Epistemological Note

It seems odd to me that realism actually has opponents. Realism here is the idea that there is a reality independent of us or our perceptions – and that we can both experience and know reality-in-itself. The biggest opposing view, idealism (and by extension anti-realism), seems content to say that since all we experience is the content of our minds, we can’t know reality-in-itself. There’s obviously different kinds of idealism but that’s the basic gist. In the following paragraphs, Gilson provides some sharp commentary on the differences between realism/idealism:

‘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.’

‘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.’

– Etienne Gilson, (http://www.inters.org/Gilson-Realist-Handbook)

I wondered why anyone would take the route of idealism/creative anti-realism (ICR) for a long time. Then it occurred to me that maybe there are more anthropological reasons for taking that route. Hume is famous for saying that there is no self, just a bundle of perceptions. If there is no self, then one can’t really have knowledge – and it seems to be a short leap from there to saying that reality is simply perception or something along those lines. Even if there is reality ‘out there’ it wouldn’t matter.

But then I thought more. It seemed like all that was really getting off on the wrong foot – when we know something, we don’t know it in a detached, objective way. We couldn’t know anything in that way, because we can’t get outside ourselves to be objective and detached. I then read this little bit by Torrance, which I’ve posted here before:

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

That seemed to me to be about right. If we interact in a dynamic and relational way with the world around us, we break through the dualisms that lead to naive realism/IRC. That is, I neither cold observe the real world in a detached way (which is impossible and leads to some odd ideas) nor do I construct reality out of my own experience/perception/mental content. I interact with the world as a personal agent and by doing so am able to know the thing I interact with in itself.

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