The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure On Creation

Then appeared the peripatetics, whose master and leader was Aristotle, and whom St. Bonaventure treats with some moderation during the calm period of the Commentary on the Sentences. At this time he is well aware that Aristotle taught the eternity of the world; now, as we shall see more fully later on, he considers that the doctrine of the eternity of the world is extremely hard to reconcile with that of creation; he does not believe then that Aristotle considered matter and form created by God out of nothing, even from all eternity: utrum autem posuerit materiam et formam factam de nihilo, hoc nescio; credo tamen quod non pervenit ad hoc.

Relying upon charitably interpreted texts, St. Bonaventure supposes that Aristotle considered the world as made by God from eternal elements. The philosopher’s error was therefore double, since it rested on the eternity of the elements and on ignorance of creation ex nihilo, but it had at least an advantage over Plato in not supposing that matter could ever have existed without its form. The error of Plato, which assumed God, matter and the idea in separation, seemed to him then more objectionable (multo vilior) than that of Aristotelianism which assumed God and a matter eternally perfected by its form: ideo et ipse etiam defecit licet minus quam alii. Later St. Bonaventure expresses harsher opinions about Aristotle, but yet he will never expressly deny that his God without ideas and without providence made the world eternally, of eternally existent matter and form.

So it clearly appears that those who of all philosophers came nearest to the truth yet failed to reach it. Now it is just there, at the precise point at which the skill of philosophers breaks down, that revelation comes to our aid, teaching us that all has been created and that things have been brought into being in the totality of what they are: ubi autem deficit philosophorum peritia, subvenit nobis sacrosancta Scriptura, quae dicit omnia esse creata, et secundum omne quod sunt in esse producta. Thus it is that the reason when better informed perceives and confirms with decisive arguments the truth that Scripture affirms.

For it is certain that the more a productive cause is primary and perfect in the order of being, the more profoundly its action penetrates its effects. In the case where the cause considered is the absolutely primary and perfect being, the action that it exercises must extend its efficacy to the total substance of each of its effects.

In other words, if God produces a thing, He can only produce it integrally, and His action necessarily engenders its constitutive principles, matter and form, at the same time as the compositum. Similarly, the less aid it requires for its action, the more noble and the more perfect is the agent. If then we consider the most perfect agent possible, his action must be completely sufficient in itself and must be exercised without recourse to any external aid. Now the case of God is exactly this; He is then capable, in Himself, of producing things without the help of pre-existing principles. On the other hand, God is perfectly simple; His essence is not divisible into particular beings; He does not extract things from Himself by dissecting His own substance; so He necessarily extracts them from nothing. In the same way, lastly, if God is truly perfect and absolute simplicity, He cannot act in a part of Himself; in each of His actions, it is His whole being that is concerned and comes into play; now the nature of the effect is necessarily proportioned to that of the cause; so just as the action of a being composed of matter and form can engender a form in a matter which is already present, so an absolutely simple being such as God can produce the integral being of a thing. Acting in all His being, His effect can only be being; the natural result then of the divine action is the bringing into existence of that which nothing preceded, except God and the void.

A second problem, and one inseparable from the foregoing, is the question when this integral production of beings can have taken place. The human reason, incapable of discovering with its own resources the true nature of the creative act, is similarly incapable of determining accurately the moment of creation. Either we know that creation consists in producing the very being of things, without employing any pre-existing matter, and so it is obvious that the world was created in time; or, on the contrary, we believe that the creator used in His work principles which were anterior to the world itself, and thus the created universe seems logically eternal. The kernel of St. Bonaventure’s argument on this point was always that there is a contradiction in terms in supposing that what is created out of nothing is not created in time. The idea of a universe created by God out of nothing and from all eternity, an idea which St. Thomas Aquinas considered logically possible, seemed to St. Bonaventure so glaring a contradiction that he could not imagine a philosopher so incompetent as to overlook it.

His thought, which he does not develop at length, although he states it with the greatest energy, seems here to follow St. Anselm very closely and to proceed from a vigorously literal interpretation of the formula ex nihilo. The particle ex, in fact, seems to him capable of only two interpretations. Either it designates a matter existing before the divine action, or it simply marks the starting point of this action, implies and establishes a relation of order, fixes an initial term anterior to the appearance of the world itself.

Now the word ex cannot signify a matter, for it here determines the word “nothing,” the very significance of which is absence of being, which could not therefore designate a material in which things could be shaped. It can only signify the starting point of the divine action and establish the initial term of a relation of anteriority and posteriority. It follows that to say that the world was created ex nihilo is either to say nothing or to say that the non-existence of the universe preceded the existence of the universe; that before there was nothing of the world and that only afterwards the world appeared; to suppose, in a word, the beginning of things in time and to deny their eternity.

Although this seems to have been the central and decisive argument in St. Bonaventure’s eyes, since it makes the eternity of a world created out of nothing seem contradictory, it is presented to us from the time of the Commentary on the Sentences flanked by other arguments of no less historical importance, based on the impossibility of the created infinite. It is easy to prove on this point how inaccurate it is to explain St. Bonaventure’s thought by his ignorance of the Aristotelianism of Albert and St. Thomas. For it is with the help of Aristotelian arguments and in opposition to Aristotle himself that he shows the impossibility of a world created from all eternity; better still he expressly refutes the thesis which St. Thomas was to believe supportable; St. Bonaventure therefore is fully aware of the position that he takes up, and he dismisses the teaching of which he is alleged to be ignorant on the ground of maturely considered principles.

In the first place, the eternity of the world contradicts the principle that it is impossible to add to the infinite; for if the world had no beginning, it has already experienced an infinite duration; now every new day which passes adds a unit to the infinite number of days already gone; the eternity of the world supposes therefore an infinite capable of being augmented. If it is objected that this infinite is so only, as it were, at one end, and that the number of days gone, infinite in the past, is finite in the present, nothing substantial is asserted. For it is evident that, if the world is eternal, it has already passed through an infinite number of solar revolutions and also that there are always twelve lunar revolutions to one solar; so that the moon would have accomplished a number of revolutions in excess of the infinite. So, even considering this infinite bounded by the present, and considering it infinite only where it really is so, in the past, we end by supposing a number larger than the infinite, which is absurd.

In the second place, the eternity of the world contradicts the principle that it is impossible to order an infinity of terms. All order, in fact, starts from a beginning, passes through a middle point and reaches an end. If then there is no first term there is no order; now if the duration of the world and therefore the revolutions of the stars had no beginning, their series would have had no first term and they would possess no order, which amounts to saying that in reality they do not in fact form a series and they do not precede or follow one another. But this the order of the days and seasons plainly proves to be false. This argument may seem sophistical from the Aristotelian and Thornist point of view.

If Aristotle declares that it is impossible to order an infinite series of terms, he refers to terms essentially ordered; in other words, he denies that a series of essences can be infinite if it is hierarchically ordered, if its existence or causality is conditioned from top to bottom, but he does not deny that a series of causes or of beings of the same degree can be infinite. For example, there is no progression to the infinite in the ascending series of the causes of local movement in terrestrial bodies, for superior movers are required, requiring in their turn an immobile first mover to account for them, but we can suppose without contradiction that this hierarchical system of moving causes exists and operates from all eternity, the displacement of each body being explained by a finite number of superior causes, but being preceded by an infinite number of causes of the same order. St. Bonaventure is not ignorant of this distinction and, if he does not accept it, it is not because he cannot grasp it, it is because it implies a state of the universe which is incompatible with his profoundest metaphysical tendencies. In St. Bonaventure’s Christian universe there is, in reality, no place for Aristotelian accident; his thought shrinks from supposing a series of causes accidentally ordered, that is to say, without order, without law and with its terms following one another at random.

Divine Providence must penetrate the universe down to its smallest details; it does not then account only for causal series, but also for those of succession. The root of the matter is that St. Bonaventure’s Christian universe differs from the pagan universe of Aristotle in that it has a history; every celestial revolution, instead of following indifferently an infinity of identical revolutions, coincides with the appearance of unique events, each of which has its place fixed in the grand drama which unfolds itself between the Creation of the world and the Last Judgment. Every day, every hour even, forms part of a series which is ruled by a certain order and of which Divine Providence knows the whole reason; si dicas quod statum ordinis non necesse est ponere nisi in his quae ordinantur secundum ordinem causalitatis, quia in causis necessaria est status, quaero quare non in aliis? St. Bonaventure refuses to admit not only causes but also events accidentally ordered.

The third property of the infinite which is irreconcilable with the eternity of the world is that the infinite cannot be bridged; now if the universe had no beginning, an infinite number of celestial revolutions must have taken place, and therefore the present day could not have been reached. If it is objected, with St. Thomas Aquinas, [Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, I . 46, 2 , per tot., where St. Bonaventure’s arguments are discussed point by point: ad 1 and 2 against his interpretation of ex nihilo; ad 6 against the argument “infinita impossible est pertransiri“; ad 7 against the impossibility of an infinite series of accidentally ordered causes; ad 8 against the actually realized infinity of immortal souls]—that to bridge a distance it must be traversed from one extremity to the other, and that, in consequence, one must start from an initial point which in this case is lacking, we shall answer: starting from the present day, we must necessarily be able to fix a day infinitely anterior to it, or else we cannot fix any one; if no anterior day precedes the present day by an infinite duration, then all the anterior days precede it by a finite duration and therefore the duration of the world had a beginning; if, on the contrary, we can fix an anterior day infinitely removed from the present day, we ask whether the day immediately posterior to that one is infinitely removed from the present day or whether it is not. If it is not infinitely removed from it, neither is the preceding one, for the duration which separates them is finite. So if it is infinitely removed from it, we ask the same question about the third day, the fourth, and so on ad infinitum; the present day will not then be further removed from the first than from any of the others, which amounts to saying that one of these days will not precede another, and that they will consequently be all occurring at the same time.

A fourth proposition incompatible with the eternity of the world is that the infinite cannot be understood by a finite faculty. Now to say that the world had no beginning is to say that the finite can understand the infinite. It is generally admitted that God is infinitely powerful and that all else is finite; it will be admitted further, with Aristotle, that every celestial movement implies a finite Intelligence to produce it or, at least, to know it; no doubt it will be allowed, lastly, that a pure Intelligence can forget nothing. If then we suppose that this Intelligence has already determined or simply known an infinity of celestial revolutions, since it has forgotten none of them, it necessarily possesses today the actual knowledge of an infinity of memories. And if it is objected that it can know in a single idea this infinity of celestial revolutions which are all similar to one another, we reply that it does not know these revolutions only, but their effects also, which are diverse and infinite, so that actual knowledge of the infinite must necessarily be attributed to a finite Intelligence.

The fifth and last impossibility which St. Bonaventure brings forward against the eternity of the world is the coexistence of an infinite number of given beings at one and the same time. The world has been made for man, for there is nothing in the universe which is not in some way related to him; it cannot have ever existed therefore without men since it would have had no reason for existing; now man lives only in finite time; if then the world exists from all eternity, there must have existed an infinite number of men. But there are as many rational souls as there are men; therefore there has been an infinity of souls. Now these souls are naturally immortal; if then an infinity of souls has existed, there exists an infinity of them in actuality also, which we have already declared impossible. And the evasions which are attempted in order to escape this error are worse than the error itself. Some suppose metempsychosis, so that a finite number of souls could pass through different bodies during an infinite time, a hypothesis irreconcilable with the principle that each form is the proper and unique act of a determined matter. Others suppose, on the contrary, that a single intellect exists for the whole human race, a still graver confusion, since it involves the suppression of individual souls, of last ends and of immortality. [This objection seems very strong to St. Thomas Aquinas and he hardly sees how the supporters of the eternity of the world can meet it, unless by supposing that the world has always existed, like the unchangeable bodies or the eternal Intelligences, but unlike corruptible beings such as the human species. Cf. Summa theologica, ad 8].


Featured: Saint Bonaventure, by Claude François; painted ca. 1655.

Vademecum of the Beginner Realist

Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) published this essay in 1935, in which outlines the importance of realism to counteract the excesses of idealism. The translation is by Philip Trower and appeared in Methodical Realism (1990).

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 discussion 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 though 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 pseudo-problem, 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, in so far 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 form 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 things, 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 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 towards one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysical of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning towards 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 ) which 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 acknowledgement 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, in so far 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 which 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 thins 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 which 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 tremendous business idealists make about them. Idealists are people 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 happens 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 afterwards 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 h as 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 in so far 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 naïve 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 realists 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 probably 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 adapt 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 witness 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 which knowledge apprehends, and to the relationship between the different branches of knowledge and the things which they apprehend, so that, conforming itself ever more closely to them, philosophy can progress once more.

It is 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 St. 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 towards 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 which 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.

Featured: October, by Jules Bastien-Lepage; painted in 1878.