063 Realism Redivivus




William P. Alston is one of the most highly regarded contemporary American philosophers. Now Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, he has served as president of the American Philosophical Association, and his publications have been widely praised by his peers. His most recent work, A Realist Conception of Truth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, c. 1996) persuasively argues that realism is the best philosophical stance for those concerned with truth.

Though the treatise is a tightly-argued case written for university professors, its central concern has universal import, for Alston declares: “I believe the question of how to think about truth is crucially important for intellectual issues generally. It is hard to overemphasize the amount of mischief, in this century especially, that has resulted from confusions, false assimilations, and sloppy thinking concerning truth” (p. xi).

To rescue us from such errors, Alston has written this book to espouse “ALETHIC REALISM, that is realism concerning TRUTH” (P. 1). Alethic realism “a particular brand of realism–one that I take to be especially fundamental” (p. 5), may be summed up in two theses:

“1. The REALIST CONCEPTION OF TRUTH is the right way to think of truth in the sense of ‘true’ in which it applies to beliefs, statements, and propositions.

“2. Truth is important. It is often a matter of considerable import whether a particular bearer of truth value is true or false” (p. 1).

Such simply stated theses take 264 pages to unpack and defend! Much that’s said remains obscure even to one like myself who routinely reads philosophy, for Alston roams about in lofty realms frequented only by logicians and epistemologists. Yet the basic argument and its importance can be grasped without fathoming all the details. In part this is because his “way of thinking about truth has many distinguished antecedents, harkening back to Aristotle, who said in a famous passage of the Metaphysics, ‘To say of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not, is true’ (p. 6).

What is “true” rightly aligns us with what is “real.” Truth refers to what’s Real. We live in a real world, a world other-than-us. When we discern “truth” we conform our minds to what is. Thus we formulate “truth” in propositions. I say things such as “Bill Clinton is President of the United States” and “there are mountains in Colorado.” I claim “my wife is Roberta” and “Point Loma overlooks the Pacific Ocean.” Virtually all the statements I make, virtually all the thoughts I have, take form in declarative sentences. Carefully examined, declarative sentences presume the objective reality of a world independent of my mind.

The opposite view, often espoused as forms of “idealism,” contends “There are various ways in which mind, minds or MIND can play what I have called a ‘constitutive’ role vis-a-vis, for example, physical objects” (p. 74). We hear much about such views in “postmodern” publications, where we’re endlessly informed about “social constructions” or “personal interpretations” of reality. “Reality is whatever you want it to be,” today’s gurus declare. Such non-realist approaches inevitably make the world mind-dependent rather than the mind world-dependent.

One of the philosophers Alston debates is Hilary Putnam, an influential contemporary theorist, who asserts that “There is no such thing as the ‘fixed totality of mind-independent objects’ of which the world consists” (p. 164). There are no “facts” which “are independent of all conceptual choices'” (p. 165). Different “conceptual schemes” render different verdicts about the world. So the various “objective realities” common sense assumes to simply be there become mind-dependent ideas or social constructions which shift about with time and space, culture and conditions. All “truth” is located within us, not outside us. Rejecting this position, Alston insists: “It makes a great deal of difference whether we construe an ideal epistemic situation in externalist or internalist terms, for example, whether we think of it as one in which a belief was formed in a maximally reliable way or as one in which the subject has conclusive evidence for the belief” (p. 191).

To establish the integrity of philosophical realism, upholding the externalist position, Alston carefully builds a series of undeniable propositions, such as: “A STATEMENT IS TRUE IF AND ONLY IF WHAT THE STATEMENT SAYS TO BE THE CASE IS ACTUALLY THE CASE” (p. 22). Few of us would quibble with this–and few of us would invest much time either championing or challenging it! Yet Alston, true to his vocation as an academic philosopher, cautiously develops such propositions into a defense of what all of us deeply crave: truth.

“Hence alethic realism,” Alston says, “together with the obvious fact that self-reference in statement or belief is rare at best, implies that (almost always) what confers a truth value on a statement is something independent of the cognitive-linguistic goings on that issued in the statement, including any epistemic status of those goings on. To that extent, alethic realism implies that what makes statements true or false is independent of our thought and talk” (p. 84).

To illustrate: when I say “the sun is shining” I refer not to my hopes or fantasies but to the fact that a very real sun’s rays are striking the very solid earth around me! The sun’s light is a given. I see the sun because “So far as I can see, there is such a phenomenon as the presentation or givenness of something to one’s awareness” (p. 90). Were there no sun, I’d never have imagined one. In fact, I can imagine nothing which is not some representation or distortion of real things. Remembering and thinking about the sun is not the same as seeing it, but without the initial seeing there would be no thinking or remembering.

Though not predicated upon it, Alston’s alethic realism perfectly suits theism. Indeed, he insists: “Realism should have no hesitation in recognizing that a necessary condition of the truth of a proposition is that it would be known (accepted, believed . . . ) by an omniscient cognitive subject” (p. 202). Thus he concludes his work with these words: “But in the final analysis whether what we say is true is determined not by anything we do or think, but by the way things are–the things we are talking about. This vulnerability to the outside world, this ‘subjection’ to stubborn, unyielding facts beyond our thought, experience, and discourse, seems powerfully repugnant, even intolerable to may. As a Christian, I see in this reaction a special case of the original sin, insisting on human autonomy and control and refusing to be subservient to that on which our being and our fate depends, which for the Christian is God” (p. 264). Theists take seriously God’s transcendence. He is Real, He is Ultimate Being, and He is independent of us! So too He created beings, specific entities, independent of us. Knowing God and His creatures can take place only within philosophical realism.


Though historians, ever wary of the wide-ranging hypotheses of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, find most theories of historical “cycles” dubious at best, the history of philosophy certainly reveals a circular process of wrong steps leading to fatal ends. This is marvelously evident in Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c. 1937). Delivered as the William James Lectures at Harvard University, 1936-1937, the book sheds as much light on today’s “postmodern” scene as it does on the currents of the past.

The underlying theme is this: whenever philosophers have sought to make “man the measure,” to singularly root their thought in the human mind, they have betrayed their vocation, arrogantly assuming that “man” has some cosmic grandeur as the standard of all truth! Divorced from a realist stance, philosophy misfires. “In short,” he says, “the generality which belongs to our concepts cannot possibly come from the mind alone; it must also, in some way or other, be found in things” (p. 5). To know an objective reality, to discover “universal truths” which illuminate that which is, ought to define the philosophical life.

This, Gilson argues, was the position of the greatest Christian and classical philosophers. As he says: “Shall we say, as St. Thomas Aquinas was to answer, that since God has made man a rational animal, the natural light of reason must be able naturally to perform its proper function which is to know things as they are, and thereby to know truth? Of shall we say with St. Augustine, that truth being necessary, unchangeable, and eternal, it cannot be the work of a contingent, mutable and impermanent human mind interpreting unnecessary, changeful and fleeting things? Even in our minds truth is a sharing of some of the highest attributes of God; consequently even in our minds, truth is an immediate effect of the light of God” (p. 54).

Despite this noble tradition, for nearly a millennium influential “philosophers” have pursued other ends. Gilson taught Medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne and the College de France, and was perhaps the world’s leading authority on that subject. Thus he begins The Unity of Philosophical Experience with a discussion of “The Mediaeval Experiment.” The big story in this era was the triumph of “nominalism” over “realism.” First in the field was Peter Abailard. Abailard, known mainly to moderns for his romantic affair with Heloise, was in fact a brilliant logician, determined to reduce philosophy to the confines of logic. Since logic stands rooted in grammar, he would reduce logic to grammar and ultimately to psychology. Consequently, he sought to reduce truth and reality to the contours of the human mind, which means, of course, you can say less and less about less and less! Psychologism culminates in skepticism.

Abailard, failed to see, Gilson insists, “that if it is necessary for a true reasoning that it be logical, it is not enough for it to be logical in order to be true. As a matter of fact, both were logically right and philosophically wrong” (p. 14). Still more: “The ultimate result of Abailard’s error was the same–that we inevitably will see following similar mistakes–skepticism. If our concepts are but words, without any other contents than more or less vague images, all universal knowledge becomes a mere set of arbitrary opinions. What we usually call science ceases to be a system of general and necessary relations and finds itself reduced to a loose string of empirically connected facts” (p. 29).

Taking a different tack, other Medieval thinkers embraced what Gilson calls “theologism.” Giving up on the possibility of knowing truth about an objectively real world, they sought to understand it as a manifestation of God. Thus St. Bonaventura titled one of his books On Reducing the Arts to Theology. When discussing the tension between grace and free will, St. Bonaventura insisted that pius persons “claim nothing for themselves, but ascribe everything to God” (p. 51). While harmless on a devotional level, such thinking “can become dangerous when used as a criterion of theological truth” because it easily slips into the rigorous denials of free will later evident in Luther and Calvin.

As the Medieval world declined, the confluence of “logicism,” “psychologism” and “theologism” consummated in an empirically-constricted skepticism, best illustrated by William of Ockham. Convinced that only “individuals” exist, Ockham insisted that our concepts, our general ideas, any “universals” exist purely in our minds. Describing things, as they appear, is as close as we can get to “knowing” them. “Philosophy” became an endeavor in self-understanding, mistaking itself for reality. It was thus “Ockham’s privilege to usher into the world what I think is the first known case of a new intellectual disease” (p. 86) which is ultimately evident in Michael de Montaigne’s “art of unlearning” (p. 127).

Strongly reacting to the skepticism of Montaigne, “The Cartesian Experiment” launched another philosophical cycle. Whereas Abailard sought to base philosophy on psychology, Descartes, the “fa-ther of modern philosophy,” rooted it in mathematics. Deeply impressed by the certitude of geometry and mathematics, Descartes imagined he could construct a philosophy equally self-evident and absolute. As Gilson says: “Descartes’ philosophy was nothing else than a recklessly conducted experiment to see what becomes of human knowledge when moulded into conformity with the pattern of mathematical evidence” (p. 133).

Cartesian “spiritualism” and “idealism” severed the worlds of spirit and matter, rather like Medieval “theologism.” Certain only that “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes found only the immaterial realm of thought and ideas truly real. His followers and interpreters, such as Malebranche and Berkeley, widened the gap between thought and things. And, in time, Cartesianism slid into skepticism, clearly demonstrated by David Hume. “Owing to Hume’s philosophical insight, the Cartesian cycle had thus been brought to a close; and it really was a cycle, because its end was in its very beginning–skepticism, Montaigne’s scepticism at the beginning; Hume’s scepticism at the end” (p. 219).

Hume provoked the third cycle, “The Modern Experiment,” launched by Immanuel Kant. Whereas Abailard followed logic and Descartes followed mathematics, Kant followed physics. The success of Newton, the prestige of science, prompted Kant to model his philosophy on natural science. “What defines science as a specific ideal of human knowledge is self-criticism” (p. 225). Thus “‘Our age is, in every sense of the word, the age of criticism,’ Kant concludes, ‘and everything must submit to it'” (p. 225). Consequently, “The Critique of Pure Reason is a masterly description of what the structure of the human mind should be, in order to account for the existence of a Newtonian conception of nature, and assuming that conception to be true to reality” (p. 229).

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason sought to connect us with an autonomous moral order, not too unlike Medieval “theologism” and Cartesian “spiritualism.” To Kant, we know moral truth on an intuitive, feeling level. Consequently, “ethics is now charged with the obligation of solving metaphysical problems without consulting metaphysics” (p. 235). This led Kant, as it led Medieval mystics in the 15th century, to identify himself with God! “‘God can be sought only in us,’ says Kant” (p. 239). Indeed: “old Kant was beginning to suspect that he himself might be God: ‘God is not a being outside me, but merely a thought in me. God is the morally practical self-legislative reason. Therefore, only a God in me, above me, and over me'” (p. 239).

Kant’s successors–Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Comte, Mill–improvise on his score, but the theme remains rather constant throughout the 19th century, another illustration of philosophy losing its way. Science, no more than logic or mathematics, can properly guide philosophy. Mystical, subjective, personal feelings cannot provide the metaphysical insights philosophy demands.

Thus we live in an era of philosophical breakdown. To illustrate this, Gilson takes several aspects of the “Western creed” which have been either assaulted or abandoned. First, there is the traditional “belief in the eminent dignity of man” (p. 272). Second, there “is a definite conviction that reason is the specific difference of man. Man is best described as a rational animal; deprive man of reason, and what is left is not man, but animal. This looks like a very commonplace statement, yet Western culture is dying wherever it has been forgotten; for the rational nature of man is the only conceivable foundation for a rational system of ethics” (p. 274).

To restore what’s been lost Gilson urges us to recover philosophical realism. We are incurably philosophical creatures, forever craving metaphysical truths. We want to know “why” things are what they are. We want to base our lives on “first principles,” first causes. No other discipline–neither logic nor mathematics nor science–guides us to metaphysical truth, so we must (contra Kant) restore metaphysics to its rightful place. Good metaphysics focuses on one reality: “Being. Our mind is so made that it cannot formulate a single proposition without relating it to some being” (p. 312). “Now if metaphysics is knowledge dealing with the first principles and the first causes themselves, we can safely conclude that since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics” (p. 313).

To focus on thought rather than being is the fatal flaw of all false philosophies. Wherever idealism reigns philosophy fails. For “Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful” (p. 317). Thus great metaphysicians–Aristotle, Aquinas–build no tidy systems designed for immortality. Rather, they find ways to apprehend the Real, ways to discern truth about the Real. Their approach, what is often called the perennis philosophia, is almost identical with philosophical realism, the guiding assumption that there is an independently existing realm of reality which we can know as it is, not as we choose to construct it. Gilson would have us join him in that “love of wisdom” which is truly philosophy.

To Gilson, one philosopher above all others rightly guides us: St Thomas Aquinas. He said “things so obviously true that, from his time down to our own day, very few people have been sufficiently self-forgetful to accept them. There is an ethical problem at the root of our philosophical difficulties; for men are most anxious to find truth, but very reluctant to accept it. . . . . In short, finding out truth is not so hard; what is hard is not to run away from truth once we have found it. When it is not a ‘yes but,’ our ‘yes’ is often enough a ‘yes, and . . .”; it applies much less to what we have just been told than to what we are about to say. The greatest among philosophers are those who do not flinch in the presence of truth, but welcome it with the simple words: yes, Amen” (p. 61).

This is a truly first-rate historical study. Few historians of philosophy have Gilson’s mastery to texts and breadth of understanding to discern the pattern within events. His descriptions of “breakdown” periods, typified by various forms of skepticism, enables one to see in today’s various “postmodernisms” may well be nothing more than the last gasps of the “modern experiment” launched by Kant.


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