Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doffing My Dunce Cap to Feser

Edward Feser vigorously defends his book in a new post. He finds some of my criticisms reasonable but finds others "unjust and intemperate" and "quite outrageous". It seems that in comparing his casual dismissals of non-Thomist scholastics to modern philosophers' causal dismissals of Thomism I struck a nerve.

though the rival views are neither agreed with nor treated at the length that would be required to turn a Scotist or Suarezian into a Thomist, they are nevertheless discussed respectfully. There is no polemic whatsoever against Scotist and Suarezian views, nor the least suggestion that those views are unserious or unworthy of study.

This is true. I'm not sure that I said otherwise. Feser certainly never says that alternative scholastic views are unserious or unworthy of study. What I claim is that he does not in fact seem to treat them seriously or study them, despite wanting to give the appearance of doing so.

nowhere in the book do I say or imply that “Scholasticism = Thomism,” nor does Sullivan quote any passage to that effect. Indeed, as Sullivan admits, I explicitly say that that is not the case.

Feser accuses me of nitpicking, and I'm reluctant to give him more fodder for the accusation by looking for more nits to pick. But I did point out already some examples of Feser saying "the Scholastic view on this subject is x", where x is simply the Thomist view, and handwaving away any alternative views, even and especially when among scholastics the Thomist view is very controversial. And in his first response Feser gave a defense of the stance that Thomism is the default view for scholastics and that non-Thomistic views should be seen as departures or divergences from it. Surely I'm not making this up.

I think it is clear enough what is going on... He’s got a bee in his bonnet; he’s got a hair trigger; he’s got issues.

This is to a certain extent fair enough. I decided to review Feser's book because I was specifically asked from a couple of quarters to provide a Scotist perspective; and what I found was that Feser treats non-Thomist scholastics much like nearly every other Thomist does. As I think I've already indicated, it's not that Feser's work is particularly egregious so much as that there are in my opinion grave structural deficiencies in the tradition he's working in, and I criticize his book as an instance of a type.

The problem is not really philosophical, then, but attitudinal. And the remedy is as dry, bracing, and agreeable to a refined palate as a page of Scotus: I recommend to Sullivan a glass or two of good Scotch, in honor of the Subtle Doctor. I’ll buy it for him if we’re ever at the same conference or the like.

I would love a glass or two of good Scotch and will gladly take Feser up on his offer should the occasion arise. I've got some 18-year Glenlivet left over from my birthday. Maybe I'll have some tonight. No doubt it will have a salutary effect on my attitude.

Unsurprisingly Feser disagrees with some of my structural criticisms of his book, which is fair enough. I won't try to analyze the attitude of his replies as he does mine, but it does seem here and elsewhere that his feelings were a bit hurt: whereas elsewhere Sullivan complains that I too slavishly follow “the standard neo-Thomist manuals,” here I am to be blamed for departing from them. I can’t win! I note that I admire much in the manuals and have learned from them myself, though as a genre they have their limitations; so neither following them nor departing from them is a virtue in itself. In the present case my point is that there are good reasons for treating the causes in a certain order. Feser has his own reasons for departing from that order. I won't go over those issues in any more detail. He makes his case, and the reader can decide for himself.

The Scholastics are all operating within a conceptual landscape defined by essentially Platonic and Aristotelian boundaries. The landscape is very broad and some thinkers fall far to one side of it rather than to the other; some even appear to end up falling off this or that edge of it. But that this landscape constitutes their common framework distinguishes them from the moderns, who have all decided to step out of it. ... Hence when I characterize the position of my book as “Scholastic” and not merely “Thomistic,” I am, again, indicating precisely that I am trying to bring what all or at least most Scholastics have in common to bear on contemporary disputes in analytic metaphysics -- albeit with a strongly Thomistic emphasis and despite the fact that I agree with the Thomist position when it differs from the other Scholastic views. I mean precisely to include the other Scholastic positions in the debate, not exclude them.

It seems that the disagreement here is not so much a matter of principle as about the execution. Feser complains that I criticize him for not having written a different sort of book, while I see as my primary complaint that the book he wrote doesn't do what he claims he wants it to do. When Feser brings to bear one position on (say) universals or individuation to engage with analytic metaphysics, and eliding the rest, he's not bringing to bear what all or at least most scholastics have in common. He may mean to include the other positions, but in practice I think he does exclude them by not really taking them seriously. And that's frustrating.

Finally, Sullivan is very critical of my treatment of the dispute between Thomists and Scotists vis-à-vis the theory of distinctions

I picked the section on distinctions to discuss at some length because the issue has very wide-ranging ramifications and because it's one instance in which Feser spends more than a sentence or two on the Scotist view. I could have picked any number of other issues to focus on. Perhaps some what of what I said wasn't clear enough. Get it? Me neither, but then we can’t all be Subtle Doctors. That's ok. I won't hold it against you.

Sullivan goes on at length about the dispute between Thomists and Scotists concerning real, logical, and formal distinctions, and its relevance to issues like the relationship between essence and existence. And what he has to say is hardly less tendentious than what I have to say about these matters in my book. He surely realizes that Thomists would simply not agree with the assumptions that lie behind his arguments, nor with his insinuation that they have no principled but only ad hoc grounds for rejecting those assumptions. Yet Sullivan writes as if the burden of proof were on me or other Thomists to establish the superiority of our position to the Scotist one, rather than on Scotists to establish the superiority of theirs.

Sure, I realize Thomists don't agree with my position. I'm not talking about burdens of proof here at all. The point of my discussion was to indicate that Feser's book mentioned and rejected the formal distinction without making clear what it was or why someone might hold it. I didn't try to prove the necessity of the formal distinction, but to indicate what it was. Feser's claim was that there was "no room" for a distinction between real and logical ones and so no need for the formal distinction. My counter-claim is that Scotists do see room for an intermediate distinction because of characteristics of reality not adequately captured by the dichotomy between fully real and merely logical distinctions. And my complaint is that when Feser claims that the formal distinction ends up collapsing into either one or the other, he hasn't really considered the reasons for denying this because he hasn't noticed any of the reasons for positing it in the first place. Again, if Feser wants to avoid all intra-scholastic debate, that's his prerogative. Just present Thomism. It's precisely where he brings up an alternative just to dismiss it out of hand without getting what he dismisses right that I get really frustrated.

It is, after all, hardly as if the Scotist position, with its famous (some would say notorious) subtlety and abstraction, were somehow more intuitive or obvious than the Thomist one.

Hey, nobody said philosophy was easy! Seriously, though, just yesterday I came across a quote from Heidegger in What is a Thing? to the effect that philosophy is that at which thoughtless people laugh. The whole popular image of the "Dunce" began as a mocking way to dismiss serious, thoughtful, carefully-reasoned attempts to grapple with reality as so much nonsense, without having to do any of the thinking oneself, and it takes Scotus as the paradigm of such thinking. If philosophy is stupid, or mere blather, or nothing but abstruse jargon, or so subtle or abstract that we can know it's disconnected from reality a priori, or if it suffers from "the paralysis of analysis" (a favorite phrase of people who don't care to analyze their positions), then there's no need to think it through. A Thomist rejecting a philosophical position, or refusing to try even to grasp it, on the basis of its "notorious subtlety and abstraction", ought to think uncomfortably about Locke's dismissal of the whole scholastic tradition, of Hobbes' Kingdom of the Fairies at the end of Leviathan, of Hume's "commit it to the flames" at the end of his Enquiry. Perhaps I do have a bee in my bonnet about that kind of attitude.

At the end of the day, Sullivan’s beef is that he just doesn’t agree with me that Thomism is the strongest version of Scholasticism.

That's not my whole beef. But if that isn't clear by now I won't belabor the point.

Finally, I want to reiterate that I hold Feser in respect and that I enjoyed his book and think it has many strengths. If my review focused on what I see as its deficiencies, that's hardly a rarity in academic book reviews, and Feser (deservedly) has many admirers to sing his praises. But sharp criticism between friends - sparring in the gym - is part of the training process in preparing for the real battles.

Well, fine. He should write his own book. I’d buy it.

Well, maybe I will!

9 comments:

Step2 said...

Re: Heidegger's quote. My favorite humorous line about philosophy is that it is the world's oldest inconclusive profession. My favorite serious line about philosophy is that you don't do philosophy to make money, you do it to justify your life. Maybe those two observations are related, maybe not.

Btw, now that George R. has proclaimed a Scotist proposition silly; I feel it must necessarily be true.

BenYachov said...

Step2 listens to "expertise" of a man who doesn't even believe there is presently a sitting Pope?

That's just sad.

DavidM said...

"And in his first response Feser gave a defense of the stance that Thomism is the default view for scholastics and that non-Thomistic views should be seen as departures or divergences from it. Surely I'm not making this up."

Right. I think Feser thinks that Thomism should be the default view, and as he explained, if that is one's view, then (philosophically speaking) non-Thomistic views indeed are departures from it (isn't that just true by definition?). So presuming that is correct, do you think Feser has no right to hold this view and write from this perspective?

BenYachov said...

> I think Feser thinks that Thomism should be the default view, and as he explained, if that is one's view, then (philosophically speaking) non-Thomistic views indeed are departures from it (isn't that just true by definition?).

I don't know what Prof Feser thinks.

Since the Church has not made Thomism the official view or the default view over and against the other lawful schools then we shouldn't either.

BenYachov said...

I might accept the Thomist view because of reasons X, Y & Z.

Others might hold the Scotus view because of X1, Y1 & Z1.

But that is it. Barring a ruling from the Church you hold the theory you hold based on your own prudent rational judgement.

Step2 said...

@Ben,
No, I meant the Scotist proposition must necessarily be true. Because if George R. thinks something is silly chances are very good it is a true fact.

BenYachov said...

>No, I meant the Scotist proposition must necessarily be true. Because if George R. thinks something is silly chances are very good it is a true fact.

Ya know what Step2? Now that you put it that way I stand corrected.

Cheers.

Anonymous said...

There is something to be said for reading Duns Scotus from a Thomist position, no? I think it is fair to take into account that for many Catholics 'Thomism' is seen as a safe place from which to extend out into the other areas of Catholic/Christian Philosophy & Theology. There is something to be said for a greater appreciation of Duns Scotus regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions (or the premise from which he might have chosen to start. He was a great thinker in his own right. I would love to see a book (there aren't as many of them as there are for Aquinas) that expounds how these two schools can be integrated with their shared wealth but giving a fair and detailed understanding of Duns Scotus. I think Duns Scotus may be even more misunderstood than Aquinas often is; which is part of the problem. Scholasticism is certainly more than Aquinas but without a more modern renewal of Scotus in light of what has been accepted as 'orthodoxy' I doubt that his noteworthy ideas will become as well known, studied and understood.

The Irish Tomist said...

The previous Anonymous comment was me. Browser problem.