Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Jef Murray at the St. Austin Review kindly reviews The Last Superstition in the latest (November/December) issue. Some excerpts:

A slam-dunk defense of God and of traditional Western philosophy against modernist fad “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens… [Feser] shows how nothing about Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic thought has ever been surpassed in its capacity to explain satisfactorily the universe around us. More than that, Feser shows what nonsense results from following the “modern” philosophies to their conclusions. His analysis of the witch’s brew of inconsistencies and downright absurdities produced by philosophers such as Hume is breathtaking… This book is that rare wonder -- a piece of brilliant writing that instructs at the same time that it entertains.

For more reviews of TLS (and of some other books you might find of interest) go here. And don’t forget, copies of TLS – not to mention its successor, Aquinas – make great stocking stuffers. You know the drill: Buy early and often!


  1. I wrote a review for Aquinas on Amazon. I think its the only one, but hopefully there will be more. Both it and TLS are excellent works.

  2. Hah! I bought not only Aquinas but Philosophy of the Mind after read TLS. In other words, I have personally underwritten your new summer home in Maine.

    Loved TLS but I have to reread it.


  3. Rats-- I meant Philosophy of Mind. (I wish there were an edit button.)


  4. I read TLS twice, slowly, but still feel I haven't got a hold on this Thomism thang. So I'm now reading Aquinas, slowly, and I've been reading through the post and comments here to see if I have a moment of satori. Because the books are interesting, and also because surely Thomism must be sound to have lasted so long.

    So far, the stumbling block for me has been this idea, taken from an earlier post on teleology:

    It’s not just that for A to be the efficient cause of B, A must exist – as it obviously must – but also that for B to be the final cause of A, B must also exist, in some sense, otherwise, being nonexistent, it could not be efficacious.

    I don't see that. I don't know if that's as plain as the point can be made, and you either accept it or you don't, or perhaps a future post could expand it. Surely only A has to be efficacious and a future event has no being per se?

  5. Mr Fesser, this is somewhat, but not, I hope, entirely, OT. If you have time (I'm asking a great favor of you), can you critique some thoughts I've just had concerning a chapter of Russell's Problems in Philosophy?

    Since, so far as I've been able to discover, I can't post a direct link to the exact post at the particular in which I wrote these thoughts, I'm going to post the content here on your blog (and, I don't really expect any worthwhile criticism where I did post it).

    Also, if this request is in your opinion too OT, and you'd rather just delete the next post (and this one), I will not at all be insulted.

  6. Touching again upon Russell's Problems of Philosophy, Chapter IX: The World of Universals ...

    When one understands Russell's conclusion in this essay/chapter (irrespective of whether he himself ever actually understood the following point), does not one understand that what he is *actually* saying is that our thoughts have no content or meaning? [As a side note, soon or late, God-denial *always* reduces to this assertion.]

    Consider this amplification of what I said earlier --

    Russell argues that universals are, as the rationalists maintain, and contrary to what the materialists maintain, indeed immaterial (i.e. non-material) entities.

    But, he further says (and certainly seems to “prove” it by simply assuming/asserting it so) that universals, while indeed non-material, are also non-mental entities -- that they exist independently of *any* mind which may comprehend them. In fact, he decides in this piece to call them ‘universals’ precisely because (he says) calling them ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’ is misleading, due to the associations those words have acquired since Plato first discovered (or invented) the concept of universals/forms.

    Toward the end, he further expands on this by saying that people have mistakenly supposed that universals are mental entities because we can think of them; that is, because universals can be the objects to which our thoughts point, and because they clearly are not material entities, we have mistakenly thought them to *be* thoughts.

    To put what I'm getting at in yet another way, (toward the beginning) he says that:

    "When we examine common words, we find that, broadly speaking, proper names stand for particulars, while other substantives, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs stand for universals. Pronouns stand for particulars, but are ambiguous: it is only by the context or the circumstances that we know what particulars they stand for. The word 'now' stands for a particular, namely the present moment; but like pronouns, it stands for an ambiguous particular, because the present is always changing.

    It will be seen that no sentence can be made up without at least one word which denotes a universal. ...

    While noting that a 'sentence' is not a 'thought' or 'proposition,' but rather represents such, I see no particualr problem here, even if one substitutes 'thought' for 'sentence.' That is, it does seem to be the case that one cannot think a thought which does not refer to at least one universal.

    [continued due to length limitation]

  7. Now (and if one doesn't notice that assumption/assertion that universals are non-mental entities, which I've already pointed to), all this argumentation he's made sounds plausible ... until one thinks about it.

    Recall, according to Russell, universals are not mental entities. This is why, above, I wrote "... it does seem to be the case that one cannot think a thought which does not refer to at least one universal" rather than "... it does seem to be the case that one cannot think a thought which does not [contain] at least one universal."

    According to Russell in this chapter, *every* individual element of any thought points to or stands for a non-mental entity; either a particular (a material entity) or a universal (a non-material, yet also non-mental, entity). That is, (according to Russell) every indvidual element of every thought is but a symbol -- to put it yet more bluntly, every element of every thought is itself an inherently meaningless pointer to something else, and all those something elses are (according to Russell) non-mental entities.

    And this pointing to/standing for is itself devoid of meaning ... for the assignment of the reference is itself a thought, and all thoughts are but the arrangement of symbols.

    Now, when we speak (or write), we *are* using symbols -- inherently meaningless pointers -- to communicate our thoughts to one another. The words we use in communicating, whether the sounds which come out of our mouths, or the scratchings on paper which we use as symbols for those sounds, are indeed but symbols; they have no inherent meaning, we impute meaning to them. And, it seems to me, if words had inherent meaning, we could not communicate with one another.

    But, whether he intends it or not, the concusion of Russell's argument is that thoughts are of exactly the same sort as words; they are symbols, they have no meaning, the aboutness of them is the entirety of them.

  8. Dr. Feser, I finished TLS a few days ago and am very attracted to the sublime ideas of God as "pure actuality" and "purely simple" that you presented. It appears to follow necessarily given the Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysical framework, which also seems to follow from a rejection of anti-realism.

    However, I recently stumbled across a short piece by WL Craig in which he briefly criticizes the idea of divine simplicity. Here it is:

    I'll post the part that stands out:

    "The traditional doctrine (of divine simplicity) is much more radical. It makes four identity claims:

    i. God is not distinct from His nature.
    ii. God's properties are not distinct from one another.
    iii. God's nature is not distinct from His existence.
    iv. God has no properties distinct from His nature.

    Claim (i) is not unique to God. Angels, too, are identical with their natures. So this claim is not problematic when understood in the medieval metaphysical framework.

    Claim (ii) remains problematic, however. Existence is part of God's nature. But existence is not the same property as, say, omnipotence, for plenty of things have existence but not omnipotence. It remains very obscure, therefore, how God's nature or essence can be simple and all His properties identical.

    Claim (iii) is misrepresented by Wolterstorff, I believe. His is what Thomistic scholars call an "essentialist" reading of Thomas Aquinas' doctrine: Existence is a property that is included in the divine essence. But many Thomists insist that the correct reading of Thomas is an "existentialist" one: existence is not a property at all, but is the act of being which instantiates an essence. Everything other than God is composed of an essence to which an act of being is conjoined to make it exist as a concrete particular thing. But in a sense, God has no essence on this view, rather He just is the pure act of being unconstrained by any essence. He is, as Thomas says, the pure act of being subsisting. The problem is, this doctrine is just unintelligible.

    Finally, claim (iv) runs into the severe problem that God does seem to have accidental properties in addition to His essential ones. For example, in the actual world, He knows, loves, and wills certain things which He would not know, will, or love had He decided to create a different universe or no universe at all. On the doctrine of divine simplicity God is absolutely similar in all possible worlds; but then it becomes inexplicable why those worlds vary if in every one God knows, loves, and wills the same things.

    This is not to say that the doctrine of divine simplicity is wholly bereft of value. On the contrary, I have elsewhere defended the view that God's cognition is simple. But I do think that the full-blown doctrine in all its glory is philosophically and theologically unacceptable."

    As a Thomistic scholar, what do you make of such criticisms?

  9. Are the elements of one's "history" (whether one is the timeless God, or a time-bound man) really properties of one's being?

  10. Maggie,

    Thanks! The kids sre looking forward to those Maine vacations.


    Well, briefly, look at it this way. Suppose we grant that final causality is real, so that A does indeed point to B as its final cause. And suppose B did not yet exist in any sense, not even as an idea in an intellect (divine or otherwise). How in that case do we explain the fact that A -- which has no intellect -- points to B specifically? Aristotle essentially takes this just to be a brute feature of the world, but that is one of the reasons people have had a problem with final causality -- the fact of its existence seems mysterious without an intelligence to explain it.


    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Russell never explains the "aboutness" or intentionality of our thoughts, in particular what makes it possible for them to refer to universals and the like. Is that right?

    Russell was in fact aware of the seriousness of the problem of intentionality -- more so than some of his empiricists predecessors anyway -- and tried to deal with it by saying that the things a proposition is about can be constituents of the proposition itself. Hence (to use an example of his) Mont Blanc is itself a constituent of the proposition "Mont Blanc is more than 4000 metres high." Some contemporary philosophers have developed this into the idea of a "Russellian thought," a thought of which the thing thought about is a constituent. (E.g. when you think "My car is in the driveway," the car itself -- not a representation of a car, but the car itself -- is part of what makes up your thought.)

    THis sounds weird, of course, and there are problems with it, but like the "extended mind" thesis I blogged about some months back, it does seem to me to be a gesture in the direction of something right, viz. the Scholastic idea that thought involves a kind of "mind-world identity" insofar as the same form that exists in teh thing known exists simultaneously in the mind that knows. (See the post in question for more.)

    Does that speak to your concern here?


    I'll address your question about Craig in a separate post, soon.

  11. That's not the only recent review I've found.

  12. "Well, briefly, look at it this way. Suppose we grant that final causality is real, so that A does indeed point to B as its final cause. And suppose B did not yet exist in any sense, not even as an idea in an intellect (divine or otherwise). How in that case do we explain the fact that A -- which has no intellect -- points to B specifically?"

    Intuitively, that seems to call out for explanation. But if someone was to ask me, "WHY does it require an explanation? Why can't a materialistic universe display teleology?", I couldn't say why. In any case, thanks for answering, I'll keep trying to get my head round these concepts!

  13. Well, for one thing, a universe with irreducible teleology is not a materialist universe anymore, certainly not in the sense the ancient atomists and modern mechanists had in mind!

    Furthermore, the Fifth Way aside, once one grants final causality, efficient causality becomes intelligible in exactly the way that underwrites First Cause arguments for God's existence. (Getting rid of final causality is necessary to make way for Humean doubts about efficient causality, and such doubts are necessary in turn if one is to make plausible the idea that the fact of causation needn't point to an uncaused cause.)

    All this is compressed, of course, but TLS and Aquinas are largely about spelling out the case...

  14. Here's a "review," via email, from an online friend to whom I had recommended the book --

    "I liked it. It's definitely going to be a book that I keep. But like you, I feel the need for deeper understanding.

    I found the arguments not as clearly and simply laid out as I would have liked.

    I grew up in a completely different world from Aristotle and Aquinas, and perhaps Feser has been buried in that world for so long that he doesn't know how lost people can be, lol.

    ... which rather echoes a point I had tried to get across to Mr Feser.