Thursday, December 31, 2009

AQUINAS: Best of 2009

It’s time for the annual “Best Books I Read in 2009” feature over at Ignatius Insight, and Ignatius Press’s Mark Brumley kindly cites Aquinas as one of his choices. Says Brumley: “The prolific philosophy professor gives us a very helpful intro to St. Thomas' philosophy. Underscore philosophy. This is not a theological work. (By ‘theology’ I mean sacred theology; there's plenty of natural theology.)” Run out and buy your copy today, otherwise you’ll have to wait until next year to read it.


  1. Hi Ed,


    Do you see any interesting parallels or discontinuities between Aquinas's opening in On Being and Essence and the cogito ergo sum of Descartes?

    It seems that Aquinas starts with sense perception of things outside ourselves.

  2. What are the best books you've read in 2009, Dr. Feser?

  3. A better review of the book, along with others of a similar sort is needed. There is not room here, and I am not a book reviewer, however I'd like to offer a few brief thoughts in succession (and in several posts if I may as there is a limit on what can be uploaded at any one time).

    Aquinas is called a "beginners guide," although it is not clear whether this moniker is specific to the book, or rather is the name of the series of books from Oneworld Publishers. I mention this because it is not clear what kind of "beginner" the book would be suitable for. For one not knowing much about Aquinas, the author does a very good job of introducing his thought, but at the same time it would be a mistake to think that it's somehow a "simple" book. It would probably be best for the "average reader" (as if an "average" person would even want to read the book, but you never know) to run it through quickly, then take some time to read it over again in order to more thoroughly digest what the author is writing about. Only in this way can, I suspect, a novice come to grips with a thinking that is, today, quite strange at times. In fact, one cannot downplay the intrinsic strangeness of Aquinas's thinking, at least for the modern mind.

    When shopping for an introductory book, and if one has a suitably stocked bookstore nearby, there will probably be several (but not likely more than a few) off-the-shelf selections. That was my experience.

    Paul Strathern wrote something called Aquinas in 90 Minutes. The good news about this distinctly substandard book is that it will not take you nearly that long to read, since you will probably feel you're wasting your time after about 15 minutes (not to mention wasting whatever money you spent for the book).I'd like to write more about it, but I think I've already pretty much summed up the Strathern book. To turn a Copleston phrase: "in fine" it is the Wendy's double cheesburger of introductions. Why bother when you can "eat" at Ruth's Chris (in this case) for just a little more money?


  4. You might find F.C. Copleston's stand alone book (along with his extensive coverage of Aquinas in his History: Vol 2 Part 2). The History confuses naive readers into imagining it's an "introduction" when, in fact, it is a more technical exposition; also, one that, and if you do not read Latin and/or Greek (and understand the technical meaning of the philosophical and religious terms) then, as they say, your mileage will vary but probably be on the low side.

    On the other hand, Copleston's Aquinas can be recommended (the blog author lists this work in his "further reading" section). I was only familiar with the former Copleston, and found his stand alone introduction surprising in that he avoids overwhelming the tender reader, translates and explains all Latin technical phrases, and writes in a very clear, understandable, but not at all dry style. Very different from that in his History.

    Now we come to the blog author's book which should be purchased without hesitation, and comes with my money back recommendation (FWIW, I'm just a regular guy with an interest in learning, so I suppose I can be taken as representative of a "typical" reader and, hence, my recommendation should be given the appropriate weight).

    Aquinas is obviously a "more" up to date" introduction that the '55 Copleston, and therfore may be a bit more appealing to today's reader, I don't know. But "up to date" is a relative term when writing about a medieval philospher.

    Edward Feser is like the Marines. He hits the beach, clears out anything in his way, and then moves on. To paraphrase Patton's 3rd Army speech, Feser's not holding anything, but after he's taken care of German Idealism, he's moving on to whatever else is standing in his way. If anything, I'd say that the author tries to hit to much given the scope and number of pages afforded the book, and as a result it can come across at first as a case of "too much too quickly." On the other hand, this is why it's a good book since one is given new avenues to explore and learn in more detail, if one is inclined.

    The author argues from his own convictions of the goodness of the scholastic doctor's thought, whereas Copleston, as is his general manner, comes across as more reserved and, if not circumspect, at least at times more willing to give the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument (if not theological belief). This can be seen in their respective descriptions of Kant's views (Critique of Reason). Feser argues that, for instance, if one does not accept Kant's "controversial" arguments then why take him seriously?, and then moves on to the next target. I understand this, but, as I mentioned earlier, to the modern mind Aquinas himself comes across as very controversial--at least for those not grounded in A-T thought.

    On the other hand, Copleston writes that since, "the time of Kant, Aquinas' arguments have been widely regarded as patently invalid," but then, later (p253), goes on to discuss subsequent critical comparisons of Thomist and Kantian positions in an attempt to show ways of possible reconciliation, or not.

    Whatever the case, it is clear that Aquinas is a well written, enjoyable, well thought out book, and an extremely worthwhile purchase. A good book written by someone knowing what they are talking about, and someone with the desire to make strange and often misunderstood thought less so has got to be good value. How many stars are available, these days? I'd give it at least a four, and five if allowed.

  5. Ed Feser's Aquinas was certainly one of the best books I read in 2009 - and since it introduced me to Thomism (in the sense of getting me actually to understand it for the first time) may well turn-out to be one of the most important books of my whole life.

  6. Ed

    What are your thoughts on Dretske's philosophy of causation, specifically his work on intentionality being natural.

    It seems his theories might gel with some of yours on natural dipositions, potentiality etc.


  7. Ed, thx so much for your Aquinas, which I've enjoyed very much.

    My own interest is religion and the American Founding

    and I'm struck how the Thomistic view of natural law is held almost universally by the Founders, that of the Anglican Thomist Richard Hooker [via Locke], and the Scottish Enlightenment [contra Hume] of Thomas Reid.

    If you have any thoughts or papers on these connections, I'd love to read them. I think they're quite relevant in today's culture wars, and a successful argument along these lines would tie Aquinas to what's good about America.

    The American Founding seems the last flower of Thomism before modernity and the hardcore Enlightenment take hold in Western political philosophy, starting with its first child, the monstrous French Revolution, and of course, it was downward from there.

    "The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other."
    ---James Wilson, Heavy Duty American Founder

    Good and wise men, in all ages, have...supposed, that the deity, from the relations we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever."---Alexander Hamilton, who goes on to quote Blackstone:

    "This is what is called the law of nature, 'which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.'"

  8. Scott,

    I would say rather that Aquinas starts with the being of things themselves -- which includes the things we perceive, but extends beyond that -- whereas the Cartesian approach is to start with our consciousness of things, whether or not the things really exist apart from our consciousness of them. Sometimes this contrast is described as difference between a "philosophy of being" and a "philosophy of consciousness."


    That's hard to say, though among recent books I'd single out James Ross's Thought and World and among older books I'd mention Andrew van Melsen's Philosophy of Nature. Haven't finished either one yet, though!


    Edward Feser is like the Marines. He hits the beach, clears out anything in his way, and then moves on. To paraphrase Patton's 3rd Army speech, Feser's not holding anything...

    I think that's my favorite review of all time! Thank you.

    I will add that there is more about Kant in The Last Superstition than in Aquinas. Unlike TLS, which is critical of Kantianism in general, Aquinas mentions Kant only briefly in the course of showing why certain objections to theistic arguments usually associated with Kant are no good.


    Very kind, thank you!


    Boy, I'm getting a lot of questions about Dretske lately. I think I'll write up a post about him fairly soon.


    Thank you!

    Re: natural law, I would say that it makes sense only within a classical metaphysical framework (whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Thomist) and unravels -- like everything else does, IMO -- when one tries to transplant it into a modern metaphysics. My book Locke explores this theme in detail, and shows how the modern, revisionist metaphysics Locke is committed to ultimately undermines the more conservative aspects of his position, including his doctrine of natural law.

  9. Thx, Ed. Your Aquinas was extremely helpful in this regard, that at least an Aristotelian metaphysics is required in your view to make Thomistic natural law philosophically coherent. [Contra neo-Thomists Grisez and Finnis.]

    However, I wanted to mention that historically speaking, I've found no evidence in reading the Founders that they got what Locke was up to [or perhaps they willfully ignored it], and they read him in the same A-T framework as Thomas Reid and the "judicious" Rev. Hooker.

    We in the 21st century shy away from Locke, since we know what he was up to [as did some of his contemporaries], but the Founders [clearly, in my view] read him exoterically.

    "I am equally far from believing that Mr. Locke was a friend to infidelity. But yet it is unquestionable, that the writings of Mr. Locke have facilitated the progress, and have given strength to the effects of scepticism.

    The high reputation, which he deservedly acquired for his enlightened attachment to the mild and tolerating doctrines of christianity, secured to him the esteem and confidence of those, who were its friends. The same high and deserved reputation inspired others of very different views and characters, with a design to avail themselves of its splendour, and, by that means, to diffuse a fascinating kind of lustre over their own tenets of a dark and sable hue. The consequence has been, that the writings of Mr. Locke, one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of christianity and true philosophy, have been perverted to purposes, which he would have deprecated and prevented, had he discovered or foreseen them."
    ---James Wilson, Signer of the Declaration, the Constitution, and Supreme Court Justice

    I thought you or your readers might find this line of inquiry of value, although I realize your focus is philosophy, not history. But I thought you'd be a prime fellow to give this little thesis a road test. Cheers.

  10. Loved Aquinas so much I ordered your books on Mind and The Last Superstition. Thanks for all the hard work.

  11. So far, I've read TLS, Mind, and Aquinas. I liked them. Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

  12. I will add that there is more about Kant in The Last Superstition...

    (rolling eyes) Thanks, Ed! I was so impressed with Aquinas that I just ordered Locke; and now I find this out? Glad you're not a car salesman. (sigh)...just what I need, another book...

  13. Dr. Feser:

    I was delighted to stumble across Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction at a local bookstore on Friday; I bought it immediately, and finished reading it this afternoon. It is, without question, the best book that I have read in 2010! :-) Seriously, in conjunction with TLS--which I originally got from the library but now have ordered for myself--and Aquinas, I have found your writing to be incredibly enlightening (no pun intended). Thanks for making A-T philosophy accessible (and rather convincing) to modern readers (like me) who have been indoctrinated into the mechanistic worldview, for the most part without even realizing it. Keep up the good work!

  14. Thanks for making A-T philosophy accessible (and rather convincing) to modern readers (like me) who have been indoctrinated into the mechanistic worldview...

    This is a good point. Think about it. For those of us a little older, where do you go to find out about these things? At the university I took the courses, but we did not have anything on Aquinas, and just a little on Aristotle. After all, everyone was too busy with the important stuff: Marx, Foucoult, Satre, Heidegger, and others whom no one really understood, but could talk forever about.

    So now, later on, what are the choices? One can go and buy a compilation of Aristotle (and they should), but to plow through it and make sense of what is written w/o some commentary is, I'm afraid, a bit to ask for the average person. If it were not for serious secondary sources willing to cut through the nonsense, but at the same time willing to spend time with those of us who are seriously interested, things would not be so favorable for our latter day education.

  15. Very kind, everyone, thank you. Re: current projects, I'm working on several academic papers and popular pieces. I do not want to face a book deadline again for a little while, but I certainly have several book projects in mind for the future. E.g. since no one else is doing it, or at least not doing it right IMHO, at some point I'll have to write a book-length treatment of sexual morality. But the next book will probably be a much more extended treatment of A-T philosophy of nature than I was able to give in TLS or Aquinas, with a special emphasis on the ID vs. Darwinism controversy. But we'll see.

  16. But the next book will probably be a much more extended treatment of A-T philosophy of nature than I was able to give in TLS or Aquinas, with a special emphasis on the ID vs. Darwinism controversy.

    I'd *love* to read a book like this...

  17. This post prodded me back to the book, which I am grappling with again. One objection keeps occuring to me (both in this and The Last Superstition) and I wonder if one of the contributors might set me right. Dr. Feser keeps saying that everything in nature seems to be goal-directed, to have a final cause, such as a match being directed towards ignition or an acorn being directed towards growth into a tree. But couldn't you break those various objects into their constituents parts, for instance, molecules and sub-atomic particles, so that all these final causes reduce themselves to the few forces that animate nature, such as gravity? Is the final cause of an acorn a kind of legal fiction, like saying that America chose Obama as President when it boiled down to millions of individuals choosing him? Why do we concentrate on the essence of a tree rather than the essences of the cells that make it up, or the molecules that make up those cells, or-- on the other end of the scale-- the essence of the tree rather than the forest? I hope this isn't a stupid question, but it keeps bothering me.

  18. Why do we concentrate on the essence of a tree rather than the essences of the cells that make it up...

    Here's a way to think about it. When I am reading a book, I hold a book in my hands. I do not hold molecules, or atoms, or electrons in my hand. On the scale of the book (that is, in our day to day world), the electron does not exist. It is a fiction.

    Conversely, in the world of the electron (or whatever fundamental particle you want to imagine that is supposed to "make up" my book), the book does not exist. The scale of a thing precludes the existence of the thing as a thing outside of its own scale.

    Perhaps this is not a very good explanation, and maybe few would argue this way thinking it somehow naive. But, again, in our day to day life, how do, say, quantum effects affect us?

    Explanations are sometimes taken to ridiculous levels. It is as if someone, somewhere was unable to tell whether a particle (or was it a wavicle?) was coming or going, and now all of a sudden we must suffer with indeterminacy in ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetic theory.

  19. Thank you Mr Presley, although I have to admit I'm still confused! Maybe because I feel that a metaphysics should try to describe the "bottom" layer of reality, and talk about levels feels frustrating because of that.

  20. Please note that this is just my view, and may or may not have anything to do with A-T or whatever the blog author would support.

  21. Maolsheachlann,

    Dr. Feser keeps saying that everything in nature seems to be goal-directed,

    That's not exactly what I've said. I've said instead that final causality pervades nature, which is not the same thing. For example, suppose it turns out, as you've suggested, that everything we can say about any particular material thing can be restated in terms of the behavior of some fundamental material particles. Then all the apparent substances in nature -- trees, dogs, cats, rocks, water, etc. -- would arguably not be true substances and thus not have final causes in the strict sense. Only the fundamental particles themselves would be the true substances. But at least they would in that case exhibit final causality insofar as they had causal powers directed to the generation of a certain range of outcomes. And these particles, being that which makes up everything in the natural world, would pervade that world. So it would still be true that final causality pervades nature, even if it is not true that "everything is goal-directed."

    Mind you, I don't for a moment actually believe such a reductionist picture. In fact I am a fairly radical anti-reductionist. But the point is that the question doesn't matter for purposes of (say) defending Aquinas's Fifth Way. All we need for that is the existence of final causality of some sort or other.

  22. Thank you for that explanation, and I'm sorry for misstating your view of final causes. And I understand that, even if all the physical activity in the universe can be boiled down to a few fundamental forces, final causality can be seen to pervade nature. Also, I understand from your arguments and those of other commenters here that the human mind, at least, is irreducible to physical processes. But I guess I'm still confused as to why the rest of the natural world is immune; probably because I haven't properly understood hylomorphism. Embarrassingly, I can't remember the particular context in which this seemed such a big problem, though I know it wasn't Aquinas's proofs of God's existence.

    (By the way, I really liked your article on why liberalism and leftism pervades academe; it's a question that's perplexed me in the past and I found your theories pretty convincing. I didn't want to believe that liberals are just smarter.)

  23. Very, very interessing, indeed! The last summer, I discover Alvin Plantinga. This winter, you and I rediscover Aquinas. I read a year ago from you On Nozick, and was deep impressed. Many Thanks for the food for thought. (Sorry for my poor english writing. I am a French Quebecer.)