Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Judging a book by what it doesn't cover - Reply to Feser

Dr Feser begins his response to the first part of my review of his recent book with a reference to the encyclical Aeterni Patris. My only reply to this is to repeat the quote from Pius XI with which I headed my original post. For those without Latin it translates, "nor should anyone be prohibited from following that opinion which seems more to true to him in those matters about which the more noteworthy authors in the Catholic Schools are accustomed to debate." Pius XI was concerned, like all the recent popes, to promote and extoll Thomism, but already in his day there was a tendency on the part of Thomists to claim that because of this official endorsement that Thomism was, in Feser's words, "normative for Scholastic thinking more generally". And that is not the case, however much Thomists love to claim that it is.

So far my entire objection to Feser's book has been that it claims to be an introduction to scholastic metaphysics when really it's an introduction to Thomist metaphysics. There's nothing wrong with this; there are lots of other such introductions; it's perfectly legitimate to write another one aimed specifically at an engagement with contemporary analytic thought. But Feser wants to say he's writing an introduction to scholastic metaphysics. Contrary to his impression, that word has a meaning, and it's not "Thomism." In the second sentence of his book he grants that scholasticism is "that tradition of thought" which includes not only Aquinas and his followers but also such "luminaries" as Scotus, Ockham, Suarez, etc. But that tradition of thought, the one that includes Scotus etc., is most emphatically not Thomism. This should be too obvious to insist on, but here we are.

In the decades after Leo’s encyclical appeared, the Neo-Scholastic movement sought to implement his program. One key feature of this movement was that its representatives tended to treat Thomism as normative for Scholastic thinking more generally.

This is true, but deplorable. The best way to understand the Church's endorsement of Thomism is in the context of St JPII's Fides et Ratio: Thomism in general and the works of Aquinas particularly are models of how philosophical theology and philosophy informed by the Christian experience should be done. They are not normative as regards specific positions and arguments.

Another key feature was that the Neo-Scholastics were keen to emphasize that Scholasticism is not a museum piece but a living tradition that offers a serious response to modern assumptions in philosophy. Accordingly, the emphasis in Neo-Scholastic works was not on historical scholarship but rather on articulation of the structure of the Scholastic system and application to contemporary problems.

This is good and I said as much already in my original post. One recent example of this kind of work from a Scotist perspective is Antoine Vos' book on Scotus' philosophy, which is both informed by the best current historical scholarship and also intent on engaging modern analytic thought. It seems Feser has never heard of it.

These tendencies by no means reflected a blind submission to papal authority.

As a matter of fact Thomists have been trying for over a century now to co-opt papal authority to endow Thomist philosophical arguments with quasi-dogmatic status, saving them the trouble of understanding or engaging with alternative views and replacing argument with triumphalism. I don't accuse Feser himself of this, but its truth in general will be obvious to anyone acquainted with Catholic philosophy circles.

The Neo-Scholastics had arguments for the view that Scholastic, and in particular Thomistic, positions were superior to those of the modern systems of thought (rationalist, empiricist, idealist, etc.) that had supplanted Scholasticism.

I agree with these arguments.

And they had arguments for the view that the departures from Thomism represented by writers like Scotus, Ockham, and Suarez were often harmful to the integrity of the Scholastic system, and inadvertently contributed to the dissolution of the Scholastic synthesis and rise of the modern systems.

Here's the problem. To represent the thought of Scotus, Ockham, etc., as "departures from Thomism" is total bunk. It assumes that Thomism is normative and the default position without having to do any work to establish it. In my pretty wide experience it's a good bet that anyone who thinks this way has not made any serious effort to read and understand any non-Thomistic scholastics on their own terms. This includes big names like Jacques Maritain and Edward Feser. Thomists with wider learning and a more realistic perspective, like Gilson, don't (at least always) talk like this. (Look at Gilson's book on Bonaventure, in which he goes out of his way to emphasize that Thomism and Bonaventureanism have metaphysics which are irreducible to each other, and that you can't read legitimately read Bonaventure as anticipation or incomplete stage on the way to Thomas. Gilson also had to revise his views on Scotism as a critique and departure from Thomism once he learned something about the actual sources of Scotus' views. Hint: Scotus was usually not even thinking of Aquinas at all.) They know that, even if they think that Thomism is superior to its competitors, the latter can't be reduced to a poor version of the former. Scotus is not a "departure" from Aquinas in any sense unless you already know that Thomism is the default standard by which all other thinkers are to be judged. But the only way that Thomists establish that is on the basis of papal authority. They certainly don't do it by diligently studying the other scholastics on their own terms and concluding that Aquinas is the rule from which the others are departures. Show me a died-in-the-wool Thomist alive today who has done so and I'll eat my hat.

It is not written for historians of philosophy, or for Latinists, or for those who are interested in the minutiae of intra-Scholastic debate over the centuries.

If you wrote a book about German phenomenology and failed in your extensive bibliography to cite a single book actually written in German and I noticed it, would you respond "I didn't write it for Germanic philologists"? I'm not a Latinist. I learned Latin specifically to study scholastic metaphysics. (I've since expanded my Latin reading in a lot of other directions, but that's neither here nor there.) Because almost all, and all of the best, scholastic metaphysics is in Latin. I'm not a historian. What I've learned of the history of philosophy has been in the service of trying to understand philosophical issues better.

So, if you are the sort of anal retentive academic historian of philosophy who thinks that (say) a definitive history of the early 14th century dispute over universals must be written before we can begin tentatively to think about gesturing towards a recovery of the point of view from which the question of contemporary application might someday be asked… well, my book is not for you.

If one criticizes Feser one must expect a dose of the patented Feser polemics so I won't get too irritated by "anal retentive", which is insulting for no reason, or "academic historian of philosophy", which is inaccurate (my doctorate is in philosophy, period). I will note though that I didn't ask for anything like what Feser suggests. I specifically said that a historical treatment was unnecessary. What I want, in a book dealing with scholastic metaphysics and universals, is an acknowledgment that there is no such thing as "the" scholastic position on universals (or a ton of other issues where Feser makes similar statements), because scholasticism is not Thomism and is not a philosophical system. Ockham is as scholastic as Thomas. Ockham is a nominalist. Therefore, Ockham's nominalist position on universals is a scholastic one. So there are at least two viable very distinct scholastic positions on universals. Why do we only get arguments for one? Because Feser's not writing an introduction to scholastic metaphysics, he's writing an introduction to Thomistic metaphysics.

Sullivan says that my book is not “scholarly.” By that he means that it does not emphasize primary sources, does not cite works in the original languages, is not historically comprehensive, etc.

I'm not going to have a debate about whether Feser's book is a scholarly one in general, because I've pointedly stated that I don't care and that's not where my complaint is coming from. I've been accused in the past of having an overly-rigorous standard of scholarship, which might be fair enough. I will, however, note that if you profess to discuss a thinker's views multiple times but give no evidence of having read any of that thinker's relevant works, or of having any acquaintance with the basic relevant secondary literature, your scholarship in that area might be questioned.

With the last three paragraphs of Feser's response I agree without reservation. There does indeed need to be more philosophy, not merely historical work, from those of us who admire and learn from the non-Thomistic scholastics. The reasons for its lack are manifold and due to a number of intersecting factors: not least the fact that there are so few of us. In any case I hereby offer to provide as an ongoing service on The Smithy an "ask a scholastic" feature to anyone with a question about metaphysics who wants to get a non-Thomist perspective. Something like this took place quite a while back on the subject of Intelligent Design and it turned out, as I recall, that Dr Feser and I were in almost total agreement, but not for entirely the same reasons.

This whole exchange so far has been about the legitimacy of the Thomistic appropriation of the term "scholastic". That's all well and good but it's not philosophy. In my next post I'll actually address some of the content of Feser's book. A final note: Feser remarks in his response that he thinks I'm a friend of his blog. That's true. I have plenty of both respect and friendly feelings for Feser and his work, despite my reservations and complaints and despite the polemical tone of the exchange. We're all on the same side in the gigantomachia, and if our alliance carries a certain amount of spirited acrimony, that's only because, though we love our friends, we love the truth more.


Matthew said...

I have often heard non-Thomist Scholastic philosophers go on and on about how Thomism is not and shouldn't be the default/general position of Scholastic philosophy. What I have never heard from them is what then, should be the default/general position of Scholastic philosophy. Keeping in mind that Scholastic philosophy was developed specifically in Catholic circles for the exposition and defense of the faith and given the papal pronouncements on Thomism I don't see how non-Thomist Scholastics can maintain their claim. Are you seriously saying that the most influential historically and contemporary and by far the most well represented version of Scholasticism which still has a significant number of followers today should not be regarded as the default/general position of Scholastic philosophy?

Michael Sullivan said...


On the subjects that scholastics disagree about there is and should be no default position. Scholasticism, as I keep saying, is not a system, but a tradition, not a web of specific doctrines but a way of thinking and arguing. Look at phenomenology. What two thinkers in the same tradition could be more different than Husserl and Heidegger? Which of them should be taken as representing the default/general position of phenomenological philosophy? Husserl, because he came first, initiated the movement, and cares about rigor? Heidegger, because he's more famous and influential, has more followers, and is more obviously applicable to everyday life?

You can't and shouldn't answer such a question. The phenomenological tradition includes extremely different and incompatible philosophies, some good, some awful, some a mix. What unites them is not any default position but a common background, set of concerns, terminology, method, and so on. It's the same for scholasticism.

Insofar as a main scholastic concern is the rational exposition and defense of the Catholic faith, scholasticism does tend to embrace a kind of failsafe or ultimate criterion: if a position is demonstrably in conflict with Christian doctrine, there must be something wrong with it and we should find out what it is. That tells us what kinds of positions just about any scholastic will find unacceptable - relativism, solipsism, materialism, etc. - but does little to point out the best positive solution to any philosophical problem.

lee faber said...

"Scholasticism" just means "of the schools" and refers to the theology and philosophy developed at the medieval Universities. There are "schools" of scholasticism, of which Thomism is one but never the largest nor the most influential prior to the late 19th cen. There are also Albertists, Durandists, "nominalists" (the term is somewhat problematic, but at least by say the late 15th c. there was a self-identifying group of nominalists), Bonaventurians, as well as those we talk about the most here, the Scotists, with whom are associated the subgroups of Bonetists and Mayronists.

So as Michael points out, there is not much doctrinal unity in "scholasticism" beyond a bare sine qua non of what the church has definitively ruled on as being normative.

Anonymous said...

"Scholastics agreed that it was important to figure out what the heck universals were and how they worked. Here are the sixteen different answers they gave [...]. They all have the following in common [...].

As we all know the most influential answer turned out to be none of them, since modern philosophy simply turned its back on the whole project. But for those who kept their toes in the water, the most well-known family of answers is the Thomistic one. Here are the advantages to Thomism with regard to universals. I'll leave it to others to argue against that claim; the outline here suffices for understanding the scholastic approach to universals."

Voila. Thomists can have their cake and eat it too.


Matthew said...

Drs. Sullivan and Faber,

You both make very good points, and they are well taken. I see that my original point was too ambitious and you have refuted it. You both made me remember what I read in Fr. Joseph Rickaby's book "Scholasticism." Fr. Rickaby gives the characteristics of Scholasticism such as dualism, theism etc. and the common method of the tradition. So you are right, Thomism is not the default position of Scholasticism. However, I think a strong argument can be made for Thomism being the mainstream position within Scholastic philosophy given its greater number of followers, influence etc. But, I'd bet you two would have something interesting to say about that.

I would like to make another point as well. You claimed, Dr. Sullivan in your post that "...Thomists have been trying for over a century now to co-opt papal authority to endow Thomist philosophical arguments with quasi-dogmatic status..." I agree that the superiority of Thomism must be demonstrated philosophically and not by papal fiat. It is curious then how you also say in your post that what Pope St. John Paul II said about Thomism in Fides et Ratio is "the best way to understand the Church's endorsement of Thomism." Why is that the best way to understand it and not Pope Leo XII's statement, "We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith." Or Pope Pius X's statement, "...they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment." These two papal statements among many others give support to St. Thomas's positive positions and arguments as well as his method. Why then should we only regard the statement you quoted as "the best" way to understand the Church's endorsement of Thomism? You seem to be committing the very appeal to authority and question begging assertion you accuse many Thomists of.

Michael Sullivan said...

Matthew, thanks for your comments.

I think a strong argument can be made for Thomism being the mainstream position within Scholastic philosophy given its greater number of followers, influence etc. But, I'd bet you two would have something interesting to say about that.

What you say is true of the last century or so. It's by and large not true of the other centuries between Aquinas and today. For a very long time Scotism was far and away the dominant school. The situation changed due to contingent historical factors.

As for papal promotion of Aquinas, frankly, we've discussed this issue at significant length on this blog before and I am pretty sick of it. Feel free to look at the archives to find quite a lot of material on the matter. At the moment I don't feel like addressing it again. It's not a philosophical issue. After all, Feser's book is supposed to be a philosophy book, aimed at assisting the encounter of one philosophical tradition with another one. Whatever we might think or however much we might care about the Catholic Church's attitude towards philosophy in general and Thomism in particular seems irrelevant to the present discussion. I can't imagine a non-Catholic analytic philosopher wondering if scholasticism has anything interesting to say really caring whether the Pope approves of Bl Scotus or St Bonaventure enough.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Perhaps you would consider writing your own book on Scholastic Philosophy, then give others the chance to review it, as you have done for Ed. Do you have any published works on the topic?


Matthew said...

Dr. Sullivan,

Interesting, my knowledge of Scholastic thought including both historical developments as well as the content of the views defended by various schools is still growing. I was under the impression that Thomism thrived at Paris and Scotism at Oxford. I was unaware of a time when Scotism was the dominant school. Would you be will to point me in the way of some more literature on the topic of the history of development of the schools within Scholasticism?

I'm sorry if that question is something you get a lot. I hadn't been to this blog until I saw the recent posts on Feser's blog. I do intend to frequent it often though as it provides some very good and interesting resources on medieval thought that are hard to find.

Lee Faber said...

Matthew, such literature is found in specialist journals. You could try V. Heynk on Trent, Cappas (see his page) has written on scotism at various councils and in the Byzantine East. In general, neither school was "dominant" at a university. The universities at times placed censures on nominalism, but that was about it. The Dominicans mandated thomism early on in the 1280's as the official doctrine of their order and punished non compliance (thomists have been obsessed with authority since the beginning), though its hard to see how much they maintained this in actuality: Durandus was persecuted, but Dietriech and Eckhart were not, nor were the nominalist dominicans Trivet and Holcot. scotism was present at both oxford and paris, as was thomism. the early scotists are fairly independent, so there is always debate whether they were scotists or not; the franciscans did not mandate scotism as their official doctrine until the 16th c, so there was a lot more doctrinal diversity among the F.'s than the dominicans.

The period in which Scotism was probably at its zenith was the 16th and 17th centuries, the so called golden age of Punch and Mastri, and though everyone tends to think of the jesuits of being suarezian-thomists, Pomplum at Loyola has described successive waves of scotist jesuits after suarez. Scotism was apparently also huge in south america during the colonial period, with south american scholastics commenting on scotus and developing his positions, but studies on this are in their infancy.

A scotist in the 17th c. claimed that scotism was larger than all the other schools put together, and while this may be hyperbolic, it does represent the spirit of the times.

The history of scholasticism was written by the victors (thomists) so all we ever hear about from them is that scotus caused a decline, which revived again in so-called second scholasticism, which is really just a revival of thomism. the impression is that nothing happened in between, which is false.

Anyway, all this purports to show is that scotism had a large number of adherents at various times. I'm not sure how to assess dominance. It certainly never enjoyed the time in the papal sun that Thomas did from 1875-ca. 1965. Though two specifically scotistic theses were raised to dogma (immaculate conception, intuitive cognition of the blessed), something which to my knowledge never befell any specifically thomist theses.

Bartholomew Masters said...

"Cappas", above, should be "Kappes". This might make him a bit easier to find.

Lee Faber said...

Also, for bibliography, that of Tobias Hoffmann (link on sidebar) is exhaustive, and it also has a bibliography of previous scotistic bibliographies.

Bubba said...

The easiest way to criticize a book is to talk about what it doesn't treat. Most academic book reviews in some way take this route.
Here, the main problem is that Philosophers and Computer Scientists are among the few people who lay claim to some universal wisdom, yet reject anything they don't want to deal with as 'out of scope'. Everyone involved in this discussion is engaged in a practice that a not-inconsequential percentage of academic philosophers currently active would judge as 'not philosophy'. Some would even suggest that they're desperately searching for a way to justify superstition through flawed logic. So, while philosophers divide themselves and guarantee their academic and societal irrelevance, some question of scope seems pertinent.

But there's a more specific historical problem here, which Matthew's post assumes: If Scholasticism can be applied to contemporary debate, it is because its doctrines can be applied. Therefore, Scholasticism must contain a constellation of doctrine. If so, there must be "default/general position of Scholastic Philosophy".

And that leads to an image of Scholastic Philosophy that looks like what you'd find walking into a Dominican Convent in Italy.
Thomas made some material contributions that were influential to the study of philosophy as a whole, chiefly his Aristotelian commentaries. The Dominican Order enforced Thomism within its ranks, and the two factors combined to make him an important figure who never ceased to have his supporters, and whose doctrines were discussed.
But Scholasticism isn't a body of doctrine; it's a complex set of institutional-intellectual phenomena, like contemporary academic philosophy. The rules of debate change and the doctrines change. But if anything, it is more a methodology than a dogma; and there's considerable range within that methodology. And if you go into an Italian Franciscan Convent, you'll likely find Scholastics portrayed differently, in conversation.
When you get to the methodology and the goals, however, the "applicability" to "contemporary philosophical debate" becomes even more problematic. You can apply, for example, Ockham's doctrine of the cognition of substances through their accidents to the "Brain-in-a-vat" problem, but Ockham isn't engaging in a thought experiment; he has the Eucharist in front of him. Worse, to some contemporary philosophers, the Scholastic need to consider the history of a problem, and previous attempts at solutions, must seem even more alien than its religious focus.

Parker Wiggins said...

Lee even if i may agree with your general thrust that Scotus is overlooked in contemporary philosophy. Post that start with Quotes like these:

"The Dominicans mandated Thomism early on in the 1280's as the official doctrine of their order and punished non compliance (Thomists have been obsessed with authority since the beginning"

bother on conspiracy theories. You act like Franciscans weren't "eschewing" Thomism at this point. other that they never punished people who espoused Thomism (which would be non-compliance in their case).

the Franciscans did not mandate Scotism as their official doctrine until the 16th yeah but they ended up mandating it right?

paraphrasing here :"The Dominicans are always trying to co-opt Papal power." Make you guys sound like petulant children. As if somehow the Franciscans have been exempt from such machinations.

I happen to agree with the main thrust of Michael's criticism of Ed's book i.e. only deals with surface level statements does not put up actual arguments to make his case. But this conspiratorial posture is ridiculous

You guys act as if God is or has made some sort of mistake given St Thomas dominance in the Catholic philosophical scene. How about divine providence? No matter how much better you think Scotism is better than Thomism your posture vis-a-vis St Thomas popularity sometime borders On Atheism.

lee faber said...

It's not a conspiracy theory, it's just facts about the Dominican order combined with the fact that nearly every interaction I have ever had with a Thomist (online and realtime) begins with shutting down the conversation by claiming Thomas is right per Church authority.

I could just as easily say the Thomist posture on the popularity and authority of Thomas borders on Protestantism (sola Thomas).

But, sure, sometimes I get carried away by zeal; what blogger doesn't?

Michael Sullivan said...


Thanks for your comments and especially for the illuminating contrast provided by your two pictures. I know which one looks more like philosophy to me!


When I complain that Feser doesn't fairly present alternative scholastic views and he throws Aeterni Patris at me to show why he doesn't have to, it's not a conspiracy, it's par for the course. Somebody in his recent thread posted a quote from Maritain exemplifying the Thomist triumphalism. Have you read books from the Thomist revival? I'm not making their attitude up. Have you been around the Thomist blogosphere? You don't have to look far to find people refusing to engage your arguments and instead insisting that the twenty-four Thomistic Theses are quasi-dogmatic and to be held with the certainty of faith.

My brother is a Dominican priest. I went to graduate school right across the street from the Dominican House of Studies. I had professors who were Dominicans. I've spent quite a lot of time around Dominicans and the attitude I'm complaining about is a pervasive one.

Now, to be sure, not all Dominicans are like that. I've known some really really smart ones who were real philosophers and wouldn't dream of trying to convince you to accept a philosophical thesis on the basis of papal authority. But the "Thomas said it so you're wrong" attitude is omnipresent in general, and has spread far and wide among Catholics of a devout and philosophical bent. Again, not a conspiracy, just observation.

As if somehow the Franciscans have been exempt from such machinations.

That's neither here nor there because it's not happening now. Thomist shenanigans are getting in the way of good philosophizing now. It's really irritating to want to have a conversation about philosophy and not be able to because people want to do, as Bubba says, "not philosophy" instead.

You guys act as if God is or has made some sort of mistake given St Thomas dominance in the Catholic philosophical scene. How about divine providence?

I don't understand this line of argument at all. You're saying God wants the Thomists to win so we shouldn't bother arguing about philosophy? The arc of history is long but it bends towards Thomas? If that's the route we're going, we might as well admit that all scholastic philosophy belongs to the pre-Vatican II age and that the Church has moved on. Let's break out the guitars and work for social justice.

The really irritating thing to me is that there are good reasons for the Church to put Thomas first among the scholastics and there are good reasons to start one's study of scholasticism with him. But they're pedagogical reasons and don't imply that Aquinas shouldn't be argued with.

Parker said...

"I don't understand this line of argument at all. You're saying God wants the Thomists to win so we shouldn't bother arguing about philosophy? The arc of history is long but it bends towards Thomas? If that's the route we're going, we might as well admit that all scholastic philosophy belongs to the pre-Vatican II age and that the Church has moved on. Let's break out the guitars and work for social justice."

The line of argument is really straightforward. That Thomism is dominant in the Catholic philosophical world is not chance or accident. That does not mean you can't hold alternative philosophical opinions or argue against thomistic theses. It's just what divine providence has delivered us for the time being. Scotist and Thomist have been hard at work since the 1300's(and a couple of 100 yrs after) trying to make sure one theory of the other group was condemned or anathematized(no longer now). Each group trying to co-pt various bishoprics and ultimatly Papal Power in the process. Ultimately none of that matters per divine providence. Perhaps through the work you guys are doing Scotism will become dominant again. Hopefully people won't be crying about conspiracy theories then.

Michael Sullivan said...

The Scotist response is that providence has delivered us into Thomistic dominance for our sins, but only by his permissive will.

Anyway, I still find your train of thought bizarre. First, it's not a philosophical argument, which is the kind I'm interested in when we're talking about which is the best philosophy. Second, as a religious argument, it seems to lead to the claim that divine providence has given us clown masses too and to resist it is tantamount to atheism and turning back the VII clock. I just don't find that sort of reasoning compelling. There were good reasons for the popes to promote Thomism, and I fully agree with the Church's endorsement of Aquinas and his writings without feeling compelled to belong to his school or embrace all his arguments and theses. There are good reasons to accept him as the common doctor in theology and the supreme pedagogue in philosophy and still hold that, like any doctor or father, a) he could err theologically and philosophically, b) I can learn from his philosophy how to avoid many errors without endorsing it in all its details, c) in spite of its many merits it has limitations and other thinkers get more things right absolutely speaking.

And, again, I'm not crying about conspiracies, but complaining about narrow-mindedness joined to authoritarianism.

Parker said...

"providence has delivered us into Thomistic dominance for our sins, but only by his permissive will."


The crying conspiracies have been more on Lee's part than yours, it just been a theme i noticed. Anyways I've been following your blog since the good old days when you used to eat Photios Jones for Breakfast, and i'll always been a fan.

Interesting you says you brother is a Dominican priest. How do the arguments go between both of you?

Michael Sullivan said...

Thanks, Parker!

How do the arguments go between both of you?

Always interesting, sometimes acrimonious. But that's because we're brothers, not because of our devotions to competing schools. In any case I've been studying both Thomas and Scotus longer than he's been a Dominican or even a Catholic (we're both converts), so he's accustomed and sympathetic to my viewpoints if he doesn't always share them. In any case his interests are less on the metaphysics side and more on the moral theology side of things.

Lee Faber said...

Since when do I cry conspiracies? I only point out what I see and what I experience. I founded the blog with the hope that when I posted Scotus' arguments people would engage them, say by pointing out how a premise in his first argument for univocity is false. All I want to talk about are the arguments. But the only thing Thomists ever want to talk about online and off is how 20th c. papal endorsements mean there can be no dissent from the verba ipsissima of the master. Point out the immaculate conception, then I'm told that Thomas really held it after all in a late work, or that it is implicit in his principles but not Scotus', and so on. So I fail to see how my impatience with a group of people who should be my natural allies but aren't constitutes a theme of conspiracy theories!

Credo In Unum Deum said...

But Scotus' reasoning for the Immaculate Conception was obviously false, since he's a nominalist voluteerist who say God could make right wrong and wrong right and do the actually impossible by the sheer force of His uber-omnipotence which Scotus obviously thinks is infinitely infinite. Thomas, on the other hand, didn't live long enough to work out his correct presuppositions and reasoning to see that he in fact argued more convincingly and correctly for the Imm. Conc. Besides, Scotus destroyed scholasticism and (rumor is) started global warming.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

I'm only half kidding, actually, in the little caricature. I took a graduate course with a priest who literally accused Scotus of damnable heresy, saying that Scotus said God could make right wrong and wrong right and do the actually impossible. He didn't say anything about global warming... though I suspect he wonders deep down.

Parker said...

Lee I remember you harping on about there being another translation of Aquinas's works, and Brandon took you to task for it. But anyways no need to rehash. My apologies if I've offended. We're all brothers

Skeggy Thorson said...

Sorry to bother you, but you offered to answer questions concerning non-Thomistic scholasticism. I was wondering if you could discuss some of the basics about their views of causality. I had a teacher assert that contra Aquinas the Nominalists believed that once god set up the world it could operate on its own without him having to constantly engage with it. The example used was that God could build a clock that could run on its own with him having to be the first cause of every single tick. Which seemed more like deism than any scholastic system. Sorry for the hassle or if the question was unclear.

Michael Sullivan said...

Skeggy, what you're saying sounds like Deism indeed.

Not sure exactly what you're looking for on causality. Broadly speaking all the scholastics will hew to some version of Aristotle's fourfold cause, but there are wide variations. Bonaventure is particularly keen to highlight exemplary causality - indeed exemplarism is one of his central metaphysical pillars - while someone like Ockham wants to dispense with it pretty much altogether. Everyone will accept formal and material causality but when they mean by matter and form can be very different. E.g. for Aquinas the form is always universal, in fact being formal requires universality and is only restricted to individuality by matter; while for Scotus the form itself is individual, give individuality to form, and unitively contains all the universals constituting it. And then for Aquinas the actus essendi is singular and accrues to the essence, while for Scotus the act of being is simply the individual form as actually existing. So exactly what formal causality is is quite different for them.

Efficient causality is common to them all, but how it works is again altered by concepts of formal causality, because efficient causality is basically how, for form A, subject x from being non-A gets to be A on account of y, putting it there.

And so on. So there's no quick answer to "what's the non-Thomistic scholastic account of causality?" Don't know if this is helpful at all. If you have a specific question about a specific figure you can ask and we can try to find an answer OR if you'd like to know how I personally, as a non-Thomist, would approach some issue, I'd be happy to do that too.

Skeggy Thorson said...

Would they all accept Aquinas' first way of proving the existence of God. Namely that the change of potency to actuality must ultimately terminate in a pure actuality? Thank you very much for the previous answer that was the kind of information I was looking for. To be clear, did Scotus believe the form of each sort of thing is unique to itself, but contains in it the universals that it participates in unitivly or I am I misunderstanding?

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Having done my MA thesis on Thomas' First Way vs. Scotus' argument for the existence of God, I think I can provide a brief answer. Scotus thinks that the first way is a physical argument, and that can't really get you very far, even if it succeeds. He prefers a metaphysical argument (which he supplies).
"Now efficiency can be considered either as a metaphysical or as a physical property. The metaphysical property is more extensive than the physical for “to give existence to another” is of broader scope than “to give existence by way of movement or change.” And even if all existence were given in the latter fashion, the notion of the one is still not that of the other. It is not efficiency as a physical attribute, however, but efficiency as the metaphysician considers it that provides a more effective way of proving God’s existence, for there are more attributes in metaphysics than in physics
whereby the existence of God can be established… (Lectura I, d. 2, q. 2, 40)" Now it may be argued that the first way is not an argument from efficient causality, but it is clearly not a metaphysical argument. Another reason why the First Way doesn't work for Scotus is that he denies Omne Quod Movetur Ab Alio Movetur. (See the book Sullivan recommended on Scotus' commentary on Act and Potency.)

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Guess I scared everyone off.

Skeggy Thorson said...

Thank you, Credo In Unum Deum. That is very helpful.

lee faber said...

Credo: naw, I was just taking a break and reading Wodehouse all weekend. Now I want to call Feser "Lord Feser" or maybe the "Efficient Feser"

Michael Sullivan said...


To be clear, did Scotus believe the form of each sort of thing is unique to itself, but contains in it the universals that it participates in unitivly or I am I misunderstanding?

What we should say is that the form, not of each sort of thing, but of each thing, is unique, etc.