Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Goodill on Scholastic Metaphysics and Wittgenstein

In the January 2016 issue of New Blackfriars, David Goodill reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics.  From the review:

Feser[‘s]... purpose... is in bringing Scholastic metaphysics into conversation with contemporary metaphysics... The contemporary partners Feser chooses to converse with are analytical philosophers...

This engagement with contemporary philosophy ensures that the book is more than just an introduction which rehearses the arguments of others. Feser demonstrates a mastery of both the Scholastic tradition he draws upon and the writings of contemporary thinkers, which he uses to provide telling and insightful analyses of key metaphysical notions...

The value of Feser’s book is in its contribution to the[se] debates... and the analytical clarity with which he illuminates contemporary debate by using principles developed in scholastic thought.

While allowing that “inevitably with any work of such broad scope not every perspective can be included, nor can every debate be entered into,” Goodill suggests that there are two issues I might have pursued further.  First, he says:

Feser rejects Wittgenstein’s rejection of metaphysics and his return to the ordinary.  Along with this he also argues that: ‘the Scholastics would not agree that it is to “grammar” that we must look to resolve (or dissolve) metaphysical problems’ (p. 221).  Here Feser stands in opposition to those analytical philosophers who have drawn a line of continuity from Plato through the scholastics to Wittgenstein’s grammatical remarks.  Most notably, G. E. M. Anscombe draws attention to the intimate relationship in Plato between the development of metaphysics and grammar, and argues that Frege and Wittgenstein stand within this tradition.  More recently William Charlton has argued that grammar is central to metaphysics.  An engagement with such views would be helpful in substantiating Feser’s claim that grammar did not figure when the scholastics sought to resolve metaphysical questions.

This is an interesting response to my remarks in the book about Wittgenstein, and I agree that those remarks should be qualified.  So let me do so here.

“Grammar,” in the technical Wittgensteinian sense, has to do with those implicit rules of language which determine the bounds of meaningful usage.  These rules are normative rather than merely descriptive, and a proposition which expresses a rule is therefore to be distinguished from an empirical proposition.  The proposition that stones are material objects would be a “grammatical” proposition in this sense, whereas the proposition that stones can be found in riverbeds would be an empirical proposition.  To deny that stones can be found in riverbeds would be to say something false, but it would nevertheless be to say something perfectly intelligible, something which could have been true.  But to deny that stones are material objects would, in Wittgenstein’s view, not be intelligible.  It would be nonsensical, insofar as the proposition that stones are material objects is for him partially constitutive of the proper use of the term “stone.”  We know that stones are material objects, not by virtue of empirical investigation (as with the proposition that stones can be found in riverbeds) but rather just by virtue of mastering the use of the word “stone.” 

“Grammatical” rules in this sense are thus like the rules of a game.  To say, in the context of a game of checkers, that a game piece with another stacked on top of it is a King is to give expression to one of the rules of the game.  It is not like saying that player A’s King is on a red square.  Falsely to say the latter (when the King is actually on a black square, say) is to make an empirical mistake.  But to deny that a game piece with another stacked on top of it is a King is not to make an empirical mistake.  It is simply to misunderstand what checkers involves. 

Now, for Wittgenstein, a metaphysical theory like Berkeley’s idealism is like that.  When Berkeley denies that a stone is a material object and says that it is actually a collection of perceptions, he is, in Wittgenstein’s view, making a “grammatical” error.  He is like someone who denies that a checkers game piece with another stacked on top of it is a King.  “Grammar” in the sense of the study of the constitutive rules of language can for the Wittgensteinian thus help us to expose the errors made by bad metaphysical theories.  As Wittgenstein says, “essence is expressed by grammar” and “grammar tells what kind of object anything is” (Philosophical Investigations §§371, 373).

There are at least three ways to read what Wittgenstein is up to here, which I will call the anti-realist, realist, and neither anti-realist nor realist readings.  They can be described as follows:

1. Anti-realist: On this reading, Wittgensteinian “grammar” merely describes how we happen linguistically and conceptually to “carve up” reality.  In principle, though, we might carve it up in some radically different way.  “Grammar” captures necessary features of reality only in the sense that, given the language and conceptual scheme we happen to have, certain ways of describing things are ruled out as nonsensical.  However, our language and conceptual scheme as a whole is contingent, and could in theory be replaced by some alternative and incommensurable language and conceptual scheme.

2. Realist: On this reading, Wittgensteinian “grammar” captures not merely how we happen, contingently, to “carve up” reality, but how reality itself must be.  It tells us not just what is necessarily the case given our conceptual scheme, but what is necessarily the case full stop.  We cannot so much as even make sense of the idea of a radically different and incommensurable conceptual scheme, because we cannot so much as make sense of reality being any different than the rules of “grammar” tell us it is.

3. Neither anti-realist nor realist: On this reading, the anti-realist and realist readings of Wittgenstein are themselves precisely instances of the sort of thing Wittgenstein is trying to overcome.  For both involve a dualism of language and conceptual scheme on the one hand and reality on the other, and disagree merely about whether the former corresponds necessarily to the latter.  But this kind of metaphysical picture is itself a product of what Wittgenstein would regard as “grammatical” confusion.  In our ordinary linguistic usage and “form of life,” the question of whether language and conceptual scheme as a whole “correspond” to reality doesn’t even arise.  Wittgensteinian philosophy is about getting us back to this state of pre-metaphysical innocence (as it were), and not about taking sides on any version of the metaphysical realist/anti-realist dispute.

Now, people who think that Wittgenstein is a kind of relativist, or that his criticisms of various metaphysical theories are a matter of “conceptual analysis” which takes for granted mere “folk” notions which might end up being overthrown by science, are adopting interpretation 1.  But this interpretation, I would say, badly misreads Wittgenstein, and I think most Wittgensteinians would agree that it badly misreads him.

In fact, I think that Wittgenstein and most of his followers intend interpretation 3.  In my view, though, the trouble with interpretation 3 -- or to be more precise, with the position that interpretation 3 rightly attributes to Wittgenstein --  is that it is unstable and tends to collapse into either the position described by interpretation 1 or the position described by interpretation 2.  There is just no such thing as returning to a state of pre-metaphysical innocence (short of a lobotomy, anyway) because metaphysical speculation is not some pathology that arises when language “goes on holiday,” but is rather the natural manifestation of our essence as rational animals.  Give man sufficient time and leisure, and he will become a metaphysician.  The only question is whether he will do it well or badly.

If there is any value in Wittgenstein’s “grammatical” investigations, then -- and I certainly think there is -- then they will in my view have to be construed in terms of interpretation 2.  Now, again, there are good ways and bad ways of doing metaphysics.  I would say that what Wittgenstein was primarily reacting against were some bad ways -- namely, the ways represented by continental rationalist metaphysics, “naturalized” metaphysics of the sort inspired by British empiricism, idealism, Kantianism, etc. -- and that he mistook them for metaphysics as such.  But all these approaches, which share certain key post-Cartesian assumptions, differ greatly from the classical approaches represented by Platonism, Aristotelianism, and the Scholastic thinkers who built on those traditions.

Aristotelianism in particular (and systems which incorporate it, like Thomism) take there to be a profound continuity between common sense and metaphysical speculation.  Metaphysics goes well beyond common sense but it does not subvert it, at least not in any radical way.  This continuity puts Aristotelian metaphysics much closer to Wittgenstein and his concern for ordinary language and the “form of life” it represents than other metaphysical systems are.  Because of this closeness, I think that Aristotelians and Thomists are bound to find useful insights in Wittgenstein and his followers, and that Wittgensteinians are bound to find the work of Aristotelians and Thomists more congenial than that of other metaphysicians.  It is unsurprising, then, that there are thinkers who have drawn inspiration from both traditions (e.g. Anscombe, Anthony Kenny, P.M.S. Hacker).

Now, when I said what I did in Scholastic Metaphysics about Wittgenstein, I had interpretation 3 in mind.  And since that section of the book was not about Wittgenstein per se but rather about defending Scholastic metaphysics against a certain kind of objection, those remarks sufficed for my purposes.  But they certainly don’t represent the entirety of my views about Wittgenstein, and Goodill is correct that it would be quite wrong to claim that Wittgenstein has nothing to offer the Scholastic. 

Finally, Goodill also writes:

Furthermore, although this is a work in metaphysics, some account of the relationship between metaphysics and logic in scholastic thought would both aid this dialogue and enable the reader to grasp something of the subtlety of the distinctions drawn by the scholastics.

Here too I agree with Goodill.  I do briefly touch on such matters at the end of the book, where I discuss analogy, but much more could be said.  Doing so, however, would require treatment of issues in philosophy of language and logic that would go far beyond the aims I had in mind in writing the book; indeed, it would require a book of its own.

There are several issues here to be disentangled.  First there is the general question of the relationship between modern logic and the traditional logic presupposed by older Scholastic writers.  Writers of an earlier generation such as Henry Veatch had something to say about this, but the subject really needs an up-to-date Aristotelian-Thomistic treatment that engages in depth with contemporary analytic philosophy.  (David Oderberg has made a start in his anthology on logician Fred Sommers.)

Second, there is the gigantic topic of Aquinas’s position on the analogical use of language -- how properly to understand it (a matter of dispute among Thomists), the critiques by Scotists and others, and how all this relates to work in contemporary philosophy of language.  Important work on these issues has been done by writers like Joshua Hochschild.

Third, there is the question of how specific Scholastic ideas and arguments in metaphysics reflect distinctive logico-linguistic assumptions.  Gyula Klima has perhaps written more on this subject than any other contemporary philosopher.

What is really needed, though, is book-length work that ties all this together in a systematic way.


Greywizard said...

I see by the last sentence of your comments you have set yourself a Herculean task! I look forward to the book that results!

Greywizard said...

I apologise. Greywizard was a nom de l'internet that I chose when I first signed online to Google, and it has followed me ever since. Greywizard and Eric MacDonald are, in this case, one and the same.

ccmnxc said...

Eric, I'm not sure Ed is planning on writing a book on the subject himself so much as pointing out that a solid work is needed to that end. On a similar note, although it delves more into linguistics and isn't exactly what Ed is talking about here, has anyone read David Braine's book "Language and Human Understanding"? It looks quite interesting, and I know it is done from a A-T sympathetic position, but I was wondering what others thought of it.

ccmnxc said...

And, if I may, I'd also appreciate thoughts on James Ross's "Portraying Analogy," as that is one I was considering reading upon returning to school after Christmas break.

Kyle said...

"When Berkeley denies that a stone is a material object and says that it is actually a collection of perceptions, he is, in Wittgenstein’s view, making a “grammatical” error. He is like someone who denies that a checkers game piece with another stacked on top of it is a King."

I'm not sure I follow. For example, in The Matrix when Morpheus points out to Neo that the various components of the training simulations *are* merely simulations, is he also making a "grammatical" error? Or if I reassure my kid that the ogre he was being attacked by only a few seconds ago was "just a nightmare", am I also making such an error?

Gene Callahan said...

"When Berkeley denies that a stone is a material object ..."

Berkeley does not deny that stones are material objects!

Anonymous said...

Hi Gene,

In the Three Dialogues, Philonous' immaterialism is attacking materialism which is the view that there is a mind-independent material substratum (in modern terms we would call this realism). Whilst he does not deny that the stone is a physical object, he would not have accepted that it had a mind-independent material existence.

Anonymous said...

Why is Veatch's work so expensive?

Glenn said...

"When Berkeley denies that a stone is a material object ..."

Berkeley does not deny that stones are material objects!

On p. 44 of Three Dialogues, Philonous gives two reasons for his denial of (a single thing, namely) the existence of material substance:

1. "[T]he notion of material substance is inconsistent"; and,

2. One ought not "believe that any particular things exists without some reason for thinking so", and he has "no reason for believing in the existence of matter".

Naturally, that Berkeley has Philonous taking a stance contrary to that with which Berkeley himself is not in agreement does not necessarily mean that he, Berkeley, is in a agreement with the stance he has Philonous take. Or something like that. I guess.


Shane Scott said...

Dr Feser, I didn't know how else to get this link to you, but thought you would really enjoy this article since it affirms the point you have made ad infinitum regarding the limits of scientism - Here's how it opens:

"Is string theory science? Physicists and cosmologists have been debating the question for the past decade. Now the community is looking to philosophy for help."

Scott said...

Merry Christmas, all. Just to keep things on-topic: Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to people of Goodill.

Greywizard said...

Of course, ccmnxc, I was not suggesting that Dr Feser is actually going to undertake the task. It's a bit of a joke, but it also points to something that I think Dr. Feser is capable of doing. His book "Scholastic Metaphysics" has already made strides towards showing the relationship between Aquinas and contemporary philosophical analysis, and the present post extends this even further. Surely, it is a book in gestation already!

ccmnxc said...

Forgive me. I had posted the reply and then entertained the notion that you weren't serious, but I didn't follow through.

Anonymous said...

"there is the general question of the relationship between modern logic and the traditional logic presupposed by older Scholastic writers."

On this topic, I would recommend recent Aristotelian logic scholars, for example John Corcoran Robyn Smith. I've seen less on this topic from Thomist scholars

Mihret Gelan said...

After Ed is done writing on the philosophy of nature, I think, if he has any time for another book project, the most important thing needed now, even over metaphysics, is a lengthy excursus on epistemology and philosophical psychology. It is obvious that most of the objections against Christianity are epistemological (e.g. scientism, idealism). He has written on the problem of universals in TLS, but not much on the so-called "critical" problem of epistemology. A contemporary systematic treatment of epistemology is I think the most important thing needed in reply to the uprise of atheism which is primarily based on scientism among the less philosophical atheists and idealism among philosophical atheists. Plus, the great thomist epistemologists (Maritain, Gilson, Mercier) tend to be so vague... Ed writing style is far simpler and therefore more understandable and effective. Anyways, Happy Holidays!

laubadetriste said...

@Dr. Feser: "Second, there is the gigantic topic of Aquinas’s position on the analogical use of language -- how properly to understand it (a matter of dispute among Thomists), the critiques by Scotists and others, and how all this relates to work in contemporary philosophy of language."

While we're at it, let me say that this ↑ would be at the top of my Christmas wish list. I personally have long found the doctrine of analogy (or rather, my lack of understanding of the the doctrine of analogy) to be the primary intellectual stumbling block in the way of assent to a genuine theism. That seems to be a problem for Kai Nielsen too, and also seems to have been a problem for Mill.

@Scott: "Merry Christmas, all. Just to keep things on-topic: Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to people of Goodill."

Hehe. :)

Yes, Merry Christmas, all. May everyone hear bells.

laubadetriste said...

...and make gravy.

Jacob said...

Off topic- I think regular readers here will be interested in this book. Utterly fascinating history of "science versus religion" . Many of Dr Feser's points- but from a historical point of view . The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

Johnny said...

I too agree that a work in how the Scholastic should understand logic in light of the modern and contemporary advancements is desperately needed. I was reading through old works from Coffey and Joyce and while their treatment of logic is for the most part sound, it certainly is outmoded. New topics and discoveries require new responses.

Daniel said...

If people are looking for a work criticising the ontological assumptions of modern logic and proposing a way of amending/upgrading it to allow expression of Substance/Accident predication I heartily suggest Barry Smith's article 'Against Fantology':

For my part though I'm all for upgrading the predicate calculus but don't think there is anything to be gained hankering after 'traditional logic', at least not in its raw Aristotelian form. By this I mean that later Scholastics may have stood a better chance. For those interested in pursuing that option:

(Kudos to John West for the Parsons suggestions)

Skeptical said...

Professor, I have yet to read it, although I have ordered it for review, but perhap David Braine's book «Language and Human Understanding» is a book that contributes to the issues in Philosophy of language that you are seeking? His book «The Reality of Time and the Existence of God», in which he forges an argument from temporal continuance based upon the argument from motion, was heavily influenced by St Thomas.

Have you read the book, and if so what are your thoughts on it?

Johnny said...


I was reading Bittle's The Science of Correct Thinking and in the Introduction Bittle explains that the study of logic should precede all other fields of philosophy:

"One of the best arrangements is to begin with logic, the science of correct thinking, because correct thinking is necesarry for every department of philosophy..."

Bittle's point of the universiality of logic seems true enough, but how is this to be interpreted in light of the claim that metaphysics is the most fundamental discipline of thought? How should one approach the potential paradox of the truth that the definition of logic assumes more primary extra-logical views regarding logic, but that the correct means of thinking, which is the domain of logic, is necesarry in any such assumptions made?

E.Seigner said...


Logic is the art/science/skill of correct thinking, but when you think, you always think about something. So, to train your correct thinking, you necessarily pick a topic to think about and then practise your thinking with that topic. Many philosophers (or otherwise profound thinkers) find that metaphysics is the best topic to train your thinking skills with. Do you see any reason to object? Do you have a better topic?

Anonymous said...


There is an equivocation in your query. Bittle, presumably, is talking about pedagogical primacy, whereas Dr. Feser means that metaphysics is the study of the reality in its most general sense.

Johnny said...


My question is addressing what field of philosophy should first be studied. Thus it is asking about each field, logic and metaphysics, in a pedagogical sense. It seems that both are the most universal field of study, since each assumes the other and is present in all other fields in some sense. Thus each has the right to claim they should be studied first (unless we specify an order to the different senses in which each is universal).


I understand that logic is about something, since logic is itself the study of the structure of thought, which is itself always about something. But if we are to consider logic then as a means to an end, I think we should consider it to be an art rather than a science. I am only confused because Bittle asserts later on that logic is both a science and an art, in both senses.

"The question has been asked: 'Is logic a science or an art?' It is both..."

But he does not clarify in what way logic is universal, either in its scientific or in its artistic sense. I'm inclined to believe he means in its artistic sense, but if he means in its scientific sense we face somewhat of a tension with the traditional view that metaphysics (or ontology) is the universal, or most general, science.

Anonymous said...

Logic is the study, or systemization, of human reasoning. It is of pedagogical primacy because we need reason to know most other things. Logic reflects it but it is not itself the primary reality. There are two senses of primary being used here.

Anonymous said...


Prof. Edward Feser, A bit off topic here. Regarding characterization of Alvin Plantinga as a "theistic personalist," as I recall, Plantinga in radio interview that included Hilary Putnam, said that God was "not less than a person." (WBUR w/ Christopher Lydon.) Assuming this is a starting point for Plantinga, I question if theistic personalist is the correct label for him. Surely Plantinga knows that God is not a person in the anthropological or "fallen" sense. Plantinga invariably refers to God's omniscience and omnipotence, etc. Perhaps your disagreement with Plantinga, Swinburne, et. al. is about the nature of God's otherness, his uniqueness that implies his radical difference from how any of his fallen creatures could be. But does Plantinga actually oppose or contradict this concept of God? Or, does Plantinga simply focus on the "made in God's image," aspect of both God and humankind, that ultimately is revealed in the divine and human person of Christ?

Miriam said...

Do Thomists NEED this?

Miriam said...

This "grammar" thing.

Maybe I'm behind the times...

daurio said...

Because everyone else here is too lame to give credit where it is due, props to Scott for the Goodill joke.

Glenn said...


I will deny that I'm too lame to give credit for a joke.

I will also acknowledge that I'm so lame I hadn't recognized that a joke had been made.

"Glory to God in the highest...", and whatever else might follow (it and other like expressions), just isn't in my book as something regarding which I, someone who seems to never stop joking, would joke about.

So, I was utterly incapable of making the connection, and was capable only of seeing a (very anomalous) spelling error.

I don't mind being lame (not like this, anyway).

Scott said...

Hmm, it sounds like it was my attempted joke that was lame. I apologize to anyone who found it offensive.

Scott said...

(And of course making light of the Nativity of our Lord itself was not even slightly part of my intention.)

Glenn said...

No problem here, Scott.

I took no offense in any way, under any guise or to any extent.

My comment really -- as in really -- would've been better off as a private journal entry exploring, from a 'functional' perspective, the question: How or why did I miss the joke?

I also don't mind not liking spinach. But this, too, is a remark about myself, and likewise not meant as an implied prescription for or chiding of anyone.

Scott said...

Glad to hear it; thanks. It hadn't occurred to me that the humor might be or appear irreverent, but of course it might.

At any rate I don't think there's anything lame about overlooking (or failing to comment on) what was, after all, just a silly afterthought in a genuine Christmas wish. But I suspect daurio was joking about that bit, and I thank him for the props (and laubadetriste for the earlier chuckle).

daurio said...

I was indeed joking about the "lame" thing. One wouldn't have to be lame to miss a joke, or to fail to give credit for a joke. Besides, calling people "lame" is pretty lame these days anyway.
Actually, I had nothing intelligent to contribute to the thread (obviously), but I thought that Scott's comment deserved to be acknowledged.

Scott said...

Much appreciated, daurio. And an ongoing Merry Christmas season to all.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Edward Feser, I see that I should consult Alvin Plantinga's essay, "Does God Have a Nature?" Regardless my education in this area of theology and philosophy, I'd suggest that the "nature" of Christ, and the "nature" of God, ought to be commensurate in some comprehensible way. So too, the relation of humankind to God, that is, "Made in His image" should have some kind of theological and philosophical warrant. This said, I can see how fertile and challenging the discourse on these matters ought to be, and I look forward to exploring these things for myself. All best wishes for the Holiday season,


Anonymous said...


Prof Edward Feser,

NB, Revision of my previous post: I said: "I'd suggest that the 'nature' of Christ, and the 'nature" of God, ought to be commensurate in some comprehensible way." It seems to me "commensurate" may be far too strong a word in my statement here. Some other word, e.g. "relational" would be better. The actuality of being per se, and the actuality of God's being, the first being contingent in a causal way on the second, as I understand it, is a daunting thing to either describe or characterize. We could say that God is properly Existential, but would this description (if it could be characterized as such) get us anywhere? Some thoughts


Anonymous said...


Of course, another way of saying this sort of thing would be to say that "Humankind is properly Existential because of God." Humankind as derived creature (i.e. created creature in creation) is implicated in its (our) own dilemma of description and so representation of itself (our self, selves), a paradox that seeks its (our) creator, may I say