Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Besong on Scholastic Metaphysics

In the December issue of New Oxford Review, philosopher Brian Besong kindly reviews my book Scholastic Metaphysics.  From the review:

Philosopher Edward Feser has earned significant fanfare in recent years for his lucid presentations and defenses of Thomism… The fanfare is well deserved, for in addition to a witty polemical style, Feser has a mostly unrivaled ability to present faithfully the views of Aquinas in a deep and systematic way

There is a lot to like in this relatively small volume, especially for advanced readers -- and those having some Anglo-American philosophical background -- who are interested in becoming acquainted with Thomistic metaphysics and the reasons why Thomism endures as a compelling philosophical position

[I]t’s difficult to think of another single text that presents and defends Thomistic metaphysics so systematically, worthily examining some of the finer points on which the schoolmen debated alongside many other historically weighty criticisms of the Thomistic position.  Feser fans will be delighted, and those unfamiliar with his work have one more reason to acquaint themselves with him.

Besong puts forward three criticisms of the book as well.  First:

[T]hose searching for an introduction to Scholastic metaphysics accessible to the general reader should look elsewhere, for a few reasons… [A]lthough Feser’s explanations carefully avoid assuming any prior Thomistic background, the speed with which he introduces much of the relevant material indicates a target audience of academic philosophers (or at least advanced philosophy students) who do not need much extended explanation.  The general reader will thus find the book slow-going and difficult, requiring frequent repeated readings of some sections.

Here I plead guilty, though I don’t think I’ve actually committed an offense.  Yes, the book is aimed at academics and philosophy students, but I never claimed otherwise, the title notwithstanding.  Some readers seem to think that to label a book an “introduction” is to imply that it is an introduction for the absolute beginner.  That is not the case.  All it entails is that it introduces some specific topic to readers who aren’t familiar with that specific topic.  But an introduction may still presuppose that readers will have other relevant knowledge.  Lots of “introductory” books in philosophy are like this.  For example, many an “introduction” to philosophy of mind or philosophy of science will presuppose that the reader already knows something about philosophy, and is simply trying to find out about the specific sub-discipline in question.  To make every “introduction” accessible to the absolute beginner would require making it twice as long and tedious for readers who don’t need a refresher on the very basics.

Besong’s second criticism is:

[T]he book appears far more concerned with defending Thomistic metaphysics against a range of historical alternatives than introducing distinctively Scholastic views on given topics.  For although Feser discusses rival Scholastic positions, such as those of William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and Francisco Suárez, his discussions are abbreviated and polemical.  Most of the minor Scholastic thinkers go completely unmentioned.  A more apt title for the book might have been Thomistic Metaphysics and Its Critics.

Here too I plead guilty, but once again I think I’m not really guilty of any offense.  Any “introduction” is always an introduction for a certain audience and for certain purposes.  You can’t possibly meet the needs or interests of every possible introductory reader, or address every purpose for which someone might need an introduction to a subject.  Now, the audience my book is aimed at (as I make pretty clear in the introductory chapter) are readers familiar with and/or interested in contemporary analytic philosophy, and my intent was to demonstrate the contemporary relevance and defensibility of certain key Scholastic ideas rather than to provide a historical overview of the Scholastic tradition. 

Those aims entailed that I emphasize those ideas and arguments that I think are the most plausible and most useful in a dialogue with contemporary analytic philosophy.  Since I happen to be a Thomist, and since, among Scholastic ideas and arguments, Thomistic ones are those with which contemporary analytic philosophers are most likely to have at least a passing familiarity (given e.g. the existence of the “analytic Thomist” school of thought), it was natural that Thomistic ideas would dominate the book.

I submit that there is nothing wrong with that, and in particular that it is no reason to regard the title of the book as misleading.  Any introduction that is itself a work of philosophy and not merely a dry and non-committal rehearsal of various competing ideas is inevitably going to reflect a certain point of view.  Again, here my book is like lots of other “introductory” books in philosophy.  For example, an introductory book on philosophy of mind might reflect either a materialist or dualist point of view, even if it aims to introduce the key ideas and arguments from all sides.  An introductory book on philosophy of science might reflect a realist or instrumentalist point of view, even if it aims to introduce the key ideas and argument from all sides in that sub-discipline.  And so forth.  And my book does introduce Scholastic ideas and arguments other than Thomistic ones, even if the overall point of view is Thomist.  (I addressed these issues in greater depth in a couple of posts responding to Michael Sullivan’s review of my book, here and here.)

It is worth adding that Besong’s description of my book as “polemical” might be misleading for some readers.  To call a book “polemical” can be merely to describe it as defending a certain controversial point of view and criticizing rival points of view.  I think that’s what Besong has in mind, and in that sense my book is indeed “polemical.”  But the word “polemical” also often connotes an approach that is rhetorically caustic or otherwise highly aggressive.  And my book is not “polemical” in that sense.  (Sure, I’ve written other things that are “polemical” in that sense, but Scholastic Metaphysics is not like that.  It is, for the most part anyway, fairly dispassionate and academic in tone.)

Besong’s third criticism is as follows:

[M]y main critical concern is that Feser tries to do too much at once.  Given the apparent aims of the work, I would have preferred to see a two-volume set that first dives into the Scholastic debates (in isolation from broader historical concerns) from an “orthodox” Thomistic perspective, addressing in greater depth the premodern views and arguments raised against Thomistic metaphysical positions, and then, in a separate work, addresses the sort of criticisms that have been raised from early modernity forward.  Scholastic Metaphysics combines both efforts, and this can at times make the presentation appear hurried, especially if the intended audience includes academics.

Here I plead not guilty.  As in his second criticism, Besong here essentially criticizes the book for failing to do something it wasn’t trying to do in the first place, viz. provide a complete overview of “premodern” and “early modern” disputes both within the Scholastic tradition and between Scholastic views and their non-Scholastic rivals.  It is true that I do say a bit in the book about these historical issues, but the reason is not that I was trying to do too much – namely, both give a historical overview and also address contemporary relevance.  The reason is rather that I was only trying to accomplish the second task of addressing contemporary relevance, and that saying a little bit about the historical issues is sometimes crucial to doing that.  For example, given the massive influence Hume has had on how contemporary analytic philosophers tend to think about causation, it was important to say something about the historical background to Hume’s ideas.  Many contemporary readers tend to think that Hume’s background assumptions are just natural and obvious, and saying what I did about the historical background to those assumptions was intended to help show just how contingent and challengeable they in fact are.

All the same, Besong’s criticisms are thoughtful, and I thank him for them and for his very kind words about the book.


  1. I have truly appreciated every book of yours I have read including this one. I'm one of those who assumed the book was for beginners, but I did not find it at all difficult to read. That said, what book(s) covering these same essential would you recommend for the beginner? Thank you.

  2. Scott, I would say that if you're sticking with Feser, Aquinas or even The Last Superstition have a very good introduction to Thomism built in, as he needs it for the understanding of the Five Ways.

  3. Dr. Feser,

    I don't think I have ever seen you comment on your life as a professor of philosophy at Pasadena College. What's it like teaching Aquinas and the philosophy of religion in the classroom?

    Thanks. Happy New Year.

    1. I would love to read something like that as well!

  4. Hi Feser.

    Although being a theist, I am very sympathetic to Thomism but what I find problematic about it is that it seems to me that it requires Presentism/A-theory of time for five ways to go through.. It seems like the kind of real change it requires is absent on eternalism..
    in Neo-Scholastic Essays Feser suggests that modern science hasn't really eliminated change its only relocated to first person experience but I couldn't understand , I mean how can we run an argument for an unmoved mover or any cosmological argument with just this phenomenological sort of change and although I am not much familiar with it ..but several philosophers have published papers on our experience of passage of time an B-theory of time ..

    and one more thing ..though i haven't read it Feser argues against Four-dimensionalism in Scholastic Metaphysics..I take it to mean theory of persistence known as Perdurantism if thats true ..Does arguments like five ways depend on contemporary metaphysical debate on Presentism/Eternalism , Endurantism/Perdurantism ?

    All the best and Happy new year

  5. Tried to order it on Amazon and it was out of stock!

  6. It's a great book. Though i was given Neo-scholastic Essays for Christmas which rivals it. I'm waiting for the book on philosophy of nature now!

  7. I found Scholastic Metaphysics extremely useful, and make sure I keep it and David Oderberg's Real Essentialism close at hand for reference.

  8. To Thomas Gilliespie

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  9. From Bookfinder.com, here are two places to buy a new copy of the book for less than it sells on Amazon:

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    United States Softcover, ISBN 9783868385441
    Publisher: Editions Scholasticae, 2014
    New Edition. 398 pages. Usually ships within 24 hours. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction provides an overview of Scholastic approaches to causation, substance, essence, modality, identity, persistence, teleology, and other issues in fundamental metaphysics. The book interacts heavily with the literature on these issues in contemporary analytic metaphysics, so as to facilitate the analytic reader’s understanding of Scholastic ideas and the Scholastic reader’s understanding...
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  10. I know some of you have encountered The Thinker's review of Dr. Feser's book on his blog Atheism and the City. Can someone link me to some discussions regarding it please?

    Christi pax.

  11. @ Lucretius

    I would say that part of Thinker's criticism which has Real bite is his discussion of Eternalism ..I think TLS is probably the weakest work by Feser . I don't know why he would write that book when all the key notions of his metaphysics are defended only in his later works and I think Feser fails to rescue the most important aspect of his Philosophy,Change,from the modern physics. he only defends it later on in neo-scholastic essays and his article on Existential inertia even then though he deals well with Newton but fails to knock down Einstein and Minkowski.

    I mean how can you build sound arguments when the most crucial premises in your arguments depend on our theories of tense and persistence (again it only seems to me, I am sorry if its not true)

  12. Hello Red,

    It is true that I am a presentist, and presentism is, I think, the most natural position for any Aristotelian to take. (Certainly an A-theory of some sort is.) But it is not correct to say that the Five Ways go through only given presentism. Indeed, I would say that, for the specific purpose of defending any of the Five Ways, one doesn’t even need to defend an A-theory of any sort. Ordinary examples of change merely play the role of introducing the act/potency distinction. Once that general idea is grasped, the specific details of the examples don’t matter. (This is why it is a complete waste of time to go on, as some critics do, about whether the motion of a stick and the rock it is pushing are strictly simultaneous etc.)

    Hence, as long as there is some kind of potency in need of actualization, an argument like the First Way or Second Way will go through. And there would be that even given an eternalist or block conception of the universe. The universe as a whole would still be contingent and thus still exhibit potency in need of actualization. Nor would you need change in order to show that it is contingent. You could e.g. point instead to the fact that the universe is composite.

    This doesn’t entail that an Aristotelian or Thomist should in fact accept eternalism, or should agree that physics has shown change to be illusory. These claims should not be accepted. Nor have I said, contrary to what you imply, that change exists only in the observer. What I’ve said is that even IF change did not exist in external physical reality, it would still exist in the observer. But I would not for a moment concede that physics has shown that it does not exist in physical reality. I know people make that sort of claim all the time, but it is false. But explaining why it is false essentially requires putting forward a general treatment of relativity, and since that is not necessary for the specific purposes of defending the Five Ways, I haven’t done it in that context. Relativity at best affects where we locate potency in physical reality, not whether we need to locate it somewhere there or other, and thus it need not be dealt with at length in a treatment of the Five Ways.

    I’ve made this point here at the blog before and I made it also in my article “Motion in Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein.” But I have a lot more to say about relativity in an article on that subject in a forthcoming anthology on Aristotelianism and modern science to which I am one of the contributors. And I say much more about it still, and about philosophy of time in general (including a general defense of presentism), in the book on Aristotelian philosophy of nature that I am currently working on.

  13. Hi Dr. Feser

    Thanks a lot for clarification , I'll look forward to your forthcoming work on the subject. but can I take you to mean that an A-T-ist Can be an eternalist? doesn't five ways require there to something like the objective Becoming of the sort that only presentism can afford ?
    the kind of cosmological arguments that WLC defend get completely undermined by Block universe
    wouldn't the argument for unmoved mover require there to be real difference between tenses ?
    I'll see how would you defend principle of motion in a block universe ..as you mention in neo scholastic essays ..given Minkowski's conception there is no real actualization of potency in the natural world.

    It will certainly be interesting how you defend presentism but right now to me it seems Presentism is a view that is scientifically undermined and philosophically suspect ( again, i am sorry if i am wrong ) defending presentism requires requires significant scientific revisionism . There is already enough swimming against the tide in theistic philosophy already .

    All the best .