Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Feser's Scholastic Metaphysics: A Book Review, Part I

neque in iis rebus, de quibus in scholis catholicis inter melioris notae auctores in contrarias partes disputari solet, quisquam prohibendus est eam sequi sententiam, quae sibi verisimilior videatur.

- Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem

In the first paragraph of his new book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Edward Feser points out that scholasticism spanned many centuries from the high middle ages until our own time and included many luminaries besides St Thomas Aquinas. In the second paragraph he admits that although the book is theoretically about scholastic metaphysics in general, the viewpoint is specifically Thomist, though where Thomism conflicts with other scholastic viewpoints those are discussed. A little later he tells us that 1) the book is introductory and can't treat everything in enormous depth; and 2) a major goal of the book is to present the intersection of the concerns of scholastic metaphysics with contemporary analytic metaphysics and to show how the former can illuminate the latter.

It's important to note these points and a credit to Feser to lay them out at the beginning, because it helps to stave off possible criticisms. No one should expect profound and extensive depth in a short introductory text; we should not be surprised that the Thomist view is given precedence in a book by a Thomist writer; and we should expect, not shy away from, a wider but looser conceptual net than is usual in books of this sort. A book review ought to evaluate a book on the basis of its own goals, not our expectations for what a different sort of book might have been had the author cared to attempt it. So how does Feser fare in offering an introduction to scholastic metaphysics in general, but with a Thomist slant, from the perspective of someone continually casting an eye towards contemporary nonscholastic thinkers?

One of the first things I did on opening Feser's book was to scan the bibliography. Now an extensive bibliography is by not a necessary ingredient in a work of pure metaphysics as opposed to a scholarly historical treatise. Feser's book is by no means historically oriented and cannot really be called scholarly, and I'm quite happy about both facts, since for philosophers who take their inspirations from the works of the great scholastics - such as we here at The Smithy - there is a great deal of scholarly historical research and a dearth of books simply doing philosophy from our point of view. Feser's approach, to think through the basic issues of metaphysics in dialogue with the great scholastics and modern thinkers without doing scholarship on them, is one I commend unreservedly. As I said, in such a work an bibliography between twenty and twenty-five pages is not a necessary ingredient, but when the author provides one it gives the reader a clue as to where his thinking is going from the outset. In Feser's bibliography I found much both to please and to dismay me.

I was quite pleased by the wealth of references to contemporary debates. I studied analytic metaphysics in graduate school but spent exponentially more time on Plato, Aristotle, and the various scholastics, and I am very far from even passing familiarity with what's going on these days, so I have a lot to learn from someone conversant both with my field of study and with what most people interested in topics I'm interested in (but without Latin or historical knowledge) are doing these days. Feser's bibliography is full of books and articles I hadn't heard of by people I'd looked at in passing or seen in an anthology or never heard of that look very interesting and worth following up, and many of the discussions of them in the book confirmed that impression. I can't say whether he's really adequately represented the field or not because it's not my area.

Scholastic metaphysics is my area and I'm sorry to say that here I was really disappointed. A survey of the bibliography shows that what Feser means by "scholasticism" is really nothing more or less than what of 20th-century Thomism has been written in or translated into English. Now it's fine if that's your perspective. Early on Feser gives a spirited defense of learning from the oft-maligned neo-scholastic manuals as well as the "greats", and I'm all for that. But that's not "scholasticism", especially when the views of the manualists are practically never discussed (they are occasionally quoted but rarely or never distinguished from each other in any meaningful way; for Feser's purposes they're all more or less interchangeable representatives of boilerplate Thomism). What's missing?

1) Any books in Latin at all. I looked and didn't find a single work in Latin in the entire bibliography. It's fine if Feser wanted not to overburden his book with a lot of technical Latin words and long footnotes in Latin showing where he got his ideas. That kind of thing, you might argue, is for scholars and this introduction is not for scholars. Fine. But the bibliography gives, and a read of the book confirms, the impression that Feser didn't consult any works not available in English. And that is simply unacceptable for two very clear reasons: first, most of the good work in scholastic metaphysics is originally in Latin. And my most I mean, not 99%, but more like 99.9999999%. Latin is the language of scholastic thought and although some good stuff in the scholastic tradition has been done in other languages, including English, it's almost totally negligible compared to what's been done in Latin. And that includes the neo-Thomist manuals. Feser cites quite a few of them, but only ones written or translated into English, omitting even such classic standards as Hickey or Gredt.

2) The scholastic tradition, as translated into English, has an overwhelming Thomist bias which scholasticism overall and in its native Latin does not have. This is for contingent historical reasons we won't go into here, but the fact is that most of Thomas' major works have been translated into English and most of the major works of every single other scholastic have not. Limiting yourself to English cuts you off not only from most of the tradition, but from the very possibility of breaking free of Thomistic bias. The only possible way around this is a very good acquaintance with what translations of them are available and the secondary literature, but this Feser most emphatically has not attempted.

a) NO works of Bonaventure are cited, not even the Itinerarium, the Collations on the Hexaemeron, or the Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity, even though these are available in English, are relatively short, and contain many of the high points of Bonaventure's metaphysics. Nor is the secondary literature even glanced at. Collin's recent brief book is cited, but entirely missing are Quinn's and Gilson's foundational studies, the two indispensable books on Bonaventure in English, never mind anything else.

b) ALMOST NO works of Scotus are cited. The only thing that comes close is Wolter's collection of texts Philosophical Writings, and the anthology with comment, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality. This is frankly ludicrous. That book isn't about Scotus' metaphysics at all. A far better choice along similar lines would be Wolter and Franks' Duns Scotus, Metaphysician, or Wolter's Latin-English version of the De Primo Principio, which contains extensive commentary helpful for understanding its complex metaphysics. Better still would be Wolter and Etzkorn's translation of Scotus' enormous Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, one of the greatest metaphysical works of all time, although very difficult. Wolter even put out a separate Latin-English edition of Book IX, with commentary, as A Treatise on Potency and Act. There's also the Wolter-Bychkov edition and translation of Reportatio I-A, which is full of metaphysics. The point is that quite a lot of Scotus on metaphysics has become available in English translation in the last few decades, and it appears that Feser has looked at none of it. Nor is the secondary literature better. Feser cites the Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, two of Richard Cross' books, and one of Mary Beth Ingham's general survey books. That's okay. But no mention of Vos' book, the only full-length broad-scoped study of Scotus' philosophy in the past few decades. Vos' book has its issues, but to not even glance at it, while also not reading Scotus, is absurd. Perhaps even worse for Feser's purposes is the absence of Wolter's The Transcendentals and their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus, which is short, not too difficult, and (I suspect) might have been revelatory. I could go on and on, but the point is that there is no indication that Feser has made any attempt whatsoever to even grapple with the thought of arguably scholasticism's greatest metaphysician.

c) Ockham's Quodlibets are cited in English translation, as is the Philosophical Writings collection. There's not too much else in English that would help Feser, so that's okay. Adams' magisterial book is cited, although only volume II, when volume I has all the stuff on metaphysics. Odd. Maurer's more recent and fantastic study is omitted, along with almost everything else.

d) Some of Suarez' Metaphysical Disputations have been translated into English, and some of these are in the bibliography.

And that's about it. In the book itself Bonaventure, Ockham and Suarez barely exist and are mentioned pretty much in passing a few times - not enough to gain more than the vaguest notion of what their positions are on anything. Scotus is mentioned more often, and I'll talk about that in my follow-up. The point is that for a book ostensibly about scholastic and not merely Thomist metaphysics, even if from a Thomist perspective, the thought of all the greatest non-Thomist scholastics is almost completely absent. For Feser apparently scholasticism means Aquinas, his commentators, his followers among the manualists, and the modern neo-Thomists, along with some scattered outliers barely worth a mention or a thought. Even among modern Thomists I'm surprised to see the omission of De Koninck and Lonergan, who, it seems to me, would have been particularly relevant to one of Feser's most significant concerns, namely showing the compatibility and complementarity of modern science and traditional metaphysics.

My perspective is that of someone who's been studying scholastic metaphysics since I was a teenager; I started with Aquinas, like everyone does and should, and I read truly a boatload of his works and those of his commentators and followers, but Aquinas and Thomism ceased to be my primary interest about twelve years ago; and since then I've become acquainted with some of scholasticism's other departments. I haven't, of course, studied more than a fraction of what there is, because that would be impossible for any mortal. We have to pick and choose. My focus has been Franciscan thought, especially the Big Three, Bonaventure, Scotus, and Ockham, together with sporadic but pretty extensive reading among a host of other, less luminary figures. And from where I stand Feser's claiming to write a book about "scholastic metaphysics" and leaving out everything he does seems a bit like someone writing a book about twentieth-century modernist novels and calling it English Literature. There's no accounting for taste, and if you just don't like poetry full stop and have no interest in reading books more than a hundred years old, no one's going to force you, but you shouldn't call your survey English Literature. It's misleading.

It's not that I think Feser's book is no good. In a follow-up post I'll discuss the book's actual contents, both what I think is good (plenty) and what I have issues with (plenty).

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

This book kind of reminds me of new graduate students meeting each other for the first time. When each person introduces himself, he claims that his interest is in "medieval philosophy, especially Aquinas." Later, one learns this means only Aquinas. Even later, one learns this means translated snippets of Thomas's work here or there in various texts of analytic philosophers of religion.

Oh well, you don't know what you don't know. The only thing one can do in response, I suppose, is expose as many people (especially students) to as many other scholastic authors as possible (in a positive light of course) when teaching or writing.
Best,
Victor

DNW said...

The title of Feser's book is:

"Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction."

Which, according to Amazon, " ... provides an overview of Scholastic approaches to causation, substance, essence, modality, identity, persistence, teleology, and other issues in fundamental metaphysics."

Apparently you perceive that Scotus and Bonaventure have something unique within Scholasticism to add to what Feser generally frames as an "A-T" engagement with modern philosophy.

So, in your opinion then, what concepts of particular relevance for contemporary philosophy are omitted by slighting Scotus or Bonaventure?

For example, what particular conceptual relevance for contemporary philosophy has Scotus? Is there some specific doctrine of Scotus (perhaps logical?) which modern philosophy and its practitioners, ignore at their peril?

Perhaps there is something along those lines.

However, I attended a Jesuit university, and while there had a basic introduction to Medieval philosophy as well as scholastic metaphysics, and Scotus hardly came up at all, much less Bonaventure.

They were covered, and by full professors specializing in these fields, in passing, and only insofar as they related to or contrasted with Aquinas, and then largely as historical artifacts.

What specifically then, should Feser have included which would have been critical for the understanding of an educated layman with some depth of knowledge regarding contemporary, esp. analytic, philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition?

Greg said...

They were covered, and by full professors specializing in these fields, in passing, and only insofar as they related to or contrasted with Aquinas, and then largely as historical artifacts.

What specifically then, should Feser have included which would have been critical for the understanding of an educated layman with some depth of knowledge regarding contemporary, esp. analytic, philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition?


I am a big fan of Feser's work. I don't have a good background in medieval thinkers other than Aquinas. But I can see where Sullivan is coming from, in the respect that for Feser, there are a handful of contemporary philosophical problems for which he thinks A-T philosophy has a solution. So though the book is called Scholastic Metaphysics, Feser is more interested in scholastic-analytic dialogue than scholastic-scholastic dialogue. Understandably, someone who specializes in scholastic philosophy probably will find the focus of Feser's book not to be exactly what he was looking for.

Regarding where I've quoted you--I don't know how rhetorical your question is. But here is what I see as worrying: many contemporary philosophers treat Aquinas as your professors treated the other scholastics. They might ask rhetorically whether Aquinas has anything to offer to contemporary metaphysics, or whether Aquinas is a "historical artifact."

There are some contemporary metaphysicians (Thomists, broadly) who draw from the other scholastics quite a bit. James Ross, Gyula Klima, and Alfred Freddoso come to mind.

DNW said...

"I am a big fan of Feser's work. I don't have a good background in medieval thinkers other than Aquinas. But I can see where Sullivan is coming from, in the respect that for Feser, there are a handful of contemporary philosophical problems for which he thinks A-T philosophy has a solution. So though the book is called Scholastic Metaphysics, Feser is more interested in scholastic-analytic dialogue than scholastic-scholastic dialogue. Understandably, someone who specializes in scholastic philosophy probably will find the focus of Feser's book not to be exactly what he was looking for.

Regarding where I've quoted you--I don't know how rhetorical your question is. But here is what I see as worrying: many contemporary philosophers treat Aquinas as your professors treated the other scholastics. They might ask rhetorically whether Aquinas has anything to offer to contemporary metaphysics, or whether Aquinas is a "historical artifact."


You have quoted me fairly, and although I myself noticed the seeming trouble with my tone (I don't know why) the question was not rhetorical, but sincere.

I cannot now recall whether Kneale and Kneale had observations regarding features of Scotus' logic which would or should have a contemporary import that deserves not to be ignored, but it is along those lines that my question was posed.

You accurately characterize, I think, Feser's aim. Or at least you seem to agree with my take to some extent. And that is that his aim is to demonstrate the continuing value and relevance of "A-T" scholastic approaches with regard to fundamental metaphysical considerations.

I am interested in knowing what particular doctrines of Scotus or Bonaventure might be relevant in this regard, and specifically which of them an at least marginally informed layman should have been made aware.

Michael Sullivan said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. I'm feeling pretty annoyed right now because I just spent a long time (twice!) typing up long responses and my computer crashed (twice!), eating them. I'm not going to go over my list of particular examples again.

The short and obnoxious answer is a suggestion to troll through our archives here a bit and see what we have to say. There's quite a lot.

The broad and unsatisfying answer is to say that the real problem is the premise you're bringing to the table, and Feser's premise, that "A-T" is more or less equivalent to "scholastic" philosophy, when nothing could be further from the truth. Reading only Thomists and briefly glancing at a few other guys can give you the false impression that there's some baseline set of ideas constituting "scholastic metaphysics" and that Aquinas gives you the best or most complete or most satisfying version. That's a common story today, but it's a total fantasy. There's a baseline set of vocabulary and methods and topics that scholastic metaphysics shares. All the scholastics use the terminology of and have some version of act and potency, the powers, the aristotelian four causes, and so on. But what they mean by these things are so different that sometimes it seems that they have almost no metaphysical doctrines in common at all.

I'll give just one glaring example here. Talking about universals on page 223 of his book, Feser says "Though Ockham famously took a nominalist (or at least conceptualist) approach to the problem of universals, the standard Scholastic position has been realist." Then he goes on to describe a boilerplate moderate Thomist position as though it's "the" scholastic position on universals. Now Aquinas' position might be great, but the characterization is total, total nonsense. The scholastics disagreed on hardly anything more than about universals. Nominalism of some form or other was there at the birth of scholasticism and remained a major scholastic school all through its decline. It's not at all as though Ockham was some bizarre outlier and most scholastic thinkers were toeing the Thomist line. If nominalism isn't authentically scholastic, nothing is. And it's hugely controversial within and without.

This is really important to the whole idea of scholastic-analytic dialogue, because if you read Feser you'll get the impression that there's a contribution scholasticism has to make to contemporary discussions - the Thomist one - rather than a universe of contributions in the form of an exhaustive analysis of every conceivable position towards universals by extremely smart guys over the course of centuries. I think Ockham's dead wrong about universals, but reading the medieval nominalist-realist debates is extremely illuminating about what's at stake and how to go about making up your mind. A contemporary thinker wondering what to make of universals could read Feser and get one option to consider. But if he actually knew something about the scholastic debates on universals, even (maybe especially) presented in a non-historical way, just giving the opposing arguments, his thought could be immeasurably enriched. But practically nobody does this because the Thomists have a stranglehold on the "ecumenical" discourse.

Michael Sullivan said...

Apply what's said here about universals to the very notion of what a form is, how causality works, the nature of existence, and so on and so on. In each case Feser says "Scholasticism says A about x, although maybe one or two guys disagreed slightly and said B", when the truth is "Scholasticism has a huge debate about x which will inform anyone's thinking on the subject".

It's really not a matter of "Thomas has the antidote to the insanity of modern philosophy". That's how I thought when I was eighteen, and I thought it even more firmly when I was twenty. But gradually I realized that the truth was that nearly any of the greatest scholastics could provide an antidote to modern philosophy, and that studying their debates made nearly all modern philosophers look like hopeless amateurs who don't even know how to ask the right questions.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Sullivan, that last bit was a very pleasurable read... well, it all was, but the last sentence was great.

DNW said...

"This is really important to the whole idea of scholastic-analytic dialogue, because if you read Feser you'll get the impression that there's a contribution scholasticism has to make to contemporary discussions - the Thomist one - rather than a universe of contributions in the form of an exhaustive analysis of every conceivable position towards universals by extremely smart guys over the course of centuries. I think Ockham's dead wrong about universals, but reading the medieval nominalist-realist debates is extremely illuminating about what's at stake and how to go about making up your mind. A contemporary thinker wondering what to make of universals could read Feser and get one option to consider. But if he actually knew something about the scholastic debates on universals, even (maybe especially) presented in a non-historical way, just giving the opposing arguments, his thought could be immeasurably enriched ..."

I find myself in the peculiar position of "defending" Feser when (aside from not needing my assistance) he has neither asked me to, nor provided any confirmation that, my reading of his intent is accurate.

Nonetheless, I think that it is worth taking into account - once again - both the general context and the stated program of his "project" (If you want to call it that.)

As near as I can tell, he has made no bones over the fact that he is: "a writer and philosopher ... [whose] ... primary academic research interests are in the philosophy of mind, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. [who] also write[s] on politics, from a conservative point of view; and on religion, from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective."

Thus, it appears to me that his stated aim is not to reproduce or surpass the work of Gilson, but rather to use the renewed and to him comparatively late discovered insights or perspectives of a philosophy which, I take it, once enjoyed the status of the more or less official philosophy of the RC Church.

"Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because "he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have inherited the intellect of all." etc. etc.

Now, if one intends to do a comprehensive history of scholastic philosophy as scholastic philosophy per se, and not with specific regard to what was not so long ago still widely recognized as a vital portion of that classification, one demonstrably relevant to your Church's engagement with modernity, then, I figure you have a point.

And in that case, I imagine that Feser, shrugging, would concede just as much.

But what Ockham or even Scotus have to offer other than anti-realist ammunition on the one hand or (to possibly parrot canards) abstruse seeming formulations which are either of impenetrable subtlety or mere nonsense on the other, I cannot myself say. Having again only a passing familiarity with these figures.

I was in fact hoping that as regards Scotus, you could name some particular instances of his doctrines wherein it was clear that he retained a relevance to the philosophical questions of our day, and in a way that tended to buttress the worldview of your church.

The only Scotist institution I was familiar with, was sold off some time ago to a media based ministry for their campus.

That said, I will browse your site and see what I can myself come up with.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

DNW, I might suggest (among many other things here) the posts on Divine Simplicity, found at the top of the "Fundamental Positions of Duns Scotus" on the right hand of the Blog and the "links" section.
Having done my MA Thesis on the existence of God, in a comparison of Thomas and Scotus, I'd say that is another bang-up job by the Subtle Doctor.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Michael,

I've posted a response at my blog:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/06/judging-book-by-what-it-doesnt-cover.html

I'll be traveling for a few days and may not be able to respond immediately to further posts in this exchange.