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Reality is Superior to the Idea

Gaetano Piccolo, SJ - L Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Mar 28th 2021

Pope Francis and the primacy of reality

When speaking of evangelization in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis addresses the topics of the common good and social peace (EG 217-237). He speaks of four principles in this regard: time is greater than space (222-225), unity prevails over conflict (226-230), realities are more important than ideas (231-233), and the whole is greater than the part (234-237).[1] He returns to the third principle in Laudato Si’ (LS), where he invites us to confront the ecological crisis by thinking about the common good and pursuing the path of dialogue (LS 201).

His insistence on the crucial importance of the real world in protecting us from isolation in the heady world of ideas is also extremely relevant to and present in contemporary philosophical debates. In various cultural contexts – not only in Europe but also in the United States and Australia – there is talk of a “new realism” and even of a return to metaphysics.[2]

So it is easy to imagine that there is a convergence between the debate stirred up by Francis’ words and contemporary philosophical discussions. This should come as no surprise, since it was precisely the Catholic philosophical tradition, whose most recent proponents belonged to the Neo-Scholastic circles of the early 20th century, that upheld the primacy of reality, seemingly without great success judging from the anti-metaphysical turn in philosophy during that century.

It therefore seems extremely timely that Pope Francis has recovered the core of a debate dear to the philosophical tradition, reinserting it into modern-day cultural discussions and pointing out its ethical implications.

Above all, Evangelii Gaudium warns us of the risk of separating reality from ideas by retreating into words, images and sophistry. Pope Francis’ assertion that reality simply is, whereas ideas are elaborations, seems to focus on the contemporary debate in which a return to realism, especially in the European context, is framed as an accusation against the tendency in philosophy to make conceptual elaboration an absolute: the world, Richard Rorty asserted, simply does not exist, nor can we think that our language and thought reflect reality.[3]

If, therefore, reality is superior to the idea, human projects cannot be merely formal, nor fantastical, nor ideological, nor anti-historical. Ideas separated from reality are prone to manipulation, that is, to masking reality so that one can achieve one’s own ends, as Plato reminds us in the Gorgias.[4] When separated from reality, an idea works like cosmetics, hiding the true face of a person. A real body, Plato suggests, is kept in shape through physical exercise. Otherwise, it will possess only a fake beauty through the use of cosmetics. In other words, an idea is sometimes aimed at manipulating reality, or showing it off with fascinating descriptions and persuasive arguments, but in the end they end up artificial and detached. Our reasoning can also be logical and clear, but this does not mean that our concepts will always engage with or change reality. Politics is constantly exposed to this risk.

Where we choose our starting point is of prime importance. It is reality that needs to be illuminated by our intelligence. But our ideas will not always find resonance and application in the real world. Reality is waiting to be encountered and known, but an idea does not always leave space for verification or modification by reality.

The word that enlightens the light of the Church is always an incarnate light. Jesus Christ took on flesh. This is the Jesus who needs to be the criterion of our action.[5]

Realism in contemporary thinking

So just how does the vision expressed in Evangelii Gaudium enter into dialogue with contemporary philosophy? The renewed interest in a realist perspective can be considered a reaction to a time of general deconstruction. As Jean-François Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition in the 1960s, the grand narratives, the attempts to explain the world conceptually, were not working anymore. Postmodernists were essentially disenchanted: ideologies collapsed before walls did. Today, philosophy seems to begin once again from these ruins, searching for that layer of  bedrock beyond which we can slip no further.[6]

Reality is that which is unalterable;[7] it is the fact that I butt up against, that I can try to comprehend, but that is not at my disposition to manipulate. We encounter reality the moment we find ourselves in front of this datum. Reality therefore becomes a limit, but at the same time a reassuring limit. The economic crises that have rocked the last decades are partly responsible for this way of thinking; a way of thinking that turns back to look for solid foundations upon which we can construct our beliefs.

Without this primacy of reality there would be nothing – as in fact experience has shown – other than “reality,”[8] in the sense of a narrative construction according to which one can live in a glossy world where we can give life to our narcissistic fantasies. Even the most extreme explanation – i.e. that we are nothing but brains in containers powered by a computer capable of producing a virtual reality[9] – is implausible if we think about it carefully: to think that we are brains in containers, we would have to be outside the container, at least for a moment. This implies the existence of an external world that precedes us and goes beyond us.[10]

Much of contemporary philosophical reflection on realism is aimed at recovering the intelligible value of perception, not as the actualizing moment of knowledge, but as knowledge tout court. To separate perception from true knowledge properly speaking would amount to an idealistic fractioning and theoretical human individualism. What is needed, therefore, is an overcoming of the dogmatic and idealistic distinction between exteriority (perception) and interiority (conscience): we are always within existence and our perception of it is constant.

Perhaps it is for this reason that existence is not given to reflection except as the concept of existence. Existence is not thinkable in itself, but only experienced. That which we encounter in reality, or that which we are able to experience – and therefore that which is existent – are only details, particulars. Everything else – thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions – can be experienced only to the extent that they adhere in someone or belong to someone: I encounter Mark, but I can encounter sincerity only as the sincerity of Mark or as my idea of sincerity.

So this is what it means for reality to be greater than the idea: universals can only be met in particulars; they must be wrapped up in particulars to be known.[11] The universal is known because it is contained in the particular, not merely because it is predicated of particulars. It is not our words that render an artwork beautiful (although they can make that beauty appear or unveil it); rather, it is because an artwork is beautiful that I can talk about its beauty.[12]

The question about reality in the Thomistic tradition

In the 1930s, a debate arose between Étienne Gilson[13] – and in a more discreet way Jacques Maritain[14] – and the Jesuit Joseph Maréchal, and more generally with the Louvain school of philosophy. The debate regarded the possibility of rereading Thomas Aquinas with the help of Descartes, and more significantly, of Immanuel Kant. With the passing of time, that polemic can be considered an attempt on the part of Maritain and Gilson to put a check on the power that knowledge was beginning to have with respect to the limit imposed by reality, even after continuous scientific progress. Apparently it involved only guarding the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology; but, if we take a closer look, what really was at stake was the possible delirium of reason, a closure within an artificial “reality.”

The basic question can appear theoretical and abstract, but it concerns precisely our relationship with reality. The question was whether our knowledge depended on the real known object or if it were our knowing faculties that determined the way in which we know reality.

Well aware of what was at stake, Maritain and Gilson – in contrast to what another Jesuit, Francisco Suárez, did at the end of the 16th century – emphasized the real difference between essence and existence: between what a thing is and the simple fact of its existence. We can, in fact, give a definition to an object without implying its existence, as when we speak of a phoenix or a unicorn.

The essence or concept of something – or, as was said in the Middle Ages, the quidditas of a thing – that which answers the question “what is it?” (quid), is an elaboration of intelligence, upon which intelligence itself will formulate a judgment. Existence on the other hand precedes any mental elaboration on our part. Already in the Thomistic tradition, therefore, existence is encountered; experienced in the particular, not thought. Existence precedes us and is the very condition for the possibility of thinking. It is an undeniable presupposition. The reality of existence, in this sense, is greater than the idea, or rather the formulation of every concept.

In this way we understand why in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition knowledge cannot happen except through abstraction: we always dig out the concept from a real existence that precedes us. To know is not to build, but to abstract. In this sense too, abstraction is possible only if reality is superior to the idea.

The anthropological question behind realism

If we can only encounter particulars – that is, the sensible – but formulate a concept only through intelligence that recognizes the universal, then it seems that knowledge is precluded. This paradox was already present in Thomas Aquinas. He asserted that, “properly speaking, it is not only sensibility or only intelligence that knows, but it is the person who knows through these.”[15] For Aquinas, it is unthinkable for the knowing subject to have a direct knowledge of himself, not only because it is the external world that presents us with the question of who we are, but also because there is no impersonal subject unconnected from the world. We can cite an expression of Pope Francis: “Everything is interrelated, everything is connected” (LS 16; 117; 138).

In this way, we can better understand why the primacy of the real, without which the subject cannot even think, has undeniable ethical implications. It coincides with the knowledge of being inevitably in relation with the whole of which we are a part. For this reason too, “it is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS 9).

In the world, we obviously encounter different things of which we can have different ideas, but all of this is possible only because of the primacy of existence. There can be uncertainty about the level at which we know something, but not about the existence of something that offers itself to our knowledge, about the simple fact that there is something. Uncertainty concerns the essence of things, not their existence, just as the primacy of reality does not regard the evidence of objects, but their existence: an existence before which we cannot help but act if we want to avoid turning the world into a PlayStation.

[1].Diego Fares has shown how these principles can help us to understand Pope Francis’ reflection on the family in Amoris Laetitia. Cf. D. Fares, “Amoris Laetitia and the renewal of ecclesial language”, in Civ. Catt. 2016, II, 216.

[2].Regarding the “new realism” we can turn to Maurizio Ferraris in Italy (cf. M. Ferraris, Manifesto del nuovo realism, Roma – Bari, Laterza, 2012) and Markus Gabriel in Germany (cf. M. Gabriel, Fields of Sense. A New Realist Ontology, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2015). The expression “a return to metaphysics” is present in the Italian edition of the works of an Australian philosopher: D.-M. Armstrong, Ritorno alla metafisica. Universali – Legge – Stati di fatto – Verità, Milan, Bompiani, 2012.

[3].Cf. R. Rorty, Address to the American Philosophical Association, 1972.

[4].Cf. Plato, Gorgias, 265, cited in Evangelii Gaudium 232.

[5].Cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (n.1).

[6].Cf. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, n. 217: “If I have exhausted the justification I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’”

[7].Cf. M. Ferraris, Manifesto del nuovo realismo, cit., 45-50.

[8].Ibid., 3.

[9].Variations on this theme can be seen in films such as The Matrix and The Truman Show.

[10].Cf. H. Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History.

[11].This is one of the most important theses of Australian philosopher D.-M. Armstrong (1926-2014). Cf. his article “Universali e realismo scientifico,” in D.-M. Armstrong, Ritorno alla metafisica.

[12].Aristotle expressed this conviction in the Metaphysics, Book IX, 1051b, 1-5: “Not because we say that you are pale are you pale, but because you are pale, we, who say that you are pale, speak the truth.”

[13].For a fuller presentation of the debate, see É. Gilson, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge.

[14].Cf. J. Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, particularly the chapter on critical realism.

[15].Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate II q. 6, ad 3: “Non enim proprie loquendo sensus aut intellectus cognoscit, sed homo per utrumque.”

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