Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Telegraph on Scholastic Metaphysics

At The Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse kindly calls attention to my book Scholastic Metaphysics, which he describes as follows:

A brilliant new defence of metaphysics… [I]t is a lively read.  The author is Edward Feser, and in 2011 Sir Anthony [Kenny] gave something of a rave review in the TLS to an earlier book by him, The Last Superstition...


  1. Some of the comments are interesting. I am sure the good Prof. here will be glad to know how useless metaphysics is. "Metaphysics is nothing more than an intellectual exercise invented to confused the masses. There is no historical excuse for this as it has proved good cocktail party repartee for up themselves professors at up market universities."

    This is about what one would expect from the typical YouTube comment post (or Coyne Blog post or even something peter boghossian would spout off).

    Nice but rather short article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Intellectuals often "invent" very bad instruments "to confuse the masses."

  3. "In reality it is a lively read...

    Yep. In the same way that wrestling with a Honey Badger is a playful pastime. :-)

  4. Speaking of the comments, one of them seems to accuse Aquinas of promulgating Tri-Theism in Summa Theo. pars i, q. xxix, art 4. Surely this isn't right? Does anyone have anything to say about that?

  5. [In response to the tri-theism fellow, I posted this somewhat snarky comment:]

    After you said "This is not my scene at all," you set out immediately to prove that statement. In ST I.29.4, Aquinas makes it clear that "person" does not refer only to God's nature as such. If it did, your criticism would have some validity, since there would be three distinct substances all with God's nature, and thus three gods. However, since Aquinas does not make this mistake, he argues for three divine Persons, but one Substance, which is God.

    In other words, his argument is orthodox, he argues for monotheism and not tri-theism, and you are wrong. No need to thank me for the correction, and God bless us, every one.

    [So now we'll see if anything pops up out of this.]

  6. Ed, I can't wait to kindly call attention to your next great book! Hope the writing is going well =)

  7. @Cantus,
    I think the commenter has just completely misunderstood the thing he's referring to -- specifically, to Aquinas' "reply to Objection 4" ( There, St. T. is tackling only one specific (and technical item), namely the question of whether or not the word "person" has only one meaning -- i.e. is it univocal or equivocal. The point being made is that we cannot infer that the term is equivocal simply because of a difference in the way it is used with respect to a divine person versus a non-divine person. The conclusion the commenter jumps to -- that Aquinas was promoting tri-theism -- isn't justified (or even tackled) in that section.

  8. Dear Anders: Yes, you're right. I didn't mind the mistake--it's easy to make mistakes, especially about technical philosophical points. What I didn't like was the mistake, delivered in a pompous, know-it-all tone, followed by a gratuitous crack at Christianity in general. I think the spirit of Dawkins has infected many.

  9. I notice some of the regulars here have been posting in the comments to that article - The Telegraph's comments have rarely been so interesting or thoughtful!

  10. Craig,

    In Britain, you will find the majority of people who would comment in such a place will have been infected by that spirit. They might not be quite as extreme as Dawkins, but they will be contemptuous of religion.

  11. @Craig: Are you sure you meant to respond to me? I was responding to @Cantus who asked about the Summa point made by the commenter.

  12. Hi Dr. Feser,

    Should you have the time (funny, I know) I would love to get your input on two cosmological arguments from composition that I find interesting. Both rest on the following principle: "the simple is a cause of the composed". This strikes me as correct, but I am having a hard time coming up with an argument in defense of it, as I am not well versed in neoplatonic metaphysics.

    Argument 1:
    1. The simple is a cause of the composed
    2. The world is made up of composite things
    3. So, there is cause of the world, simple in nature
    4. (divine attributes follow: immateriality, atemporal, one, etc.)

    Argument 2:
    1. The simple is a cause of the composed
    2. There is one composite thing X
    3. So there is a simple cause of X
    4. Every cause in the world is composite
    5. So the cause of X, by virtue of being simple, transcends the world
    6. (divine attributes follow: immateriality, atemporal, one, etc.)

    Thank you!
    PS: Anyone else willing to offer some feedback, I'd love to hear from you.

  13. Dear Anders: Yes, I was responding to you. I was saying that I agreed with your analysis (of the mistake the other guy on the other site made about the Summa I.29.4).

    Dear Paulo Juarez: I agree with your arguments, but I can see why you are having troubles. Premise 4 of Argument 2 is the reason: If I am an atheist, why would I want to look any further for a simple cause when composite causes seem to produce all the myriad effects of the world? An argument that seems to me easier to defend would involve the movement from potential to actuality, as it would ultimately require a cause that is complete actuality with no potential. In some respects this is the same argument you are making (a cause that is completely simple with no composition), but (again, to me) easier to defend. Professor Feser has written extensively about potential/actual arguments.

    Anyone agree? Disagree? Want to clarify?

  14. Dear Craig: thanks for your comments. What I am having trouble with is expounding premise 1 within the context of neoplatonic metaphysics. I'm not so much interested in pursuing an argument from potentiality/actuality, as I am perfectly happy with Aquinas' argument 'ex motus', and, as you mention, Dr. Feser has also developed his own take on this argument, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

    Your comments regarding P4 simply vindicate the premise, namely, that every cause in the world is composite in some way or other. The atheist may not want to look for further causes, but again, that's where a defense of P1 would force him to see that a non-composite cause must be posited as the cause of the composed. One way of hinting at a defense of P1 would be to point out that physicists, insofar as they think there might be some Theory of Everything, believe that the complexity of the physical universe can be explained in terms of some simple, elegant theory. Here we have an explanation of the complex in terms of the simple. But IMO this is not the sort of robust defense that I should want to rest P1 on.

  15. @Paulo,

    In general: are "simple" and "composite" (or "composed) sufficiently well defined for your purposes? For example, is a string (of String Theory) composite? In what way? Also, how do the labels "simple" and "composite" apply to causes? Is a composite cause just one whose source is a composite thing?

    P1 in both: the "a" suggests that it's possible for some composed to be caused by other composed. And in fact that seems obvious to me. My body is composite and I'm using it to type these words on my computer which is also composite. So don't you need some more work in order to assert that there must exist a simple cause?

    A2.P2: Is that meant to be "There exists at least one composite thing"? Or are you using X to stand for "The set of all composite things", that set of things itself being your composite X? Or what?

    A2.P4: I agree with Craig that this looks vulnerable. For a start shouldn't it really be expressed as "Every cause in the world that we have found so far is composite"? If so, your typical New Atheist will accuse you of making a "god of the gaps" argument. If not then how do you know that every cause in the world is composite?

    A1.P4 and A2.P6: I know these are not your main target conclusions, but they're there so I'll comment. Have you established sufficient foundation in each argument to allow you to then produce the divine attributes? My understanding of some of the Aquinas arguments is that, for example, we can argue that since we are persons, then God must in some way possess personhood, since X cannot create (or actualize potential) Y having property Z unless X itself also has property Z (or some super-property containing Z).

  16. P.S. You might find it more useful to ask your question here: . In general the rule is not to push comments to the forum until the post is old, so as not to squash combox activity here on the blog. But in this case your question doesn't specifically pertain to the post, so I guess it would be OK to take it there, and the forum machinery will probably allow you to get a more in-depth review of your ideas.

    Just a suggestion.

  17. Argument 2:
    1. The simple is a cause of the composed

    4. Every cause in the world is composite

    Surely we need to be cautious about how "cause" is being used / intended. For a thing whose MAKE-UP is complex, it must have simples that "go into" that make-up. This, I think, is the surest and easiest sense in which P1 is valid. I.E. in terms of material cause.

    But even in this world, there are PRINCIPLES of things that are not material and are not part of the material cause. For instance, "gravity" is a principle of a star. The "law of large numbers" is a principle of statistical workings. Inequality is a principle of scalene in triangles. "Even" is a principle of straightness in straight lines, using Euclid's definition.

    In general, I think you are going to have a hard time converting P4 into a valid point for this, because there are kinds of causes - not material cause - that are simple in some sense, that are "in the world". Further, P1 is valid from material causality, but the cause you get to - God - is not a material cause of complex things, so somewhere there seems to be an equivocal usage of "cause" going on.

  18. Never read the comments. That's advice I happily disregarded here. What a great bunch of people here. No sarcasm either.

    Once again I'm happy to be following Dr. Feser. He was my best discovery of 2014 (thanks, Tom Woods!).

  19. Does anyone know of a good critical review of this book? The Establishment is not going to just throw up its hands and admit that Aristotle was right, and it will have some arguments to justify its refusal.

  20. @Frank, there are several, although not sure if there's any that "The Establishment" would consider unbiased. Examples: (paywalled)

  21. Thank you. I appreciate your effort in setting forth this info in such easy-to-use form, though I was hoping for a review by someone not predisposed to agree with the book.

  22. @Frank, I'm not sure what that person would look like. The only people likely to read and review the book are those already interested in the topic. And, given the nature of the topic, which many people today think is just some old-fashioned medieval nonsense, long superseded by science, those interested in the topic are likely to be predisposed to agree with much of it, or at least to agree with the basic principles upon which the book rests: e.g. that there really is such a thing as metaphysics worth studying, that there is more to knowledge than science can provide, etc.

    Also, bear in mind that, unlike The Last Superstition, Scholastic Metaphysics is pretty much free of polemics, which further reduces the chance of the book being looked at by a slavering New Atheist type. At very least, the book's index is pleasantly free of entries pertaining to: Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, or Hitchens. Feser does begin with air strikes against the scientism position, but they are surgical strikes with no collatero-polemic damage. From there, it's Just The Facts Ma'am, Just The Facts.

    All that said, going back to your original comment:
    "The Establishment is not going to just throw up its hands and admit that Aristotle was right, and it will have some arguments to justify its refusal."

    I'm not sure that last part is correct. It really does seem that the vast majority of scientists, a large majority of philosophers, and maybe even a reasonable chunk of philosophers of religion simply have little or no idea *what* scholasticism was/is, and in particular what people like Aquinas and Scotus actually said. So their arguments against Aristotle are few and far between.

    But to add insult to injury -- and this is really quite incredible until you get used to it -- *despite* not knowing the field, large numbers of the above (and bear in mind that those people are seen as, and largely are, among the most highly educated on the planet) are only too happy to dive in and criticize it. It would be hilarious if it weren't so annoying.

  23. Does anyone know of a good critical review of this book? ...though I was hoping for a review by someone not predisposed to agree with the book.

    Yeah, me too. While we're at it, I was hoping for an unbiased review of the argument about whether words have meaning. Truly unbiased, not just crypto-pretend. For example, the review would have to be carried out without words, but ALSO without prejudice to words. I would be prepared to accept a review carried out by pantomime or alchemy, for example. Probably have to start with a detailed pantomime of the distinctions regarding (if there can be such a thing as "regarding") the pre-conditions that may or might (or might not) undergird such supposed notions as grammar and semantics, natural and conventional, determinate and indeterminate.

  24. @Tony:

    I don't understand. How could there be a review without words? Do you mean an audio review, like a podcast?

  25. @Tony:


    "The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lunge by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, 'that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.' And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave."--Gulliver's Travels, Part 3 Chapter 5

  26. I don't understand. How could there be a review without words?


  27. @Scott:
    > :-)

    You did click my "podcast" link, didn't you?


  28. ;-)

    (Much more of this and I'll have to start using words again, though.)

  29. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo


  30. (Much more of this and I'll have to start using words again, though.)

    Have you tried olfactory signaling? Mental Telempathy? Bumble-bee dancing?

    Or even just not "saying" anything at all? THAT's gotta carry a lot of meaning. Think of the bandwidth!

  31. Or even just not "saying" anything at all?

    [Holds breathe, widens eyes, puffs out cheeks. Waits.]

  32. Of course St. Thomas did meet Hume, or at least his arguments; these are to be found in Asharite occasionalism, which he heard of through Maimonides. Anscombe's case against Hume is recognisably inspired by St. Thomas, as e.g. in her claim that causal action is directly observable.

  33. Anders,

    I am not getting anything. Is that what you intended? Good job, then.

    Oh: did you let your breath out yet?