"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The eternal notion of truth, conformity of thought with reality, impels us to say: This displeases me and annoys me, but it is none the less true. Still, human interests are so strong that Pilate's question often reappears: What is truth? One answer which we must here examine is that of pragmatism.

I. Pragmatism And Its Variations

There are two kinds of pragmatism, one historical, [1365] the other theoretical. In England, at the end of the last century, Charles S. Peirce, aiming at unburdening philosophy of parrotism and logomachy, sought for a precise criterion whereby to distinguish empty formulas from formulas that have meaning. He proposed to take as criterion "the practical effects we can imagine as resulting from opposed views." A starting-point is found in a remark of Descartes: [1366] "We find much more truth in a man's individual reasoning on his own personal affairs, where loss follows error, than in those of the literary man in his study, where no practical result is anticipated." Equivalent remarks were often made by the ancients.

This form of pragmatism, which still grants much objectivity to knowledge, is also that of Vailati and Calderoni. Subsequently, however, with William James, pragmatism becomes a form of subjectivism, thus defined in the work cited: "A doctrine according to which truth is a relation, entirely immanent to human experience, whereby knowledge is subordinated to activity, and the truth of a proposition consists in its utility and satisfactoriness." [1367] That is true which succeeds.

Hence arise many variations. We find a pragmatic skepticism, similar to that of the ancient sophists, where success means pleasure to him who defends the proposition. Truth and virtue give way to individual interest. A profitable lie becomes truth. What is an error for one man is truth for his neighbor. "Justice limited by a river," says Pascal. "How convenient! Truth here is error beyond the Pyrenees!".

An opposite extreme understands success to mean spontaneous harmony among minds engaged in verifying facts held in common. At the end of his life, James approached this view, which endeavors to uphold the eternal and objective notion of truth.

Between these two extremes we find many nuances, reasons of state, for example, or of family, where interests, national or private, defy objective truth and even common sense. Or again, opportunism, for which truth means merely the best way to profit by the present situation. Seeing these inferior connotations of pragmatism, as in course of acceptance by public usage, Maurice Blondel [1368] resolved to renounce the word which he had previously employed.

Edouard Le Roy writes as follows: "When I use the word 'pragmatism,’ I give it a meaning quite different from that of the Anglo-Americans who have made the word fashionable. My employment of the word does not at all mean to sacrifice truth to utility, nor to allow, in the search for particular truths, even the least intervention of considerations extraneous to the love of truth itself. But I do hold that, in the search for truth, both scientific and moral, one of the signs of a true idea is the fecundity of that idea, its aptitude for practical results. Verification, I hold, should be a work, not merely a discourse." [1369].

Yet Le Roy [1370] proceeded to this pragmatist conception of dogma: In your relations to God, act as you do in your relations with men. Dogma, accordingly, is before all else a practical prescription. Dogma, speaking precisely, would not be true by its conformity with divine reality, but by its relation to the religious act to be performed, and the practical truth of the act would appear in the superior success of that religious experience in surmounting life's difficulties. Hence the following proposition was condemned by the Church: "The dogmas of faith are to be retained only in the practical sense, i. e.: as preceptive norms of action, but not as norms of belief." [1371] Thus the dogma of the Incarnation would not affirm that Jesus is God, but that we must act towards Jesus as we do towards God. The dogma of the Eucharist would not affirm, precisely, His Real Presence, but that practically we ought to act as if that Presence were objectively certain. Thus we see that the elevated variations of pragmatism are not without danger, both in maintaining truth in general, and in particular dogmatic truths, defined by the Church as immutable and as conformed to the extramental reality which they express.

In opposition to all forms of pragmatism, let us recall the traditional notion of truth, in all its manifestations, from highest to lowest, including the truth in prudential arguments, which are always practically true, even when at times they involve a speculative error absolutely involuntary.

II. The Two Notions Compared

Adequation of intellect and object: that is the definition of truth given by St. Thomas. [1372] He quotes that of St. Augustine: Truth is that by which reality is manifested, and that of St. Hilary: Truth declares and manifests reality. The first relation of reality to intellect, St. Thomas continues, is that reality correspond to intellect. This correspondence is called adequation of object and intellect, wherein the conception of truth is formally completed. And this conformity, this adequation, of intellect to reality, to being, is what the idea of truth adds to the idea of being.

Truth, then, is the intellect's conformity with reality. Change in this universal notion of truth brings with it total change in the domain of knowledge. The modernists, says Pius X, overturn the eternal notion of truth. [1373].

Without going to this extreme, Maurice Blondel, [1374] in 1906, one year before the encyclical Pascendi, wrote a sentence that would lead to unmeasured consequences in science, in philosophy, and in faith and religion. In place of the abstract and chimerical definition of truth as the adequation of intellect and reality, thus he wrote, we must substitute methodical research, and define truth as follows: the adequation of intellect and life. How well this sentence expressed the opposition between the two definitions, ancient and modern! But what great responsibility does he assume who brands as chimerical a definition maintained in the Church for centuries. [1375].

Life, as employed in the new definition, means human life. How, then, does the definition escape the condemnation [1376] inflicted on the following modernist proposition: Truth is not more unchangeable than is man himself, since it evolves with, in, and through man. [1377].

Change in definition entails immense consequences. He who dares it should be sure beforehand that he clearly understands the traditional definition, particularly in its analogous quality, which, without becoming metaphorical, is still proportional. Ontological truth, for example, is the conformity of creatures with the intellect of the Creator. Logical truth is the conformity of man's intellect to the world around him, which he has not made but only discovered. Logical truth is found both in existential judgments, e. g.: Mont Blanc exists, this horse is blind, I am thinking, and in essential judgments, e. g.: man is a rational animal, blindness is a privation, the laws of the syllogism are valid.

Truth, then, like being, unity, the good, and the beautiful, is not a univocal notion, but an analogical notion. Thus truth in God is adequation in the form of identity, God's intellect being identified with God's being eternally known. Truth in possible creatures is their correspondence with God's intellect. Truth in actual creatures is their conformity with the decrees of God's will. Nothing that is not God, not even created free acts, can exist except as causally dependent on God.

Truth, then, is coextensive with all reality. A change in defining truth, then, brings corresponding changes, not only in the domain of knowledge, but in that of willing and acting, since as we know, so do we will.

III. Pragmatic Consequences

In sciences, physical and physico-mathematical, those facts which exist independently of our mind are considered certain, as laws which express constant relations among phenomena. Postulates, hypotheses, are defined by their relation to the truth to be attained, not as yet accessible or certain. To illustrate. On the principle of inertia, many scientists hold that inertia in repose is certain, meaning that a body not acted upon by an exterior cause remains in repose. But others, H. Poincare, for example, or P. Duhem, see in this view a mere postulate suggested by our experience with inertia in movement, which means that "a body already in motion, if no exterior cause acts upon it, retains indefinitely its motion, rectilinear and uniform." Experience suggests this view, because as obstacles diminish, the more is motion prolonged, and because "a constant force, acting on a material point entirely free, impresses on it a motion uniformly accelerated," as is the motion of a falling body. But the second formula of inertia, as applied to a body in repose, is not certain, because, as Poincare [1378] says: "No one has ever experimented on a body screened from the influence of every force, or, if he has, how could he know that the body was thus screened? " The influence of a force may remain imperceptible.

Inertia in repose, then, remains a postulate, a proposition, that is, which is not self-evident, which cannot be proved either a priori or a posteriori, but which the scientist accepts in default of any other principle. The scientist, says P. Duhem, [1379] has no right to say that the principle is true, but neither has he the right to say it is false, since no phenomenon has so far constrained us to construct a physical theory which would exclude this principle. It is retained, so far, as guide in classifying phenomena. This line of argument renders homage to the objective notion of truth. We could not reason thus under truth's pragmatic definition.

Let us look now at metaphysical principles: The principle of contradiction or identity, [1380] that of sufficient reason, [1381] that of efficient causality, [1382] and that of finality. [1383] These principles, we say, are true, because it is evident that they are primary laws, not only of our mind but of all reality. They are not merely existential judgments, but express objective and universal impossibilities. Never and nowhere can a thing simultaneously exist and not exist, can a thing be without its raison d'etre, can a non-necessary thing exist without cause, can a thing act without any purpose. Metaphysical principles admit no exception. But they all disappear under the pragmatic definition of truth.

The truth in the formulas of faith is their conformity with the realities which they express; the Trinity, the Incarnation, eternal life, eternal pain, the Real Presence, the value of Mass. Although the concepts which express subject and predicate in these formulas are generally analogous, the verb "is" (or its equivalent) expresses immutable conformity to the reality in question. I am the truth and the life, says Jesus Though "truth" and "life" are analogous notions, Jesus added: "My words shall not pass away." The same holds good of all dogmatic formulas. They are not mere "norms of action." They do not express mere "conformity of our minds with our lives." They express primarily, not our religious experience, but divine reality, a reality which often transcends experience, as, for instance, when we believe in heaven or n hell. Who can claim to experience the hypostatic union? Or the infinite values of Christ's death? We may experience indeed, not these mysteries themselves, but their effects in us. The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God. [1384] The Spirit, says St. Thomas, commenting on that sentence, evokes in us a filial affection which we can experience. But even this experience we cannot absolutely distinguish from a mere sentimental affection.

Faith, therefore, both by its divine object and by its infallible certitude, transcends our experience. This is true even when faith, under the special inspirations of the gifts of knowledge and wisdom, becomes ever more savorous and penetrating. [1385] These gifts, far from constituting faith, presuppose faith. The same holds good of all religious experience. It holds good likewise of the certitude of faith and of the ardor of charity. Hope and charity presuppose faith and the act of faith itself presupposes credibility in the truths to be believed.

Dogmatic propositions, too, derive certainty from their conformity to the reality which they express. When God's revelation employs the natural notions of our intelligence, the natural certainty we have on all truths deriving from these notions is supplemented by a supernatural certainty, deriving from that revelation. Thus, when God says: I am He who is, our philosophical certainty of the attributes that belong to self-existent being is supplemented by theological certitude. When Jesus is revealed as truly God and truly man, theology deduces, with a certitude which transcends our experience, that Jesus has two wills, one belonging to His divine nature, and the other to His human nature.

Under the pragmatist definition of truth, on the contrary, we would have to say, and it has been recently said, that theology is at bottom merely a system of spirituality which has found rational instruments adequated to its religious experience. [1386] Thus Thomism would be the expression of Dominican spirituality, Scotism that of Franciscan spirituality, Molinism that of Ignatian spirituality. Hence, since these three systems of spirituality are approved by the Church, also the theological systems, which are their expression, would all be simultaneously true, as being each in conformity with the particular religious experience which is their respective originating principle. This position, if we recall that at times these systems contradict one another, is itself a painful illumination of the contrast between the traditional and pragmatist definitions of truth.

The question arises: Can a system of spirituality be true if it is not objectively founded on true doctrine? We, like many others, look on these ingenious theories as false spiritualizations of theology, reduced to a religious experience, wherein we look in vain for an objective foundation. Spiritual pragmatism may lead at best to prudential certitude which arises, not directly from objective conformity with reality, but from subjective conformity with a right intention. But it would then have to descend still lower, because prudential truth and certitude presuppose a higher certitude, an objective certitude, without which even prudential certitude would vanish.

The certitude of prudence, as explained by Aquinas, [1387] following Aristotle, contains that which is true in limited pragmatism. Prudence is a virtue, even an intellectual virtue, in the moral order, a virtue which transcends opinion, and reaches a practical certitude on the goodness of the act in question. The truth of the practical intellect, Aristotle [1388] has said, differs from that of the speculative intellect. Speculative truth means conformity with objective reality. But since the intellect is limited to the necessary truths of reality, it cannot attain infallible conformity with the contingent and variable elements of reality. The contingent, as such, cannot be the subject matter of a speculative science. Truth in the practical intellect, on the contrary, means conformity with good will, with good intention. When for instance, presented with an unsuspected poisoned drink, a man proceeds to partake, his speculative error does not prevent his having a true prudential judgment based on his intention to obey charity and politeness. Practical truth can coexist with speculative error. Pragmatism can claim this partial truth.

Pragmatism Must Return to Tradition

One chief difficulty, proposed by the philosophy of action, appears in St. Thomas [1389] in the form of an objection. The thesis is: Goodness in the will depends on reason. The objection runs thus: The reverse is true, because as the Philosopher [1390] says, truth conformed to right appetite is the goodness of the practical intellect, and right appetite means good will In other words, each man's judgment follows his fundamental inclination, bad or good. If this fundamental inclination is bad, the judgment will be wrong. But if the inclination is good, the judgment too will be right and true, just as spiritual pragmatism maintains.

The saint's answer runs thus: The Philosopher is speaking here of the practical intellect, as engaged in the order of means, to find the best road to a presupposed goal, for this is the work of prudence. Now it is true that in the order of means the goodness of the reason consists in its conformity with the will's inclination to the right end and goal. But, he adds, this very inclination of the will presupposes the right knowledge of the end, and this knowledge comes from reason. [1391].

Prudential certitude, then, does presuppose right intention in the will, but this right intention itself derives its rectitude from those higher principles of reason which are true by their conformity with objective reality, with our nature and our last end. To reduce all truth to prudential certitude means to destroy prudential certitude itself.

To this extreme we seem to be led by those who, abandoning the eternal notion of truth as conformity with objective reality, propose rather to define truth as conformity of spirit with the exigencies of human life, a conformity known by a constantly developing experience, moral and religious. Here we are surely near the following modernistic proposition: Truth is not more immutable than is man himself, since it evolves with him, in him, and through him. [1392].

The pragmatism we are here dealing with is not, we must acknowledge, the grovelling pragmatism of social climbers or politicians, who utilize mendacity as practical truth, as sure road to success. It is rather the pragmatism of good and honest men who claim to have a high level of religious experience. But they forget that man's will, man's intention, can be right and good only by dependence on the objective and self-supporting principles of man's nature and man's destination, as known by reason and revelation, principles which impose on him the duty of loving God, above all things, man himself included. This truth, the source of man's good will and intention, rests on its conformity with the highest levels of reality, on the nature of our soul and our will, on the nature of God and God's sovereign goodness, on the nature of infused grace and charity, which are proportioned to God's own inner and objective life.

The consequences, then, even of this higher pragmatism, are ruinous, though unforeseen by those who meddle with the traditional definition of truth. We noted above [1393] the remark of M. Maurice Blondel that the abstract and chimerical definition of truth as "conformity of intellect to reality" should be abandoned in favor of "conformity of mind with life." That was in 1906. Though he later attempted to draw near to St. Thomas, he still wrote: [1394] "No intellectual evidence, even that of ah solute and ontologically valid principles, is imposed on us with a certitude that is spontaneous and infallibly compelling; not more than our objective idea of the absolute Good acts on our will as it would if we already had the intuitive vision of perfect goodness."

To admit parity here would be a grave error, because our adherence to first principles is necessary, [1395] whereas our choice to prefer God to all else is, in this life, free. Here below God is not known as a good which draws us invincibly, whereas the truth of the principle, say of contradiction, can simply not be denied. He who knows the meaning of the two words "circle" and "square" has necessary and compelling evidence of the objective impossibility of a square circle.

The higher pragmatism does not, it is true, sacrifice truth to utility. But to abandon the traditional definition of truth is to unsettle all foundations, in science, in metaphysics, in faith, in theology. Prudential truth rests on an order higher than itself. The enthusiasm of hope and charity, if it is not to remain a beautiful dream of religious emotion, must rest on a faith which is in conformity with reality, not merely with the exigencies of our inner life, or even with our best intentions Nothing can be intended except as known. Unless the intellect is right in its judgment on the end to be attained, there can be no rectitude in the will. The good, says St. Thomas, [1396] belongs first to reason under the form of truth, before it can belong to the will as desirable, because the will cannot desire good unless that good is first apprehended by the reason.

Our view is supported by Emile Boutroux. [1397] He writes as follows: "Is it the special action of the will which is in question? But the will demands an end, a purpose. Can you say that you offer an intelligible formula when you speak of a will which takes itself as purpose, that it has its own self as proper principle? That which these men search for by these ingenious theories is action, self-sufficient action independent of all concepts which would explain or justify action.

"Is not this to return willy-nilly to pragmatism? Human pragmatism, if the action is human, divine pragmatism, if the action is divine: action, conceived as independent of intellectual determination, which ought to be the source (and supreme rule) of human activity. Action for action's sake, action arising from action, simon-pure praxis, which perhaps brings forth concepts, but is itself independent of all concepts—does this abstract pragmatism still merit the name of religion?

"... And do you not enter on an endless road if you search in a praxis isolated from thought for the essence, for the true principle of a life according to religion? ".

Let us, then, return to the traditional definition of truth. Action can never be the first criterion. The first criterion must be ontological, must be that objective reality from which reason draws first principles. The first act of the intellect is to know, not its own action, not the ego, not phenomena, but objective and intelligible being. [1398] The exigencies of life, far from making our thoughts true, derive their own truth from the thoughts that conform to reality and to divine reality. [1399].


But surely we know our life, our will, our activity, better than we know the external world.

The question is not what we know best, but what we know first, and what we know first is not individual differences, not even specific differences, but external intelligible reality as being, as giving us first principles, without which we could not even say: "I think, therefore I am." Further, the intellect knows what is within it better than it knows what is in the will, since we can always have some doubt on the purity of our intentions, which may be inspired by secret selfishness or pride. Man knows first principles with an incomparable certainty. But he cannot know with certainty that he is in the state of grace, in the state of charity.

As regards E. Le Roy, we hear it said that what is false is not his notion of truth in general, but his notion of the truth of dogma.

We reply, first, that this defense is itself an admission that pragmatism in its proper sense leads to heresy. Secondly, Le Roy maintains pragmatism, not only in the field of dogma, but also in that of philosophy. "All ontological realism is ruinous and absurd: anything beyond thought is by definition unthinkable. Hence, with all modern philosophy, we must admit some kind of idealism." [1400].

Thirdly, the phrase "anything beyond thought is unthinkable" holds good indeed of divine thought, but not of human thought, which distinguishes between things as yet undiscovered and things which we know, the extramental reality, e. g.: of this table on which I write. Common sense knows evidently the objective validity of the sense knowledge here exemplified. And even idealists, forgetting that they are idealists, often speak the language of common sense. [1401].

As regards Blondel's philosophy of action, we find that he still maintains in his latest work, these two positions: first, concepts are always provisional, second, free will governs the intellect, not only in the act of attention, but also in the act of admitting the validity of first principles. [1402] Thus, though he has turned back to some traditional positions, he is still far off. He gives, as P. Boyer says, [1403] too much imperfection to universal concepts. This is the least one can say. But Blondel rises at times above his own philosophy and affirms the absolute truth concerning God, truth which is conformity of our intellect to extramental reality, to Supreme Reality. [1404].

In the 1945 volume of Acta. Acad. S. Thomae (no. 226) the statement is made that I was obliged to retract what I had said concerning Blondel. That statement is false. My position is still what it was in 1935 [1405] and 1944. [1406] The propositions there quoted, [1407] I held and still hold, are untenable. The philosophy of action must return to the philosophy of being, must change its theories of concept and judgment, must renounce its nominalism, if it is to defend the ontological, extramental validity of first principles and dogmatic formulas.

But did not Blondel [1408] retract the last chapter of l'Action? He did. But he still holds [1409] that concepts have their stability only from the artifice of language, not only in physics and biology, but also in mathematics and logic. He still maintains that the free will intervenes in every judgment, not only as regards attention, but also as regards mental assent, even in first principles. [1410] Hence first principles are not necessary only probable. [1411].

The immutable judgments of faith, then, cannot be preserved inviolate unless we cling to the immutable concepts of being, unity, truth, goodness, nature, and person. And how shall these concepts remain immutable if "they have their stability only from the artifice of language"?

The philosophy of action is true in what it affirms, false in what it denies. It affirms the value of the action by which the human will raises itself to the love of God. [1412] But in denying the validity proper to the intellect, It compromises the validity of voluntary action. [1413] Depreciating intellective truth, we cannot defend our love of God.

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1365 - 1413

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