ON THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
Our understanding of common sense can be
approached in two ways. First, there is the wide,
popular meaning of common sense. Here common sense
is the conglomeration of generally helpful opinions
and beliefs, more or less well founded, more or
less mixed up with error and prejudice, which make
up the voice of the community.
Then there is the narrow, technical meaning of
common sense. In this case common sense is a
spontaneous activity of our intellect, the way in
which it operates of its own native vigor before it
has been given any special training.
Philosophy and common sense, especially in the
narrow, technical sense of that term, have an
intimate relationship with one another. Common
sense holds many opinions about Reality, but it
holds these opinions in a vague and confused way.
These opinions have not been subjected to rigorous
and critical examination. Common sense tends to
accept opinions without realizing the many
implications they contain and interrelationships
they have. Often, then, common sense is unable to
defend its opinions against attack, even when those
opinions are true and conform to a philosophical
Common sense can easily be led astray. False
philosophies crop up all over the intellectual
landscape. These false philosophies promote
doctrines which many times are counter to what our
common sense tells us. This is where Realistic
Philosophy comes into play. It precisely formulates
its principles and judgments, analyzes their
component concepts, and examines them in the light
of the evidence. This Realism is basically Common
Sense, critically examined and expanded. If a
commonsense opinion is false, Realistic Philosophy
will determine that and explain how to correct the
opinion. If a commonsense opinion is true,
Realistic Philosophy will be able to defend it
There are certain truths we know as a matter of
common sense because we have, as human beings, the
native capability to know the most elemental
aspects of Reality. For example, we know:
1. The existence of
things, including myself;
2. The first principles
- a. Principle of
- b. Principle of
- c. Principle of
3. The secondary
principles which flow from the first
- a. The Principle of
- b. The Principle of
Both philosophy and common sense use these
principles. They simply differ in the way they use
them. Common Sense uses them unconsciously,
unreflectively, and uncritically. They can be
obscured or deformed by factors such as faulty
education, cultural prejudices, and deceptive
images of our sense organs. Realistic Philosophy,
on the other hand, uses them critically,
consciously, and scientifically. It can get at
things demonstratively, through their causes. It
can defend and communicate its knowledge.
Realistic Philosophy is essentially common sense
perfected by scientific reasoning. It is common
sense reflecting critically upon itself. Realistic
Philosophy, then, is common sense, critically
examined and expanded. Realistic Philosophy and
common sense take all of reality for their
province. Realistic Philosophy seeks the
comprehensive, all-inclusive view of reality; the
knowledge of all things.
We can now define Realistic Philosophy as the
knowledge of all things in their first principles
or causes as seen by the natural light of reason.
Furthermore, Realistic Philosophy has the supreme
task of determining man's position in relation to
all other things.
Philosophical Realism is intellectually opposed
to the twin pillars of modern thought: Cognitive
Subjectivism and Moral Relativism. Furthermore,
this Realism is opposed to both metaphysical
Materialism and metaphysical Idealism and all those
pseudo-philosophies which are derivatives of
Subjectivism is the doctrine that there is no
such thing as absolute truth. What is true,
according to subjectivists, is whatever we as
individuals or we as a society decide. Subjectivism
takes many forms and can range from outright
universal skepticism (nothing exists at all) to
qualified skepticism (something may exist but we
can't know about it) to pragmatism (truth is
whatever "works") to pure subjective individualism
(there is my truth, your truth, and so on, but no
Moral Relativism is the doctrine that there is
no such thing as an absolute moral principle.
Whatever is right or wrong, according to
relativists, is whatever we as individuals or we as
a society decide. Moral Relativism is the logical
consequence of Cognitive Subjectivism. If there is
no objective truth, then there is no possibility of
any moral truth. The practical consequence of this
doctrine is the principle that "might makes right."
The social consequence of this doctrine is that no
human behavior, no matter how heinous, may be
morally criticized on philosophical grounds.
Metaphysical Materialism is the doctrine that
nothing exists except matter in some form or other
and all matter operates according to mechanical
laws. Metaphysical Idealism is the doctrine that
nothing exists except Idea, or Thought, or Mind, or
Mental Activity, or Spirit. Both Materialism and
Idealism have given birth to other
pseudo-philosophies such as existentialism,
positivism, and naturalism.
Subjectivism and Relativism are the twin pillars
which give support to the four most influential
trends in contemporary human thought: Scientism,
Politicism, Determinism, and Collectivism.
Scientism is the doctrine which states that
empirical science is the only source of knowledge
and what can't be measured doesn't exist. Scientism
is metaphysical materialism in its purest form.
Politicism is the doctrine which states that all
personal, social, and moral problems are political
in nature and the solutions to these problems must
be politically determined.
Determinism is the doctrine which states that
human beings have no free will and are simply
subject to the mechanical laws of nature. The
determinist, of course, has a serious problem
dealing with personal accountability and should, to
be logically consistent, be opposed to any criminal
Collectivism is the doctrine that every
individual human being exists solely for social
ends and purposes and the greatest good for the
individual is to serve the political economy.
Although realistic philosophers may disagree
with one another on some specific practical issue
or the application of realistic principles to some
particular problem, all realistic philosophers
agree on certain basic doctrines.
Philosophical Realists assert that there is a
world of real existence, a world made up of
substantial beings related to one another.
Furthermore, this world exists independently of any
human opinions or desires, and this world was not
made or constructed by man.
The substances and relations that are part of
this world of real existence can be known by the
human mind and as they are in themselves. Physical
objects in the world are presented directly to the
knowing powers of man. If this were not so, we
could have no knowledge.
Logical truth is the correspondence between mind
and thing and it is possible to reach certitude
about many things. The criterion of logical truth
is objective evidence in whatever form it is
presented to the knowing mind.
Human knowledge, which must be based on
objective evidence of some type or other, can offer
sound and stable guidance for individual and social
action. It is, in fact, the only reliable guide to
Philosophical Realism is in perfect accord with
what our common sense, critically examined and
expanded, tells us. Every realistic theory in
whatever field must be checked by the original data
of experience as they are apprehended either by our
sense organs or by the human mind. Philosophical
Realism, in this sense, is radically empirical.
We will now take a brief look at some of the
major doctrines of Realistic Philosophy within
their respective fields of study.
Epistemology: The Problem of
Epistemology is the philosophic science which
studies human knowledge and how, by means of
concepts and other mental representations, we know
objects outside our minds.
Knowledge is the discovery of Reality. It is not
a creation of our mind. The discovery of Reality is
initially made by our external sense organs and
then more perfectly by our intellect.
The senses give us a material perception of the
external world. The intellect understands the
essential and universal nature of the objects which
come into contact with the senses.
Essential and universal knowledge is made
possible by the formation of concepts. The concept
is an intellectual representation of the object
which has been presented by our senses. Sensitive
knowledge stops at the object as given by
Our intellect arrives at the formation of a
concept through the process of intellectual
abstraction. Our intellect detaches itself from any
consideration of the accidental circumstances of
the sense image or percept as given by our sense
organs. Our intellect forms a representation of
those essential features that a thing must have in
order to be that thing.
This is entirely consistent with our structure
as a human being as we exist in reality. Our body
is so constructed that it perceives the singular,
individual data of experience by the organic
senses. Then our intellect, which is an immaterial
being, reaches the immaterial element of the object
perceived by our senses, that is, the
intelligibility of the object in its essential and
Furthermore, by drawing the concept from
experience, the Realistic theory explains and
justifies the coincidence of the order of ideas
with the order of Reality. It is in this conformity
that the true value of human knowledge is
The Realistic theory also makes possible both
philosophical and scientific knowledge. Our
intellect, once it reaches the concept, that by
which it knows objects, makes use of them through
its power of comparing, judging, and inferring.
Thus, our intellect builds a systematic knowledge
Ontology: The Problem of Being
Of one thing for sure our immediate experience
assures us. It is an undeniable fact that finite
being exists in a state of continuous becoming.
Everything, including ourselves, is constantly
subjected to superficial or profound changes.
This is where every philosophical investigation
must start. We must offer a rational explanation
that coincides with the evidence presented to us.
And this is possible only if we suppose that finite
being is composed of two distinct elements: (1) one
which determines being in so far as it is such a
being, called ACT, and (2) one which places in
being a real necessity for what it is not actually
but might be, called POTENCY. This is the Realist's
theory of act and potency.
Becoming would be impossible unless an actual
agent intervened and made the possibility become a
reality. This agent could not produce such an
effect unless it were determined to do so by its
nature or by its will. This determination is called
Becoming, therefore, finds its rational
explanation in four causes: the formal (act), the
material (potency), the efficient (agent), and the
final (end). These four causes are the very basis
of a Realistic metaphysics and this theory is one
of the crowning achievements of philosophical
Cosmology: The Problem of Matter
The complex of finite beings in which matter is
present is called the physical universe and is the
object of cosmology as a philosophical science.
The metaphysical structure of material being is
explained according to the principles of ontology,
by the theory of act and potency. In cosmology, we
give new names to act and potency and we refer to
them as substantial form (act) and prime matter
(potency). Prime matter, which is a metaphysical
existent, should not be confused with secondary
matter, which is matter as it exists as a physical
Prime matter is an element undetermined in
itself but capable of determination by the
substantial form, which is the element determining
matter. It is the form which makes matter what it
Prime matter and substantial form are imperfect
being. They do not exist separately from one
another. The existing being is a composite of both
matter and form, and this is called substance.
In the composite substance, prime matter
represents the passive element (potency), the
substratum of all change. The substantial form
represents the specific perfection of the
substance; it is the substantial form which endows
the substance with the particular activity it
happens to have (its nature).
There are also other forms perfecting any
substance in its existence and its activity. These
forms, such as shape, color, weight, and so forth,
are called secondary or accidental because they
presuppose a being already established by prime
matter and substantial form.
Time and space do not exist independently; they
are correlated to existing being. They take their
root in existing being and are not simply concepts
of the knowing faculty (a priori forms).
Psychology: The Problem of Man's
Realistic metaphysics tells us that man is a
composite of prime matter and substantial form. We
consider these elements in psychology with new
labels: body and psyche.
The psyche is the principle of life and the
unique source of operations. The human psyche
consists of organic operations, such as nutrition
and sensation, and also has the power of
understanding, an operation which is essentially
Knowledge is constituted of two different
operations: the sensitive and the intellective. The
sensitive is a function of the psyche, but it
requires an intimate cooperation of the physical
organs. The intellective is the work of the psyche
alone. This faculty of understanding is called the
intellect, and the intellect is inorganic.
Realistic psychology maintains that man is
endowed with free will, which takes its roots in
free judgment. The will is also an inorganic
Since the human psyche is capable of inorganic
operations in spite of its intimate relationship
with the material body, the psyche is inorganic as
regards its being.
The psyche is a nonmaterial substance and cannot
be corrupted by the deterioration of the body.
Since the psyche has a nonmaterial nature, we can
logically conclude that the human psyche is
immortal. It is capable of surviving the death of
the material body.
Theodicy: The Problem of God or Universal
The rational proof of the existence of God is a
particular application of the ontological
principles previously defined.
Finite being, whether considered as a limited
series or an unlimited series, is essentially
incapable of being the cause of its own becoming.
Becoming finds its rational explanation only in the
Immutable. Similarly, motion is explainable only by
the Immovable, and the contingent only by the
The Immutable, the Immovable, the Absolute, is
what is meant by God or Universal Mind.
This metaphysical argument makes it possible for
us to acquire some knowledge, although limited, of
the nature of God or Universal Mind. From it we
conclude that God is Pure Act, totally devoid of
any potency. Also, by mentally elevating to the
absolute the perfections we find in created beings,
we can obtain such concepts as the good, the one,
the true, and the beautiful. These give us, in an
analogical sense, some understanding of the Being
of God or Universal Mind.
Ethics: The Problem of Man's Individual
We tend naturally to our own perfection, which
is nothing other than our own happiness. We say
that the our end is our own perfection. And since
perfection is our end, it must pre-exist in the
mind as an idea in order to be actuated. This idea
of human perfection is realized by actions that are
in conformity with the moral law.
Metaphysics teaches that every being has certain
inborn inclinations, which it carries out by force
of the principles of its nature. We tend to our own
perfection, and such a tendency must be actuated
along the lines of the specific nature of what we
are. We are human beings; that is our nature. We
are a rational being endowed with intellect and
Our reason allows us to understand that we are
finite beings, that every finite being is
dependent, and that every dependent being receives
what it possesses. Our intellect can discover the
laws of humanity as implanted in our nature as
human beings. These laws of man, in so far as he is
man, are called the natural law.
The natural law does not compose itself
mechanically. Such an idea is alien to our very
nature as human beings, as a free creature. We
must, therefore, follow the dictates of the natural
law freely because our intellect shows us that such
is the way to reach human perfection and
The command of the natural law is an imperative,
expressed this way: Be what a rational being
endowed with free will must be.
Anyone acting according to the rules of reason
can reach a relative happiness in the present
Politics: The Problem of Man's Social
We are social beings. The tendency to perfection
brings us into contact with others. We establish
families, the first society in the order of time,
to ensure the continuation of the human race and
provide us with personal and cultural
But the family alone is not sufficient for all
our activities. We need a larger society, the civil
society, which is rooted in our natural tendency
toward perfection and not in any social contract as
some would have it.
The concept of authority is drawn from the very
notion of society and from our nature as social
beings. No determined form of society is
established by nature, and different forms can be
constructed according to the needs of the people or
of the times.
Authority, which represents the whole of
society, has the positive duty of procuring all
that is best for the citizens. From this arises the
concept of right, which determines what each man
can do in the order of the common good. From the
concept of right flows the concept of sanction,
which is directed toward repairing injuries.
The end of society is the common good of its
members. A juridical regulation will be just if it
corresponds to this good; otherwise, it will be
This realistic philosophy described above can
truly be called the perennial philosophy. Its roots
are firmly planted in the classic realistic
tradition which has come down to us through many
thousands of years. And yet, because this
philosophy considers all new knowledge, no matter
what the source, it stays fresh, contemporary, and
The answer to today's intellectual insanity is
Realistic Philosophy. Cognitive Subjectivism and
Moral Relativism, Metaphysical Materialism and
Metaphysical Idealism, and all the
pseudo-philosophies derived from them, have led our
culture and society down a false and dangerous
path. The results of their insidious influence are
all around us.
It's time to repudiate these false philosophies
and take up the banner of Philosophical Realism. It
alone can bring about the new intellectual
renaissance which is so needed today.
For books about Classical Realism, see Dr.
Jonathan Dolhenty's Recommended Bookshelf for
Students of Classical Realism
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