Friday, November 4, 2016
Swindal on Neo-Scholastic Essays
In the latest issue of the International Philosophical Quarterly, Prof. James Swindal kindly reviews my book Neo-Scholastic Essays. From the review:
Feser… is thoroughly steeped both in analytic philosophy and Scholastic thought…
[T]his review touches on only a few aspects of Feser’s extensive achievement and the many arguments he deftly crafts and cogently defends. He furnishes substantial hope for a further productive, and neither dogmatic nor defensive, dialogue between Thomism and analytic philosophy. Success in moving this dialogue forward requires scholars, precisely like him, who [have] a deep familiarity with and respect for both traditions.
Prof. Swindal also raises a couple of criticisms, particularly of my essay “Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good.” In that essay I note that from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory, knowing what is good for us requires taking an objective or “third-person” point of view on ourselves rather than a subjective or “first-person” point of view. Swindal comments:
It is somewhat surprising… that [Feser] uses first and third, but not a second, person points of view in his metaethical analysis. The second person point of view is arguably more fully metaphysically adaptable to what is the ontology of genuinely rational and personal relationships: relationships assumed to be the ground and aim of ethical assessment.
and in a pair of footnotes adds:
As developed by speech act theorists, such as Bühler, Austin, Searle, and Habermas, a second person paradigm posits what is effectively the ethical realm: the good of intersubjective actions and communication…
In Aquinas, moreover, what is effectively one’s unitive love directed to another person, from a second person perspective, also “turns back” towards the first person in a self-relationship of love of self.
Later in the review Swindal connects this “second-person” perspective with personalism. His criticism, then, seems to be that my position is deficient insofar as it neglects the personalist and “second-person” aspects of the human good.
It seems to me, though, that Swindal’s objection is misdirected because it misses the specific point I was actually addressing in the passage in question. We need to distinguish the following two questions:
1. Is what is good for us best known by way of the individual subject’s introspective knowledge of the desires he actually happens to have, the structure of practical reason, etc., or rather by way of metaphysical-cum-biological knowledge of what is true of human beings as a species?
2. What precisely is the content of what is good for us, and, specifically, how central are relationships with others constitutive of what is good for us?
The considerations Prof. Swindal raises are, it seems to me, relevant to 2 rather than to 1. But it is 1 rather than 2 that I was addressing in the passage he is commenting on.
Part of my essay “Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good” is devoted to responding to David Velleman’s influential objection to the Thomist view that all action aims at the good. Swindal also takes issue with something I say in this part of the paper. Velleman argues that what we desire when acting is not the good but the attainable. One problem with this suggestion, as I point out in the essay, is that being attainable is at most a necessary condition of our desiring something, but not a sufficient condition, since something might be attainable without our desiring it. (For example, the stick sitting on the lawn outside is attainable – it would be very easy for me to go pick it up – but I have no desire at all to go get it.) Hence in order to refute the Thomist view, Velleman would have to explain what further condition must be added to attainability in order to make of something an object of desire, where this further condition does not (lest Velleman undermine his own position) either explicitly or implicitly make reference to the good.
Commenting on this point, Swindal says:
[Feser] thus suggests that something about “the good” remains objective beyond attainment and is unable to be captured by it. But he does not specify what this value beyond attainment is. In other words, he maintains (a) that there is a gap between attainability and the good and (b) that non-ultimate ends themselves have some kind of status other than the final good and yet are distinct from attainable means. Neither of these seems fully consistent with Scholastic accounts of the distinction between means and ends wherein subordinate ends are attained only relative to higher achievable ends (though ends attainable not necessarily in this life but in beatitude). The transcendence of the good is not that it remains beyond attainment, but precisely that it is not notionally but really identical with what is.
I’m not sure that I understand the criticism here, but it seems that Swindal is interpreting me as claiming that the good is beyond attainment. If so, he is mistaken, because I never said, and would not say, any such thing. The point I was making in the passage he is responding to had to do with the nature of desire, not the nature of the good. In particular, what I said is that in order for us to desire X, it is not enough that X be attainable. There must be some further aspect to X that makes it desirable. There is nothing in that claim by itself that says anything at all about the good, much less that the good is unattainable. Furthermore, even if I had been talking about the good, to say “There is more to being good than being attainable” does not entail “The good is unattainable.”
Or is Swindal merely saying that, if I hold that there is more to the good than being attainable, I need to specify exactly what this further aspect is? If so, then there are two problems with this objection. First, and again, in the passage he is responding to I was not addressing the nature of the good but rather the nature of desire. Second, and in any case, in the rest of the essay, I do say what the nature of the good consists in -- namely the actualization of the potentialities which a thing must realize in order to flourish as the kind of thing it is.
Finally, a couple of somewhat minor points. Commenting on my essay “The Road from Atheism,” Swindal writes:
Raised Catholic, Feser tells us that he later rejected his faith on intellectual grounds. The initial impetus for his doubt came, in large measure, from the problem of evil. He canvassed Nietzsche, Kaufmann, and the New Atheist literature that refuted arguments for belief in God. His return to the Catholic faith came not through a fideist route that would abandon the need for a rational account of God altogether, but was rather based on a careful reconsideration of several atheist arguments.
This is odd. First, contrary to Swindal’s claim that “the initial impetus for his doubt came, in large measure, from the problem of evil,” what I actually said in the essay was:
The argument from evil was never the main rationale for my atheism; indeed, the problem of suffering has only gotten really interesting to me since I returned to the Catholic Church… To be sure, like any other atheist I might have cited the problem of suffering when rattling off the reasons why theism couldn’t be true, but it wasn’t what primarily impressed me philosophically.
Second, Swindal gives the impression that the New Atheism played a role in my temporarily leaving the Catholic Church and becoming an atheist. In fact I became an atheist in the early 1990s and (as I explicitly note in the essay) returned to the Catholic Church in late 2001, years before the rise of the New Atheist movement.
But as I say, those are relatively minor points. I thank Prof. Swindal for his kind words about the book.