real existence, a world made up of substantial beings related to one another. Furthermore, this world exists independently of any human opinions or desires, and this world was not made or constructed by man.
The substances and relations that are part of this world of real existence can be known by the human mind and as they are in themselves. Physical objects in the world are presented directly to the knowing powers of man. If this were not so, we could have no knowledge.
Logical truth is the correspondence between mind and thing and it is possible to reach certitude about many things. The criterion of logical truth is objective evidence in whatever form it is presented to the knowing mind.
Human knowledge, which must be based on objective evidence of some type or other, can offer sound and stable guidance for individual and social action. It is, in fact, the only reliable guide to human conduct.
Philosophical Realism is in perfect accord with what our common sense, critically examined and expanded, tells us. Every realistic theory in whatever field must be checked by the original data of experience as they are apprehended either by our sense organs or by the human mind. Philosophical Realism, in this sense, is radically empirical.
We will now take a brief look at some of the major doctrines of Realistic Philosophy within their respective fields of study.
Realistic Epistemology: The Problem of Knowledge
Epistemology is the philosophic science which studies human knowledge and how, by means of concepts and other mental representations, we know objects outside our minds.
Knowledge is the discovery of Reality. It is not a creation of our mind. The discovery of Reality is initially made by our external sense organs and then more perfectly by our intellect.
The senses give us a material perception of the external world. The intellect understands the essential and universal nature of the objects which come into contact with the senses.
Essential and universal knowledge is made possible by the formation of concepts. The concept is an intellectual representation of the object which has been presented by our senses. Sensitive knowledge stops at the object as given by experience.
Our intellect arrives at the formation of a concept through the process of intellectual abstraction. Our intellect detaches itself from any consideration of the accidental circumstances of the sense image or percept as given by our sense organs. Our intellect forms a representation of those essential features that a thing must have in order to be that thing.
This is entirely consistent with our structure as a human being as we exist in reality. Our body is so constructed that it perceives the singular, individual data of experience by the organic senses. Then our intellect, which is an immaterial being, reaches the immaterial element of the object perceived by our senses, that is, the intelligibility of the object in its essential and absolute aspect.
Furthermore, by drawing the concept from experience, the Realistic theory explains and justifies the coincidence of the order of ideas with the order of Reality. It is in this conformity that the true value of human knowledge is founded.
The Realistic theory also makes possible both philosophical and scientific knowledge. Our intellect, once it reaches the concept, that by which it knows objects, makes use of them through its power of comparing, judging, and inferring. Thus, our intellect builds a systematic knowledge of Reality.
Realistic Ontology: The Problem of Being
Of one thing for sure our immediate experience assures us. It is an undeniable fact that finite being exists in a state of continuous becoming. Everything, including ourselves, is constantly subjected to superficial or profound changes.
This is where every philosophical investigation must start. We must offer a rational explanation that coincides with the evidence presented to us. And this is possible only if we suppose that finite being is composed of two distinct elements: (1) one which determines being in so far as it is such a being, called ACT, and (2) one which places in being a real necessity for what it is not actually but might be, called POTENCY. This is the Realist’s theory of act and potency.
Becoming would be impossible unless an actual agent intervened and made the possibility become a reality. This agent could not produce such an effect unless it were determined to do so by its nature or by its will. This determination is called the end.
Becoming, therefore, finds its rational explanation in four causes: the formal (act), the material (potency), the efficient (agent), and the final (end). These four causes are the very basis of a Realistic metaphysics and this theory is one of the crowning achievements of philosophical Realism.
Realistic Cosmology: The Problem of Matter
The complex of finite beings in which matter is present is called the physical universe and is the object of cosmology as a philosophical science.
The metaphysical structure of material being is explained according to the principles of ontology, by the theory of act and potency. In cosmology, we give new names to act and potency and we refer to them as substantial form (act) and prime matter (potency). Prime matter, which is a metaphysical existent, should not be confused with secondary matter, which is matter as it exists as a physical being.
Prime matter is an element undetermined in itself but capable of determination by the substantial form, which is the element determining matter. It is the form which makes matter what it actually is.
Prime matter and substantial form are imperfect being. They do not exist separately from one another. The existing being is a composite of both matter and form, and this is called substance.
In the composite substance, prime matter represents the passive element (potency), the substratum of all change. The substantial form represents the specific perfection of the substance; it is the substantial form which endows the substance with the particular activity it happens to have (its nature).
There are also other forms perfecting any substance in its existence and its activity. These forms, such as shape, color, weight, and so forth, are called secondary or accidental because they presuppose a being already established by prime matter and substantial form.
Time and space do not exist independently; they are correlated to existing being. They take their root in existing being and are not simply concepts of the knowing faculty (a priori forms).
Realistic Psychology: The Problem of Man’s Nature
Realistic metaphysics tells us that man is a composite of prime matter and substantial form. We consider these elements in psychology with new labels: body and psyche.
The psyche is the principle of life and the unique source of operations. The human psyche consists of organic operations, such as nutrition and sensation, and also has the power of understanding, an operation which is essentially inorganic.
Knowledge is constituted of two different operations: the sensitive and the intellective. The sensitive is a function of the psyche, but it requires an intimate cooperation of the physical organs. The intellective is the work of the psyche alone. This faculty of understanding is called the intellect, and the intellect is inorganic.
Realistic psychology maintains that man is endowed with free will, which takes its roots in free judgment. The will is also an inorganic power.
Since the human psyche is capable of inorganic operations in spite of its intimate relationship with the material body, the psyche is inorganic as regards its being.
The psyche is a nonmaterial substance and cannot be corrupted by the deterioration of the body. Since the psyche has a nonmaterial nature, we can logically conclude that the human psyche is immortal. It is capable of surviving the death of the material body.
Realistic Theodicy: The Problem of God or Universal Mind
The rational proof of the existence of God is a particular application of the ontological principles previously defined.
Finite being, whether considered as a limited series or an unlimited series, is essentially incapable of being the cause of its own becoming. Becoming finds its rational explanation only in the Immutable. Similarly, motion is explainable only by the Immovable, and the contingent only by the Absolute.
The Immutable, the Immovable, the Absolute, is what is meant by God or Universal Mind.
This metaphysical argument makes it possible for us to acquire some knowledge, although limited, of the nature of God or Universal Mind. From it we conclude that God is Pure Act, totally devoid of any potency. Also, by mentally elevating to the absolute the perfections we find in created beings, we can obtain such concepts as the good, the one, the true, and the beautiful. These give us, in an analogical sense, some understanding of the Being of God or Universal Mind.
Realistic Ethics: The Problem of Man’s Individual Behavior
We tend naturally to our own perfection, which is nothing other than our own happiness. We say that the our end is our own perfection. And since perfection is our end, it must pre-exist in the mind as an idea in order to be actuated. This idea of human perfection is realized by actions that are in conformity with the moral law.
Metaphysics teaches that every being has certain inborn inclinations, which it carries out by force of the principles of its nature. We tend to our own perfection, and such a tendency must be actuated along the lines of the specific nature of what we are. We are human beings; that is our nature. We are a rational being endowed with intellect and free will.
Our reason allows us to understand that we are finite beings, that every finite being is dependent, and that every dependent being receives what it possesses. Our intellect can discover the laws of humanity as implanted in our nature as human beings. These laws of man, in so far as he is man, are called the natural law.
The natural law does not compose itself mechanically. Such an idea is alien to our very nature as human beings, as a free creature. We must, therefore, follow the dictates of the natural law freely because our intellect shows us that such is the way to reach human perfection and happiness.
The command of the natural law is an imperative, expressed this way: Be what a rational being endowed with free will must be.
Anyone acting according to the rules of reason can reach a relative happiness in the present life.
Realistic Politics: The Problem of Man’s Social Behavior
We are social beings. The tendency to perfection brings us into contact with others. We establish families, the first society in the order of time, to ensure the continuation of the human race and provide us with personal and cultural advantages.
But the family alone is not sufficient for all our activities. We need a larger society, the civil society, which is rooted in our natural tendency toward perfection and not in any social contract as some would have it.
The concept of authority is drawn from the very notion of society and from our nature as social beings. No determined form of society is established by nature, and different forms can be constructed according to the needs of the people or of the times.
Authority, which represents the whole of society, has the positive duty of procuring all that is best for the citizens. From this arises the concept of right, which determines what each man can do in the order of the common good. From the concept of right flows the concept of sanction, which is directed toward repairing injuries.
The end of society is the common good of its members. A juridical regulation will be just if it corresponds to this good; otherwise, it will be unjust.
The Perennial Philosophy
This realistic philosophy described above can truly be called the perennial philosophy. Its roots are firmly planted in the classic realistic tradition which has come down to us through many thousands of years. And yet, because this philosophy considers all new knowledge, no matter what the source, it stays fresh, contemporary, and up-to-date.
The answer to today’s intellectual insanity is Realistic Philosophy. Cognitive Subjectivism and Moral Relativism, Metaphysical Materialism and Metaphysical Idealism, and all the pseudo-philosophies derived from them, have led our culture and society down a false and dangerous path. The results of their insidious influence are all around us.
It’s time to repudiate these false philosophies and take up the banner of Philosophical Realism. It alone can bring about the new intellectual renaissance which is so needed today.
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.