Feser Neo Scholastic Essays On Love

In the March 2016 issue of The Review of Metaphysics, philosopher Jamie Spiering reviews my book Neo-Scholastic Essays.  From the review:

Feser has found that Aristotelian-Thomistic teaching is a strong, coherent system that can provide clarity and answers in vexing contemporary debates… Feser writes admirably, with a clear, direct style that is polemical but not uncharitable or contentious… These would make excellent texts to offer to students... The clarity may also be appreciated by professional readers as a refreshing change from the sometimes fusty level of detail in recent work on natural theology -- instead, Feser allows us to refocus on perennial issues…

Feser has a gift for seeing the heart of a problem, as well as a gift for clear expression and high-quality, fair polemic -- these factors, together, offer the best reasons to read anything written by him, and this work is no exception.

I thank Prof. Spiering for the very kind words.  Naturally, she also has some criticisms.  Spiering worries that aspects of the book may be too “neo-scholastic” in a pejorative sense.  For one thing, she judges that there are not enough citations from Aristotle, noting that “there are very few direct references to ‘the Philosopher’ of the scholastics, and I saw only one in which Bekker numbers were included.”  For another thing, she says that:

[Feser] tends to characterize Thomistic arguments metaphysically, and to some extent he avoids discussing how observations of nature provided the foundation for terms such as matter, form, motion, nature, and end.  This is a troubling trend, since without paying attention to the observations on which the Aristotelian system is founded, we cannot engage those who continue to observe nature.

Many readers of this blog are bound to find these remarks puzzling, given how often I defend distinctively Aristotelian theses and arguments, and given how often I emphasize that between modern natural science on the one hand and metaphysics on the other, there is a neglected but crucial middle ground field of study known as the philosophy of nature.  (Indeed, there is a whole essay in Neo-Scholastic Essays on the theme that natural theology must be grounded in the philosophy of nature.) 

To understand why Prof. Spiering raises the criticisms she does requires, I think, some knowledge of Thomistic “inside baseball.”  So let me say a little about that.  (The excursus to follow may seem a little long for a response to a book review, but I think readers will find the points I am about to make useful for understanding other disputes between Thomists.)

Longtime readers will recall a couple of posts from a few years back (here and here) summarizing the various schools of thought within twentieth-century Thomism.  Four of these schools are particularly relevant to the present discussion.  Neo-Scholastic Thomism emphasizes the way in which Thomism can be worked out systematically and applied to a critique of the fundamental assumptions of the various schools of modern philosophy.  Its systematicity is reflected in the style of the manuals of philosophy and theology with which it is famously associated.  Laval or River Forest Thomism emphasizes Thomism’s foundation in Aristotelianism, and in particular in Aristotle’s philosophy of nature rather than in the more abstract domain of general metaphysics.  It is particularly interested in questions about how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition ought to interpret the results of modern natural science.  Existential Thomism, by contrast, emphasizes the centrality to Aquinas’s thought of general metaphysical themes that go beyond what Aristotle himself held, namely the distinction between essence and existence, the notion of God as subsistent being itself, and so forth.  Accordingly, it tends not to emphasize either questions about how to interpret natural science, or what in Thomism is specifically Aristotelian.  Analytical Thomism emphasizes the ways in which themes and arguments in the Thomistic tradition can be brought into conversation with contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy. 

Now, none of these approaches is necessarily in conflict with the others, and I have myself been deeply influenced by all four of them.  Unfortunately, however, some representatives of these schools are a little too prone to accuse the others of deviation from genuine Thomism.  For instance, Laval Thomists sometimes accuse Existential Thomists and Neo-Scholastic Thomists of overemphasizing the metaphysics of essence and existence and neglecting the distinctively Aristotelian and philosophy of nature oriented aspects of Aquinas’s thought.  Existential Thomists accuse Neo-Scholastic Thomists of being too influenced by the modern rationalist tradition of Leibniz and Wolff.  Both schools accuse Neo-Scholastic Thomists of being insufficiently attentive to the history of philosophy and to the actual texts of Aquinas and/or Aristotle.  “Neo-Scholastic” became a general term of abuse in part because of factors like these, and also in part because of the polemical use made of the term by Nouvelle theologie writers (to bring yet another school of thought into this often confusing mix).  My own view is that most of these sorts of criticisms are unjust and exaggerate the significance of what are really only differences of emphasis.  (I have defended Neo-Scholasticism against such charges in a recent article.)

Then there is the fact that “analytical Thomists” are sometimes accused of distorting Thomist ideas and arguments by reading them in light of alien philosophical assumptions that are taken for granted by contemporary analytic philosophers but ought to be questioned by a Thomist.  Sometimes there is justice to such charges.  For example, I would certainly agree that it is a deep mistake to read a Fregean notion of existence into Aquinas’s doctrine of being, and that Anthony Kenny’s famous criticisms of Aquinas’s doctrine reflect such a misreading.  However, here too, such charges are often unjust.  Many so-called “analytical Thomists” have no interest in trying to marry Thomism to incompatible contemporary dogmas.  They are simply traditional Thomists who happen to have been trained in and/or to have an interest in the analytic tradition, and aim to present Thomistic ideas and arguments in a way that will be as accessible as possible to contemporary academic analytic philosophers.

Thomists who are not very familiar with the contemporary analytic tradition -- which is the dominant approach in Anglo-American academic philosophy departments -- need to keep in mind that contemporary philosophers do not always use technical terms the way Thomists traditionally do, but that sometimes (by no means always, but sometimes) these differences in usage reflect what are really only semantic rather than substantive differences, and that it is therefore unwise to make too big a deal out of them. 

For example, in Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, the term “science” is traditionally used in a much broader sense than contemporary philosophers and natural scientists use it.  When I use the term, though, I often tend to use it in the narrower modern sense, as long as nothing of substance rides on that usage.  The reason I do this is that it is the sense that the vast majority of my readers will be familiar with, and they would be confused and misled if I were to use it in the older sense.  Nor would it always be advisable in the context of a blog post or a mainstream article to include some explanation of why one is using the term in a way most contemporary readers are unfamiliar with.  Since, again, in most cases nothing of substance rides on it anyway, I think it advisable in many cases to accommodate contemporary usage of the term.  Most of my fellow Thomists are well aware of this and have no problem with it, but occasionally some persnickety Thomist reader will show up in the combox to complain that what I said about science was in “error” when in fact there is no error at all when the sense I had in mind is properly understood.  To be sure, there certainly are some cases where it is important to fight for returning to the older usage of some term, but there are also cases where it is not so important (at least in certain contexts and for certain particular purposes), and a wise man will know the difference.

Another example is the term “metaphysics.”  Contemporary analytic philosophers tend to use this term in a very broad way, and include within the boundaries of metaphysics issues that Thomists would not count as metaphysical.  For example, the question of whether the objects of sensory experience are composites of form and matter would for Thomists be regarded as an issue for philosophy of nature or natural philosophy rather than metaphysics.  Metaphysics, as Thomists understand it, is concerned instead with issues that are not limited to what is true merely of material, changeable reality.  In the very general sense in which contemporary analytic philosophers use the term, however, the question of whether to adopt a form/matter analysis of physical objects is a question of “metaphysics.”  Moreveor, many analytic philosophers are not familiar with the term “philosophy of nature.”  Hence, in my own case, while I will in some contexts emphasize the difference between metaphysics and philosophy of nature, in other contexts I will instead use the term “metaphysics” in the broader contemporary sense.  The reason is that in some contexts (not all, but some), nothing of substance rides on the usage, and accommodating the contemporary usage is in those contexts often the best way to make Aristotelian and Thomist ideas accessible to contemporary readers unfamiliar with them.  In such contexts, using the term in the older way would be confusing to many readers, and explanations of why one is adopting what to them will seem an eccentric usage would be tedious. 

One final consideration before returning to Prof. Spiering’s remarks.  Academics who specialize in the study of the history of philosophy -- most definitely including those who have a special interest in ancient and medieval thought -- are often wary of what they regard as a too-superficial appropriation of the ideas of thinkers of the past, and accordingly emphasize the need for careful scholarship, generous quotations from original texts, recourse to the original languages, etc.   Sometimes this is salutary and can help us to avoid reading contemporary prejudices back into earlier thinkers.  But sometimes, if one is not careful, it can degenerate into mere pedantry and a perpetual deferral of questions of contemporary application.  (“We need fifty more years of scholarship on the minutiae of what was said by each side of such-and-such a medieval debate before we can hope even to begin thinking about someday approaching the question of which side was right!”)  To borrow an apt analogy introduced by Karl Popper in a different context, scholarship in the history of philosophy is sometimes like endlessly cleaning one’s spectacles and never actually using them for what they are for. 

Another danger, though -- one of which Aristotelians and Thomists must be especially wary -- is that when contemporary application is made, scholarship can turn into mere proof-texting and argument from authority.  (“Aristotle actually wrote such-and-such; therefore…”)  I had occasion in a recent post to discuss one recent controversy among Thomists in which such an approach arguably plays too large a role.

So, to return at last to Prof. Spiering’s criticisms: I certainly would not accuse her of all of the foibles I describe above.  But it seems to me that some of them may to some extent have played a role in her remarks.   I gather that her background is in the Laval Thomist tradition and that she specializes in the history of medieval philosophy -- certainly all absolutely terrific stuff, in my view.  My suspicion, though, is that on reading a book by a self-described “Neo-Scholastic,” whose training is in analytic philosophy, who sometimes uses terms like “metaphysics” the way contemporary analytic philosophers do, and who emphasizes questions of contemporary application rather than historical scholarship, Prof. Spiering too hastily drew some conclusions that are not in fact correct, viz. that I would not ground Thomistic arguments in the philosophy of nature, and that my approach is not sufficiently Aristotelian.  Certainly Prof. Spiering gives no specific examples of how I got Aristotle wrong or of Aristotelian insights that I overlooked, nor any specific examples of how my arguments in natural theology or in other areas of philosophy are insufficiently attentive to the grounding of concepts like act, potency, form, matter, finality, etc. in the philosophy of nature.

(For what it is worth, the reasons why, in some of my writings, I do not proceed by giving extensive quotations from Aristotle or Aquinas are (a) to make it clear that I am focusing on what is actually true and defensible today, and not doing mere textual exegesis or history of philosophy, and (b) to make it clear that I am not arguing from authority.  So, whereas some people accuse me of being too slavish a follower of Aristotle and Aquinas, others occasionally accuse me of being insufficiently Aristotelian or Thomistic.  I take it that the fact that I’ve had both charges flung at me is a sign that I’m doing something right!)

Finally, in another point of criticism, Prof. Spiering regrets that I don’t engage Einstein’s theories in more detail in my essay “Motion in Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein.”  The reason I did not do so, however, is that the essay is concerned specifically with whether motion as Aristotelians understand it -- the actualization of potential -- has been shown by modern science to be illusory, or, if real, as not in need of explanation.  Where Einstein is concerned, the chief issue relevant to this question is whether the Minkowskian four-dimensional block universe casts doubt on the reality of the actualization of potential.  Accordingly, that is what I focus on.   Naturally, relativity raises a great many other philosophical questions, including questions of special interest to Aristotelians.  But those were questions beyond the narrow scope of the paper.  (As it happens, I have a lot more to say about relativity in the book on Aristotelian philosophy of nature I am currently working on.)

All the same, I thank Prof. Spiering for her review, and for her thoughtful and sincere criticisms as well as her kind words. 

"In a series of publications over the course of a decade, Edward Feser has argued for the defensibility and abiding relevance to issues in contemporary philosophy of Scholastic ideas and arguments, and especially of Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas and arguments. This work has been in the vein of what has come to be known as "analytical Thomism," though the spirit of the proje"In a series of publications over the course of a decade, Edward Feser has argued for the defensibility and abiding relevance to issues in contemporary philosophy of Scholastic ideas and arguments, and especially of Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas and arguments. This work has been in the vein of what has come to be known as "analytical Thomism," though the spirit of the project goes back at least to the Neo-Scholasticism of the period from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Neo-Scholastic Essays collects some of Feser's academic papers from the last ten years on themes in metaphysics and philosophy of nature, natural theology, philosophy of mind, and ethics. Among the diverse topics covered are: the relationship between Aristotelian and Newtonian conceptions of motion; the varieties of teleological description and explanation; the proper interpretation of Aquinas's Five Ways; the impossibility of a materialist account of the human intellect; the philosophies of mind of Kripke, Searle, Popper, and Hayek; the metaphysics of value; the natural law understanding of the ethics of private property and taxation; a critique of political libertarianism; and the defensibility and indispensability to a proper understanding of sexual morality of the traditional "perverted faculty argument.""--...more

Paperback, 392 pages

Published June 30th 2015 by St. Augustines Press (first published May 20th 2015)

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