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.


  1. Hi Dr. Feser,
    I'm reading Stephen Meyer's "Signature in the Cell" and he says this at one point:

    "Since Aristotle, most biologist had believed that each species or type of organism possessed an unchanging nature or form; many believed that these forms reflected a prior idea in the mind of a designer. But Darwin argued that species can change-or "morph"-over time."


    "If Darwin was right, then it was futile to maintain rigid distinctions in biology based on ideas about unchanging forms or natures."

    I would typically think that Meyer was right about Aristotle's views; but from reading more and more at your site that doesn't seem to be the correct interpretation of Aristotle's views on the matter. Could you point out where Meyer is wrong with the quoted area?


  2. Dear Dr. Feser,

    Do you consider the new natural law theory to be an example of a Frankenstein interpretation of St. Thomas's moral philosophy? Although, Finnis, Grisez, and Boyle initially claimed that their theory was Thomas's own, I think a plain reading of Thomas's texts do not support that assertion. Rather, their theory speaks to the largely Humean and nominalist concerns of analytic philosophy. Have you any particularly strong views about this?

  3. Anon,

    Mayer's phrasing is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is fatal, since it overlooks the whole point of Aristotle's account of a species and the whole problem of species in the Greeks. Consider when he attributes to Aristotle the idea that "each species possessed and unchanging nature or form"

    1.) If he is assuming that "nature" and "form" are the same thing, he is fatally wrong. Nature is matter and form. One can only speak of "nature or form" interchangeably if he is speaking about an angel, or God, which means he is no longer speaking of natural things. Form is unchangeable, to be sure, but a nature is not identified with its form, and therefore not identified with its unchangeable aspect. On the most probable reading of this quotation, Mayer is destroying Aristotle's idea of nature.

    2.) Nothing defined with matter can be "rigidly distinct" from anything else defined with matter, for several reasons:

    a.) Matter is unintelligible to us in itself, and gives a margin of unintelligibly and fuzziness to any natural thing. Again, this is not particularly controversial stuff in Aristotelian interpretation, just as point on is not.

    b.) Aristotle's account of the unchageability of form is inseparable from his understanding of the intelligibility of things. In the measure that we admit species are intelligible, we admit they have an unchageable form as Aristotle understood it. Again, since natural things are not just forms, they are not just intelligible, which Mayer seems to get, but he bungles the idea. Does Darwin doubt that species can be studied? If not, he admits some notion of form is Aristotle's sense to creep in.

    c.) Mayer misses everything essential about the ancient debate about forms, change, motion, intelligibility, etc, all of which are all tied together. as far as I can tell, no one in the ancient or Medieval world held the opinion that Meyer attributes to Aristotle, except as a doctrine about the angels.

    Throw the book away and read Books 1+ 2 of Aristotle's Physics.

    James Chastek

  4. Great post. When you write:

    "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."

    It reminded me of what Robert Pirsig coined as "philosophology", the "study of the love of wisdom".

    See here:

    From the text:

    "Pirsig begins his onslaught on “philosophology” by saying that the word itself “had a nice dull, cumbersome, superfluous appearance that exactly fitted its subject matter.” Like musicology, art history, and literary criticism it is a “derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host's behavior.” The analogy between fields like literary criticism and philosophology and a parasite is very effective. It relegates the fields to a lower status and treats them contemptuously, almost (almost!) going so far as to suggest that they should be abolished altogether, like a tapeworm that needs to be exterminated. Following this beating to “philosophologists,” Pirsig reveals who he is talking about: “philosophers who would normally condemn [philosophologists] are a null-class. They don't exist. Philosophologists, calling themselves philosophers, are just about all there are.”6 Pirsig's enemies are the inhabitants of university philosophy departments, generally the only types of people who are referred to nowadays as philosophers.

    Philosophy, then, is the opposite of all this. It's the substance that philosophology studies. Pirsig's link to fields like art history and literary criticism gives us an insight into what Pirsig is talking about: history and criticism. His targets are those who catalog the history of a discipline and those that theorize about a discipline, rather than those who actually participate in a discipline. So, Pirsig's targets are philosophy history and philosophy criticism. This is where the problems begin."

    Further in the text Matthew Kundert quotes Pirsig:

    "You can imagine the ridiculousness of an art historian taking his students to museums, having them write a thesis on some historical or technical aspect of what they see there, and after a few years of this giving them degrees that say they are accomplished artists. … Yet, ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what happens in the philosophology that calls itself philosophy. "


    "a point that most academic philosophers seem unaware of: that when they speak of the ideas of such famous philosophers as Plato or Hegel they are giving us a history of philosophy, an “ology” of philosophy, not philosophy itself. Philosophy itself is opinions of the speaker himself about the general nature of the world, not just a classification of someone else's opinions."

  5. Hello Anonymous,

    James has already answered, but in fairness to Meyer, I guess I'd add that, though I haven't yet read his book, it may be that he intends his remarks only as a quick and loose summary rather than something he's hanging an argument on. Hence, while James is right that strictly speaking nature includes both form and matter, there is even in Scholastic philosophy a looser usage of the expression "form" to mean nature or essence. And that may be all Meyer meant -- just a brief description of Aristotle for the unfamiliar reader, rather than a careful scholarly unpacking of Aristotle's meaning.

    Furthermore, as far as I can tell Meyer's main emphasis here may be on the idea that forms are in Aristotle's view unchanging, which, as James notes, Aristotle did in fact believe, and rightly so. Here I think it is writers on evolution who often express themselves too loosely, at least if they think they are saying something inconsistent with Aristotle. If we take e.g. the thesis that birds are descended from dinosaurs, then the right thing to say is not that the form of some dinosaur changed into the form of a bird -- that is just non-sensical given what Aristotle means by a form -- but rather that creatures who had the form of dinosaurs (a form which, like all forms, just is what it is unchangingly) were the precursors of creatures who had the form of birds (another form which, qua form, doesn't change -- the fact that there was a time when nothing had the form in question is irrelevant, since that doesn't entail that the form itself ever underwent change, whatever that could mean).

    So I'd be a little less quick to accuse Meyer of error here -- though again, I haven't read the book, and don't know how significant these remarks are supposed to be in context.

  6. Addendum:

    Re: "...the right thing to say is not that the form of some dinosaur changed into the form of a bird -- that is just non-sensical given what Aristotle means by a form..."

    I should emphasize that what I am talking about here is the idea that the form somehow changes over the course of many generations (obviously no one thinks in the first place that it happens in the lifespan of a particular organism or even in one generation). Again, that simply makes no sense given what Aristotle means by a form. What evolutionists should say is that organisms having one form are replaced by organisms having another.

  7. A big blue bouncy ball has the form of a ball. If we heat it, it becomes a puddle of goo. Its matter could no longer support the form of roundness, which is essential to the nature of 'ball.' So a form may be lost (or gained) but the form itself does not change. If later, some little red bouncy ball is molded, it too will have the form 'ball.'

    It seemed to me that an animal might have the form of a horse, say. And this informs its nature. It does not change into an eagle or into a petunia -- but it might give birth to a colt that is not quite as horsey as itself. We givers-of-names might not realize this right off; but after a number of generations, we might scratch our heads and say, "Y'know, these here critters aren't really like them horses our ancestors tell of. Their horses had hooves, not toes, and they ran across prairies. They didn't climb trees. So maybe we shouldn't use the same name for them any more. Because these critters have different natures than those critters."

    Like when the dinosaur's grandson got called a bird, as I see Ed had said.

  8. Hear! hear! I have always thought this to be very obvious, but I am always surprised at every turn by contrary approaches by those one thought should know better. In the field of biblical studies too, for example (especially New Testament), the theologian N T Wright has always cried out that to properly understand the gospels and Paul, they must be read -- not with the prevalent postmodern presuppositions in mind -- but according to the contextual background of those times, being 2d Temple Judiasm or 1st century Hellenism.