Idealism, Empiricism and Realism in Rev. Moon’s Philosophy

By Keisuke Noda

Conceptual frameworks for interpretation determine the limits, or horizons, of human understanding. This applies to the interpretation of Unificationism, the philosophy of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Here, I look to Platonic idealism and Aristotelian empiricism as two frameworks to interpret “reality;” and I use these frameworks to explore how we can draw out different aspects of Unificationism.  One can certainly use other perspectives to disclose other dimensions of Rev. Moon’s philosophy.

Nevertheless, I use these frameworks to explore how we interpret and relate to Unificationism, and conclude by looking at fishing to highlight the radical realism of Unificationism.

Platonic Idealism: Divine Principle

The most common reading of Rev. Moon’s thought is as a form of Platonic idealism. This aspect of Unificationism is best described in Divine Principle, the core teaching of Unificationism presented in the Exposition of the Divine Principle, the main text of Unificationism. Unificationists, for the most part, understand Unificationism from the way it is presented in this text.

Plato described in his Republic his ideal state as a hierarchical society governed by the Philosopher-King. Likewise, Unificationism presents the Heavenly Kingdom as a society governed by the Second Advent, the “True Parents.” Just as the Philosopher-King, who “knows” the ultimate truth, can tell others what to do, the Kingdom of Heaven is portrayed in the Divine Principle as a hierarchical society where True Parents are the central channel who convey God’s Will and His messages.

Plato viewed the unchangeable and eternal, such as the Ideas of Good, Beauty and others, as reality, and the changeable or temporal as less real, a sort of shadow of eternal Ideas. Hence, the world of Ideas, where souls go after leaving the body in death, is the real world. Accordingly, reality is grounded elsewhere, in another world.  Although Unificationism presents the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the ideal, the society it envisions is still a Platonic hierarchical idealistic world under the Messianic “True Parents,” and so the center of gravity exists in Ideas that are eternal, absolute and unchanging.

When I joined CARP, a student organization of the Unification Church, in 1970 on the Waseda University campus in Tokyo, a place occupied by communist radicals, I was inspired by this Platonic vision. Idealism, be it Marxism or Unificationism, was appealing to youth in the 1960s and ‘70s. The majority of my classmates joined Marxist movements to build a socialist utopia. A “Grand Narrative,” a one-size-fits-all theory of modernism, was dominant as the spirit of the era. Many approached these theories through the question of which grand narrative was right, rather than questioning whether a grand narrative was the right approach to begin with. Hence, the Unificationist grand narrative appealed to me as a 19-year-old college student, and I joined CARP to build an ideal world.

Aristotelian Empiricism: “Your conscience is greater than God and True Parents”

In the 1990s, Rev. Moon began to teach the moral autonomy of individuals. He called it the “Declaration of Conscience,” and expressed it in such phrases as the “Conscience is greater than parents, greater than teachers, and greater than God.” (Jan. 17, 1995, Sutteri Central Training Center; 水択里中央修練所). He also asked members to pray not “in True Parents name,” but “in your name.” Just as Christians pray in Jesus’s name, Unificationists had been praying “in the name of True Parents.” Rev. Moon instructed all members to pray in their own names. Since then, every Unificationist prays in their own name, or jointly as a family. His message was about the freedom and responsibility of autonomous individuals. Furthermore, Rev. Moon redefined the concept of Messiah. He asked individuals to recognize that they are a Messiah in one’s personal and social contexts.

This idea can be understood by looking to the shift from Plato’s framework to Aristotle’s in how they approached reality.  Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, rejected the Platonic view of reality as Ideas/Universals and instead looked to the individual. For Aristotle, each unique individual constitutes reality and universals such as “human,” “animal,” and Platonic Ideas are then abstracted from concrete beings. While Plato saw the Ideas/Universals as the eternal and unchanging reality, Aristotle rejected Plato’s claim, and saw diverse, concrete, unique individual beings as the primal reality. For Aristotle, universals are less real, conceptual, abstract, and linguistic.

Aristotle moved the center of gravity from the world of Ideas (Plato) to the concrete, diverse world we live in. With this insight, Aristotle tried to explain why and how the world is diverse and developed pluralistic ways to approach phenomena. Hence, he developed all types of human, social and natural sciences.

Aristotle further recognized the diversity of phenomena. Each distinct phenomenon requires appropriate methods. From logic to psychology, poetry, ethics, political science, and all sorts of disciplines, Aristotle demarcated the phenomenal differences and established appropriate methods and approaches to each distinct phenomena, thereby establishing academic disciplines. For Aristotle, why and how the phenomenal world is so diverse and different is the primary issue to be explained.

Additionally, for Aristotle, the flourishing of individuals is critical to forming a good society. While Plato emphasized “knowing” the truth as key to flourishing as an individual, Aristotle rejected such Idealism. Aristotle distinguished knowledge into episteme (scientific), techne (skills and crafts), and phronesis (practical), and argued that individuals and societies flourish by developing diverse human capacities. He envisioned society as a mixed political system with checks and balances.

In a Platonic model, members are expected to follow the Philosopher-King. In an Aristotelian model, members are expected to build social ideals by their own innovative works and communal efforts. In the history of philosophy, modern thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau and Kant further elaborated on the autonomy of individuals as the foundation of civil society.

In my personal observations, many Unificationists interpreted this component of Rev. Moon’s philosophy within the framework of Platonic idealism of the Divine Principle, the core teaching of Unificationism. Divine Principle certainly has a concept of Individual Embodiment of Truth that recognizes the reality of individual beings. Consequently, many Unificationists saw this declaration of the conscience as a matter of emphasis rather than a paradigm shift.

If we see Rev. Moon’s thought through the lens of the Plato-Aristotle shift, however, this component of Rev. Moon’s thought is like the radical shift from Platonic idealism to Aristotelian empiricism with the modern concept of the autonomy of the individual.

This turn in Rev. Moon’s philosophy coincided with the rise of postmodernism, which values local truths in each unique context over the one-size-fits-all Grand Narrative approach of modernity. While modernists presupposed the single “reality” of a one-size-fits-all theory, postmodernists pursued pluralistic “realities” in diverse, unique contexts. Although postmodernists rejected classic Aristotelianism itself, it is not surprising that contemporary Aristotelianism, particularly his ethics/political philosophy, appealed to many in the late 20th century. Thinkers such as Alasdair McIntyre, who adopted Aristotelianism in his communitarian political philosophy, were well-received as an alternative/complement to John Rawls’ modernist political theory.

In my view, this component of Rev. Moon’s thought is not a matter of emphasis, but a different conceptual framework akin to Aristotelian empiricism which led to the development of multiple disciplines. Unfortunately, the radical nature of this shift may not have been recognized by Unificationists because of their Platonic conceptual framework.

Rev. Moon might have sensed the rising postmodern spirit of the era, and responded with a radically different conceptual framework. Although some Unificationists developed their unique perspectives, they are the exception rather than the norm.

Radical Realism: Fishing

Rev. Moon loved nature and he had been deeply involved in fishing. “Leadership training” for Rev. Moon was fishing. He would often invite church leaders to the ocean to go fishing as a form of training. As a practical matter, he had a vision of marine industries as the economic foundation for his global activities. From a philosophical perspective, however, what was he trying to convey?

Many Unificationists interpret Rev. Moon’s fishing as nothing more than his personal hobby or a type of “religious” ritualistic devotion, perhaps because of their Platonic conceptual framework. In the Platonic framework, Rev. Moon, the second coming of Christ, appeared as an infallible messenger of God’s messages. In the Aristotelian model, he appeared as a careful observer and experimenter of phenomena like a scientist or an artist. Through fishing, he presented himself as the one who experiments, explores, learns from his mistakes, and challenges at the forefront.

In one instance, Rev. Moon called several Korean leaders to the Pantanal in Brazil for a “workshop” in which he told them to stay there until they each caught 40 fish from four species. It was difficult and Korean leaders had disputes about what was the secret to fishing: was it prayer, religious devotion, luck, or technique?  They went to Rev. Moon, who answered, “You have to know the fish!”

Fish are complex and each species behaves differently according to various factors, such as the phase of the moon, the tides, water currents, weather, temperature, and others. Fishermen often develop their “secret” to catching fish through studies and trial and error, and to catch fish, you must be attentive to nature. The more you study, the more you realize how little we know about the interconnectedness of life and nature, and how much human beings are a part of this cosmic world. Those leaders were looking at just themselves. Rev. Moon told them to dive into the real world, study it, and discover it through trial and error.  And in the context of nature, reality can be brutal and cruel, as well as mysterious, beautiful and comforting.

I characterize Rev. Moon’s approach to reality as “radical realism.” It is “radical” in the sense of its orientation to the root. It is realism because of its commitment to phenomena as they disclose themselves to us. In this approach, reality is fluid. This is one of the key insights of contemporary deconstructionist thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, who developed an anti-mainstream philosophy based on the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Where Derrida and other deconstructionists primarily thought in social, cultural and linguistic terms, however, Rev. Moon’s realism is different in its orientation to nature.

In the Platonic model, followers worship Rev. Moon. You can never catch fish, however, by worshipping and waiting for Rev. Moon to tell you the secret. You must find your own way and compete with him to catch fish.

The remaining question to be answered is how these distinct approaches are “unified” in Rev. Moon’s philosophy. Just as Kant emerged as one of the greatest thinkers by developing his innovative approach to synthesizing modern rationalism and empiricism, articulating “how” Rev. Moon synthesized his distinct approaches will illuminate the meaning and mechanism of “unification” in Unificationism.♦

Dr. Keisuke Noda is Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at UTS. He holds a Diplomate in Logo-philosophy credential from the Viktor Frankl Institute. His books include Even Then I Keep Living (Tokyo, Japan, 2010), and Narrative History of Philosophy (two volumes; Niigata, Japan, 2004).

12 thoughts on “Idealism, Empiricism and Realism in Rev. Moon’s Philosophy

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  1. Thank you very much, Dr. Noda, for this concise but profound analysis of the paradigm shift from Platonic idealism to Aristotelian realism in understanding the Divine Principle and Rev. Moon’s thought.

  2. What do you see as the origin of the evolutionary movement in the direction of greater complexity and greater capacity for perception, cognition, etc.? Unification Thought seems to allow for an Aristotelian model of organism, but with an implicit goal and purpose within every created being planted via the Universal Prime Force. That seems to be more a unified perspective between Plato and Aristotle.

    1. Thank you, Alison. I think the evolutionary perspective is one way to find “uniformity” in Unificationism. I used the concept of “reality” and adopted Plato and Aristotle as two paradigmatic thinkers. The complexity is certainly one way to analyze the intellectual developments of human thought.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Noda.

    Several years ago, at the urging of Dr. Lloyd Eby, I read Alistair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.

    MacIntyre points to the striking fact that in Latin and Greek there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral,’ or rather no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin. As MacIntyre explains:

    “Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’ But ‘moralis,’ like its Greek predecessor; ethikos;’ — Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in De Fato — means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set of dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life.” (After Virtue, pp. 45-46).

    In the beauty, truth and goodness paradigm as explained in Divine Principle, goodness corresponds to a particular set of principles (truth) that define what are moral “dispositions” that guide our behavior from a God-centered viewpoint. In Cheon Seyong Gyeong we read that the “ism” in Godism means “way of living.” (CSG, p. 1065). Cultivating a lifestyle predicated on Godism can then be applied to all human endeavors: family values, governance, commerce, education, journalism, the arts and sciences.

    An important aspect of Rev. Moon’s teaching is that we are all to become tribal messiahs by living in accordance with Godism. The idea that we want our children to be better than us is based on a divine parental impulse rooted in our original mind. In that context, the fish we catch will be the result of fulfilling our personal portions of responsibility as heavenly tribal messiahs, starting with our familes and tribes.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Thank you for your comment. After Virtue was one of the required books in the first ethics class I took at a graduate school in philosophy. I learned from his contextual/narrative approach. He sees an individual’s life as a fabric of multiple communal narratives; they are all interwoven; it is tied with Aristotle’s phronesis – virtue can be developed only through a series of actions toward others. I think yours is an Aristotelian interpretation/reading of Unificationism.

  4. Divine Principle has a notion of “individual truth body”. I interpret that every created being is a substantial realization of the ideas of creation of the Creator. In this sense, Idealism has already been unified with realism.

    Rev. Moon’s philosophy put the concept of Family as the model of an ideal world. Since Family is where we live and enjoy our life since birth, such an idea is simple, practical, workable, and reachable.

    Divine Principle provides a way to reach such an ideal world state. It is restoration through “indemnity”.

    As such, Unificationism attempts to unify Idealism with Empiricism and realism.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The article is intended to examine the frameworks of interpretation of various truth claims, not the truth claims themselves. The framework affects the interpretation of key concepts, truth claims, and how/where one can validate the truth claims. I hope this is clear enough in the article. If not, sorry about the ambiguity.

  5. Dr. Noda,

    Thank you for this interesting article. I do agree with you that Divine Principle and Rev. Moon’s philosophy are generally interpreted on the basis of Greek philosophy. This is a big concern for me. However, my interest here is more ontological than sociological. Both Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy embody an ontology, and their orientation toward idealism or realism reflects their respective stance on form and matter. Similarly Divine Principle too begins from ontology, and, for me, the radical realism of Divine Principle arises from a beginning point in Atomism rather than the form and matter of Plato and Aristotle.

    1. Thank you, David. As you noted, the approach in Divine Principle is very formalistic/typological; it even applies to the concept of God, thereby presenting God as if it is a composite SS/HS. According to Dr. Wilson, Wolli Wonbon takes a relational approach to being. Since you are a chemist, I assume what you mean by “atom” is quantum/wave. In the discussion of “reality,” we certainly need to see how contemporary physics presents “reality.” I lean to the Kuhnian contextual approach (hence, it opens a door to social epistemology).

      1. Yes, if we accept the “principle of resemblance” in Divine Principle, we should expect God to be a complex composite being of many parts, not just SS/HS.

        What I mean by “atom” are the indivisible elementary particles of the Standard Model of particle physics. I don’t mean the quantum wave.

        I am not an expert on social theory, but I bring up ontology because my intuition suggests to me that changing the ontology, as Divine Principle does, ought to also change the social theory built on top of it. For example, the expansion of the Second Blessing from family up through tribe, society, nation, etc., is a social application of particles in relationship where the elementary “particle” is an individual human being.

        Can’t we develop social theory based on our own ontology?

  6. I agree with the idea that ontologically speaking, God has many dimensions that we might not fully understand, but as True Father often mentioned, it is the heartistic parent-child dimension that might be the most salient.

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