Realism—the Base of Thomism

When you count the numbers of fingers on your hand, you’re taking part in, whether you realize it or not, the greatest philosophic tradition ever conceived; by counting your fingers, you assert that you can assess reality—in other words, you assert that you can know, and when you’re finished counting you can say that, at least in regards to the number of fingers on your hand, you do know. You’ve likely convinced yourself, beyond doubt, that you are now aware of the number of fingers on your own hand—good! This conviction of yours—that there is a definitive number of fingers on your hand, which you have now discovered—is grounded firmly in objectivism. In other words, you are practitioner of the philosophy called objectivism.

Now, what is this philosophy to which you have so faithfully adhered to for so long; what is objectivism? Return to counting your fingers; this time, however, wish for yourself to have one less than before. The odds are, unless you have suffered some horrible accident while reading this—in which case, put this down now and seek medical help immediately—you have the same number of fingers as before, and no amount of wishing or believing otherwise has changed that. This is the essence of objectivism! Reality itself is external and independent of the perceiver’s interpretation or beliefs about it; in other words, the moon’s dark spots were never simply spots of darker material, as some medieval thinkers such as Dante Alighieri thought, but actually were, as other medieval men such as St Thomas Aquinas knew, craters in the surface.

“But why would such a seemingly obvious notion need a name?” you may ask, “Is this not the belief of all men?” Hardly. In opposition to objectivism, we have what is called, naturally, subjectivism. Now, subjectivism asserts that reality is entirely plastic, that it is not independent of the perceiver, but modifiable by and reliant upon him/her. In other words, a subjectivist would tell you that the reason why the number of fingers on your hand hadn’t dropped by one is your own lack of sincere wanting or belief that it would. Your perception is the determinant of reality, but your will had not actually wanted reality to change. Even still, moving to explore the more interesting implication of there being a subjective reality, while you may genuinely and rightly know yourself to have your initial amount of fingers still, an onlooker may genuinely and rightly know that one or more of your fingers has actually gone missing since your last count—and both of you would be equally correct. Thus, subjectivism holds that there is no objective experience of reality, because reality itself molds to each individual.

All elephants are a bluish gray and only a bluish gray—moreover, elephants are real things to begin with. All elephants are a deep violet, and all elephants are a light shade of green—moreover, they don’t even exist, but they do. Clearly, these two modes of philosophic thought are contrapositive statements—negations of each other and mutually exclusive. Thus, these modes are to be contested: which view of reality is correct? The answer is rather obvious—objectivism. Consider: for subjectivism to be correct, it must be correct objectively so—as it being correct subjectively so would consequently make reality objective, as many genuinely perceive reality to be such, which would mold it as such, thus this option negates itself—and objectivism negates subjectivism. In other words, subjectivism may only be true in an objective manner, making reality subjective regardless of if it is perceived as objective or not (independently of the perceiver; objectively), thus the notion is self contradicting and null. The damning argument against subjectivism can be simplified as follows:

The Self-Negating Option

  1. Reality is subjective.
  2. Thus, reality is dependent on the perceiver.
  3. The perceiver perceives it is independent of him/her.
  4. Therefore, reality is now independent of the perceiver.
  5. Ergo, reality is objective.

The Self-Contradicting Option

  1. Reality is subjective.
  2. Thus, reality is dependent on the perceiver.
  3. The perceiver perceives it is independent of him/her.
  4. Reality is still subjective.
  5. Therefore, reality is not dependent on how it is perceived.
  6. Ergo, reality is not subjective; reality is objective.

So we do know that, yes, you really do have however many fingers you counted on your hand, regardless of anyone’s perception—if they disagree with your number, either you counted wrong, or they counted wrong, or perhaps maybe they severed one of your fingers without you noticing. But now we have the question of whether or not what you both understand as fingers and numbers is expressive of reality itself, or merely a useful tool to understand an objective reality which itself is beyond comprehension. These two modes of objectivism are called realism and conventionalism, respectively. Realism posits reality itself can be understood (at least in part), while conventionalism posits that only our conventions about reality may be understood.

We can sit on things because the electrons in our atoms repel the electrons in the atoms in whatever we’re sitting on (and vice versa), so we will not pass through that which we are sitting on. To explain why we do not fall through objects when we sit on them, we have devised the concept of atoms and electrons with like charges which repel; this concept is not reflective of reality, which is incomprehensible, but merely a tool used to work practically with reality. Such are the respective statements of realism and conventionalism.

Here we have a similar, but not quite the same scenario as we had with objectivism and subjectivism. Although these concepts too may appear to be in their entirety contrapositive and irreconcilable, realism allows for a “practical conventionalism,” so to speak, within it. That is to say, while a realist may hold that a convention is not actually representative of a reality, the convention itself may still have practical uses. For example, numbers do not really exist—they are not things floating about the universe—but they are useful tools for describing and predicting things.

On the other hand, the absolute conventionalist—a practitioner of the form of conventionalism we are discussing here—can allow for no “knowing” in their worldview; all knowledge is a convention. In other words, while even absolute realism—which, really, is the only realism—allows for the presence of practical conventionalism within it, absolute conventionalism allows for no realism within it. However, to profess absolute conventionalism at all is self-negating and self-contradicting, just as subjectivism is. Consider: should absolute conventionalism itself be only a convention, then its inverse, realism, must be how reality really is. Alternatively, should absolute conventionalism really be an accurate conception of reality, then, again, realism is true, because reality has been understood as it really is. In summary, the negation and contradiction is as follows:

The Self-Negating Option:

  1. Absolute conventionalism is true.
  2. Thus, the world may only be understood in conventions.
  3. The above is not an accurate description of reality.
  4. Therefore, reality is in accordance with realism.
  5. Ergo, realism is true.

The Self-Contradicting Option

  1. Absolute conventionalism is true.
  2. Thus, the world may only be understood in conventions.
  3. The above is an accurate description of reality.
  4. Therefore, reality has been understood as it really is.
  5. Ergo, realism is true.
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3 thoughts on “Realism—the Base of Thomism

  1. So glad I’ve found your blog! I just recently (in the past six months or so) discovered the Thomistic/Scholastic tradition, and it quite literally changed my entire life. Your writing is clear and insightful, and I love the little bits of humor interspersed! I was wondering if you might could suggest some resources for someone just getting in to Thomism? I’ve read most of Edward Feser’s books, and just bought “The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics” by W. Norris Clarke and “Life, the Universe, and Everything: An Aristotelian Philosophy for a Scientific Age” by Ric Machuga. Any other recommendations?
    Thanks!

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    1. I’m glad to hear you that like the content here, and that you’ve found the Scholastic tradition! Aside from the obvious of reading the Dominican Fathers’ English translation of Summa Theologicae (feel free to use the Scholastic dictionary on this website for reference when reading it), I’d recommend reading some of Plato (Jowett Translations) and Aristotle’s works (Ross and Jowett translations, preferably) as well, since understanding the roots of Thomism helps to understand its whole. All of those that I mentioned can be downloaded as eBooks on Android devices (or transferred from an Android device to an eReader) using the Phi app (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.phi.tzwxiggkgregnm_ka). Sorry that I don’t have any secondary sources to suggest; I tend not to use them so as to learn what Thomas and others actually said, rather than what they are interpreted as meaning. Hope that helps!
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