Monday, June 23, 2014

New Translations

CUA press has two new translations coming up:   Scotus' commentary on the Categories, and the commentaries on the Perihermenias. Furthermore, I was reading on a Facebook thread on the Thomistic discussion forum where I noticed a comment from someone at Benedictine college, stating that they were working on the Porphyry commentary as well. So, if we recall that Wolter and Etzkorn already translated the questions on the Metaphysics, that really leaves only the De anima, Elenchorum and the Theoremata before we have a complete translation of the Opera Philosophica. This is certainly welcome news, as some of Wolter's translations have been going out of print. So far, by my count, the De primo principio, the Duns Scotus Metaphysician volume, and of course the Quodlibet, which has been out of print for years.

Lest the nefarious quidam accuse me of keeping a double standard, for I have been known to complain about re-translating the works of Aquinas, let me say that, sure, it's not ideal, everyone should learn latin. I agree with my co-bloggers' comments regarding latin that he made in the course of the debate with Feser. But it is better for people to be reading Scotus in translation than not at all (which is a very real danger), so let the translators continue their work with my thanks.

And hey, once they get done, why not re-translate the Summa contra gentiles? That translation is pretty old, after all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doffing My Dunce Cap to Feser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe I will!

Friday, June 6, 2014

How to Learn Metaphysics

In the forward to An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Joseph Owens writes

The teaching of metaphysics is meant first and foremost to develop in the student's mind a living habit of thinking ... The presentation of its subject matter in a text for college use should therefore keep that purpose unswervingly in view. Metaphysics is primarily a vital quality or activity of the intellect, and not a collection or systematic organization of data either in print or in the memory. In its own nature metaphysics exists only in intellects, and not in books or writings, though the name may be used, in a secondary sense, to denote a body of truths known through the metaphysical habitus, and to designate a treatise or a course in which metaphysical thinking is communicated.

I agree completely. Philosophy is an activity, not a set of doctrines or propositions, and to become a philosopher is to develop the habit of performing that activity until it comes easily and naturally. So there's a big difference between "learning philosophy" in the sense of learning what it is that philosophers say, and learning what and how philosophers think. Both are needed, but in general surveys on the one hand and detailed scholarship on the other are aids to philosophizing in providing content to philosophize about, but less helpful for actually learning the habit of philosophizing. How do we do that?

Feser recently implied that I was an academic historian of philosophy. That's not really true, but it is true that I have always approached doing philosophy from a "historical" slant, if that means from the opinion that the best way to learn to philosophize is by reading and thinking through the philosophical classics rather than worrying about what the hip kids in philosophy departments are up to these days. That's why I went through the Great Books program at St John's College (the only undergraduate college I applied to) and the historically-oriented doctoral program of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America (the only graduate program I applied to). At both institutions the best is privileged over the current and the primary over the secondary.

A couple of years ago I taught an undergraduate metaphysics course and spent a lot of time thinking over where the best place to start is for a beginner. Books like Feser's or Owens' can be quite useful and I've learned a lot from them, especially when I was a newbie. But they tend to give you information about what metaphysics concerns rather than help you learn to do what metaphysicians do. In the course I designed I wasn't able to do everything I would like, considering the limits of a semester and the average undergraduate. To someone really serious about learning to do metaphysics, this is the advice I would give:

1. Read Plato. Philosophy begins with Plato. After two and half thousand years no one has written better introductory texts: he's the Euclid of philosophy. Everybody should already know this, but it can't be emphasized enough. Autobiographically, my appetite for philosophy was whetted by C.S. Lewis' apologetic works, but I was lucky enough to start reading philosophy at the age of fourteen with the Britannica Great Books volume of Jowett's translations of Plato. Professor Digory Kirke would have approved, I think. Don't read a contemporary "Introduction", which are legion, read The Apology, The Republic, and the Phaedo. Get confused and excited. For methodology read Meno.

2. Now you're ready to start thinking about metaphysics. Sorry: read more Plato. Now it's time to step it up. Read more carefully this time. Think really really hard about what's going on. Try to figure out exactly what the problems are. Read the Trilogy: Theaetetus, then Sophist, then Statesman. You're going to be really and truly baffled, but if you have the makings of a metaphysician your bafflement will have a bracing, exhilarating quality. You're not used to the altitude and can't breathe very well but you can see the stars more clearly than ever before.

3. Read Parmenides and despair. Go back to Sophist and it will seem not so bad, or try something like Protagoras as palate cleanser. You haven't even read the word "metaphysics" yet, but you're confused and worried about being, and a lot of other stuff. You're ready for Aristotle.

4. Any Aristotle you read will be good for you. Maybe read the Ethics first, since it's not so hard and might get you used to thinking in his groove. But you need to read the Metaphysics. It will be very hard and confusing, but you'll start to understand Plato better and also start to understand reality better. I promise.

5. It's time for something different. The Greeks are an indispensable starting point, but you need to move on. You're not trying to become a scholar or a historian, after all. Greek philosophy is the foundation upon which good metaphysics is built, but it remains the foundation. Now, Aquinas. What I recommend is not one of the many decent Thomistic introductions to Thomistic thought, but this book, which is an anthology of texts from all over Aquinas, arranged systematically. I read this book over Christmas break of my freshman year in college, and it blew my mind. All at once the world seemed to make sense. This is what it feels like to move from aporiai to having answers. For all our complaints about "Thomism" here on The Smithy, Aquinas' metaphysics is a beautiful thing. It's also the easiest to learn of all the scholastic metaphysics. This modest 100-page book will be more difficult than many longer modern introductions, but it's all meat, not milk. Do you want to be a little wimpy-mind, or do you want to be STRONG?

Interlude. Think about that last question. If you want to be a little wimpy-mind but still think about philosophy, you have many options. There are lots of ways to "transcend" western metaphysics and feel superior about it without having to do any more hard thinking than what you've done so far. If you want to stay weak but imagine that you're strong, I suggest Nietzsche as your best option. If you want to BE strong, recognize that the hard work starts now.

6. Read Aquinas' Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics . This, more than any other book that I know of in English, will give you the metaphysical habit that Owens mentioned in my quote at the top. As far as I'm concerned it's the best metaphysics textbook ever written, bar none. I've read through the whole thing three times, twice in English and once in Latin. I'll read it again. This is not a short or an easy book. However, the difficulties you had in reading through Aristotle the first time will start to clarify themselves. You'll finally start to get a handle on what you've been doing the whole time. You'll start to realize that metaphysical knowledge is possible, not merely questioning and confusion; even if at first it seems like the only thing uou can really be sure about is the principle of non-contradiction. Seriously, this book is a masterpiece and you should read it right now. Take it slow and let it really sink in.

7. Hume roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers. When you read Plato, then Aristotle, then Aquinas, you felt that you were truly awake for the first time. Dicker around with Thomism as much as you like but eventually you need to realize that you've only reached the stage of lucid dreaming. Thomistic clarity is much better than, say, Cartesian clarity, but it is to a certain extent still an illusion. The Thomist synthesis is brilliant. It's better than any modern philosophy. But it is, alas, in some ways superficial and the shiny veneer of Aquinas' pedagogy papers over some serious cracks. To a certain extent the masonry in his marvelous cathedral of thought is trompe l'oeil where the marble and brick should be. It's not easy to see this at first and the longer you get used to living in the cathedral and admiring the buttresses and stained glass windows the less you want to notice. But it's time for a kick in the teeth. Suck it up and get hold of Scotus' Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Try to read it. I dare you. This version of part of it will help to some extent, but not as much as you'd like. I'm warning you, this book is not like Aquinas' commentary. Like Aquinas', it's one of the greatest books on metaphysics ever written. Unlike Aquinas', it is fiendishly, fiendishly difficult and, if you really think through it, will destroy your comfortable certainty that you've achieved a basic grasp on metaphysical issues, not through a rejection of the platonic and aristotelian and scholastic foundations you've built up, but from inside them. Figuring out what Scotus thinks is hard; figuring out if he right is harder. There should be many points at which you feel like you're back in the Apology, realizing that all you know is that you know nothing: with the consolation that now at least you have a better idea of what you don't know.

But. If you've really worked through Scotus' book, you will probably no longer be a comfortable naive Thomist (though of course you might remain a Thomist of some sort); you might not be a Scotist either; nobody could call you a straightforward platonist or aristotelian; but I guarantee that by now you've started to be a metaphysician.

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.

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.

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).