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).