Wednesday, June 4, 2014

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

Feser is a good writer. Like the best analytics, he's clear without sacrificing precision, is on occasion entertaining, and spices his abstract discussions with plentiful concrete examples, something non-analytic philosophy could use a lot more of. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction was by and large a pleasure to read. Keeping in mind that it is an introduction and that we shouldn't expect an exhaustive treatment of any given topic, there's a lot in the book I would recommend to any amateur looking to get a handle on the issues covered, for example: the "prolegomena" chapter against scientism and conceptual analysis, the discussion of causal powers in chapter 1, the discussion of the Principles of Non-Contradiction and of Sufficient Reason in chapter 2, the discussion of essentialism in general in chapter 4. I learned a good deal from Feser's survey of analytic positions and his responses to them. To take one example, section, "Against four-dimensionalism", presented a position I knew about but frankly had not taken seriously since I was a teenager, and broke down the reasons not to take it seriously in a way I wasn't familiar with (as I said in part I of my review, my familiarity with the state of the art in contemporary metaphysics is limited). I particularly approve of the way Feser frequently appeals to retorsion arguments, which I think are underdeployed against stupid philosophies.

There is, then, a lot that's good in the book. There's also plenty I think is less good. One general observation is a tendency throughout to present the Thomist position on a topic while putting off actually arguing for it. Over and over again the reader encounters remarks to the effect that "my position is this, but the reasons for it depend on something I'm going to say in a later chapter"; this gives the impression of getting the run-around, as though the good deep arguments are always just around the corner. I emphasize that Feser does not always do this; but he does it enough for it to be frustrating.

Sometimes the arguments are not put off, they're simply omitted. The Thomist doctrine is instead handed to the reader on a plate without justification. An early glaring example is section 1.1.3, "Divisions of act and potency". Feser writes on page 38, "Given the distinction between act and potency, quite a few sub-distinctions can be made and commonly are made by Scholastic writers." He then spends the next few pages unloading a boatload of distinctions on the reader without bothering to establish the reality of any of them or show that they are more than ad hoc. I'm not saying it can't be done, Feser doesn't do it and I have a hard time seeing how anyone who doesn't already consider his traditional conceptual apparatus as authoritative is going to be motivated to absorb it.

In my opinion there are also some structural problems. For instance, in my opinion the treatment of causality is pretty seriously defective. Anyone who's read much Feser knows that one of his biggest concerns is to defend the reality of final causality against reductionists who want to eliminate all but efficient causality. This is a project I am fully on board with. Unfortunately this concern leads him to begin his discussion of causality with final vs efficient causes, which is a misstep. Material and formal causality are put off until the following chapter, under the discussion of substance. The result is that the nature and force of the reasons for accepting the reality of final causality always remain somewhat obscure, because final causality is unintelligible without formal causality. Feser is quite right to bemoan the elimination of final causality by the moderns, but why did they do it? Because they eliminated formal causality first, as the most casual reading of, say, Hume (the early modern Feser devotes the most time to, with good reason) will confirm. A huge part of the revolution in modern philosophy and science was to replace the total formal cause of a thing with that dimension of it which is subject to mathematical formalization, and, as Aristotle pointed out, mathematical objects precisely as such prescind from the good and the end. Reducing form to quantity wipes out the notion of finality. The proper way to get back to final causality is to reinstate the robust notion of form; and this is, by the way, the order the causes are treated in in the standard neo-Thomist manuals I'm familiar with. In taking things backwards I think the clarity and rigor of Feser's exposition suffers.

Now let's look at some of the book's content from a specifically Scotist perspective. Consider 1.3.1, "The Scholastic theory of distinctions". Feser gives the definitions of real vs logical distinctions. A real distinction "reflects a difference in extra-mental reality" and a logical distinction "reflects only a difference in ways of thinking about extra-mental reality". He then subdivides logical distinctions into pure and virtual. A purely logical distinction is merely verbal while a virtual distinction "has some foundation in reality". And so on. It's Thomist boilerplate. As expected, then, when Feser presents Scotus' formal distinction, he gives it short shrift. According to Feser, to take his example, rationality and animality in man are virtually distinct. This is a logical distinction because the two are not separable and not really distinct in the thing, and so are really identical. Feser says that a virtual distinction "may appear at first glance to be hard to distinguish from a real distinction. But the key to understanding the difference between any logical distinction and a real one is this: IF the intellect's activity is essential to making sense of a distinction, it is logical; if not, it is real." Good. But the whole point of the formal distinction is that it picks out realities which are inseparable in the thing but are distinct aside from the activity of the intellect considering it; that's why Scotists say that it is a distinction ex parte rei or ex natura rei and deny that it's a logical distinction: because according to them, rationality and animality in Socrates are really not identical in Socrates, even before anyone thinks of them, and even though they are inseparably united in him.

Feser says that it's hard to see how the formal distinction can avoid collapsing into either a real distinction or a virtual or logical distinction. The short answer to this is that Thomists play a shell game with the notion of real distinctions: sometimes they act as though separability is an obvious criterion and sometimes as if it isn't. The Scotist position is that a fully real distinction in general is one to which the separability criterion applies (with a very few special exceptions), and that the formal distinction is a species of lesser real distinction to which the separability criterion does not apply. It's not a virtual or logical distinction because, to take Feser's example, animality and rationality are really non-identical prior to and aside from any consideration of the intellect. It's not a "fully" real distinction because Socrates is one animal and is one rational thing, and both of those are one real thing, not two. You can't separate the animal and the rational thing in Socrates the way you could separate his arms from his trunk or his substance from one of his accidents (say, his location).

Feser's account of the formal distinction doesn't address this sort of consideration. Instead it begs the question, and avoids the fact that the various varieties of virtual distinction he lays out were formulated by Thomists specifically in order to jimmy out of admitting the formal distinction as a lesser variety of real distinction, because to do so would threaten other areas of Thomist metaphysics. Feser writes, "For either the intellect plays some role in the distinction or not." The Scotist replies that it does not play a role in making the formaliter distincta, the things which the formal distinction distinguishes, distinct; but it does play a role in how we articulate the distinction, since we typically distinguish formalities by their formal ratios or definitions, i.e. by their formal contents with reference to whether they can be defined and thus apprehended independently of each other. The non-identity of inseparably united formalities is identified by our ability to conceive them independently, not constituted by it.

According to Feser, "Whereas if they are distinct because the intellect separates out the [formalities] ... then we have a logical distinction with a foundation in reality, namely a virtual distinction. There just doesn't seem to be some third, 'formal' distinction." Again this is question-begging, for it is precisely this Thomist tendency to handwave away the "foundation in reality" without explaining it that leaves them unable or unwilling to account for formalities - not incidentally, since the motivation for all this is the Thomist commitment to preserve the unicity and simplicity of all forms. The Scotist insight that really disturbs Thomists is not the formal distinction itself but what it's there to cope with, the layers of a kind of ontological complexity in even "simple" beings. Feser suggests that perhaps the Thomist and Scotist theories differ primarily in emphasis: "Scotus, on this interpretation, is merely concerned to emphasize ... the fact that virtual distinctions are grounded in mind-independent 'formalities'". If the dispute is really about terminology and you prefer "virtual" to "formal, there's no real argument. But it isn't. The whole question is: is fA distinct from fB when inseparably united in x even when we're not thinking of it? In x, does fA=fB? We say no, that when either a) I can define them independently, showing that they have nonidentical formal content, or b) when I can show that A and B even if they can't be separated in x can exist independently of each other in y and z, then this indicates that even in x they are non-identical, distinct among themselves formally and not merely in how they can be considered by us, logically.

As I mentioned earlier, Thomists are unable to maintain the separability criterion for a real distinction (when, for instance, it comes to essence and existence), and they're happy to abandon it all over the place precisely in order to avoid endorsing the formal distinction where we think it obtains. Feser says on page 76, "If every real distinction entailed separability, then there would have to be some intermediate, 'formal' distinction between a real distinction and virtual distinction; but there is no such distinction, since the formal distinction collapses on analysis into either a real distinction or a virtual distinction; so not every real distinction entrails separability." I hope it's clear by this point that this is arguing in a circle. I could just as easily respond: since a real distinction entails separability, and A and B are distinct aside from any operation of the intellect, therefore we must accept some distinction besides real and logical or virtual ones.

The argument Feser takes from Oderberg on the same page doesn't help him, since it confuses properties in the sense of predicates with properties in the sense of real ontological items. Oderberg argues that "there is obviously a real distinction between the properties having a radius and having a circumference" but that having a radius can never exist in a circle without having a circumference. But "having a radius" etc is not a real being in the sense that the radius is. In a given circle the circumference and the radius have a necessary ratio to one another, but as two lines they are really distinct: I can draw the circumference but not draw the radius, and vice versa. In a circle in which the circumference but not the radius is drawn you might say that the radius has a virtual existence in the circle, since its length is necessarily determined whether it's drawn or not (Scotists talk about virtual distinctions in a different sense than the Thomist one Feser gives here: for instance, to describe the way an effect exists in its cause). But they are really distinct: one can actually exist without the other. And they are formally distinct: they have different essential properties: the circumference is necessarily curved and the radius is necessarily straight, etc.

Now some of these disagreements are merely terminological and some involve obfuscation or misunderstanding. Feser sometimes sounds like they would evaporate if the formal distinction is "really" a real distinction, and sometimes that they would do so if it is "really" a logical or virtual one. This waffling itself suggests some Thomist blurring over for the sake of simplicity. Feser does not seem to consider the position that the formal distinction is diminished variety of real distinction, one in which the distincta can remain ontologically inseparable and so not really distinct in the fullest and most perfect sense.

Clearly to go on like this and show every place in Feser's book where he handwaves away non-Thomistic scholastic alternatives to his position without really giving them a hearing would require a book-length commentary, and I'm not going to do that. Suffice it to say that whether or not you accepts the formal distinction has a huge ramification on the rest of your metaphysics, and all of those areas are dismissed with cavalier breeziness in Feser's book without exception. If I were so inclined I could write at length about my problems with his presentation of the notion of substance, the unicity of form, individuation, the nature of matter, and so on - not simply that he presents a view controversial among scholastics as "the Scholastic position", but also that other positions are grossly mis- or under-represented to the extent that it would be better not to mention them at all than present a caricature. But I'll confine myself to one more example, the crown jewel of Thomist metaphysics, the "real distinction" between essence and existence.

Feser says on page 241, talking about the distinction "commonly drawn in Scholastic metaphysics" between essence and existence, that "Considered by itself, a contingent thing's essence is taken to be a kind of potency, and its existence a kind of actuality." It's important to note, and Feser seems to have no inkling of the fact, that in actual scholasticism this claim in incredibly controversial. Anyone conversant with the "A" side of so-called "A-T" should know that for Aristotle, form is actuality and the essence of a thing is (or includes) its form. Form is the act of which matter is the potency, and saying that the essence is in potency to existence struck many scholastics wrongheaded and as a basic confusion of the role of form in the constitution of a substance. The essence is not like a quasi-matter waiting around to be actualized by existence in a quasi-formal role. Aquinas' doctrine that on one level the essence is the actuality of a substance, while on another level it is a potency to another really distinct actuality, existence, was deeply troubling to many, perhaps most, non-Thomist scholastics. They argued that it reduces existence to a kind of quasi-accident of the form and reified the abstracted essence which, apart from its existence, isn't really in potency to anything. Suffice it to say that a Scotist would distinguish between possibility and potency, and say that an essence considered as abstracted from its existence is a possible, but not that it has potency, since whatever has no existence has no real being, and whatever is in potency to further actualization is real being and something that exists. The whole Thomistic presumption that essence and existence are related as potency and act and analogously as matter to form is very widely rejected in the broader scholastic tradition.

Feser casually lumps Scotus and Suarez together as rejectors of the "real distinction" and says that "in Scotus' view it is merely a formal distinction", since for Scotus potency and act are only formally distinct. He claims this several times throughout the book but never gives a reference for the claim. In fact Scotists do not regard the distinction between act and potency, or between essence and existence, as formal distinctions, for the obvious reason that neither act nor potency nor existence precisely as such can in any sense be considered formalities. The distinctions that obtain between these items are modal distinctions, but of course the whole notion of intrinsic modes (another sort of ex parte rei distinction other than a real or logical distinction), a central pillar of Scotist and thus of vast swaths of scholastic metaphysics, is entirely ignored in Feser's book. But never mind that. The point at present is that the very presumption that the relation of essence and existence is obviously an instance of the relation of potency to act, (where potency and act are distinct modes of really existing being) is suspect from the default scholastic point of view - i.e. starting on a basis of Aristotelianism - and needs at least to be justified and objections to it dealt with. But the only such objections Feser gives are those from analytic philosophers, making it a case of analytic philosophy vs scholasticism, rather than what it really is, an issue in scholastic philosophy with many possible resolutions. Neither scholasticism nor Thomism nor their engagement with modern thought is served by the pretense that the Thomistic position is the obvious default one from within a scholastic framework - it isn't. And frankly, I wonder whether analytic philosophers might not be more inclined to give scholastics a hearing if they were ever told that some of their objections to Thomism, or analogues to them, had been anticipated from within his own tradition, rather than being presented with what seems to be more or less a monolith of thought.

This is only the barest thumbnail sketch of an enormous topic. (I dealt with essence and existence and how differing conceptions of them play out in different fields at much greater length in my doctoral dissertation, if anyone cares to look that up - it's available on this blog.) I'm going to end this review by repeating that Feser's book has much to commend it, but many defects as a presentation of scholastic metaphysics as such. He makes very little attempt to even acknowledge alternative possible viewpoints within his own tradition, and when he does he makes very little attempt to get them right, instead presenting the most airy caricatures in order to blow them away with the merest breath. The most disappointing thing about this is that this is exactly what he frequently complains of contemporary philosophers doing to scholastic (i.e. Thomist) views. For example, a very recent post showed Feser complaining of the casual dismissal of the cosmological argument by philosophers who clearly had no idea what they were talking about, an all-too-common phenomenon. Sadly I see Feser and nearly all Thomists doing the exact same thing to their closest philosophical relatives, casually dismissing non-Thomist arguments and positions while making it abundantly clear that he hasn't bothered to study them at all. If he wants to be given the courtesy of a hearing and the benefit of the doubt by his enemies, who are both totally ignorant of Thomism and unwilling to consider the possibility that it has something to offer, perhaps he and other Thomists might extend the same courtesy to their friends.


Anonymous said...

Hello! You mention that your doctoral dissertation is on this blog. Do you mean a copy of the full thing? If so, and this may seem dumb, but I can not find it. Could you possibly more directly show me where it is. Thanks again.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

You can find it in the Bibliotheca Scotistica on the right side.

Aquinas3000 said...

Might be worth pointing out that your co blogger Lee Faber says here that for Scotus existence is an accident of the essence:

lee faber said...

I said that, didn't I. I was probably wrong. At least, Scotus never says such a thing explicitly. Later Scotists, such as F. de Mayronis treat it as an intrinsic mode which is probably more accurate.

Michael Sullivan said...

Precisely because for Scotus essence and existence aren't really distinct principles he doesn't spend nearly as much time talking about them and their relation as Aquinas does. What exactly to think of the whole matter is a tough question for Scotists which I could have spent more time on, and have been considering making a separate post about.

I was just reading about this in Nicolas Bonetus' Metaphysics the other day. He implies that existence is an accident of the essence, if you take the essence in the sense of the nested hierarchy of quidditative formalities from ens down to the individuating haecceity. This entire complex quidditative ratio is in itself a possible which can either exist or not exist. In that sense existence is "extrinsic" to the thing's ratio. But, for any real concrete thing, this ratio is not a something different from the form, though its various "elements" are formally distinct from the form as a whole and from each other; and the form is not a different something from the actuality, i.e. the existence, of that form.

One might say that in a similar way "rationality" is accidental to "animality", in that in itself animality is equally indeterminate with respect to rationality and irrationality; but in Socrates, rationality is essential to the animality that he has because in the concrete his animality is determinate, though we can consider it in abstraction from its actual determinacy. So in the concrete Socrates his existing is not an accident of his essence, since there's no way that that essence can be without existing, although we can consider it in abstraction from that existence as a possible.

tl; dr: apart from existence the essence has objective potency, or possibility, but not subjective potency, which would be necessary for it to stand in a potency-act relation with it. This is because every subjective potency has to already exist in order to be in potency to further act, whereas objective possibility doesn't imply any real existence.

DavidM said...

A radius can exist without a circumference? Can a circle exist without a circumference/radius? Can a circumference/radius exist without a circle?

DavidM said...

"Suffice it to say that a Scotist would distinguish between possibility and potency, and say that an essence considered as abstracted from its existence is a possible, but not that it has potency, since whatever has no existence has no real being, and whatever is in potency to further actualization is real being and something that exists."

Are you suggesting that St. Thomas (or Feser) would disagree with this, or be systematically baffled and stymied by such distinctions? I'm sure he (or Feser) would not be, so I'm not sure what the point of your rehearsal of this Scotistic view is, as if you were schooling Feser and other Thomists by doing so. It seems to me that you simply don't provide any substantive response to Feser's carefully couched claim, which you cite. You don't show, for instance that Feser's "a kind of potency" is incompatible with your Scotistic "possibility," or that you have distinguished Aquinas' position from one like that of Henry of Ghent, or why it is or isn't important to do so, in particular in the context of Feser's book.

Michael Sullivan said...


if you read carefully you might be able to see that the only thing I was suggesting is that what Feser presents as obvious, that essence and existence can be really distinct principles standing in a real relationship of potency to act, is not obvious at all on scholastic principles, but very controversial.

As for circles, if you're talking about abstract mathematical objects then it's clear that circles, circumferences, radii etc are defined with relation to each other and implicitly include each other. But if we're talking about real distinctions between real beings, which we are, then we have to discuss circles not as abstracta, as entes rationis, but as actual lines. In which case it is clear that I can draw a circle without drawing any of its radii, or that I can draw a straight line without drawing the circle of which it could be the radius.

Aquinas3000 said...

Thanks guys, that's what I was looking for - an update on your thoughts. I couldn't help thinking of it when I read the post.

DavidM said...

Michael, you wrote:
"Clearly to go on like this and show every place in Feser's book where he handwaves away non-Thomistic scholastic alternatives to his position without really giving them a hearing would require a book-length commentary, and I'm not going to do that."

Right. And clearly if that is the case, then Feser's book would also have to be correspondingly longer in order to satisfy you, but then he probably still wouldn't satisfy you, and even if he did he wouldn't satisfy someone else, so it would have to be that much longer again, etc. Feser's book is a selective and biased presentation of Scholastic metaphysics, no doubt. But it has to be, one way or another - this is a purely practical matter and, I think, one not worth nit-picking about, as if your issues were objective, substantive defects. (I completely understand if it's not the book you would have written on "scholastic metaphysics," but I don't see you offering any compelling grounds for thinking that the same should apply to Feser.) If, on the other hand, you want to concentrate on substantive philosophical issues, then that will be more interesting.

On circles: Are you claiming that if I draw a straight line, I have drawn a radius? Or that if I draw a circle (i.e., just the circumference), then that circle doesn't really have a radius (simply because I haven't drawn one)?

Johannes said...

(Comment 1 of 2)

Although this article is a bit old, I hope one of the bloggers will find the following issue, on the relationship of the essence-existence distinction and the Incarnation, worth considering.

Background: definition of person.

Adopting the definition of person by Boethius: "an individual substance of a rational nature", St. Thomas Aquinas refines it by stating that:

"the individual substance, which is included in the definition of a person, implies a complete substance subsisting of itself and separate from all else (substantia completa per se subsistens separata ab aliia);" (ST, Part III, Q. 16, Art. 12, Reply to obj. 2).

The case of the Incarnation of the Logos

The problem posed by the Encarnation of the Logos is simple: why was NOT the "individual substance of a rational nature" of Jesus' Humanity a human person?

In this case, holding the real distinction between esse and essence allows a straightforward solution using the refined definition of person by St. Thomas Aquinas: the substance of Jesus' Humanity was not "per se subsistent", but existed by the Subsistent Act of Being of the Logos. That is, Christian doctrine of the Trinity states that each Divine Person is the Divine Essence. Thomism, in turn, affirms that the Divine Essence is the Subsistent Act of Being Itself (Ipsum Esse Subsistens), so that each Divine Person is the Subsistent Act of Being. Therefore, the assumption of a human nature by a Divine Person means that such human nature exists, from the moment of its creation, by the Subsistent Act of Being which that Divine Person eternally Is.

In contrast, denying the real distinction between esse and essence poses a serious problem, as in this case the human nature, or essence, of Jesus would have its own contingent act of being, i.e. would be "per se subsistent" as any other human nature. Why then would not be the "complete, per se subsistent, separate substance of a rational nature" of Jesus' Humanity a human person? To this problem, two solutions were proposed, by Suarez and Scotus:

Suarez: personality is a "substantial mode" that presupposes the existence of a singular rational nature.

Objection: Suarez' "substantial mode" is not a "physical", as the scholastics would say, property of the person in question, with "physical" meaning "real and objectively present". It is just a spurious mental construct in the mind of the observer, and only if that observer actually believes in that "substantial mode".

Scotus: personality is something negative, namely the negation of the hypostatic union in an existing singular rational nature.

Objection: this is just preposterous.

Therefore the unacceptable character of these proposed solutions argues, by reductio ad absurdum, for the real distinction between essence and esse.

Johannes said...

(Comment 2 of 2)

But there is a much stronger argument for that real distinction, namely the occasions in John's Gospel when Jesus said of Himself just "I Am", clearly in the same way as God (the Father) named Himself "I Am" ("Ehyeh") in Ex 3: 14.

"For if you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins." (Jn 8: 24b)

So Jesus said (to them), "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I Am, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me." (Jn 8: 28)

Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I Am." (Jn 8: 58)

"From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I Am." (Jn 13: 19)

In all these passages, but particularly the third, it is completely clear that in Jesus there is only one Act of Being, the eternal, Subsistent Act of Being of the Word. Because otherwise He should have said "before Abraham came to be, I Am in my divine nature". Therefore his human essence does not exist by a created, contingent act of being, but by the Subsistent Act of Being of the Word.

This case, in which a created essence does not exist by its own contingent act of being, shows that there is a real distinction between essence and esse.

lee faber said...

Iohannes, since you demonstrate that indeed the thomistic metaphysics of esse are biblical, there can be no debate, only bended knee to Thomas. Metphysics must give place to faith.

Johannes said...

In any case, the bended knee should to Jesus.

But that was not the kind of answer I was expecting. Rather, I expected a counter argument showing how Jesus' "before Abraham came to be, I Am" can also be accomodated by a philosophical framework that denies a real distinction between essence and esse.

Philosophy, including metaphysics, has certainly its own realm. But its notions, to the extent they are correct, must be compatible with the data from divine Revelation.

E.g., and btw to show that I do not defer to Thomas for Thomas' sake, a few months ago I showed that the notion of "delayed animation" that Thomas borrowed from Aristotle is incompatible with the revealed doctrine on the Encarnation, and that that incompatibility was not due to data from modern biology but to a logical contradiction internal to Thomas' argument.

If e.g. a student of yours is fluent in Spanish, he can translate it for you from here: