You are on page 1of 13

COGITO, ERGO SUM IS NOT THE STARTING POINT OF PHILOSOPHY

Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2016.

Theoretical philosophical agnosticism and atheism have their root cause in the adoption
of the epistemological (gnoseological) immanentism of the Cogito as first principle and starting
point for doing philosophy, which has as its founder the rationalist philosopher Ren Descartes.
When the immanentist position is adopted the obfuscation and eventual discarding of
metaphysics (the science of being as being, ens qua ens, the most noble of the purely human
sciences) becomes inevitable. Once metaphysics is eliminated, access to a rational effect to cause
demonstration of Gods existence is impeded and one either falls into the various forms of
agnosticism (e.g., Humean, Kantian, Neo-Positivist) or takes one step further and subscribes to
the atheistic position that God is nothing but a projection of man himself (e.g., Feuerbach, Marx,
Sartre), a mere idea that in no way corresponds to a real, extra-mental, extra-subjective,
transcendent Infinite Supreme Being, the Uncaused Cause, Ipsum Esse Subsistens, Creator of the
finite beings (entia) by participation that make up the universe. Modern theoretical agnosticism
and atheism have their root cause in the immanentist starting point advocated by Descartes
where, instead of thought being subordinated to extra-mental being, being becomes subordinated
to thought. The cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) radically changed the way of doing
philosophy. In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the
cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse
seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of
philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had been hitherto,
particularly the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse.
Previously, everything was interpreted from the perspective of esse and an explanation for
everything was sought from the same standpoint. God as fully Self-sufficient Being (Ens
subsistens) was believed to be the necessary ground of every ens non subsistens, ens
participatum, that is, of all created beings, including man. The cogito, ergo sum marked a
departure from that line of thinking. Now the ens cogitans enjoyed priority. After Descartes,
philosophy became a science of pure thought: all esse both the created world and the Creator
remained within the ambit of the cogito as the content of human consciousness. Philosophy now
concerned itself with being qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of
it.
the very possibility of attaining to God was placed in question. According to the logic
of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness; no longer
could he be considered the ultimate explanation of the human sum. Nor could he remain an Ens
subsistens, or Self-sufficient being, as the Creator, the one who gives existence, and least of all
as the one who gives himself in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and grace. The
God of Revelation had ceased to exist as God of the philosophers. All that remained was the
idea of God, a topic for free exploration by human thought.

Man remained alone: alone as creator of his own history and his own civilization;
alone as one who decides what is good and what is bad, as one who would exist and operate etsi
Deus non daretur, even if there were no God.1
The rationalist systems which flourished after Descartes, as well as the transcendental
idealist system of Kant and the various forms of absolute idealism (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel), and
in the twentieth century the phenomenological system of Husserl as well as the existentialist
philosophies of Heidegger and Sartre, can be considered to be continuations and expansions of
Cartesian positions rooted in the gnoseological immanentism of the cogito as first principle,
utilized by Descartes as the point of departure for doing philosophy. Descartes foundational
immanentism was ultimately responsible for the subsequent intellectual elites gradual distancing
themselves from the acceptance of an extra-mental, transcendent Supreme Being, God, the Ipsum
Esse Subsistens, in favor of philosophical agnosticism and, eventually, with the passing of time,
theoretical atheism (which would dominate philosophical thought by the second-half of the
nineteenth century).
Descartes strove to make subjective consciousness absolute, towards the affirmation of
pure consciousness of an Absolute, which, nevertheless, is but pure thought within human
consciousness, not an extra-mental transcendent Absolute who is the Esse Divinum, Ipsum Esse
Subsistens, the Creator of every finite, participated being.
The Cartesian immanentist starting point makes human thought prior to extra-mental,
real being, affirming the cogito as first principle and starting point for philosophizing and
rejecting realisms extra-mental, sensible real being and affirmation that things are (res sunt) as
point of departure.
Descartes Universal Doubt. Descartes doubts our cognitive powers. The senses are not
to be trusted and all reality is placed in a state of critical doubt. The first stage of the Cartesian
method is the universal methodic doubt: In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course
of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.2 This doctrine of universal doubt (which
does so much violence to the certainties of common sense) means not only the doubting of the
extra-mental world that we see around us and the first principles governing it (e.g., the principle
of non-contradiction), but even the first principles of his beloved mathematics: We will also
doubt of the other things we have before held as most certain, even of the demonstrations of
mathematics, and of their principles which we have hitherto deemed self-evident.3
From this radical doubt emerges the certainty of the thinking subject. When all has been
placed in doubt there remains one thing that cannot be doubted, he says, namely, that I am
thinking and that it is by thinking that I exist. Hence the famous line of Descartes: I think,
therefore I am (cogito, ergo sum). He writes in his Discourse on Method: I noticed that whilst I
thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the I who thought this
should be somewhat, and remarking that this truth I think, therefore I am was so certain and so
1

JOHN PAUL II, Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium, Rizzoli, New York, 2005, pp.
8-10.
2
R. DESCARTES, Principles of Philosophy, I.
3
Ibid.

assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the skeptics were
incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I could receive it without scruple as the first
principle of the philosophy for which I was seeking.4 While we thus reject all of which we can
entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there
is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves have neither hands nor feet, nor,
finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the
truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the
very moment when it thinks. Accordingly, the knowledge, I think, therefore, I am, is the first
and most certain that occurs to one who philosophizes orderly.5 This is, undoubtedly,
immanentisms making human thought prior to real being. The Cartesian first principle is not a
syllogistic conclusion, a product of a demonstrative process; rather, it is an immediate intuition
of fact. By intuition Descartes understands not the fluctuating testimony of the senses, nor the
misleading judgment that proceeds from the blundering construction of the imagination, but the
conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are
wholly freed from doubt about that which we understand, or, what comes to the same thing,
intuition is the undoubting conception of an unclouded and attentive mind, and springs from the
light of reason alone.6
Descartes universal methodic doubt endeavours to make us doubt of all things: the
whole of the corporeal world, our own body, our sense-perceptions, our internal states of
consciousness, the very trustworthiness of our knowing powers (both of sense knowing and
intellectual knowing), the first principles of reality (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction), and
the very laws of thought founded upon these objective first principles. It is a real, genuine, and
not simulated (or faked), doubt, as he himself relates: As I desired to give my attention solely to
the search after truth, I thoughtthat I ought to reject as absolutely false all in regard to which I
could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained
aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable.7 Note the words to reject as absolutely false
which refers not just to a suspension of judgment but to a conviction that he must reject them as
absolutely false, rejecting everything until he reaches the one indubitable fact: Cogito, ergo
sum. Bittle observes that This is more than mere doubt, because a doubt presupposes a
suspended judgment due to the absence of all reasons for and against a proposition (negative
doubt) or reasons of more or less equal value for and against it (positive doubt). Descartes
supposes for a time, that all these opinions are entirely false and imaginary,8 and he will
continue always in this track until he shall find something that is certain, or at least, if he can do
nothing more, until he shall know with certainty that there is nothing certain.9 He assumes the
attitude that all spontaneous convictions and laws of thought are errors.10
From the first certainty (cogito, ergo sum) Descartes then attempts to obtain further
certainties. He attempts proofs for the existence of God starting from an innate idea of an infinite
and perfect Being, and not from extra-mental reality (these Cartesian proofs are invalid for they
4

R. DESCARTES, Discourse on Method, IV.


Ibid.
6
R. DESCARTES, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule III, 5.
7
Ibid.
8
R. DESCARTES, Meditations, I.
9
R. DESCARTES, Meditations, II.
10
C. BITTLE, Reality and the Mind, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1959, p. 54.
5

involve illicit, illegitimate transfers from the logical order to the ontological order of reality).11
Having arrived at what he believes to be certain proofs of the existence of God he then holds that
the infinite and perfect God (Creator of man), being absolute veracity, cannot deceive, and thus,
He could only have given man trustworthy sense and intellectual knowing faculties. Having
proven in this manner that mans knowing powers are trustworthy, man can now engage in the
acquisition of true and valid knowledge.
Inconsistencies and Errors of the Cartesian Method. There are many glaring
inconsistencies and errors in the Cartesian method. Is Descartes universal doubt in fact possible?
No, for there are certain gnoseological points which are indubitable, from which we cannot
escape even if we are determined to doubt everything: Anyone who affirms that absolutely
everything must be doubted is already making a judgment which represents his own thesis
and which, therefore, is an exception to what he is affirming: since if everything is to be doubted,
nothing can be affirmed, not even the thesis which maintains that everything must be doubted.
Nor can one have recourse to maintaining the thesis as merely probable, because even
11

Descartes Erroneous Ontological Argument. Descartes utilized the ontological argument throughout his works.
His argument runs like this: When one says that something is contained in the nature or concept of a thing, thereby
affirms that this something belongs in truth to that thing, is true of it. But the necessary existence of God is
contained in the idea of God. Therefore, it is true to say of God that necessary existence is in Him, that is, that He
exists. This is an invalid proof that does not conclude to Gods real existence, for the argument involves an
illegitimate transfer from the logical order to the order of reality. From the mere analysis of a concept of an essence,
we can never argue to the actual existence of a being, no matter how perfect, no matter how necessary.
Criticizing Descartes erroneous ontological argument for the existence of God, Gilson writes: The second proof
of the existence of God proposed by Descartes in his fifth Metaphysical Meditation is a reinterpretation of the
argument of Saint Anselm. Thomas Aquinas would have raised against it the same objections. It is all a question of
philosophical method. The method advocated by Descartes derives its inspiration from mathematics. Accordingly,
Descartes attributes to the objects of thought all the properties that necessarily belong to their ideas. In the present
case, he considers that existence belongs to God as necessarily as it belongs to the triangle that the sum of its angles
should be equal to two right angles. What is typical of the attitude of Thomas Aquinas is that, while agreeing to
attribute to the notion of an object whatever necessarily follows from its definition, he absolutely refuses to include
existence among the properties attributable to any object on the strength of its definition. This is essential to the
doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. Actual existence can be either experienced or inferred from another actually given
existence, it cannot be deduced from any definition. Thomas would answer to Descartes as follows. If God exists,
then His existence belongs to His essence much more necessarily than the properties of the triangle belong to it in
virtue of its definition. For if there is a God, He cannot not be, whereas, if there were no God, there would be
nothing else. But the problem precisely is to know if there is a God, and the only way to answer it is to proceed by
way of demonstration(E. GILSON, Elements of Christian Philosophy, Mentor-Omega, New York, 1963, pp. 5152).
Descartes Erroneous Effect to Cause Proof for the Existence of God Starting from an Innate Idea of an Infinite
and Most Perfect Being. Descartes has an effect (the idea of an infinite, most perfect Being) to cause (God the
infinite, most perfect Being, Cause of that idea that we have) argument for Gods existence in his Third Meditation.
Descartes proof starts from an innate idea of an infinite and perfect Being (and not from extra-mental reality), and,
like his ontological argument, is also invalid since it involves an illicit, illegitimate transfer from the logical order to
the real order of being. Descartes effect to cause proof for the existence of God starting from an innate idea of an
infinite and most perfect being does not prove anything: St. Thomas had already rejected this kind of argument
saying that from an idea one cannot prove the existence of anything in reality; in order to do this, one has to start
from reality itself, not from an idea in the mind.
Many philosophers after Descartes rejected his argument for the existence of God, while fully accepting his
subjective starting point and ending up either in agnosticism or in downright atheism(J. DE TORRE, Christian
Philosophy, Sinag-Tala, Manila, 1980, p. 290).
In contrast to Descartes, St. Thomass a posteriori quia effect to cause demonstrations of the existence of God in
Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, c. have correct starting points in the sensible beings (entia) of extra-mental reality.

probability has to have some sort of foundation in certainty. And, it is meaningless to affirm that
it is doubtful that everything is doubtful, since this affirmation, and all others which are added to
it in indefinite regress in order to increase doubt, simply become so many more exceptions to the
universality of doubt. He who says he is in doubt already knows something: he knows that he
doubts; if he did not know it, how could he possibly affirm it? The awareness of doubt is itself
certain knowledge.12
Descartes attempts to prove the trustworthiness of our sense and reasoning powers by the
following path: the universal doubt, the first certainty (cogito, ergo sum), the existence and
infinite perfection of God departing from the innate idea of Him, Gods absolute veracity, mans
creation by God, Gods veracity as the guarantor of the trustworthiness of the faculties of human
knowing, and finally, the truth and validity of all the spontaneous convictions of mans mind
which are clear and distinct. What is the problem with this procedure? He presupposes the
validity, not only of the first principles (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction), but also of his
reasoning powers (in the establishent of Cogito, ergo sum as first certainty, in the establishment
of the certainty of the idea that he has of an infinite and perfect God, in his proofs for Gods
existence, in the establishment of God as infinite perfection, in the establishment of God as
Creator of man, and in the establishent of Gods veracity based on His infinite perfection), before
he has proven their validity and trustworthiness, as he has cast them all in doubt in the first place
at the beginning with his universal doubt. The Cartesian method assumes beforehand what it
intends to prove afterwards. Bittle writes: When he (Descartes) proposed to approach the
problem in an attitude of universal real doubt, discarding even the capability of the human mind
to know truth and refusing to accept such essential principles as the principle of noncontradiction and the principle of sufficient reason, he made the solution of the problem
impossible for himself. Here are a few considerations which compel us to reject his system:
Descartes began his inquiry by doubting all knowledge without exception; he was even willing
to accept it as entirely false. But what about the idea of God as an all-perfect Being, since he
admits that he discovered this idea in his own mind? According to his own principle of universal
doubt, he simply cannot know whether this idea of God is correct or incorrect; as a matter of fact,
according to this principle, he should consider it as entirely false, until proved otherwise. But if
his idea of God as an all-perfect Being may be incorrect, he cannot logically deduce from this
idea Gods existence and veracity. Since the very idea of God is doubtful, these other things must
remain doubtful, and the trustworthiness of mans faculties must also remain doubtful. Descartes
cannot escape his own real doubt.
Irrespective of the intrinsic value of the proofs with which Descartes attempts to
demonstrate Gods existence, we must not overlook the fact that he uses a process of reasoning
to make this demonstration. Since his very reason and the process of reasoning is as yet of
doubtful validity, how can he validly demonstrate Gods existence and veracity? The
trustworthiness of Descartes reasoning powers is supposed to flow as a necessary consequence
from the infinite perfection of God; and Gods infinite perfection is made certain to him by
means of a proof developed by these very reasoning powers, before he has proved that these
reasoning powers are valid and trustworthy: he thereby gratuitously assumes the very thing
beforehand which he intends to prove afterwards. He unconsciously accepts the trustworthiness
12

A. MILLAN PUELLES, Fundamentos de filosofa, Rialp, Madrid, 1976, p. 464. Cf. A. MILLAN PUELLES,
Economa y libertad, Fondo para la Investigacin Econmica y Social, Madrid, 1974, pp. 162-163.

of his faculties in attempting to demonstrate the existence and infinite perfection of God, and that
is an illegitimate procedure; because a doubtfully valid faculty can produce only a doubtfully
valid argument, and a doubtfully valid argument can only lead to a doubtfully valid conclusion.
The whole argument for Gods existence and veracity is thus nullified by his doubtful reason and
reasoning process; and, since he proves the reliability of his reason and reasoning process by
means of Gods veracity, which (according to his supposition) must be doubtful, the proof of the
trustworthiness of his own powers is nullified and can never be established beyond doubt. His
attempt, therefore, to vindicate the validity of human knowledge failed essentially, because, by
rejecting the reliability of his own powers to discover and know truth, he made it impossible for
himself to extricate himself from the net of his own universal doubt.13
Descartes, Bittle observes, claims to reject everything, even the principle of noncontradiction and the principle of sufficient reason. But he does not. He surreptitiously assumes
the truth of these principles and uses them continually. As obvious a fact as the Cogito, ergo
sum is really based on the validity and truth of the principle of non-contradiction. This principle
asserts that it is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time. Descartes
becomes certain of his own existence by the very fact of his thinking or doubting. True. But
why? Because he perceives clearly that it is impossible to think and not think, to exist and not
exist at the same time. If Descartes were consistent and really doubted the principle of noncontradiction, he would have to affirm that it could be possible for a being to think and not
think, to exist and not exist at the same time. But then, according to his own supposition, he
could not be sure after all that the ultimate fact of his existence is certain, and his famous
Cogito, ergo sum has no real objective value. Only by granting the validity and truth of the
principle of non-contradiction beforehand, can his existence be established as an objective fact;
and that is exactly, though inconsistently, what Descartes does.
The same line of reasoning applies to his proofs for Gods existence and infinite
perfection. Notwithstanding his proofs, his rejection of the principle of non-contradiction will
forever invalidate his arguments, because, as long as this principle is not established and
accepted, he could never be sure whether it would not be possible for God to exist and not
exist, to be infinitely perfect and not infinitely perfect at the same time. Similarly, he would
always be compelled to remain in doubt whether God could not be veracious and not veracious,
deceiving and not deceiving, unless the principle of non-contradiction were taken as granted
before he begins to prove Gods existence. Unwittingly Descartes does accept this principle of
non-contradiction throughout his demonstrations, but that is an inexcusable inconsistency.
So too, Descartes conducts his inquiry under the supposition that he has doubted the
principle of sufficient reason and the principle of causality. But he does not hesitate to use these
principles before he has established their validity. Consider this a posteriori argument for the
existence and infinite perfection of God. He contends that the idea of God as an all-perfect Being
could not have originated in our mind, because such an idea would exceed the causality of the
human mind, the latter being less perfect than the contents of the idea itself; consequently, this
idea had to be produced in us by God Himself (and this proves that God exists as an infinitely
perfect Being), otherwise there would be no sufficient reason for the presence of such an idea in
our mind. This line of reasoning shows plainly that Descartes uses the principles of sufficient
13

C. BITTLE, op. cit., pp. 56-58.

reason and causality in demonstrating Gods existence, although he doubts their validity. Now, if
he lets these principles stand as doubtful, his entire demonstration is vitiated and nullified by
doubt; and if he accepts them as valid prior to establishing their validity, he acts contrary to his
fundamental doubt and is inconsistent: in either case he makes the demonstration of Gods
existence impossible. His actual procedure in all the arguments he makes is such, however, that
he presupposes the validity of these laws of thought; and that is for him a glaring inconsistency,
since his universal methodic doubt will not permit him to accept their validity before he has
proved the existence and veracity of God. Descartes universal methodic doubt leads logically to
universal skepticism. No certitude can ever be attained in a system where the very foundations of
human reason are completely destroyed. When he rejects as doubtful and even as absolutely
false all in regard to which he could imagine the least ground for doubt he saws off the very
limb upon which he is seated. If the nature of his mind and the laws of thought are called into
real doubt (not to speak of considering them to be absolutely false), then all acts and facts of
consciousness, all ideas, judgments and inferences, can no longer be trusted. But how can the
mind attempt to validate its own trustworthiness except by means of these things? If Descartes
mistrusts the simple judgments 2 + 3 = 5 and A square has four sides, how can he trust his
faculties in making the far more complicated arguments with which he tries to prove Gods
existence and infinite perfections?Descartes, if he has been consistent, should have embraced
universal skepticism, because his universal doubt left him no other choice: he had no way of
retracing his courseit is in reality only a variation of universal skepticism.14
A philosophical critique which has become a classic in its field, documenting the genesis,
rise and consolidation of the immanentist position throughout the history of modern and
contemporary philosophy, is Cornelio Fabros monumental God in Exile: Modern Atheism From
Its Roots in the Cartesian Cogito to the Present Day,15 a work of more than a thousand pages
which I recommend for the serious intellectual. A number of thinkers believe that the rise of
modern atheism is due primarily to affluence, to the consumerism of the creature-comfort,
materialistic West, while others are of the opinion that the prevalence of naturalism is mainly to
blame. Fabro, instead, holds that speculative or theoretical atheisms roots lie in the
epistemological (gnoseological) revolution produced by the subjectivist Cartesian cogito, which
has rendered man incapable of gnoseological and ontological transcendence. While crass
consumerism, horizontalist and monistic naturalism are all weighty factors that go into the
making of the atheistic and nihilistic Zeitgeist that characterizes much of contemporary life, I
believe that the predominance of philosophical immanentism among the intellectual elite (who
are its ideological purveyors) over the centuries after Descartes, is the central factor, and that the
solution for exiting from the mess that we find ourselves in lies in the refutation of the
immanentist philosophical position by means of an authentic methodical, metaphysical realism
open to real being (ens reale) and ultimately to the act of being (esse as actus essendi), act of all
acts and perfection of all perfections.
Interpreting Fabros analysis of the foundation of theoretical agnosticism and atheism in
immanentism beginning with the subjectivist starting point in the Cartesian cogito, Arthur
14

C. BITTLE, op. cit., pp. 58-61.


C. FABRO, God in Exile: Modern Atheism From Its Roots in the Cartesian Cogito to the Present Day, Newman
Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1968. This is the English translation by Arthur Gibson from the original Italian
entitled: Introduzione allateismo moderno, 2 vols., Studium, Rome, 1964.
15

Gibson, the English translator of Fabros Introduzione allateismo moderno, explains that the
Cartesian cogito represents a qualitatively novel germ already containing in embryo the
numerous subsequent stages of the evolution of modern atheismDescartes effecteda
swervefrom the external world to the interior of mans mind. There Descartes located the
fountainhead of meaningfulness and the criterion of certitude. The former was the cogito, the act
of thinking pivoted on and manifested as the individual thinker who in turn no longer recognizes
any distinction between this act and his very being: he identifies himself by a first person
singular indicative verb form, cogitoThe latter are the clear and distinct ideas, those new
surrogates or created objectswhich for Descartes are the focal point of meaningful
realityproducedby the creative act of the human mind.
Fabro explains, writes Gibson, that the cogito principle involves, in the first instance, a
swerving of the fundamental ontological axis to the creative constitutive act of the human mind.
Henceforth the quintessence of meaningfulness is sought in the mental dimension: the criterion
of certitude for the human thinker is his own primordial product, clear and distinct ideas,
indivisible from the thinking act that constitutes them, even as this act itself is indivisible from
the very being of the thinkerThe cogito approach is structurally and constitutively atheistic,
however it be articulated, however developed. The principle itself is polyvalent and hence
contains in germ and explains in fact the zigzag tergiversations of subsequent modern thought,
founded upon it.
The absolutely fundamental characteristic of the cogito principle and the cogito
approach consists in a subjection of being to thought. In its extrapolation to God on the part of
the professedly theistic Descartes, it imposes on the Creator the radically restrictive parameters
of human logical operation
Gibson also writes: Descartes ratiocination Cogito ergo sum, contends Fabro, ultimately
reveals itself as making being dependent on thinking and finite thinking at that. If I choose to
proceed in the Cartesian fashion, if I choose to make my thinking act the anterior terminal and
fountainhead of meaningfulness and ultimately of reality itself, then I shall indeed conclude
eventually, driven to this extreme by the very internal dynamic of the principle I have chosen, to
a sort of sum, to the I-am-in-the-world of brute facticity, to the Sein-zum-Tode of radical terminal
mortality, to the spine-chilling fact of total aloneness in a universe depersonalized at its
coreThe choice therefore is between the cogito of atheistic nihilism and the Sum that is the
Name of God.16
The solution to the problem of immanentism lies in a vigorous and healthy philosophical
realism open to gnoseological and ontological transcendence. But what exactly is immanentism
and what exactly do we mean by realism and transcendence? In philosophical usage, the term
immanentism is derived from the concept immanence, which means to remain within oneself,
which is opposed to transcendence, which means to go beyond oneself. In immanentism, what
man knows in the first instance is that which remains enclosed within the sphere of human
consciousness (e.g., ideas), and not the extra-mental real thing, which is either only mediately
16

A GIBSON, Translators Introduction, in C. Fabro, God in Exile: Modern Atheism From Its Roots in the
Cartesian Cogito to the Present Day, Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1968, pp. xvi, xvii-xviii, xxii-xxiii,
xxxix.

known (Descartes mediate realism, a pseudo-realism, unsuccessful in its attempts at


reclaiming reality) or is simply unknowable (Humean and Kantian phenomenalism). Realism, on
the other hand, retains that what is known in the first instance is the extra-mental thing which
really exists (e.g., that real pine tree to the right of me, or that particular brown cat in front of
me). For the immanentist, who is incarcerated within the cell of his mind, unable to escape to a
knowledge of noumenal reality, thought is prior to being. Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I
am), that famous Cartesian dictum, is the name of the immanentist state penitentiary. Realism,
instead, maintains that being is prior to thought. The actual dog that exists in reality is prior to
the universal concept dog that exists in the mind in an intentional manner. Dobermans and
dachshunds are out there in reality and will continue to exist there whether we think of them or
not. What is known in the first instance is the real dog and not the idea dog. What is known in
the first instance is the extra-mental sensible thing itself really existing in the world. For the
immanentist, then, thought is the starting point of philosophical investigation, whereas for the
realist it is real sensible being, leading to the affirmation res sunt (things are).
In his book Methodical Realism, the great twentieth century philosopher-historian
tienne Gilson explains that when St. Thomas tells us that the intellect reaches objects, things,
no one can misunderstand what he means by that: Could we not say that the res St. Thomas
talks about, and which the judgment should conform to, although something objective and
independent, is nevertheless in the mind? Anyone who thought that would be thoroughly wrong.
If St. Thomas does not feel it necessary to be explicit on the subject, it is probably because he
never dreamed that anyone could misunderstand him. For him, the thing is plainly the real thing
posited as an entity existing in its own right and outside human consciousness.17
Exactly so, and it could not be better put. But if that is the way things are, how can one
maintain that in Thomism one can start from a something apprehended prescinding from its
reality? Whatever object I apprehend, the first thing I apprehend is its being: ens est quod
primum cadit in intellectu.18 But this being which is the first object of the intellect ens est
proprium objectum intellectus, et sic est proprium intelligibile19 is, in virtue of what has just
been said, something entirely different from an apprehended without the reality; it is reality
itself, given by means of an act of apprehension no doubt, but not at all as simply apprehended.
In short, one could say that if the block which experience offers us for analysis needs to be
dissected according to its natural articulations, it is still an apprehended reality which it
delivers us, and unless we are going to alter the structure of reality, no method authorizes us to
present it merely as a reality apprehended(italics added).
Besides, one only has to reread the text of St. Thomas to realize that the order he follows
is not an accidental one, or something one can modify simply as a temporary expedient. The
order lies at the heart of the teaching. For an intellect like ours which is not its own essence, as
Gods would be, and whose essence is not its natural object, as with the finite pure spirits, that
object must necessarily be something extrinsic. That is why the object which the intellect
apprehends must be something extrinsic as such. The first thing it grasps is a nature inhabiting an
17

L. NOL, Notes dpistmologie thomiste, p. 33.


Being (ens) is what first strikes the intellect.
19
Being (ens) is the proper object of the intellect, and thus it is specifically intelligible. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 5, a.
2, resp.
18

existence which is not its own, the ens of a material nature. That is its proper object: etideo id
quod primo cognoscitur ab intellectu humano est hujusmodi objectum.20 It is only secondarily
that it knows the actual act by which it knows the object; et secundario cognoscitur ipse actus,
quo cognoscitur objectum.21 And finally it is the act that the intellect itself is known: et per
actum cognoscitur ipse intellectus.2223
Gilson also writes that, for St. Thomas Aquinas, all existence is individual and singular.
As he said again and again, when we grasp the singular as such it is the work of our sense
faculty: id quod cognoscit sensus materialiter et concrete, quod est cognoscere singulare
directe; similitudo quae est in sensu, abstrahitur a re ut ab objecto cognoscibili, et ideo res
ipsa per illam similitudinem directe cognoscitur.24 Unquestioningly the intellect does more and
better, since it grasps what is abstractly intelligible, but it has another function: universale est
dum intelligitur, singulare dum sentitur.25 But the singular is the concretely real. So one must
consign the task of solving the problem to viribus sensitivis quae circa particularia
versantur.2627
Against immanentism, realism holds that epistemology (gnoseology) is founded upon the
metaphysics of being; being is prior to thought, and thought is dependent upon being. The act of
being (esse as actus essendi) is the radical act of a being (ens); it is, in every being (ens), the
internal principle of its reality and of its knowability, and therefore, the foundation of the act of
knowledge.
In philosophical immanentism, transcendence (first gnoseological, then ontological) is
first emarginalized, then debilitated, and in the end, eliminated. In realism, on the other hand,
both gnoseological and ontological transcendence is respected. There is a difference between
gnoseological transcendence and ontological transcendence. The former regards the possibility
of knowing realities distinct from consciousness and its representations; transcendence here is
intended as extra-subjective. Ontological transcendence, on the other hand, regards the existence
of realities that surpass the factual data of empirical experience, the most eminent of these
realities being God, the absolutely transcendent Supreme Being. The history of modern
philosophy, beginning with Cartesian rationalism, has shown that the refusal of a gnoseological
transcendence (though not always in a direct and immediate way, as was precisely the case with
the mediate realism of Descartes) impedes recognition of an authentic ontological
transcendence.

20

And therefore what the human intellect knows first is an object of this kind
And what is known secondarily is the act itself by which the object is known
22
And through the act, the intellect itself is knownSumma Theologiae, I, q. 87, a. 3, resp.
23
. GILSON, Methodical Realism, Christendom Press, Front Royal, VA, 1990, pp. 74-76.
24
What the sense faculty knows materially and concretely, it knows directly as singular; the likeness which is in
the senses is abstracted from the thing as from a knowable object, and therefore the thing itself is directly known
through that likeness.
25
The universal is grasped while things are being understood, the singular while they are being sensed.
26
to the powers of sense which relate to particular objects. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 86, a. 1, ad 4; De Veritate, q.
2, a. 6, resp., et q. 10, a. 6, sed contra and resp.
27
. GILSON, op. cit., pp. 78-79.
21

10

The starting point of philosophy is not the Cartesian I think, therefore I am (Cogito,
ergo sum), but rather: things are (res sunt). That I think is surely evidence, but it is not the
first evidence. It is not the point of departure for doing philosophy. That things are, that
things exist, on the other hand, is the first in the order of all evidence. This is the correct
starting point. Realism accepts reality in toto and measures our knowledge by the rule of reality.
Nothing that is validly known would be so if its object did not first existThe first thing offered
us is the concept of a being thought about by the intellect, and given us in a sensory intuition. If
the being, in so far as it can be conceived, is the first object of the intellect, that is because it is
directly perceived: res sunt, ergo cogito (things are, therefore, I think). We start by perceiving an
existence which is given us in itself and not first of all in relation to ourselves. Later, on
inquiring into the conditions which make such a fact possible, we realize that the birth of the
concept presupposes the fertilization of the intellect by the reality which it apprehends. Before
truth comes the thing that is true; before judgment and reality are brought into accord, there is a
living accord of the intellect with reality28
Gilson defended methodical realism against the immanentism underlying much of
modern philosophy in many of his works, such as Thomist Realism and the Critique of
Knowledge29 and Methodical Realism.30 In Methodical Realism he points out that it was in the
thought of Descartes, and not Kant, where the Copernican Revolution took place for the first
time: Critical idealism was born the day Descartes decided that the mathematical method must
henceforth be the method for metaphysics. Reversing the method of Aristotle and the medieval
tradition, Descartes decided that it is valid to infer being from knowing, to which he added that
this was indeed the only valid type of inference, so that in his philosophy, whatever can be
clearly and distinctly attributed to the idea of the thing is true of the thing itself: when we say of
anything that it is contained in the nature or concept of a particular thing, it is the same as if we
were to say it is true of that thing, or could be affirmed of itIndeed, all idealism derives from
Descartes, or from Kant, or from both together, and whatever other distinguishing features a
system may have, it is idealist to the extent that, either in itself, or as far as we are concerned, it
makes knowing the condition of beingWith Descartes the Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I
am) turns into Cogito ergo res sunt (I think, therefore, things are)31 Once trapped within the
immanent sphere of ones thoughts, initially doubting the extra-mental reality perceived by the
senses, and commencing from the cogito as the first certainty, we become unable to recuperate
reality itself. All we will be able to do with the immanentist method is to conjure up a thought of
reality, all the while remaining locked up within the prison of our minds. From mere mental
representations we cannot reach the thing-in-itself which is doubted at the outset by the Cartesian
universal doubt. If you have a hat stand painted on a wall, the only thing you will ever be able to
hang on it is a hat likewise painted on a wall. Neither the principle of causality nor belief or
assertion can get us out of the immanentist domain of the mind once we have initially doubted
the existence of reality, and then commence from the cogito as the primal certitude.

28

. GILSON, op. cit., pp. 120-121.


. GILSON, Ralisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance, Vrin, Paris, 1939. English: Thomist Realism and
the Critique of Knowledge, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1986.
30
. GILSON, Le ralisme mthodique, Tqui, Paris, 1935. English: Methodical Realism, first published in English
in 1990 by Christendom Press and now available in the edition published by Ignatius Press of San Francisco.
31
. GILSON, Methodical Realism, Christendom Press, Front Royal, VA, 1990, pp. 18-19.
29

11

Gilson describes for us the futility of those pseudo-realists who make their starting point
of knowledge the cogito and then attempt a recuperation of reality by means of the principle of
causality: He who begins as an idealist ends as an idealist; one cannot safely make a concession
or two to idealism here and there. One might have suspected as much, since history is there to
teach us on this point. Cogito ergo res sunt is pure Cartesianism; that is to say, the exact
antithesis of what is thought of as scholastic realism and the cause of its ruin. Nobody has tried
as hard as Descartes to build a bridge from thought to reality, by relying on the principle of
causality. He was also the first to make the attempt, and he did so because he was forced to by
having set the starting point for knowledge in the intuition of thought. It is, therefore, strictly true
that every scholastic who thinks himself a realist, because he accepts this way of stating the
problem, is in fact a Cartesian If the being I grasp is only through and in my thought, how by
this means shall I ever succeed in grasping a being which is anything other than that of thought?
Descartes believed that it was possible, but even apart from a direct critique of the proof he
attempted to give, history is there to show us that his attempt ends in failure. He who begins with
Descartes, cannot avoid ending up with Berkeley or with KantIt wont do to stop at the man
who took the first step on the road to idealism because we shall then be forced to go the whole of
the rest of the road with his successors. The Cartesian experiment was an admirable
metaphysical enterprise bearing the stamp of sheer genius. We owe it a great deal, even if it is
only for having brilliantly proved that every undertaking of this kind is condemned in advance to
fail. However, it is the extreme of navet to begin it all over again in the hope of obtaining the
opposite results to those which it has always given, because it is of its nature to give them.32
The absolute being that the Cogito immediately delivers to me can only be my own and
no other. In consequence, whether the operation by which I apprehend the object as distinct from
myself be a process of induction and therefore mediate, or an immediate grasp, the problem
remains the same. If ones starting point is a percipi, the only esse one will ever reach will be
that of the percipiCan we, or can we not arrive at things if we make our standpoint that of the
Cogito? No, we cant, and if the fate of realism depends on this question, its fate is settled; it is
impossible to extract from any kind of Cogito whatsoever a justification for the realism of St.
Thomas Aquinas.33
The way for us to promote an authentic methodical realism in philosophy (and in doing
so be once again in a position to validly demonstrate Gods existence, departing from the things
that we see in the world, an a posteriori, quia effect to cause demonstration) is to free ourselves
from the obsession with epistemology as the necessary pre-condition for philosophy. The
philosopher as such has only one duty: to put himself in accord with himself and other things. He
has no reason whatever to assume a priori that his thought is the condition of being, and,
consequently, he has no a priori obligation to make what he has to say about being depend on
what he knows about his own thoughtI think therefore I am is a truth, but it is not a starting
pointThe Cogito is manifestly disastrous as a foundation for philosophy when one considers
its terminal point. With a sure instinct as to what was the right way, the Greeks firmly entered on
the realist path and the scholastics stayed on it because it led somewhere. Descartes tried the
other path, and when he set out on it there was no obvious reason not to do so. But we realize
today that it leads nowhere, and that is why it is our duty to abandon it. So there was nothing
32
33

. GILSON, op. cit., pp. 21-23.


. GILSON, op. cit., pp. 27-28.

12

nave about scholastic realism; it was the realism of the traveler with a destination in view who,
seeing that he is approaching it, feels confident he is on the right road. And the realism we are
proposing will be even less nave since it is based on the same evidence as the old realism, and is
further justified by the study of three centuries of idealism and the balance sheet of their results.
The only alternatives I can see today are either renouncing metaphysics altogether or returning to
a pre-critical realism. This does not at all mean that we have to do without a theory of
knowledge. What is necessary is that epistemology, instead of being the pre-condition for
ontology, should grow in it and with it, being at the same time a means and an object of
explanation, helping to uphold, and itself upheld by, ontology, as the parts of any true philosophy
mutually will sustain each other.34

34

. GILSON, op. cit., pp. 34-35.

13