Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Jef Murray at the St. Austin Review kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the latest (November/December) issue. Some excerpts:

A slam-dunk defense of God and of traditional Western philosophy against modernist fad “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens… [Feser] shows how nothing about Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic thought has ever been surpassed in its capacity to explain satisfactorily the universe around us. More than that, Feser shows what nonsense results from following the “modern” philosophies to their conclusions. His analysis of the witch’s brew of inconsistencies and downright absurdities produced by philosophers such as Hume is breathtaking… This book is that rare wonder -- a piece of brilliant writing that instructs at the same time that it entertains.

For more reviews of TLS (and of some other books you might find of interest) go here. And don’t forget, copies of TLS – not to mention its successor, Aquinas – make great stocking stuffers. You know the drill: Buy early and often!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bill and Keith

Yesterday, my old internet pal Keith Burgess-Jackson kindly linked to my recent post about my old internet pal Bill Vallicella’s post on copy editors. And today we come full circle as Bill offers some kind words about Keith and me. So here are some words about them.

I have long regarded Bill as something like the Platonic Form of a philosophy blogger. His blog contains, in my view, just the right mix of serious posts and light ones, polemical political pieces and coolly intellectual ones, long posts and short posts, original pieces and links to the work of others, along with the occasional cooking tip or link to YouTube. Plus he is a terrific aphorist. And a solid technical philosopher. Gotta love it. If any of you readers find my own blog worthy of your time, you might give Bill some of the credit, since he has been my model. Chalk the defects up to yours truly.

Keith and I both started to write for Tech Central Station (now TCS Daily) back in 2003 – Keith a little sooner than I did – and I think Bill and I first made contact by email shortly thereafter. Keith later brought Bill and me on board his ground-breaking group blog The Conservative Philosopher, which was my own first foray into the blogosphere. So, again, if you like anything you see here, give Keith some credit too. He got me started.

Indeed, Keith got a lot of things started. The Conservative Philosopher featured, in its brief lifespan, many important posts by its fine list of contributors, including Keith himself. Many of the bloggers on its roster, including Bill and me, went on to form the nucleus of the Right Reason blog (edited by Max Goss) which had a pretty good run and got a fair amount of attention in the larger conservative blogosphere. Though he was not himself on its roster, Right Reason simply would not have existed without Keith Burgess-Jackson. He was the one who assembled most of the group that went on to form the core of RR (including Roger Scruton and John Kekes, its two most prominent philosophers). He was the one who came up with the idea of a group blog for conservative philosophers in the first place. His Conservative Philosopher blog established the original audience that went on to become the core audience for RR. Many friendships and professional contacts were formed through TCP and RR, and many books, articles, blog posts, and other activities resulted from these relationships. After RR’s own demise, several of us RR alumni (Frank Beckwith, Steve Burton, Lydia McGrew, and me) would reunite over at What’s Wrong with the World. We owe all of this to Keith’s original vision.

So thank you Bill! Thank you Keith!

Sounds like I’m toasting these guys. And why not? So here’s an idea. Pour yourself a strong one tonight and spend some time over at Bill’s blog and Keith’s blog. And raise a toast to them as you do so. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Copy editors and political correctness

Bill Vallicella has some strong words for overzealous copy editors: “Keep your political correctness to yourself. Don't replace the gender neutral 'his' with the abomination 'his/her.' Keep your stinking leftist politics out of my manuscript. And don’t try to be what the Germans call a Besserwisser: don’t presume to know better what I want to say and how I want to say it.”

Amen. To be sure, I’ve had some very helpful copy editors, as I’m sure Bill has. But then, like him, I’ve also had some real fools. My “favorite” was the copy editor who ruined an entire weekend several years ago by filling the proofs of one of my books with something even worse than the abominable ”his/her”: the dreaded ungrammatical “they” and “their” sprinkled liberally and indiscriminately throughout the text wherever I had written “he” or “his.” Hence “Someone might claim that he can conceive…” became “Someone might claim that they can conceive…”; “Someone who puts his right hand…” became “Someone who puts their right hand…”; etc. Standard college student term paper stuff, of course, but something you’d think a professional copy editor would avoid like the plague.

Could such a brain-dead PC automaton get any worse? Yes “they” can. This one also put in “themselves” for “himself” – as in “A certain copy editor proved themselves unworthy of the paycheck they were about to receive” – and (the pièce de résistance) even invented a new word, “themself” (!) – as in “This particular copy editor made a complete ass of themself.” And it got even worse still, as the copy editor in question exhibited as feeble a grasp of English vocabulary as of English grammar : “glossed” (in the sense of “provided an explanation or interpretation of”) was changed to “glossed over”; “conception” was changed, throughout the text, to “concept”; and so forth.

As I say, I had to work day and night over a long weekend to fix up my poor book so that I could get it to the publisher by deadline – all the while trying to avoid a nervous breakdown and to resist as strong a temptation to commit homicide as I’ve ever felt.

At least the PC “non-sexist” stuff is not entirely the fault of copy editors, however. Many publishers of academic books and journals insist on this “inclusive language” nonsense, and it is an outrage. It is bad enough that one has to listen to PC-whipped academics at colloquia and the like gratuitously inserting “she” into their talks and comments wherever they can so as to prove their feminist bona fides. At least there one can just roll one’s eyes, say a quick prayer for the poor soul, and move on to the refreshments. But to have this ideological use of language foisted upon one by an editor is no more defensible than a requirement that all submissions reflect (say) a commitment to direct reference theory or four-dimensionalist metaphysics.

If “inclusive language” is your bag, knock yourself out. Be aware that the results are sometimes jarring. (Two recent and otherwise good books on Descartes’ Meditations consistently refer to “the Cartesian Meditator” of the work as “she.” I realize that Descartes’ meditative exercise is meant to be carried out by any reader, of either sex; but dammit, the guy who actually speaks to us in the book was named Rene, not Renee!)

But again, if a bad, blatantly politicized style is your thing… well, to each his own. As Bill says, just keep your stinking leftist politics out of my manuscript.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mao-Maoing the Beck watchers

My apologies to Tom Wolfe.

By now you’ve no doubt heard of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn’s jaw-dropping paean to mass-murdering communist dictator Mao Zedong, first reported on Glenn Beck’s show. You might find the official “explanations” convincing. I don’t.

So what’s the deal? Is Dunn really a Maoist, or at least soft on Maoism?

There’s at least one alternative explanation. This incident reminded me of a bizarre student paper I read many years ago. The student had expressed an interest in writing something on the Marquis de Sade, and showed me some article about de Sade the student had been reading which was written from a pro-life point of view. I said it would be OK as long as the student could guarantee that the paper would be critical and argument-oriented – that is to say, that it would be an objective philosophical analysis of actual arguments and ideas, not a mere history lesson or political harangue.

After it was turned in and I started reading it, I could barely believe my eyes. It was, for one thing, little more than a recounting of the usual shocking facts about de Sade – his sexual perversions, physical abuse of women, rhapsodic descriptions of rape and torture, etc. But that wasn’t the beauty part. What was bizarre was how it was all summarized in a banal, matter-of-fact World Book Encyclopedia fashion – and then concluded with some commencement-speech style bromides about how de Sade “thought for himself” and “stood up for what he believed in” despite opposition from the political and religious authorities of his time. There was no acknowledgment whatsoever that de Sade’s views and actions, or the paper’s own “conclusions,” might be thought just a tad controversial (yes, even today!). No acknowledgement, much less any attempt to answer, the critical remarks about de Sade made in the pro-life oriented article which, as it turned out, had been the student’s only source material. Nor was there any hint whatsoever that the paper was the expression of some weird half-baked sexual nihilist philosophy arrived at, in standard college student fashion, via late-night, half-assed readings of Nietzsche and Anaïs Nin. Nor was it remotely well-written enough plausibly to reflect a clever attempt at satire. No, at bottom it had all the passion, grace, cliché-riddenness and general intellectual value of something acquired from a term paper mill.

So what was going on? Well, as near as I could figure, basically this: The student had to write on something and grabbed whatever was at hand as a topic, which for whatever reason happened to be this pro-life article on de Sade. The paper was then “written” by summarizing the facts cribbed from the article and then tossing in the usual “be yourself” clichés the student had picked up from the surrounding culture as a conclusion. Print it out, turn it in, and on to the next class. It was, I think, really that innocent – and therefore that awful.

The student’s name was not Anita Dunn, but – as you know if you’ve heard Dunn’s preposterous speech and noted what an exercise in the “banality of evil” it was – the similarities are otherwise striking. And it may be that Dunn’s mind has simply been so thoroughly rotted out by the surrounding liberal individualist culture and its endless celebration of “doing your own thing,” “being yourself,” “standing out from the crowd,” “thinking differently,” etc. etc. ad nauseam that as she prepared her speech, the first thing she thought of when she came across the Mao story she recounts is not “But this guy killed 65 million people!” but rather “Wow, he really believed in himself – this would make an inspiring anecdote for the kiddies!”

So, maybe Dunn is just a complete dimwit.

And then again, maybe she is a commie scumbag.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

…but not the 90s

I can live with the Corey Hart comparison. But Vanilla Ice?! Man, that is low

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Thomistic tradition, Part II

Concluding my overview of the main varieties of Thomism, with some final outtakes taken straight from the Aquinas cutting room floor:

6. Analytical Thomism: This newest approach to Thomism is described by John Haldane (pictured at left), its key proponent, as “a broad philosophical approach that brings into mutual relationship the styles and preoccupations of recent English-speaking philosophy and the concepts and concerns shared by Aquinas and his followers” (from the article on “analytical Thomism” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich). By “recent English-speaking philosophy” Haldane means the analytical tradition founded by thinkers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, which tends to dominate academic philosophy in the English-speaking world. Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) and her husband Peter Geach are sometimes considered the first “analytical Thomists,” though (like most writers to whom this label has been applied) they did not describe themselves in these terms, and as Haldane’s somewhat vague expression “mutual relationship” indicates, there does not seem to be any set of doctrines held in common by all so-called analytical Thomists. What they do have in common seems to be that they are philosophers trained in the analytic tradition who happen to be interested in Aquinas in some way; and the character of their “analytical Thomism” is determined by whether it tends to stress the “analytical” side of analytical Thomism, or the “Thomism” side, or, alternatively, attempts to emphasize both sides equally.

We might tentatively distinguish, then, between three subcategories within the group of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been described as “analytical Thomists.” The first category comprises analytic philosophers who are interested in Aquinas and would defend some of his ideas, but who would also reject certain other key Thomistic claims (perhaps precisely because of their perceived conflict with assumptions prevalent among analytic philosophers) and thus fail to count (or even to count themselves) as “Thomists” in any strict sense. This sort of “analytical Thomism” might be said to emphasize the “analytical” element at the expense of the “Thomism.” Anthony Kenny (who rejects Aquinas’s doctrine of being) and Robert Pasnau (who rejects certain aspects of his account of human nature) would seem to exemplify this first tendency. A second category within analytical Thomism would comprise thinkers who do see themselves as Thomists in some sense, and who would argue that those aspects of Aquinas’s thought which seem to conflict with assumptions common among analytical philosophers can be interpreted or reinterpreted so that there is no conflict. This approach might be said to give both the “analytical” and the “Thomistic” elements of analytical Thomism equal emphasis, and is represented by thinkers like Geach, Brian Davies, and C. F. J. Martin (all of whom would attempt to harmonize Aquinas’s doctrine of being with Frege’s understanding of existence) and Germain Grisez and John Finnis (who would reinterpret Aquinas’s ethics so as to avoid what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”). The work of Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump also possibly falls into this second category, though since it is often interpretative and scholarly rather than programmatic, it is harder to say.

Thomists of other schools have been very critical of both of these strains within analytical Thomism, sometimes to the extent of dismissing the very idea of analytical Thomism as being no more coherent than (in their view) “transcendental Thomism” is. But there is a third possible category of “analytical Thomists,” namely those whose training was in the analytic tradition and whose modes of argument and choice of topics reflects this background, but whose philosophical views are in substance basically just traditional Thomistic ones, without qualification or reinterpretation. Here the “Thomism” would be in the driver’s seat and the “analytical” modifier would reflect not so much the content of the views defended but rather the style in which they are defended. The work of writers like Gyula Klima and David Oderberg seems to fall into this category. Moreover, some writers who appear to fall into the second category of analytical Thomists when writing on certain topics seem closer to this third category when writing on others. (Martin, Davies, and Haldane would be examples, since while some of their work attempts to harmonize analytic themes with Thomistic ones, at other times they are more inclined to challenge certain common analytic assumptions in the name of Thomism.)

In addition to the various schools of thought within Thomism that I have been describing, other approaches could be distinguished. For example, while Aquinas is generally understood to be an Aristotelian, commentators like Cornelio Fabro (1911-1995) have emphasized the Platonic elements in his thought. John Deely advocates bringing Thomism together with semiotics, the general theory of signs and signification. I have not attempted to be comprehensive, and what I have said about the main approaches has been brief and oversimplified. But hopefully it will give the reader some (very general) guidance through the gigantic and often bewildering body of literature on Aquinas and Thomism. In the interests of full disclosure, I might mention that my own understanding of Aquinas has been influenced most by the work of writers in the Neo-Scholastic, Laval/River Forest, and Analytical schools (especially the third category of analytical Thomism that I distinguished). In particular, I follow these approaches in reading Aquinas as the pivotal figure in an ongoing “Aristotelico-Thomistic” tradition, a “perennial philosophy” which has its roots in the best of ancient Greek thought and continues to this day.

Further reading:

Treatments of the history of and various schools of thought within Thomism can be found in: Romanus Cessario, A Short History of Thomism (Catholic University of America Press, 2003); Helen James John, The Thomist Spectrum (Fordham University Press, 1966); Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Blackwell, 2002); Ralph M. McInerny, Thomism in an Age of Renewal (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968); and Brian J. Shanley, The Thomist Tradition (Kluwer, 2002). Useful collections of essays can be found in: Victor Brezik, ed., One Hundred Years of Thomism: Aeterni Patris and Afterwards, A Symposium (Center for Thomistic Studies, 1981); Deal W. Hudson and Dennis Wm. Moran, eds., The Future of Thomism (American Maritain Association, 1992); and the series Thomistic Papers published by the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas (Meridian Books, 1958) contains a useful collection of papal statements on the significance of Aquinas for Roman Catholic thought. Gerald A. McCool has developed a controversial interpretation of the recent history of Thomism in a series of books; see his Nineteenth-Century Scholasticism: The Search for a Unitary Method (Fordham University Press, 1989); From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism (Fordham University Press, 1989); and The Neo-Thomists (Marquette University Press, 1994). His interpretation is debated in John F. X. Knasas, ed., Thomistic Papers VI (Center for Thomistic Studies, 1994).

The Neo-Scholastic approach to Aquinas is summarized in Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought (B. Herder Co., 1950; reprinted by Ex Fontibus Co., 2006). A recent treatment of Garrigou-Lagrange’s thought is Richard Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P. (St. Augustine’s Press, 2005). Presentations of existential Thomism can be found in Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1952) and Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (Vintage Books, 1966). John F. X. Knasas, Being and Some Twentieth-Century Thomists (Fordham University Press, 2003) is a recent defense and Ralph McInerny, Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Catholic University of America Press, 2006) a recent critique. Two recent introductions to Laval/River Forest Thomism are The Writings of Charles De Koninck, Volume 1, edited and translated by Ralph McInerny (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008) and Benedict M. Ashley, The Way toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). For transcendental Thomism, see Joseph Donceel, ed., A Marechal Reader (Herder and Herder, 1970). For Lublin Thomism, see Rocco Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Eerdmans, 1997). For analytical Thomism, see the chapter on Aquinas in G. E. M. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Three Philosophers (Basil Blackwell, 1961); John Haldane, ed., Mind, Metaphysics, and Value in the Thomistic and Analytical Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); The Monist, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1997), a special issue on Analytical Thomism edited by Haldane; and Craig Paterson and Matthew S. Pugh, eds., Analytical Thomism: Traditions in Dialogue (Ashgate, 2006).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scruton mania [UPDATED]

Roger Scruton is without a doubt the greatest living philosopher of conservatism. Apart from political philosophy and current affairs, he has also written important works on ethics, culture, religion, the history of philosophy, and, above all, aesthetics. In addition, he has written several novels, and a couple of operas. To give you a sense of how prolific he is, Scruton’s works take up slightly more than an entire three-foot shelf in my library – and even then I’m missing a volume or two. Nor does that include his many newspaper and magazine pieces. And absolutely everything he writes is worth reading, even when one disagrees with it. (He is a bit more reactionary than I am vis-à-vis contemporary popular culture – though I agree with him that most of it is pernicious trash, and one sometimes suspects that his über-snobbery is meant to be provocative. And he is, for my money, not reactionary enough vis-à-vis religion and modern philosophy, including modern political philosophy. Too little metaphysics, too much Kant. Which, of course, means any Kant…)

If contemporary academic moral and political philosophy were something more than a clubby chat society for people with broadly left-liberal assumptions and sensibilities, Scruton would be as widely read and assigned as Rawls, Nozick, Gauthier, Cohen, Thomson, Parfit, and the rest of the usual suspects. But it isn’t, so he’s not.

Anyway. This year has seen not only two new works from Scruton – Beauty and Understanding Music – but also two important works about Scruton from Mark Dooley: his study of Scruton’s work, Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach, which appeared this summer; and his edited volume The Roger Scruton Reader, which comes out next month. These are long overdue, and we are in Dooley’s debt. Perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a Scruton boom – sculptor Alexander Stoddart is selling a bust of Scruton, which is available to adorn your private study in either a bronze, marble, or plaster version.

In any event, The Roger Scruton Reader promises to make Scruton’s writings more easily available, and will surely be widely assigned by liberal professors of ethics and of political philosophy to their students, so that they might at long last get an idea of what the best representatives of the other side are saying.

Or maybe not.

UPDATE: My esteemed What’s Wrong with the World co-blogger Lydia McGrew has reminded me of something about which I had completely forgotten: that Scruton, while he opposes creating a legal right to assisted suicide, has taken the view that there are cases where a doctor who intentionally hastens a terminal patient’s death (e.g. via an overdose of morphine) should not be prosecuted and – Scruton seems to think – has even done something admirable. (See chapter 4 of his book A Political Philosophy.) Says Lydia: “I do think that pro-life, contemporary, Christian conservative writers should moderate their raptures about Scruton somewhat in light of such views.” And she is absolutely right. Such views are – in my judgment no less than Lydia’s – gravely immoral, and I regret having overlooked this unhappy side of Scruton’s work.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Thomistic tradition, Part I

I had originally intended to include in chapter 1 of Aquinas a brief overview of the history of Thomism. But as things turned out, the book was running too long, and since the section in question did not fit entirely smoothly into the chapter anyway, my editor and I decided to cut it out. Still, since it might be useful to readers looking for a quick rundown on the (often bewildering) variety of schools of thought that have developed within the Thomist tradition, here it is. (It begins a bit abruptly; it was meant to come immediately after the section on “Aquinas’s life and works,” and refers back to some issues raised in that section.) I’ve broken it into two parts: this post covers the history of Thomism up through the mid twentieth century; the second will cover analytical Thomism and offer some recommendations for further reading. Proud owners of Aquinas interested in a “Director’s Cut” can print and paste them between chapters 1 and 2.

The controversy over Aristotelianism hardly ended with Aquinas’s work, much less with his death. In 1270, while Aquinas was still alive, Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris, had condemned several propositions associated with Averroism, though these did not include any defended by Aquinas. But after Aquinas’s death, in 1277, Tempier went on to condemn 219 propositions, some of which were clearly to be found in Aquinas. This led Albert the Great to come to Paris to defend his former student, and other Dominicans also threw themselves into the task of upholding the doctrine of their fellow friar. Indeed, the study of Aquinas was to become mandatory within the order. This Dominican defense and consolidation of Aquinas’s teaching beginning just after his death is sometimes taken by historians to constitute the beginning of the first of three periods in the history of Thomism. That it was successful is evidenced by the facts that Aquinas was declared a saint by Pope John XXII in 1323, and that two years later, in 1325, Tempier’s condemnations of 1277 were revoked by his successor.

Just as Dominicans had generally defended Aquinas, members of the Franciscan order had been among his fiercest critics. The rivalry between the two orders would only become more bitter as a result of the influence of the Franciscan thinkers John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347). Scotus and Ockham tended toward voluntarism, which emphasizes God’s will over his intellect and thus makes his actions more impenetrable to our rational understanding than they are on Aquinas’s account. Ockham is famously associated with nominalism, which denies the existence of universals. From the Thomistic point of view, these doctrines threaten to undermine the intelligibility of the world and the rational foundations of ethics and of our knowledge of God. Aquinas’s positions were ably defended against them by the likes of John Capreolus (1380-1444), who became known as princeps Thomistarum or “foremost Thomist.”

A second period in the history of Thomism is sometimes dated roughly from the period of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545-63) which was called in reaction against it. Thomas de Vio, also known as Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), produced a major commentary on the Summa Theologiae that would have a decisive influence upon the general understanding of Aquinas’s doctrines. Cajetan’s emphasis on continuity with Aquinas’s own positions was followed by later commentators such as Dominic Banez (1528-1604), and John Poinsot (1589-1644), who would come to be known as John of St. Thomas. This contrasted with the tendency of thinkers from the new Jesuit order, such as Luis de Molina (1535-1600) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), to combine Aquinas’s thought with various non-Thomistic elements. These different tendencies, roughly associated with Dominicans and Jesuits respectively, gave rise to sometimes heated doctrinal disputes, the most famous being the controversy over grace, free will, and divine foreknowledge.

Ancient and medieval philosophy in general, and Thomism in particular, emphasized metaphysics over epistemology, and objective reality over our subjective awareness of it. The right order of inquiry, from this point of view, is first to determine the nature of the world and the place of human beings within it, and then on that basis to investigate how human beings come to acquire knowledge of the world. Modern philosophy, beginning with Rene Descartes (1596-1650), reverses this approach, tending as it does to start with questions about how we can come to have knowledge of the world and only then going on to consider what the world must be like, based on an account of our knowledge of it. In particular, both Descartes’ rationalism and the empiricism of writers like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume begin with the individual conscious subject or self, develop a theory about how that self can know anything, and then determine what reality in general must be like in line with their respective theories of knowledge.

One result of this subjectivist method was to make objective reality and common sense problematic in a way they had not been for Aristotle and Aquinas; skepticism thus came to seem a serious threat, and idealism (the view that the material world is an illusion and that mind alone is real) came to seem a serious option. Another consequence was that even when some sort of objective reality was acknowledged, doubts were raised about the possibility of knowing much about it beyond what the senses could tell us directly. Accordingly, grand metaphysical systems of the sort presented by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas were called into question. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an especially influential expression of hostility to traditional metaphysics, distinguishing as it does between “phenomena” (the world as it appears to us, of which we can have knowledge) and “noumena” (the world as it exists in itself, which we cannot know).

Nineteenth-century Thomists like Joseph Kleutgen (1811-83) sought to revive the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition in the face of these modern developments, and their efforts were massively aided by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), which called for a renewal of Thomism, and of Scholastic philosophy in general. The result was a Neo-Thomistic and Neo-Scholastic movement which marked a third phase in the history of Thomism, dominated Roman Catholic thought until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and has dramatically influenced the modern understanding of Aquinas’s thought down to the present day. Several schools of thought describing themselves as “Thomistic” have developed over the course of the last century or so, each representing a different response to the characteristic themes and assumptions of modern philosophy. Since they have had such a profound influence on the contemporary debate over Aquinas’s thought, it will be worthwhile briefly to describe the main positions:

1. Neo-Scholastic Thomism: The dominant tendency within Thomism in the first decades after the revival sparked by Leo’s encyclical, this approach is reflected in many of the manuals and textbooks widely in use in Roman Catholic colleges and seminaries before Vatican II. Due to its emphasis on following the interpretative tradition of the great commentators on Aquinas (such as Capreolus, Cajetan, and John of St. Thomas) and associated suspicion of attempts to synthesize Thomism with non-Thomistic categories and assumptions, it has also sometimes been labeled “Strict Observance Thomism.” Still, its focus was less on exegesis of the historical Aquinas’s own texts than on carrying out the program of deploying a rigorously worked out system of Thomistic metaphysics in a wholesale critique of modern philosophy. Its core philosophical commitments are summarized in the famous “Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses” approved by Pope Pius X. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964) is perhaps its greatest representative.

2. Existential Thomism: Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), the key proponent of this approach to Thomism, tended to emphasize the importance of historical exegesis but also to deemphasize Aquinas’s continuity with the Aristotelian tradition, highlighting instead the originality of Aquinas’s doctrine of being or existence. He was also critical of the Neo-Scholastics’ focus on the tradition of the commentators, and given what he regarded as their insufficient emphasis on being or existence accused them of “essentialism” (to allude to the other half of Aquinas’s distinction between being and essence). Gilson’s reading of Aquinas as putting forward a distinctively “Christian philosophy” tended, at least in the view of his critics, to blur Aquinas’s distinction between philosophy and theology. Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) introduced into Thomistic metaphysics the notion that philosophical reflection begins with an “intuition of being,” and in ethics and social philosophy sought to harmonize Thomism with personalism and pluralistic democracy. Though “existential Thomism” was sometimes presented as a counterpoint to modern existentialism, the main reason for the label is the emphasis this approach puts on Aquinas’s doctrine of existence. Contemporary proponents include Joseph Owens and John F. X. Knasas.

3. Laval or River Forest Thomism: This approach emphasizes the Aristotelian foundations of Aquinas’s philosophy, and in particular the idea that the construction of a sound metaphysics must be preceded by a sound understanding of natural science, as interpreted in light of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature. Accordingly, it is keen to show that modern physical science can and should be given such an interpretation. Charles De Koninck (1906-1965), James A. Weisheipl (1923-1984), William A. Wallace, and Benedict Ashley are among its representatives. It is sometimes called “Laval Thomism” after the University of Laval in Quebec, where De Koninck was a professor. The alternative label “River Forest Thomism” derives from a suburb of Chicago, the location of the Albertus Magnus Lyceum for Natural Science, whose members are associated with this approach. It is also sometimes called “Aristotelian Thomism” (to highlight its contrast with Gilson’s brand of existential Thomism) though since Neo-Scholastic Thomism also emphasizes Aquinas’s continuity with Aristotle, this label seems a bit too proprietary. (There are writers, like the contemporary Thomist Ralph McInerny, who exhibit both Neo-Scholastic and Laval/River Forest influences, and the approaches are not necessarily incompatible.)

4. Transcendental Thomism: Unlike the first three schools mentioned, this approach, associated with Joseph Marechal (1878-1944), Karl Rahner (1904-84), and Bernard Lonergan (1904-84), does not oppose modern philosophy wholesale, but seeks to reconcile Thomism with a Cartesian subjectivist approach to knowledge in general, and Kantian epistemology in particular. It seems fair to say that most Thomists otherwise tolerant of diverse approaches to Aquinas’s thought tend to regard transcendental Thomism as having conceded too much to modern philosophy genuinely to count as a variety of Thomism, strictly speaking, and this school of thought has in any event been far more influential among theologians than among philosophers.

5. Lublin Thomism: This approach, which derives its name from the University of Lublin in Poland where it was centered, is also sometimes called “phenomenological Thomism.” Like transcendental Thomism, it seeks to combine Thomism with certain elements of modern philosophy, though in a way that is less radically revisionist. In particular, it seeks to make use of the phenomenological method of philosophical analysis associated with Edmund Husserl and the personalism of writers like Max Scheler in articulating the Thomist conception of the human person. Its best-known proponent is Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), who went on to become Pope John Paul II.

[To be continued]

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hank’s Pad

“Wow, first the urbane smoothness of Steely Dan and then the freewheeling Big Band sound of the Swing Era. Gee, if only there were a way to combine both…”

Say no more, music lover – feast your ears on “Hank’s Place” (a.k.a. “Hank’s Pad,” for owners of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy):

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy Columbus Day!

“Columbus is ours”: The great Pope Leo XIII on the great Christopher Columbus, of happy memory. And here is a series of lectures by Fr. John Hardon on Columbus the Catholic. Too much pro-Catholic bias, you say? OK, just for balance, I’ll throw in this defense of Columbus from the atheistic Ayn Rand Institute.

On the lighter side, here is a (somewhat goofy) version of the classic Fletcher Henderson tune “Christopher Columbus.” Enjoy, and raise a glass to the man who brought the West out west!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Libertarian neutrality so-called

John Rawls held that a liberal political order is neutral or impartial in three important senses: First, it treats persons as “ends in themselves” and thus as moral equals entitled to impartial concern; second, it seeks to realize its vision of justice in a way that is neutral between the diverse moral and religious worldviews prevailing among citizens of the society it is to govern; and third, it also neutral between the various alternative philosophical doctrines (liberal and non-liberal) individual political thinkers who could support it might be personally committed to. It rests instead on an “overlapping consensus” between moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines, while nevertheless sustaining a shared sense of justice between them, rather than a mere modus vivendi or truce between hostile factions.

Some libertarian theorists have proposed that their creed is more plausibly neutral or impartial in each of these three senses than egalitarian liberalism is. This idea is at least implicit in the thought of Robert Nozick, who also appeals to the Kantian principle of treating persons as “ends in themselves,” and who argues that a libertarian society constitutes a “framework for utopia” in which individuals and groups committed to wildly divergent moral, religious, and philosophical visions are all “free to do their own thing.” Will Wilkinson has been explicit in making a Rawlsian case for libertarianism, and legal theorist Randy Barnett, who endorses Wilkinson’s position, has presented similar arguments of his own.

My own view is that the “neutrality” of libertarianism is (like that of Rawlsian liberalism) completely bogus. I made the case for this judgment in an exchange with Wilkinson at TCS Daily a few years back (see here, here, and here). I make it at greater length in my paper “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality,” which was presented at a conference at the University of Reading a few years ago and which is available at my website. Though Barnett is the direct target of most of what is said in the paper, its arguments apply to libertarianism in general, and it is my fullest “official statement” on the subject, for anyone who is interested.

What leads me to raise the issue here is an exchange over libertarianism and culture between Kerry Howley, Todd Seavey, and Daniel McCarthy in the latest (November 2009) issue of Reason magazine (in which, to my surprise, I play a small role as Howley’s and McCarthy’s “Exhibit A” instance of a “culturally right-wing libertarian” who went on to abandon libertarianism altogether).

Howley’s position is that libertarians should aim, not only to reduce governmental power, but also to change social attitudes. For Howley, “not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun.” There is also the “paternalism of the mob” enshrined in “tradition,” “convention,” “culture, conformism, and social structure,” which, even in the absence of the threat of imprisonment, can shore up “patriarchy” and endanger the “acceptance of gays and lesbians” and “the liberty of the pill, of pornography, of 600 channels where once there were three.” In short, for Howley any libertarianism worthy of the name must promote the cultural agenda of the left no less than the economic position of the anti-tax, anti-big government right.

Howley, in effect, abandons any pretense that libertarianism is “neutral” vis-à-vis the competing moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines to be found within a pluralistic society; for libertarianism must favor, in her view, the culturally leftish ones. This will no doubt come as an unhappy surprise to “libertarian neutrality” advocate Wilkinson, who once very charmingly identified Howley for his readers as his “primary oxytocin source”; their pillow talk – or is it biochem laboratory talk? – apparently doesn’t extend to political philosophy. (Then again, like the Rawlsians who are always chatting up their “neutrality” on moral and religious issues while pushing same-sex marriage and abortion on demand, Wilkinson’s writings have never left any doubt as to what he thinks a free society should look like. And it ain’t Malta.)

That is not to say that denying that libertarianism is neutral entails affirming that it must tend toward cultural leftism, specifically. In the last gasp of my own libertarianism, I argued – not implausibly, if I do say so myself – that one could make a strong libertarian case for conservative morals legislation. And Howley hardly makes much of a case for her own position; as Seavey acidly points out, it amounts to little more than the undefended assertion that “freedom’s just another word for Kerry Howley’s preferences.”

The thing is this: Key libertarian concepts like “freedom,” “rights,” “coercion,” “harm,” “self-ownership,” and the like are highly indeterminate. Their ambiguity makes them useful in libertarian rhetoric, but problematic when it comes to forging a coherent political philosophy. As I argue in the Journal of Libertarian Studies article just linked to, when the “ownership” in “self-ownership” is spelled out one way, the results tend to favor leftish moral views, and when spelled out another way (the way I favor in the article) they tend to favor conservative ones. Some such spelling out is necessary, but no possible spelling out ends up being “neutral” with respect to substantive liberal and conservative moral codes.

The “self” in self-ownership is equally ambiguous; and as I argue in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Personal Identity and Self-Ownership,” different conceptions of the self, like different elaborations of the concept of “ownership,” have radically different moral implications – and again, in no case are these implications consistent with a vision of libertarianism as “neutral” between the conflicting moral, political, and religious doctrines prevailing within a pluralistic society.

Philosophically speaking, then, libertarianism is a mess. Its rhetorical power lies precisely in its purported hyper-neutrality, the conceit that libertarianism alone allows everyone – egalitarian hippies and entrepreneurs, evangelicals and atheists, ascetics and libertines, feminists and male chauvinists – to “do their own thing,” as Nozick put it. But when one tries to put philosophical muscle onto these bare bones, the whole thing falls apart. Like Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism inevitably embodies a substantive vision of the good which crowds out every other under the pretense of doing precisely the opposite. Given the indeterminacy of its key concepts, that vision may end up being either more or less “left-wing” or more or less “right-wing” when those concepts are given a more substantive elaboration. But the idea of a political order which is “neutral” in some interesting way – a way which might resolve the festering cultural and political tensions characterizing modern pluralistic societies, by means of an appeal to a shared sense of justice rather than a mere modus vivendi – vanishes upon analysis like the mirage it is. That, in any event, is the position defended in the articles I have mentioned, and that is worked out most thoroughly in “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality.”

Finally, I want to emphasize that the aim of that particular paper is only to refute the claim that libertarianism is or can be “neutral” in the sense in question. I know from bitter experience that writing on this subject seems to test certain libertarians’ reading skills, and I will no doubt be accused of seeking to impose Roman Catholicism, an Aristotelian-Scholastic curriculum, Steely Dan T-shirts, and who knows what else upon the freedom-loving citizens of these United States. But the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with my seeking to “impose” my “personal tastes,” or anything else, on anyone. It has to do, again, solely with the question of whether libertarianism is “neutral” in the relevant sense. So, if you want to comment on the argument of the paper, please stick to the subject.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In other news, Edward Feser has been awarded the Dawkins Prize…

OK, I’ve finally stopped laughing. I see two good things coming out of this:

1. We now have an absolutely infallible test for determining whether Obamolatry has yet completely rotted out a given individual’s mind: Either you’re sane and still have a shred of intellectual honesty, or you think Obama merits the Nobel Peace Prize. Apply to your liberal friends, sit back, and enjoy.

2. This farce will only solidify in the electorate’s mind the truth of what was blindingly obvious before the election and has become Metaphysically Certain since: Obama is an empty suit with no substantive achievements to speak of, who owes whatever standing he has entirely to the ridiculous fantasies that have been projected onto him by his sycophants.

Said sycophants will, of course, be utterly unmoved whatever their idol does or fails to do. But with the swing voters whose opinion actually makes the difference in elections, this will only hurt Obama. When buyer’s remorse has been setting in already, the last thing you want to do is double down on the salesman’s BS. And there ain’t enough cash left in the Treasury for this clunker.

So, thank you Nobel Committee! Next year, why not go ahead and award one to yourselves? Couldn’t make you look any worse…

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Warburton on the First Cause argument

Bored while proctoring an exam today, I browsed through the desk drawer for something to read and found, among the other detritus of semesters past, a photocopy of the “God” chapter from Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy: The Basics, which some other professor had apparently once used for an Intro course. So I took a look. Several violent expletives later, the students had to ask me to quiet down so they could get back to distinguishing proximate genus from specific difference.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Warburton performs the usual ritual of criticizing the stupid “Everything has a cause etc.” version of the First Cause argument – a “version” which, of course, no one has ever actually defended. (Or, for you pedants out there, in case your Pastor Bob once taught it to you at Sunday school: a “version” which none of the many well-known philosophers who have endorsed the First Cause argument has ever actually defended.) That much would, perhaps, not be particularly noteworthy. This preposterous straw man litters both introductory philosophy textbooks and “New Atheist” pamphlets like the droppings stray neighborhood cats keep leaving on my lawn; and I have already declaimed upon the contemptible dishonesty of its use by pop atheists – and, most disgracefully, by many professional philosophers too – ad nauseam (e.g. here and here).

But Warburton ups the ante. Our man is not satisfied to leave his readers with the false impression that some actual theistic philosopher has ever argued “Everything has a cause; so the universe has an uncaused cause, namely God.” After all, a charitable reader might naturally, and quite rightly, think to respond: “Surely none of the defenders of this argument really said ‘everything’ – that would just be too obviously self-contradictory!” No, as if to forestall such a retort, Warburton assures us that “The First Cause Argument states that absolutely everything has been caused by something else prior to it,” that “The First Cause Argument begins with the assumption that every single thing was caused by something else,” and that the argument crucially assumes “that there can be no uncaused cause” (emphasis mine). Naturally, Warburton has no trouble “showing” that the defender of the First Cause Argument contradicts himself when he goes on to assert that God is an uncaused cause.

Strangely, Warburton provides no citations for this argument. Or not so strangely, since, as I have said, no defender of the First Cause argument has ever actually given it – not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne, and not anyone else, as far as I know. Somehow, though, attacking this ridiculous caricature was judged by Warburton to be a more useful way of introducing his readers to the First Cause argument than presenting the actual views of any the great thinkers who’ve defended it. Wonder why.

Naturally too, Warburton also peddles the other standard myths about the First Cause argument. We are, for example, told matter-of-factly that “the argument presents no evidence whatsoever for a God who is either all-knowing or all-good.” Readers of The Last Superstition or Aquinas – or, more to the point, of the hundreds of pages written by the authors just mentioned arguing precisely for these and others among the divine attributes – know that this is what the kids today like to call “a blatant falsehood.” But again, this is something I’ve gone on about at length elsewhere (such as in the posts linked to above).

We are also told that what the argument seeks to rule out is “a never-ending series going back in time” – God as the knocker-down of the first domino, and all that. Never mind that most philosophers who have defended the argument – Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz, to take perhaps the most significant figures – explicitly reject the strategy of arguing for a temporal first cause. And while there are other philosophers who have argued for a first cause of the beginning to the universe (most recently, William Lane Craig) Warburton entirely ignores their actual arguments as well.

So, what does Warburton’s discussion provide the beginning reader who is interested in learning about “the basics” (Warburton’s subtitle) of what philosophical theists have said about the First Cause argument? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

It will not do to suggest in his defense that Warburton only intended to show what was wrong with some crude arguments sometimes given by non-philosophers. For the title of his book is Philosophy: The Basics – not Crude Arguments Given By Non-Philosophers: The Basics.

Furthermore, when discussing some of the other traditional theistic arguments – the ontological argument and the design argument, for example – Warburton does attribute them to actual philosophers (Anselm and Descartes in the first case, Paley in the second). To be sure, his discussion is superficial here as well, but at least he is in these cases oversimplifying the actual arguments of these thinkers. By contrast, the purported “First Cause Argument” he criticizes bears no resemblance to anything a philosophical defender of the First Cause argument has actually said. That Warburton himself realizes this is evidenced by the fact that in this particular case, he does not even attempt to attribute the argument he is attacking to any actual philosopher.

So, why do a disgraceful number of professional philosophers – Warburton is hardly alone here – even bother with it? This too is a question I address in the first of the two posts linked to above. And it is hard to believe that the answer has anything to do with promoting a better public understanding of philosophy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

High IQ versus common sense?

Why do highly intelligent people often lack common sense? Bruce Charlton, editor of the journal Medical Hypotheses, has some thoughts here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fossils and Frankenstein monsters

One sometimes hears it said that studying the works of Thomists only distorts one’s understanding of Aquinas. “Read St. Thomas himself, and forget the commentators!” This sounds sophisticated, or is supposed to. In fact it is superficial. No great philosopher, no matter how brilliant and systematic, ever uncovers all the implications of his position, foresees every possible objection, or imagines what rival systems might come into being centuries in the future. His work is never finished, and if it is worth finishing, others will come along to do the job. Since their work is, naturally enough, never finished either, a tradition of thought develops, committed to working out the implications of the founder’s system, applying it to new circumstances and challenges, and so forth.

Thus Thomas had Cajetan, Plato had Plotinus, and Aristotle had Aquinas himself – to name just three famous representatives of Thomism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism, respectively. And thus you cannot fully understand Thomas unless you understand Thomism, you cannot fully understand Plato unless you understand Platonism, you cannot fully understand Aristotle unless you understand Aristotelianism, and so on. “But writers in the traditions in question often disagree with one another!” Yes, and that is all the more reason to study them if one wants to understand the founders of these traditions; for the tensions and unanswered questions in a tradition reflect the richness of the system of thought originated by its founder.

Great philosophers, then, are not museum pieces, or shouldn’t be. Karl Popper famously derided the incessant “spectacle cleaning” of those linguistic philosophers who became so obsessed with the words we use to talk about philosophically problematic phenomena that they lost sight of the phenomena themselves. Historians of philosophy can make a similar mistake if they are not careful, becoming so obsessed with the minutiae of historical context that they make the arguments of a Plato or an Aristotle, an Augustine or an Aquinas, a Descartes or a Kant come to seem like fossils, so deeply embedded in the contingent controversies of their times that they can no longer speak to us today.

When an argument presented as paradigmatically Thomistic, Platonic, Aristotelian, Cartesian, or whatever is dismissed by the historian as “anachronistic” – as an accretion of the later tradition which must be stripped away in order to get at the “authentic” teaching of the founder, or as a reconstruction that goes beyond the actual text – then we are in danger of losing sight of the point of studying the thinkers in question in the first place. As Aquinas himself put it, “the study of philosophy is not about knowing what individuals thought, but about the way things are” (Exposition of Aristotle’s Treatise On the Heavens I.22). An argument as actually stated by some great philosopher of the past may be incomplete or unclear, and seem open to various objections. And yet it may also embody real insights, and contain in embryonic form a more compelling line of thought that later thinkers in the tradition have merely refined and strengthened rather than made from whole cloth. To ignore the latter is not to do justice to the thought of the founder, but precisely to do him an injustice. More to the point, it is to risk failure to discover the truth about some substantive philosophical matter in the name of a pedantic, narrow conception of “scholarship.” Hence those who study (for example) Plato’s arguments for the immorality of the soul and the theory of Forms, or Aquinas’s Five Ways, while ignoring the ways later Platonists and Thomists have interpreted and defended those arguments, blind themselves to the real power of these ideas.

As every Aristotelian knows, however, vices tend to come in pairs. And in avoiding the mistake of fossilizing great thinkers of the past, we must take care not to fall into the opposite error of making them over in our own image. This is what occasionally happens when the contemporary analytic philosopher pulls a volume of some great philosopher of the past off the shelf and decides he’s going to do said philosopher the favor of reconstructing his arguments in a style that might make them acceptable to a referee for Nous or The Philosophical Review. The result is sometimes interesting. But sometimes it involves (say) attributing to Aristotle a “functionalist” philosophy of mind, or interpreting Aquinas’s Third Way as an exercise in possible worlds theorizing. That is to say, the result is occasionally a kind of Frankenstein monster – the attempted reanimation of a (presumed) corpse via the latest philosophical technology, which yields only a grotesque distortion of the original. (Readers interested in these particular examples are referred to Aquinas, which among other things attempts to clear up some common misunderstandings of the Third Way and of the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to the mind-body problem.)

If the historian of philosophy is sometimes overly attentive to historical context, then, the analytic philosopher is sometimes insufficiently attentive to it. If his standard of philosophical respectability is what he was taught in grad school or what he hears talked about at the latest APA meeting, he is naturally going to assume that if Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or whomever really has something of interest to say, it must be expressible within the conceptual boundaries with which he and his friends in the profession are familiar. But a past philosopher’s significance is not to be measured in terms of the degree to which he approximates our opinions and assumptions. On the contrary, as Christopher Martin has said, “the great benefit to be derived from reading pre-modern authors is to come to realise that after all we [moderns] might have been mistaken” (Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, p. 203). A failure to interpret and evaluate the arguments of a past philosopher on their own terms not only entails misunderstanding what he had to say, but also deprives us of the opportunity of uncovering possible errors or limitations in our own thinking.

The only way for a philosopher to avoid both sterile historicism and ahistorical arrogance – both fossils and Frankenstein monsters – is to strive to understand the history of his subject while always keeping in mind that this historical knowledge is not an end in itself, but a means of approaching philosophical truth. In particular, it requires understanding the ongoing traditions of thought to which many of the great thinkers of the past contributed. To understand not just Thomas, Plato, or Aristotle, but Thomism, Platonism, or Aristotelianism, as living systems, is simultaneously to situate these thinkers within their proper intellectual context and to understand their contemporary relevance.