Monday, January 19, 2015

Schall on Scholastic Metaphysics


At Crisis magazine, Fr. James V. Schall very kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  From the review:

Feser has done his homework. He is quite familiar with modern analytic philosophy along with other modern systems.  He came to Aristotle and Aquinas, whom he knows well, from his realization of problems in the modern systems.  Likewise, Feser is acquainted more than most with the various texts that were once profitably used in Catholic university and seminary philosophy departments but later abandoned during the last half century.  Feser recognizes that these writers, who were perhaps not perfect, were often very good thinkers in their own right as well as familiar with the intellectual tradition of the West…

One of the pleasures of this book is that Feser is locked in argument with those who seek to explain reality but whose examination of it often leaves out something important.  He is not afraid to say that an argument is “bogus” or “absurd” or “incoherent,” nor is he afraid to explain why.  Feser says these things only after he shows the point that grounds his judgment…

In this sense, Feser’s book is quite the opposite of the “fuzziness” of the modern mind that claims that nothing is true or that all is relative…

[I]t is one of the most refreshing books I have come across in years.  Who else is willing to make a case, to articulate in the name of scholasticism, a cohesive case, for teleology, analogy, prime matter, causality, substance, common sense, esse et essetia, and the validity of the mind’s knowing powers?

Feser is aware of many good philosophers who, like himself, are working their way through the modern mind.  They discover, often surprising themselves, that their pursuit leads them to Aristotle, Aquinas, and the scholastic tradition.  This tradition, newly reflected on, turns out, after having been downgraded by Catholic educators for decades, to be the newest thing on the block…

[Feser’s work] is a prime example of a quiet revolution that is taking place whereby the basics of the scholastic tradition are recovered and developed.  Such scholars as Feser see that more needs to be said than modern thought or most Catholic thought has been willing to acknowledge…

In Feser’s little “manual,” we have the seeds of something great, the realization that, on philosophical grounds themselves, the scholastic tradition in the heritage of Aristotle and Aquinas is in fact the newest thing in academia.

39 comments:

  1. Nice. I like Fr. Schall and that's a good review.

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  2. Stop slacking and get back to work writing more books and articles on Natural Theology!

    (And I will show support by subscribing to the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly tomorrow)

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  3. @Daniel
    Stop slacking and get back to work writing more books and articles on Natural Theology!

    Quite funny but I take for granted he won't get time to write much until January is out?

    Take our money already and all that. ;)

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  4. Daniel,

    Stop slacking and get back to work writing more books and articles on Natural Theology!

    I heard or saw somewhere that Dr. Feser's writing a book on philosophy of nature next.

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  5. @John,

    Yes, that is true. I thought though that after all these reviews a more bracing form of encouragement was worth trying.

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  6. John West, not sure if it is "next" (I think he has an anthology of his papers coming out in book form sometime this year), but he mentioned in Scholastic Metaphysics that he was indeed working on a philosophy of nature text.

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  7. Daniel,

    Yes, that is true. I thought though that after all these reviews a more bracing form of encouragement was worth trying.

    Hah. I look forward to its results.

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  8. ccmnxc,

    So that's where it was. Thanks.

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  9. An extended treatment of ethics is on my Feser wishlist.

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  10. I'd love to see Feser write an updated introduction to perennial philosophy in the same vein as Maritain's, or even Sullivan's, for neophytes.

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  11. I'd love to see someone like Keith Parsons review Scholastic Metaphysics. Imagine the four digit comment threads you'd get in those discussion threads; the families missing members because they're off waging war in comboxes. Chaos!

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  12. A little off topic but I'm in a debate on the importance of metaphysics to physics on YouTube.
    His stance is that metaphysics is completely unnecessary and worthless, empiricism and logic is all you need, and that the definition of empiricism can be rewritten so as to avoid metaphysics all together.
    My own position is that physics is more like a subset of metaphysics and metaphysics permeates a scientists thinking and method beginning, middle, and end. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)
    What I need is a proper definition of metaphysics and physics (so we can both avoid strawmaning and equivocating); prominent philosophers and physicists that agree with those definitions; philosophers and physicists thru out the ages to present day that acknowledge the usefulness (and unavoidable necessity) of metaphysics.
    I already have quotes from Einstein and plan on using Feser's posts on Schrodinger, etc. I plan on going over how science has its foundations in medieval philosophers trained in metaphysics and even many modern prominent physicists acknowledge the necessity of metaphysics to do and interpret physics and that the physicists and lay people that deny this probably speak out of ignorance of the subject.
    I'll keep doing my own research but I figured I might get better info by asking you guys. Links will be nice, too!
    I've never posted here before so I can honestly say I've never asked you guys for anything! :P

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  13. @Sethius If you're on Facebook, then head over to Thomism Discussion Group where you can also get some help over there.

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  14. @ Sethius,

    "His stance is that metaphysics is completely unnecessary and worthless"

    Heh. What is that is? Metaphysics is worthless to physics in the way that more specialized physical sciences are worthless to fundamental physics. But every science assumes a metaphysic.

    Every being is what it is.

    That is a metaphysical principle (or axiom if you like). It covers all being and not just physical being; similarly, so does the principle of non-contradiction. These rules/truths apply to all beings whatsoever, even if it happened to turn out there were no other kind of being than physical beings. Physics, however, only studies physical being.

    Physics requires or depends on the principle of non-contradiction but it does not study it as its proper subject matter. The principle of non-contradiction is not a force or an atom or a quark or whatever.

    As I said elsewhere, where exactly does a discussion of the first principles (e.g. non-contradiction) belong in a physics textbook? Presumably it would either open the textbook as a kind of preamble or would be attached to it as an appendix (as somewhat comically logic was attached as an appendix to my first Philosophy 101 textbook). Surely we would not find it betwixt a treatment of particles and forces (why there, seeing as you have been assuming and using the principles up to that point already?)
    The principle of non-contradiction is surely not irrelevant to physics; notwithstanding, it doesn't really belong in physics.

    Indeed, which science can claim the principle of non-contradiction as properly its own? Mathematics too depends on it and assumes it (otherwise 2 would mean 2 and not-2 and so on for everything; adding would be adding and not-adding). Logic perhaps might claim it as somehow its own; but seeing as it is a principle of being it would seem most properly to belong to the science that studies being as such. But even then logic is arguably more about the proper application and consequences of these truths and principles than about why they are or a study of their nature.

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  15. Sethius,

    His stance is that metaphysics is completely unnecessary and worthless, empiricism and logic is all you need, and that the definition of empiricism can be rewritten so as to avoid metaphysics all together.

    Since this position is self-refuting (it itself being a metaphysic), you probably need not waste too much effort on this opponent.

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  16. If one employs Logic then de facto one covertly employs Ontology (didn't Quine say something very much alone those lines to Carnap?)

    @Kiel,

    Can't we get Oppy or someone like that to review it instead of Parsons? That way there would still be the massive combox spree but potentially interesting things might also be said.

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  17. Yes, Sethius, come over to the Thomism Discussion Group on Facebook -- this admin will let you in :)

    We've got a lot of excellent and helpful people over there, and they are always willing to help out.

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  18. As much as I would enjoy a book on the philosophy of nature, I would prefer to see Prof. Feser turn his efforts to a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. He provides us with wonderful reasons to believe a God exists, but for many of us, what really matters is God's identity.

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  19. @Bro. Longtail,

    That might perhaps be a task better left to an historian though surely? In order to make a claim for the truth of Christianity one would need to go into the tiresome arena of biblical criticism and such which is a field on its own.

    but for many of us, what really matters is God's identity.

    With respect I don’t understand this. The existence of the Deity is a Necessary condition for Christianity but it’s far more than just that. Were Christianity or Judaism never to have existed then the knowledge of God would still be the highest and most important thing, the very end of the intellect itself.

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  20. What I am saying in a wider context is that it would seem more healthy for the intellectual future of Western humanity if Atheisms, both old and new, were replaced by a 'New Deism' (in the sense of non-revelation based Classical Theism) in which case its proponents could go on spouting the old invective against Christianity if it made them feel better. We would though have reached a better stage to discuss religious questions though having returned to a general shared philosophical standpoint.

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  21. @ Bro. Longtail

    Perhaps I'm underestimating the predicament here (though your concern is something I'm quite familiar with), but I think with natural theology (and natural law) in hand it's not that difficult after all.
    Even the field of New Testament studies becomes somewhat easier to navigate, because one really doesn't have to presume all kind of alternative explanations that have direct influence on the relevant variables.
    An example: if there's no reason to believe that the Gospels cannot contain eye-witness accounts because the events relayed are miraculous (for God certainly can do miracles, there's even an example of a special act of God - the fact that you, a rational animal, exist now and did not exist before) and there's nothing pointing to their madness, conspiracy etc., excepting the "pointer" of claims being miraculous in nature, there is no reason to dispute, say, the traditional account preserved by the Fathers, including the authorship, dating and order of the composition of the Gospels, which essentially vindicates the traditional appeal to the gospels containing eye-witness accounts.
    With all of this in the background saying that the reports in the gospels are something other than what they are claimed to be would be an unreasonable accusation.

    Premises here are contingent, of course, and there are a lot of things to spell out here, naturally.

    But I believe getting correct presumptions is paramount, their importance being manifested by the dependence of various theories in New Testament studies on them (or so is my conclusion).

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  22. @ Daniel

    Ah, what a splendid world that would be! I mean, if they would become classical theists, it would be reasonable to expect all the theistic personalists to follow suit.
    And surely that would mean not only substantial agreement in metaphysics, philosophy of nature and natural theology, but also ethics, because of the premises already accepted (being unoriginal, I think that's one of the reasons this marvel of a world looks so unattainable).

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  23. Perhaps if some fundamental questions were deeply considered oneupmanship philosophical, theological, and metaphysical word games would become unnecessary. There are at least four such questions.

    1. Are you the One who is living you now?

    2. What is your relationship to that One?

    3. Do you know what anything IS?

    4. What is your relationship to all possible experience, and to every being and thing that exists?

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  24. hello, good afternoon. Am working on Gilbert Ryle, but need to espouse 20th century philosophers' view.I shall be glad if you can recommend some materials for me.

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  25. Fr Schall notes that a quiet revolution is taking place in academia with the re-discovery of scholastic metaphysics. Let's it to the next level. Ed ought to offer a MOOC on metaphysics. Get the course online and make it free. Marry a disruptive technology with a disruptive philosophical approach. Shake up philosophy departments and seminaries. Spill over effect into law schools. Trouble is, you'd have to get Pasadena State to sign on. Still, the idea of getting the revolution out on the web in classroom format is compelling.

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  26. @Bro. Longtail

    I quite understand your point. That was the next step so to speak in how Aquinas dealt with these questions, although I think it is lower down the priority list for many Catholic philosophers today. Quite often this is left for theologians, biblical scholars and 'apologists' (who usually are some kind of philosopher).

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  27. @Francis Kayode

    What is it you want specifically because that wasn't 100% clear (easily done in text communication)?

    We can list 20th century philosophers or Thomists or both depending on what it is you want. I suggest getting Edwards Last Superstition, Aquinas, Scholastic Metaphysics; Alexander Pruss;David Oderberg etc. are people/books you will hear mentioned here I am sure.

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  28. Daniel,

    “What I am saying in a wider context is that it would seem more healthy for the intellectual future of Western humanity if Atheisms, both old and new, were replaced by a 'New Deism' (in the sense of non-revelation based Classical Theism) in which case its proponents could go on spouting the old invective against Christianity if it made them feel better. We would though have reached a better stage to discuss religious questions though having returned to a general shared philosophical standpoint.”

    First, there’s an unbridgeable abyss between deism and classical theism!

    Second, I’m not quite convinced by the strategy that Ed Feser suggests for doing apologetics (for lack of a better term): first metaphysics, then natural theology, philosophical anthropology, then natural ethics and natural religion, and finally Christian apologetics. This may be correct as a philosophical ordering of the “science,” but it’s unclear that this approach is most effective from a psychological standpoint. Today and arguably in the past, it seems that people have tended to come first to specifically Christian belief; then, within the context of Christian belief specifically and informed by classical philosophical ideas, they have come to classical theism as the best way to think about matters of theology.

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  29. Tom Larsen,

    Daniel wrote: 'New Deism' (in the sense of non-revelation based Classical Theism)

    You wrote: First, there’s an unbridgeable abyss between deism and classical theism!

    If it is not a mere oversight, given Daniel's definition of "Deism" I would be interested in hearing more about this unbridgeable gap between it and classical theism.

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  30. @John West:

    "[G]iven Daniel's definition of 'Deism' I would be interested in hearing more about this unbridgeable gap between it and classical theism."

    Since Daniel's definition was "non-revelation based Classical Theism," there's no gap at all.

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  31. Scott,

    Since Daniel's definition was "non-revelation based Classical Theism," there's no gap at all.

    Thank you. I thought maybe the lack of revelation somehow caused a gap.

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  32. Nah, classical theism in and of itself doesn't require revelation, though it does raise the possibility in a serious way.

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  33. This 'quiet revolution' in academia is great news. Long may it continue.

    Equally important is a revolution (actually, counter-revolution) among intelligent laymen. I mean this in both senses of the word: intelligent Catholics still sitting in the pews, and intelligent unbelievers who aren't academic philosophers, but might assume that the case against theism is largely sound (from ignorance and lack of time to investigate, rather than hostility).

    Catholics who have the right kind of brain for 'doing' philosophy need to learn the arguments (along with why common counter-arguments fail), and spread them as far and wide as possible. This will contribute enormously to the recovery of the Faith as a whole from the catastrophe of the past fifty years.

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  34. English Catholic,

    Catholics who have the right kind of brain for 'doing' philosophy need to learn the arguments (along with why common counter-arguments fail), and spread them as far and wide as possible. This will contribute enormously to the recovery of the Faith as a whole from the catastrophe of the past fifty years.

    Well, maybe. But I think it's important to do serious metaphysics and serious philosophy completely apart from any of that.

    I also think there is a distinction between evangelism and apologetics that's important to keep in mind.

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  35. John West - I certainly agree with all that.

    It's obviously wrong to equate serious philosophy with a layman's understanding, and I apologise if I gave the impression of doing so. I'm just saying any counter-revolution in academia should ideally run parallel with a counter-revolution in the culture at large.

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  36. English Catholic,

    It's obviously wrong to equate serious philosophy with a layman's understanding, and I apologise if I gave the impression of doing so.

    I apologize if I gave the impression I thought you gave such an impression.

    When I commented on avoiding letting evangelism (instead of seeking truth) drive philosophy, I was actually thinking of ID advocates and their fine-tuning arguments (which they will sometimes justify by pointing to the evangelical success of fine-tuning arguments, as if that has anything to do with philosophical criticisms of ID/fine-tuning).

    I'm just saying any counter-revolution in academia should ideally run parallel with a counter-revolution in the culture at large.

    Sounds good to me.

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  37. When I was in seminary, I wrote to Fr. Schall and he kindly wrote back. I asked him for reading suggestions and he gave me plenty. Should a seminarian now write him such a letter, I'm sure he would recommend this book. High praise indeed. (I'm reading this book now and think highly of it, for what little that is worth.)

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