Think Free


Realism – What is real, anyhow?

English: Cover of the October 1920 issue of Po...

Cover of the October 1920 issue of Popular Science magazine, painted by American illustrator Norman Rockwell. It depicts an inventor working on a perpetual motion machine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Realism is a term with several meanings. Here are three:

1- Creative work in arts and culture, known as “representations” that appear natural and accurate. The accuracy can be poetic or blunt, and may carry a political message.

Like most things, the definition of a realist artist is unclear. For instance, people still debate whether the American painter, Norman Rockwell, is a realist or not. Cristina Acosta says “To most non-artists, Norman Rockwell is perceived to be a Realist. He isn’t. And he is.”¹

2 – Realism is a philosophical view that external objects exist, even when not perceived by an observer. This is related to the question – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

On this point I remember talking with a professor about the possibility of the world being a “field of stimuli” external to the observer. I was still pretty young and it was an abstract idea which, at the time, was fascinating to consider. Basically it means that the world as we perceive it isn’t always as we perceive it. But something is still there: The potential to be seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted.

Little did I know that philosophers and physicists had been thinking along the same lines for many years. Well, actually, I did know. I was beginning to find out. But my discoveries were not only conceptual but also experiential. And it wasn’t always fun and games, to put it mildly. Looking back I can see that I was entering into a pivotal period of personal growth. And this leads, in a sense, to the third definition.

3 – In theology, realism is the belief that universal essences are more real than any individual temporal manifestation. An early version of this view is outlined in Plato‘s theory of eternal, unchanging Forms. After that, Medieval theologians adapted Plato’s theory to fit with Christian belief (Plato living well before the earthly Jesus).


Related » Akhenaton, Idealism, Nominalism, Surrealism


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The Scholastics

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym of Thomism. Picture by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “scholastics” is what we call the leading churchmen-scholars in the Middle Ages.  These religious thinkers used the logical methods of their time to debate complex, often abstract theological issues, many of which were premised on faith. This is also known as Scholasticism.

The scholastics never asked “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” But this question is often cited to satirize their approach, which to critics seems arbitrary and metaphysically excessive.

The influential scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas adapted arguments from (the Greek pre-Christian) Aristotle into a Christian network of beliefs. Interestingly, Aristotle’s voluminous works were translated from the Greek into Latin by Arab scholars.


Duns-Scotus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After some kind of direct encounter with God near the end of his life, Aquinas apparently said that his many writings were like a “house of straw.” In other words, worthless compared to direct experience. Nevertheless, his arguments, many of which seem to be couched in ancient and medieval ways of understanding, are often cited to illustrate and (apparently) legitimize Catholic teachings.

Perhaps the abstract intellectualism and intense quibbling of the scholastics lost sight of basic Christian teaching of loving God and one another. And for one person to believe he or she can definitively speak about God, no matter how cleverly, seems quite arrogant from a contemporary standpoint.

Some of the more noteworthy scholastics are St. Anselm, William of Ockham, Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus

Related » Idealism, Nominalism, Ontological Argument, Universalism

¹ Wikipedia lists several more whom I’ve encountered but not really had the time to study.


St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before becoming known as St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was the son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant, next in line to take over his father’s prosperous business.

In his youth Francis was a popular dilettante, enjoying friends and parties. In keeping with expectations for the young upper-class men of the day, he fought in the army and was taken prisoner. Suffering a serious illness, Francis apparently had some kind of powerful mystical vision.

He returned to his father, telling him he could no longer continue with the family business. Scorned by his father, Francis went to the central square in Assisi where he removed his clothing for all to see, which was his way of renouncing his life of worldly gain. Standing naked, a nearby person threw him a course blanket, which he took to wear. Francis went on to form the friars minor (fratres minores), a monastic order characterized by chastity and extreme poverty, and all of its members wore the same course cloth.

The order grew quickly. By 1219 the Franciscans swelled to over 5,000 members. His former friend and spiritual love, Lady Clare of Assisi, followed suit by likewise renouncing the world. She founded a similar but sequestered order and was eventually canonized.

Stories about St. Francis abound, telling of his love and tenderness toward animals, his writing a canticle to “brother sun, sister moon” and his insistence on complete poverty, which he affectionately personified as “Lady Poverty.” He apparently opened the Bible at random every morning and read a verse to set the tone for his actions throughout the day, believing that God directed him to the right passage. And with Papal permission he unsuccessfully tried to convert the Muslims in the Holy Land, who nonetheless were impressed by his piety.

He also endured a painful medieval eye operation using red-hot irons to remove cataracts. And he is one of the very few mystics said to have miraculously received the stigmata—physical marks of Christ’s crucifixion appearing on one’s own hands and feet.

St. Francis was buried in his native town of Assisi. He remains, perhaps, Catholicism’s most popular saint, probably because his kind of example can be easily understood by rank and file Catholics. However, it’s hard to know if his knowledge of God was a deep as, say, the contemplative St. Faustina Kowalska, who apparently saw Jesus on a near daily basis.

His feast day is October 4.

Related Posts » Divination, Jainism, Levels of Knowledge, Suffering

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Henry of Ghent


Ghent (Belgium) by crafterm via Flickr

Henry of Ghent (? – 1293) was a Medieval Scholastic who taught at the university of Paris. He revived St. Augustine of Hippo’s idea that knowledge arrives through an “illumination of the intellect” by God.

Ghent believed that even knowledge of natural phenomena depends in part on divine illumination. Some contemporary writers such as Marina Warner say it is “absurd thinking” to suppose that God intervenes in natural matters such as conception.¹

This demonstrates Warner’s belief that the idea of ‘nature’ is discrete from ‘Spirit.’ However, for Ghent, the natural and the spiritual realms mingle—at least, they do when it comes to knowing. Ghent’s view of knowledge was attacked by Duns Scotus.

¹ Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, London: Vintage, 2000, p. 46.