Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Review of The Return to Reason: Essays in Realistic Philosophy. Edited by John Wild.  Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953.  pp. x  373.  From The Philosophical Quarterly, 4:14 (January 1954), 93-94.

Brand Blanshard

American philosophers seem to be even more fond than their British colleagues of expressing themselves in co-operative volumes.  The new realists, the critical realists, the idealists, the pragmatists, and the materialists have all done it with varying degrees of success.  In this volume it is attempted still again, this time by fourteen members of the Association for Realistic Philosophy.

What is meant by “Realistic Philosophy”? The shortest answer is that it is philosophy in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas.  In metaphysics it holds that the fundamental idea is that of being, which can be discussed without reference to special kinds of being; that material and immaterial being both exist, and hence that materialism and idealism are alike false; that the task of metaphysics is to clear up such ancient but still pressing problems as those of essence and existence, substance and accident, cause and effect.  In epistemology, the view is that things can be known as they are in themselves.  This does not imply that what we are directly aware of is the thing, as it was for Berkeley and the new realists, nor that it is a copy of the thing, as it is for most representationists.  Knowledge is described as “an intentional relation terminating in the externally existent thing.”  In logic, the current mathematical discipline is held to derive from a “howler,” namely that the relations dealt with in logic are the relations of real things, the most general forms to be found in the actual world. Wittgenstein, for example, thought that the structure of true propositions was a “picture” of what held among real objects.  In contrast with this, the realists hold that genuinely logical relations such as subject and predicate, and the sort of identity that holds between concepts, have no part in the existent world at all, but are purely “intentional relations” produced by the thinking mind.  In ethics, the leading ideas are that each of us is given by nature certain tendencies or capacities, that the good life lies in fulfilling these capacities, and that conflicts between goods must be settled by reference to a communal good or greatest total fulfilment. To anyone who could see what this was, rights and duties would be governed by self-evident natural laws.

This is the position.  What is perhaps more interesting about it is its frank, vigorous, and rather belligerent return to metaphysics.  The fashionable empiricism and linguisticism of the time are brushed aside.  Not that the writers are ignorant of these movements; more than one of them challenge empiricism on its own ground. In Professor Wild’s admirable essay on “Phenomenology and Metaphysics,” he raises the question whether the neo-Humian analysis of everything into qualities in relation is empirically sound, and concludes that it clearly is not.  If one is to be empirical, in any respectable sense, one must take the pains to look at what is there.  And when Mr. Wild opens his eyes on a landscape, for example, he finds two things very conspicuously there which Hume and his followers failed, or refused, to see—two factors or elements which are present in all experience and are essential to it, but which have been overlooked because of preconceptions.  These two are existence and awareness.

When one sees an apple, one sees an existent apple.  Between an apple of imagination and one that exists, there is all the difference in the world.  It is idle to say, as Hume did, that the difference is only one of degree, that is, of comparative vividness; Kant cut off that line of thought by showing that existence was no sort of quality.  The imaginary apple may have all the qualities of the existent one, and the latter will still be a world apart from it, simply by the fact of existing.  No difference is more important than this; none is more obvious; and yet the empiricist cannot see it, because of his traditional blinkers.  If you ask him to distinguish the existence of a quality from its “what” or character, he at once starts looking for some other “what,” which is just what existence is not.  Of course, whatever exists does have some character, but that is not to say that existence itself is a character.  It is what Wild calls a “philosophical protocol,” a datum that is ultimate, unanalyzable, and certain, but at the same time non-qualitative.

He takes the same view of awareness.  The Humians examined consciousness and reported nothing there but impressions and their copies. They were so preoccupied with the objects of awareness that they managed to overlook the gigantic fact of awareness itself.  This awareness is no more a character than existence is; it is another philosophical protocol. It tends to be overlooked precisely because, like existence, it is a datum we have always with us; whenever we are aware of anything we are also aware of our awareness of it; for human beings at least, to be conscious is to be self-conscious. But we are not aware of the object and of our awareness of it in the same way.  Though they are equally certain data, they differ absolutely; the one may be an apple that we can sense; the other is an “intentional” mental act which is neither a quality nor a quantity, neither a thing nor a sense-datum, and yet is apprehended as certainly as anything is.  To see in the perception of an apple only a set of qualities is like looking at a suspension bridge and seeing nothing but the footway; the conspicuous structures that flank it at either end—existence at the farther end and awareness at the nearer—are simply disregarded.

The implication of this view are developed with subtlety in several of the essays, and it may not be invidious to give special praise to those of Manley Thompson of Chicago on “The Distinction between Thing and Property,” and Francis Parker of Haverford on “Realistic Epistemology”; both are admirably firm and precise in their analysis.  Indeed when the foreign reader considers that these fourteen philosophers represent only one small corner of the American field, he is likely to be impressed by the volume and vigour of speculative thought in America.  Much of it, as this book suggests, is taking a very different line from that dominant in Britain.

The second half of the book, dealing with realistic value theory, is not quite so closely reasoned nor so consistent, part with part, as the first half.  British readers may find special interest, however, in the spirited defence of Plato by Robert Jordan against the criticisms of Professor Popper, and in the essay on “Natural Law and the Problem of Asia” by Charles Malik, the American-educated minister from Lebanon, who is the Chairman of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

There are three schools of present-day thought, apart from the school producing this book, that will find much in it to applaud.  They are the existentialists, who will approve the stress on existence as irreducible to essence; the Roman Catholic philosophers, who will be pleased that a group of non-Catholics have found so much to appropriate in the Thomist tradition; and the phenomenologists, who will find that the influence of Husserl is very strong. Other readers will have more difficulty with the argument.  I must confess that, competent and effectively stated as it is, I do not find it quite convincing at the crucial point.  That point is whether in that which individuates, in Aristotelian matter, in existence, in substance, in the “that” as opposed to the “what,” there is an element which, though real, is absolutely characterless.  These writers think there is. They believe that you cannot in principle discover what makes anything an individual by specifying its relations in time and space, or even its relations to everything else in the universe; existence falls wholly outside the realm of essence.  Of course the critical realists, like Santayana, hold this too.  But they add that what we perceive is always essence and never existence, while these realists insist that we perceive existence as truly and obviously as we do the natures of things.  It may be so.  This is no place to argue the matter out.  I can only remark first, that the consequences of distinguishing an essence from an individual by comparative concreteness of content do not seem to me so disastrous as they are here made out to be; and, secondly, that if existence is so obviously different from essence—though not different in kind, since it has no kind—it is curious that schools as far apart as the Humians, the new realists, and the Hegelians should all have made the same gigantic blunder and failed altogether to see it.  This point, I grant, is a weak one, for what philosophers can fail to see is portentous.  And readers will at least find here the best argument I know to show that on this matter there has been nothing less than an epidemic of blindness in recent philosophy.

Posted April 13, 2008

Back to Blanshard page