Thursday, December 12, 2019

Word to the Wise

Eric Wise takes to Facebook to express shock that an author would be annoyed with a book reviewer who doesn’t have anything to say about the actual contents of the book under review.  He also manages to pack an amazing amount of further obfuscatory nonsense into a small space.

Wise defends his criticism of my arguing for broadly Aristotelian views rather than grappling with Aristotle’s own texts by noting that the title of my book is, after all, Aristotle’s Revenge.  Shouldn’t I have called it something else if it wasn’t going to be offering detailed exegesis of De Partibus Animalium?  This is like criticizing Tolstoy’s title War and Peace on the grounds that it is really just about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia rather than war in general, or objecting to Nietzsche’s title The Antichrist on the grounds that it isn’t really about eschatology or apocalyptic literature. (I thought Straussians were not supposed to be literal-minded.)

Wise says he wishes I were more “honest” and “upfront” about my favoring a Scholastic reading of Aristotle.  I guess titling one of my books Scholastic Metaphysics and another one Neo-Scholastic Essays was too subtle. 

As I said in my original reply, my book concerns topics in philosophy of nature and philosophy of science such as embodied cognition, epistemic structural realism, causal powers and laws of nature, the A- and B-theories of time, presentism, reductionism in chemistry and biology, essentialism, and much else along these lines.  Wise’s latest remarks offer us no explanation of why he ignored all of this – that is to say, of why he ignored the actual contents of the book.

However, he does once again repeat his preposterous and out-of-left-field insinuation that my positions on such issues rest on specifically Christian theological premises.  And he takes a second stab at cobbling together some justification for it.  Ready for it?  Here it is: the justification is that my “bibliography… includes a massive edifice of theistic sources.”

There are two problems with this.  First, Wise’s assertion here is patently ridiculous, as anyone who has a copy of the book (which, conveniently for Wise, is unlikely to include many of his readers) can easily verify.  Though I do quote some writers who happen to be theists (such as Aquinas and other Thomists) most of the writers I engage with are mainstream contemporary academic analytic philosophers working in philosophy of science and metaphysics, whose work has nothing to do with theology (and who in many cases are even hostile to that subject).

Second, even when I do cite Aquinas or some other Thomist writer, I am not citing some theological claim they make, much less some claim about Christianity, but rather something they have to say about science or philosophy.  These writers happen to be Christian, but none of the arguments they give that I endorse in my book depends on agreeing with them about that.  (Suppose a feminist said that, since most of the writers I cite also happen to be men, it follows that my book can only be convincing to other men.  I imagine Wise would agree that this would be a very moronic inference.  But his inference is no better.)

Wise also claims to find evidence for Christian theological premises insofar as “agency in all motion, angels as a concept of incorporeal beings, and miracles in evolution are... theistic concepts.”  But there are several problems with this.

First, “miracles in evolution” is Wise’s phrase, not mine.  What I actually do in the book is discuss a variety of possible ways evolution might be interpreted in terms of an Aristotelian philosophy of nature, and I explicitly note how an atheist might develop such an interpretation, even if such an interpretation is not one I would endorse.  (Thomas Nagel would be one well-known thinker who flirts with such a view, which further gives the lie to Wise’s absurd claim that only someone committed to Christian revelation could take seriously the sorts of arguments discussed in my book.  What I say about evolution no more depends on Christian theology than what I say about embodied cognition, structural realism, presentism, causal powers, etc. does.)

Second, the point I was making in the book vis-à-vis angelic intellects in no way requires the reader to believe that there are such intellects.  Rather, I was making a point about what sort of thing we would be left with if we consistently stripped away all the aspects of our perceptual and conceptual grasp of the world that reflect a distinctively human point of view (so as to underline the difficulties in attempts to strip all that away).  Wise might as well say that the famous “Maxwell’s demon” thought experiment shows that modern physics is committed to the reality of the spirit realm. 

(“But Feser, you’re a Catholic who actually does believe there are angelic intellects!”  Well, yes I am.  So what?  Again, that is completely irrelevant to the specific points I was making in the book, which don’t rest on any such belief.  This is basic logic, which Wise apparently never studied between his readings and re-readings of Natural Right and History.) 

Third, while I would certainly hold that making sense of “agency” in the sense of efficient causal power ultimately requires affirming a divine uncaused cause, the reality of such a cause is not presupposed in talk of agency as such.  It requires argumentation to get to the existence of a divine cause.  It is not something that follows analytically or by definition from the notion of causal agency itself.  (That is how there can be neo-Aristotelian writers in contemporary analytic metaphysics who believe in real causal power in nature while having no truck with theism.)  Hence one can discuss efficient causality without getting into the question of whether there is a divine uncaused cause, just as one can discuss chess, or bourbon, or Steely Dan, without getting into the question of whether there is a divine uncaused cause.

Can it get any worse?  Dear reader, you know it can.  Wise reaches a climax of sorts with this gem of a paragraph:

Feser’s category of “philosophy of nature”… was new to me.  And I don’t think I am Miranda of The Tempest here, because Feser takes pains to define philosophy of nature himself.  It is his category.

End quote.  So, Wise, the guy who decided he was qualified to review a book about the philosophy of nature, thinks that “philosophy of nature” is something I came up with.

Well, here’s a word to Mr. Wise.  It would seem that you are, in fact, Miranda of The Tempest. 

But don’t worry, you can get up to speed.  There’s this new thing called Google.


  1. Tisk tisk Ed... really? Including the Google link? You should *teach* a man to fish, not just give him a free meal:

  2. Sometimes it's just plain humiliating to reflect that we may be judged by the quality of our enemies.

    Wise is an imbecile.

  3. Please don't tell me he also believes the sun is intelligent and proud because it's a "bright and glowing star".

  4. What is it with this weird obsession with text exegesis? Just because one is an Aristotelian one isn't forced to ascribe inerrancy to Aristotle

  5. Even the academics today don't feel any need to be academic in their criticism of ideas. They labor only to associate their opponent with "religion" and feel they have made the case. It's an appeal to authority of sorts--the authority (real or assumed) of the crowd. Conversely, spend several pages asserting that one's own views are "scientific", and they will be accepted as iron-clad truth without further examination.

    In a sense, given the above, you really can't blame Wise. He is, after all, merely following his training.

  6. In STEM areas I think that people are more careful in their critiques of ideas.

    1. In STEM fields, they've convinced themselves that their opinions and philosophical conclusions are actually as certain as mathematics--which makes them worse.

    2. @Avraham

      I work in STEM, in academia in fact, and this made me smile.

      In STEM you have careful reviewers, but not all, of most, are careful. Many works published even in reputable journals are the kind of article you read and think "how did this get published".

      In addition STEM is riddled with cognitive biases as well.

      It's a big problem.

  7. Well, I suppose you could have titled your book Topics in philosophy of nature and philosophy of science such as embodied cognition, epistemic structural realism, causal powers and laws of nature, the A- and B-theories of time, presentism, reductionism in chemistry and biology, essentialism... and more!.

    I'm sure that would have cleared up all the confusion and certainly would have grabbed more people's attention than a pithy and witty title like Aristotle's Revenge.

  8. I asked this on the previous thread. Has Ed ever discussed Jaffa's book on Aquinas and Aristotle? I expect there'd be more meat in that, than in what his (Jaffa's) disciples have to say.

    1. Jaffa's book Thomism and Aristotelianism is the genesis of all this talk about the Scholatics like Ed mucking up Aristotle's philosophy by adding in unexamined religious assumptions. Jaffa purports to show that any difficulties a reason-alone reader has with Thomas' extension and synthesis of Aristotle's philosophy has to do with Thomas adding in ideas like particular providence, synderesis etc.

      Jaffa's argument is partially convicing and partially unconvicing, and he is said to have backtracked the intensity of his criticisms in older age. However, the Straussians still wish to wage war on the fact that the most cogent synthesis made of Aristotle's philosophy was done by arch-Catholics. There are a myriad ways this warfare is carried out (claimimg Thomas is esoteric and not a Catholic, etc.) but the goal is to separate the most renown ancient philosopher from the patrimony the Church.

    2. the goal is to separate the most renown ancient philosopher from the patrimony the Church.

      Well, whatever the motive, the question is whether Jaffa's argument is sound. I personally agree that Straussians in fact are overcommitted to Leo Strauss's believe that reason and revelation are inherently incompatible. But that is itself a point to be argued.

      (And yes, I too object to their constant claim that religious assumptions are unexamined, per se. That is a very modern fideist believe, not shared even by most early Protestants.)

    3. I don't know what Ed what would say, but Jaffa, while good for his day, is hopelessly outdated by this point. To take just two examples, Jaffa attributes Aquinas's differences from Aristotle on magnanimity to Christian theology because he does not realize (what is universally recognized now) that Aquinas is actually following Cicero; and Jaffa's argument against what he calls the 'principle of the ultimate' makes use of assumptions that were common in the middle of the twentieth century but not in the ancient period (e.g., the assumption that things can't participate in definitions to different degrees, or that virtue presupposes obligation).

      One of the things that has always really brought home to me the difference between Jaffa and Aquinas in their interpretive philosophy is that in certain cases in which Aristotle indicates uncertainty, Jaffa always assumes that Aristotle only means 'perhaps' when he explicitly says 'perhaps', while Aquinas (explicitly) takes Aristotle to be using adverbia dubitandit to indicate that he is uncertain and tentative about the broader topic. The result is that Jaffa thinks that to understand what Aristotle was saying in these cases, you only have to look at the text; Aquinas thinks that you also have to look at what Aristotle was trying to explain in order to see why he was uncertain about them.

    4. Honestly, who cares about labels. I happen to think Ed's philosophy of nature is indeed broadly Aristotelian (or at least neo-Aristotelian) and therefore merits the title. But what's more important is whether the stuff he writes is TRUE.

      Who cares whether X said Y? We're not doing history, but philosophy. What matters is whether Y is true.

      If I were to be convinced that Aquinas contradicted Aristotle too much etc., I wouldn't care. I just care whether the metaphysics is correct; if the arguments are sound.

      Obsessive exegetical analysis is the bane of true reason.

  9. Bertrand Russell was one of those people who tried to describe Aristotle as an enemy of scientific progress; Russell wrote:
    Throughout modern times, practically every advance in science, in logic, or in philosophy has had to be made in the teeth of the opposition from Aristotle's disciples.

    But calling Aristotle an obstacle to science would be like calling Steve Jobs an obstacle to the development of the personal computer. Aristotle started empirical science. He invented the whole idea of observing nature and classifying things into natural categories.

  10. Straussians like Wise and Ellmers read Aristotle about as badly as they read Feser. The idea that the problem with them is that they're obsessively fixated on exegesis rather than philosophical substance is only half right at best; they're not really competent in either. That's not to say that Feser's 'Aristotelianism' is a finely accurate representation of Aristotle's texts after all. Rather, it's to say that Straussians are the last people we should ask for that accurate representation.