Friday, September 13, 2019

A further reply to Glenn Ellmers

At Law and Liberty, Glenn Ellmers has replied to my response to his review of my book Aristotle’s Revenge.  He makes two points, neither of them good.

First, Ellmers reiterates his complaint that I am insufficiently attentive to the actual words of Aristotle himself.  He writes: “This where Feser and I part.  He thinks that it is adequate to have some familiarity with ‘the broad Aristotelian tradition’ – a term of seemingly vast elasticity.  I do not.”  Put aside the false assumption that my own “familiarity” is only with the broad Aristotelian tradition rather than with Aristotle himself.  It is certainly true that my book focuses on the former rather than the latter.  So, is this adequate?

Well, adequate for what purpose?  If I had been writing a book about Aristotle himself, then I would agree with Ellmers that citing the broad Aristotelian tradition is not sufficient and that I should have emphasized Aristotle’s own texts.  But as I said in my initial response to him, and as any reader of the book knows, that is not what the book is about. 

As Aquinas says in his commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, ultimately the study of philosophy is not about knowing what people thought, but rather about knowing what is true.  The latter has always been the primary concern of my own work.  Obviously I have a very high regard for thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas, but I have always been less interested in doing Aristotle and Aquinas exegesis than in expounding and defending what I think they happened to have gotten right.

Hence, what I am concerned with in Aristotle’s Revenge are certain ideas, such as the theory of actuality and potentiality, hylemorphism, and the notion of teleology.  These ideas are historically associated most closely with Aristotle, but lots of later thinkers also had important things to say about them.  But the book is not about those thinkers either.  It is not a book about the history of ideas any more than it is a book about the person Aristotle.  Again, it is a book about the ideas themselves.  In particular, it is a book about whether the ideas are sound, and if so, how they relate to what modern science tells us about the nature of space and time, the nature of matter, the nature of life, and so on. 

Now, in a book that is about the ideas themselves rather than about specific thinkers or about the history of ideas, it would be tedious and irrelevant to cite a litany of names and works and explain exactly who said what, where and when.  Indeed, it would be counterproductive, because it would only reinforce the widespread false impression that the ideas can only be of interest to students of the history of thought, and have no contemporary relevance.  Noting that they represent “the Aristotelian tradition” thus suffices for the specific purposes of my book.

Really, what’s the big deal?  It isn’t a hard point to grasp.  Once again, Ellmers shows that he is the sort of book reviewer who insists on evaluating a book as if it were about a topic that he is personally interested in and competent to speak about.  And what he is personally interested in and (I guess) competent to speak about is Aristotle exegesis.  Hence he keeps trying to bring the discussion around to that, like the guest you get stuck sitting next to at a dinner party who won’t shut up about some pet topic he is obsessed with.

Ellmers’ other point concerns teleology.  In response to my objection that he has failed to understand the specific notion of teleology that is at issue when discussing basic inorganic causal relations, he says:

Again, who’s view are we talking about?  How is one to respond when there is nothing to grab on to?  As long as Feser himself defines the meaning of this “broadly Aristotelian view,” he will always be correct.  This does not take us very far.

End quote.  Seriously, what is it with Ellmers’ obsession with identifying texts and authors?  I imagine that if you said to him: “Glenn, since all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, it follows that Socrates is mortal.  Isn’t that a sound argument?” he would respond: “Well, I don’t know about that.  Exactly who gave the argument?  We don’t really know if it was Socrates, because he didn’t write anything.  Unless you tell me who said that and where, I don’t have anything to grab on to.”

In reality, of course, the argument is sound, and who gave it when and where is completely irrelevant.  Similarly, the notion of teleology that I was discussing either corresponds to something in reality or it does not, and the arguments for it are either sound or unsound, regardless of who gave them and where and when they gave them.  Ellmers should be focusing on those issues, rather than wasting time looking for scholarly footnotes.

The one thing that Ellmers has to say by way of a substantive response is anti-climatic.  He writes:

The teleology Feser attributes to unformed matter and chemical compounds – a view that finds no support in Aristotle’s writings – “involves nothing more than a cause’s being ‘directed’ or ‘aimed’ toward the generation of a certain kind of effect or range of effects.”  This just means that a cause has an effect.  It is a tautology.  

End quote.  Put aside the irrelevant question of whether Aristotle himself thought of teleology this way.  Put aside also the claim that I attribute this teleology to unformed matter (something I didn’t say).  The “tautology” charge shows just how out of his depth Ellmers is. 

Take any claim of the form “A is the efficient cause of B.”  Some Aristotelians, such as Thomists, hold that the only way to account for why A generates B, specifically (rather than C or D or no effect at all) is to hold that A is inherently directed toward the generation of B.  This entails a kind of necessary connection between A and B.  In this way, efficient causation is, according to the view in question, unintelligible without final causation.  Some recent analytic philosophers have argued for a similar position.  By contrast, philosophers influenced by David Hume deny this.  They hold that there is no directedness in nature, and that the connection between causes and effects is “loose and separate” rather than necessary.

Indeed, other early modern philosophers also rejected the notion of teleology in question, on the grounds that directedness can (they claimed) only be a feature of minds and not of unconscious inorganic phenomena.  And in fact, even earlier than that, followers of Ockham were questioning the reality of necessary causal connections in nature.  The two sides in this dispute differ over what is entailed by the claim that “a cause has an effect” (to use Ellmers’ phrase).  For one side, this entails teleology and necessary connection, and for the other side it does not.

The point is this.  The dispute over teleology of the kind at issue is substantive.  That’s why there’s a dispute.  The early modern and contemporary philosophers who reject the notion of teleology in question don’t say “Sure, the directedness you’re talking about is real, but that’s just an uninteresting tautological point.”  Rather, they say that it is not real.

Another mark of how substantive the dispute is is the ripple effect it has had on other philosophical issues.  For example, it is the reason why the intentionality of the mental became such a big problem for modern materialism.  If there is no directedness anywhere in the natural world, then how can the mind’s intentionality (its directedness toward an object) be identified with or explained in terms of natural processes?  Again, the reason there is a problem is precisely because materialists don’t say “Sure, there’s directedness in all material processes, but that’s just an uninteresting tautology.”  Rather, they say that there is no directedness in the material world (or that what seems to be directedness can be analyzed away or reduced to something that involves no directedness).

Here’s another thing.  All of this is discussed in my book.  Which indicates, once again, that Ellmers didn’t read it very carefully, or perhaps simply didn’t understand it.  If he had, he would have realized that the “tautology” charge at best begs the question and at worst simply misses the point.

Ellmers also remarks that “a thoughtful debate about this question would have involved the metaphysical basis of natural right.”  But yet again, this just shows Ellmers’ fixation on trying to tie my book to the issues he personally cares about, even if they are not what the book itself is about.  Is teleology relevant to the question of the metaphysical basis of natural right?  You bet it is.  Is the topic of the metaphysical basis of natural right interesting and important?  You bet it is.

But it is also true that you can say a lot about teleology without getting into that particular application of the concept, and a lot of what you can say about it is interesting and important in its own right.  And it is these other issues that are the subject matter of Aristotle’s Revenge.

Not every book has to be about Glenn Ellmers’ favorite topics.  The fact that Ellmers can’t seem to blow his nose without addressing its relevance to the metaphysical basis of natural right doesn’t entail that the rest of us have to follow suit.


  1. Seriously, what is it with Ellmers’ obsession with identifying texts and authors?

    Someone, in a comment to the original review (which was quoted in a comment here) pointed out that the way Ed wrote was characteristic of analytic Thomists. Ellmers accepted that. I think there's a parallel here. Straussians pretty much always discuss questions that way. At least, they seem to.

    Another typically Straussian element is the statement about "the metaphysical basis of natural right." Note, not natural law, but natural right. I think this has Lockean roots, but perhaps I err. In any case, I believe the needs to be derived from the former, and not treated as basic. But again, maybe I'm wrong.

    1. I had some Straussian training, such as it is. There is a systematic temptation in even the best people flowing out of that stream- Rosen, Lampert, and even Mansfield come to mind -to get lost in exegesis. I understand this approach and even the thematizing of reading in the case of eg the scriptures because these are the words of the living God but at the end of the day even after all these years and some exegetical scholarship of my own I don't really get the point for a figure like Nietzsche except as a kind of propaedeutic. It is good, I suppose, to see a master of texts at work reading the texts, and there is some art to be passed on, but at the end of the day one has to say 'What is being said?' and 'Is it true?'

      These are at the end of the day the only real grounds for the Master's authority. If the master *merely* spends a great deal of effort to show you in great detail how to know falsehood, especially if it's not obvious that he's showing you falsehood for some important purpose, then I daresay he's a mere obscurantist or sophist.

    2. I wouldn't got that far. Exegesis is in itself valuable. Hell, I believe all knowledge is valuable in itself.

      But it does tend toward pure argument from authority. So Aquinas is wrong because his version of Aristotle isn't quite pure Aristotle. The last is worth pointing out, if that's how you read it. But if successful, it proves nothing beyond that.

  2. Oh, yes, I forgot to say that I thought it odd that the points about political implications should surely have been more appropriate in a review of Scholastic Metaphysics. That seems to treat matter at a much lesser remove from politics than Aristotle's Revenge.

    But neither is all THAT close. It's probably a bad sign to see people on our side thinking always in terms of political implications. "Everything is political" used to be a characteristic tag of the Left. Hate to see it spread.

  3. Professor Feser wishes to drape himself in the aura of Aristotle’s authority without troubling himself about what the philosopher actually said. Did I impose the title “Aristotle’s Revenge” on his book? Over and over he gilds his arguments with the adjective “Aristotelian” which apparently means whatever Feser happens to think.
    If he wishes to stick to the ideas, evaluated in their own merits, let me note — for the THIRD time — that Feser could have and should have simply made those arguments in his own name.
    Notwithstanding the gracious note on which I concluded my reply, Professor Feser can not contain his peevishness. His smug condescension is quite unbecoming and I won’t engage any further.

    1. Sorry, Glenn, but you deserve condescension due to your failure to understand what you attempted to review.

    2. Glenn (if I may),

      I'm sorry that you are offended. I have enjoyed your writing in the past and bear you no ill will whatsoever. I am sure your forthcoming book on Jaffa will be of interest and I will look out for it.

      However, I think that everything I said in my initial reply and in my followup is accurate. Gotta call it like I see it.


    3. @Glenn, This reads to me like your chief complaint has nothing to do with the actual content of the book but your inference on what the contents should be based upon the title which, on the surface seems, at the very least seems odd. Many times the authors don't even choose the title of their books.

    4. Hi Ed.
      Given the number of epithets in your first response (including the suggestion that I’m insane!), and the heavy sarcasm in this second reply, I am glad to hear there is no I’ll will. I keep repeating myself, evidently to no avail, but I will try once more: there wasn’t space at L&L to get into our substantive disagreement. I hope to develop that elsewhere.
      There is an interesting discussion to be had about teleology. If you want to engage with me on that, I would welcome it.

    5. @Glenn
      The notions of actuality and potentiality, form and matter (hylomorphism), and the like, are original of Aristotle's thinking. So I think that when Ed uses them, he is just being an Aristotelian in the broad sense. They are -maybe- slightly modified or clarified, but for the purpose to see that they are unavoidable for the understanding of modern physics and biology. In that sense, I think that Ed is not doing exegesis, he is just defending "a broad" Aristotelian philosophy. To name the book "Aristotle's Revenge" I think it's a kind of recognition to James Ross (and, I may add, a successful marketing strategy).
      Best regards,

    6. there wasn’t space at L&L to get into our substantive disagreement.

      But Glenn, the point is that if your review hadn't focused on stuff about the American founders and questions about the exegesis of Aristotle's own texts -- neither of which is relevant to the main ideas of the book -- then there would have been space.

    7. Professor Feser wishes to drape himself in the aura of Aristotle’s authority without troubling himself about what the philosopher actually said.

      I don't see where that applies. I don't recall Ed ever making an argument from authority on questions of philosophy (as opposed to Church doctrine, where that is unavoidable.)

      Further, insofar as he points to the tradition he sees himself part of he pretty consistently uses "Aristotelian-Thomistic", or "A-T" for short.

      Is this illegitimate? I don't see how. I can't think of any thinker of influence who hasn't produced rival schools of development or interpretation. Maybe it would be better if that were not so, but it is unquestionably the case. There are innumerable people identifying as Platonists who don't hold to his politics, or ethics, or aesthetics; nowadays (usually) they mean the theory of the Forms. But in the Renaissance that wasn't the case, at least not to the same degree. Marx thought of himself as a kind of Hegelian, and in turn spawned many variants among his own descendants. I've seen discussions of naval strategy between people who are in agreement, but one of whom thinks Mahan got it right, the other disavowing him.

      Surely one point of the book is clear enough. It's attacking a position for which Aristotle is considered the opposite of an authority. Rather, he is considered exploded by the scientific revolution.

    8. Note to self: Never put Aristotle's name in a title unless it's a narrow academic biography of his specific thought. I'll add that to the list of crazy shit I've got to keep track of.

    9. My own understanding of the title Aristotle's Revenge was that the various post-Descartes alternatives to the A-T philosophy -- most of them explicitly rejecting notions like teleology and moderate realism about forms, and all-too-often badmouthing Aristotle and his interpreters in the process -- have now, in Feser's view, run their course and are facing problems which are insoluble unless they re-adopt some form of teleology and some form of moderate realism about forms.

      This puts the old Greek, or perhaps Aquinas, in the amusing position of standing just apart from bunch of befuddled materialists, sitting dejectedly amid the wreckage of their collapsed arguments, and waving naughtily at them, saying, "Miss me yet?"

      A more accurate title might have been, "The Revenge of the Later Philosophers In The Aristotelian Tradition, and By Association, of Aristotle Himself, Against All Those Who've Been Disparaging Or Ignoring That Tradition For The Last Four Hundred Years."

      But that's a stinker of a title.

      I accept Aristotle's Revenge as a catchier substitute, even if its accuracy suffers on account of brevity.

    10. It would be just as unfair to claim that Neo-Platonists weren't really Platonic because they believed some stuff that Plato wouldn't have agreed with. Obviously the Neo-Platonists expanded Plato's ideas in new directions.

  4. Ed does not want to ride on the coattails of Aristotle. He just goes "here are some cool arguments and I categorize them as broadly aristotelian."

  5. Glenn's whole line of criticism seems to be that the book should have had a different title. This is similar to a lengthy criticism of Ed's book, Scholastic Metaphysics. In that case, the main complaint was the limited space devoted to Scotus. A lengthy review hardly engaged whether the arguments presented in the book were valid or not but persisted in making comments that would have been irrelevant if the book's title was A Contemporary Introduction to Aquinas's Metaphysics. Glenn's review and subsequent replies are in the same vein. A sentence in a review suggesting a different title is fine. An entire review on it is like a book review on Tolstoy's War and Peace that does not mention any major characters like Pierre, Natasha, or Andrew, or the plot of the book but harps on about how the title only applies to the philosophical discussions of war contained in the book.

    1. What an absurd comment. Other then stating the name of the book, my review never discussed the title at all.

    2. Glenn, Tim is obviously referring to the comment you made above, in which you try to justify your focus on what Aristotle himself said by noting that the title of my book is "Aristotle's Revenge." And what he said is not absurd, but dead on accurate. I keep pointing out that your focus on criticizing me for not paying enough attention to Aristotle's own texts misses the point that that is not what the book is about. And your last line of defense, in the comment above, is to say "But then, why did you give the book that title?"

      Sorry, but that really is, at the end of the day, the thin reed your case boils down to (if I can mix metaphors).

    3. BTW, I don't think a title like "Feser's Revenge" or even "The Aristotelian's Revenge" would have the same punch, no?

      Anyway, so far, you're the only one to think I was somehow engaging in false advertising. Maybe you also think that Armand Leroi's book "The Lagoon" (which you cite in your initial review) is misleading, because it's really about Aristotle and doesn't say much about lagoons.

    4. A) More sarcasm.
      B) The above comment is the first time I brought up the title.
      You don’t make it easy for someone to engage with you in a gracious way.

    5. Given how completely ungracious you have been, Glenn, you don't have any high ground to stand on.

      It is an author's right to respond to a review with his honest opinion of it; your having done a review imposes no obligation on him to do it in a way that you like.

    6. How have I been ungracious?

    7. Look, Glenn, I don't mean to be difficult. But as I think I showed in my initial response, your review gave, in several ways, a very badly misleading impression about what my book is actually about, the nature of its arguments, and the depth with which it actually deals with certain topics. Instead of acknowledging these serious errors (you acknowledge only the most trivial one, viz. about the audience of my book Scholastic Metaphysics) you have doubled down on the main misunderstandings. By my lights my tone here reflects reasonable exasperation with this, rather than arbitrary prickliness.

    8. Ok.
      It’s clear to me now that trying to review your book for Law & Liberty was a mistake.
      You are right that it is not relevant to a general audience with a broad interest in moral and political philosophy. You have a specific community here, which I invaded, and it got everyone upset. That was a mistake.
      I will credit your book with making me think about whether there are, as you claim, “five sorts of teleology.”
      Contrary to what you think, I did read your book and I did consider what you say. I’m not persuaded, but I am glad that it forced me to think the matter through.
      I still plan to develop some thoughts on that question elsewhere. But I won’t mention your book.

  6. " Put aside the irrelevant question of whether Aristotle himself thought of teleology this way."

    Well, this may have been irrelevant in the context of this particular exchange, but still, it is an interesting question in itself and I'd like to know the answer. DID Aristotle himself think of teleology this way? Or is the notion of "stripped-down" teleology a later innovation by Aquinas or someone else?

    1. I cannot adjudicate the issue myself, but yes, there is a debate over this question. One example:

      I argue ... that teleological explanation does not go 'all the way down' in explaining the behavior of natural substances at all levels. On the contrary, there is an unconditional, non-teleological physical necessity governing the behavior of all five material elements, and this necessity goes 'all the way up' in determining, at least in part, the behavior of all of the more complex physical objects made out of them, whether they be artifacts or natural substances. I consider as well which aspects of the behavior of the elements is governed by this kind of non-teleological necessity, and how the latter is compatible with the purposive workings of the natural substances made out of the elements. Far from excluding physical necessity from nature, we shall see that Aristotle's science of nature presupposes it.

      - Christopher Byrne, "Aristotle on Physical Necessity and the Limits of Teleological Explanation," Apeiron 35(1): 19-46 (2002).

      The Thomistic idea that the analysis of change in terms of potentiality immediately introduces teleology has a certain plausibility, but there are evidently scholars who think about teleology in Aristotle very differently.

  7. Take any claim of the form “A is the efficient cause of B.” Some Aristotelians, such as Thomists, hold that the only way to account for why A generates B, specifically (rather than C or D or no effect at all) is to hold that A is inherently directed toward the generation of B. This entails a kind of necessary connection between A and B.

    Ed, can I urge a clarifying comment on this? You speak in terms that are broad enough to encompass both voluntary action and purely non-voluntary acts where A causes B. But surely it is the hallmark of the voluntary for A causing B that it NOT be necessary that A will to cause B.

    I think I have at least approximately the right way to clarify this, but I am not positive and I will leave it to you to propose the answer. Thanks.

  8. Fiction books aren't a great analogy here. Feser's books being arguably deceptively titled is more akin to picking up a book called "Hegel's Revenge" and finding it to be purely Marxist, or one entitled "Introduction to Islamic Jurisprudence" where the Hanbali school is the only one meaningfully represented.

    Now, that doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the quality of the content—I think Feser is a good representative of Neo-Thomism—but it's surely a fair complaint that there is a mismatch between a reasonable expectation of what a book addresses and what it actually does.

    1. Sorry, but your comment didn’t address the metaphysical basis of our natural right to not be misled by book covers, so it’s really not a very good comment.

  9. I will be interested to see what Ellmers writes about Aristotle's teleology. Is this a point where he clearly stakes out a position, or does he leave things somewhat up in the air, as he sometimes does? Or take different views in different works?

    I also hope he looks at the status of inanimate objects as substances. In the original review, the issue was raised over phosphorus and iron. Are they substances in themselves?

    And what revisions need to be made since no one seems to accept Aristotle's idea of the elements. (It was a very short periodic table, after all.) Given that, can ANYONE call himself an "Aristotelian" in a strict sense?

    1. In the original review, the issue was raised over phosphorus and iron. Are they substances in themselves?

      That's a good point to raise, George. I haven't ever seen a good review of the issue - but I haven't read Feser's book yet, either.

      In my own little way, given the constancy with which the acts and operations of iron or gold occur, it seems inescapable that there is a gold nature and an iron nature that are definite and distinct. But where is the substance that has that nature, and how is it's unity established? Is it (when iron is in its elemental form) just each separate atom of it that is a substance?

      The only helpful insight I have is that as we go down the ladder of being from the high and more fulsome to the lower, because the lower kinds of being have lesser modes of act, we should expect that there is less and less DISTINCTION that is discernible and definite. For example, when you lop a branch of a lemon tree off and graft it onto a lime tree, the lemon branch will grow and bear lemon fruit. Is the branch STILL "part" of a lemon tree just artificially supported by another being, or is it now "part" of the lime tree? If part of the lime tree, is there a problem saying the lime tree produces lemons? (Or, might we say that lemon and lime trees are really sub-species (in the Aristotelian sense of species) of the true infimum species such as "citrus tree". Same could be said, perhaps, of lions and tigers, which together can produce ligers and tigons.) And at a level lower than plants and animals, with dead matter, a "substance" is hardly discernible clearly and definitely precisely because it has so little of act to begin with.

      This doesn't actually tell us how to find the limits of individual substances, but is meant only to explain the difficulty as being not surprising.

    2. Obviously, I don't know the answers. I will point out that, at least according to Ed's view, elements like iron often exist virtually, but not actually, in the substances of which they are a part. But they still do have "characteristical irreducible properties and causal powers" (pp 26-27 of AR).

      He is actually there using the example of hydrogen and oxygen when present in water. But I still have a problem about water itself. As you put it, "But where is the substance that has that nature, and how is it's unity established?"

      I don't think a lake or a puddle or a raindrop would count as a substance. So what does? This has always puzzled me. So your insight is helpful there.

      But another point you touch on is species. I think we all fall into the trap of using the word as in biology. But when speaking metaphysically, it too gets complex. Take breeds of dogs. They are certainly a single biological species. And they are usually so considered in philosophy. But some of the essential traits differ. An inability to fetch makes for a bad Labrador, but not a bad Basset. The Lab, in turn, is not defective because no one can expect him to be a guard dog as a Doberman can. And so on. I do realize that they are a bit like artifacts, but then, not wholly.

  10. Any plans to read/review David B. Hart's new book on universal salvation? He utilizes the classical conception of freedom and will pretty heavily.

    1. Concerning new books, and given Feser's self declaration as a "postliberal," I'd be curious as to his take on the new book by the acclaimed philosopher on the subject of evil, Susan Neiman. (It has an Audible version, by the way, for those on the go.) It might suggest interesting resonances with David Bentley Hart's new book.

    2. Santi,
      Ed does not believe in postliberal theology. Postliberal theology advocates a narrative approach to theology rather than the deductive method that one sees in Aquinas, Maimonides, Turretin and others. Ed clearly follows the deductive approach. A common fallacy found among postliberal theologians is to argue from the premise that the most frequent genre in the Bible is narrative to the ridiculous claim that biblical theology MUST be narrative in form. It is a complete non-sequitur. It is as ridiculous as saying that because acrostic poetry dominates Lamentations (which it does to a far greater degree than narrative dominates the Bible), a theology of Lamentations MUST be written in the form of acrostic poems.
      Ed is not a postliberal. He has friends, like Rusty Reno, who are recovering postliberals.

    3. Tim,

      Sorry I wasn't clear. I was referring to Feser's self-described political views in terms of his relation to Locke. Feser is explicit that he is a postliberal, politically. He uses that term for himself.

      The link between Susan Neiman's new book and David Bentley Hart's concerns memory (how we remember the dead; who we memorialize on earth, etc.--Neiman's subject--can be likened to who we remember in heaven--Hart's subject). For example, do God and the saints in heaven remember Noah or the victims of the deluge? Who is rendered invisible? On earth as it is in heaven?

  11. Hume might be wrong that anything can become anything, but isn't it necessarily the case that anything can become a lot of things? That teleology is context dependent?

    It just seems to me that evolution often identifies ends, grounded in the structure of things, that are surprising.

    Evolution discovered the Panda's thumb was good for stripping bamboo and the bonobo's clitoris for social bonding with other females, etc.

    In short, how do you pin down a thing's formal or structural tendency to some end independent of environmental context, which is always in flux?

    1. I think you somewhat answer your own question when you say that even surprising ends are "grounded in the structure of things". The point of teleology isn't about the number of ends a thing can have, but rather about the constancy of the tendency something has toward creating a specific range of effects. When we're looking at simple things, the range tends to be small, making it easier to see the constancy (eg. fire always generates heat, water always makes things wet, etc.) When we get to more complicated entities, the teleological range widens. For example, the human tongue can be used to talk, to taste food, to lick stamps, to whistle, etc.). But it can't be used to fly or throw footballs. The point is that the tongue (in this example) has a certain defined nature, which gives it a limited range of potentialities. A thing's teleology (or "formal/structural tendency") is independent of environmental context because it encompasses all contexts.
      Of course, this does mean that our own knowledge of the teleologies of things may be limited, because there's always a possibility that we haven't yet thought of all the various potentials something may encompass. But this is a limitation of our own knowledge, not an inconsistency in the notion of teleology (as an aside, I'm glossing over the difference between "essential" and "accidental" causes, limits the range of effects that can genuinely be included in a thing's "telos", but I don't think that affects the basic point I'm making here).

    2. Good points, Ryan, and it clarifies the issue for me. Thank you.

      Not to be perverse or unnecessarily argumentative, but I do wonder if the environment around any structure is being a bit too bracketed or suppressed in Thomism, and that we could indeed imagine worlds with different laws of physics in which the action of what looks to be fire in our world actually slows down rather than speeds up the actions of molecules (thereby generating a cooler as opposed to a hotter condition). Would we still call this fire? Or would our definition be context dependent on the premise that our laws of physics in this world must be at work?

      How could the "constancy of the tendency" ever be established absent a consideration of this context?

      No fire or drop of water is an island--no, nor man either. One can seem to pare away a thing to its essence in all possible worlds, to what remains, but it still seems like the background staging can never be wholly divorced from it entirely--and if that's the case, where does one locate the thing power but in its relation? How does one ever escape the whole consideration completely? ("The truth is the whole.")

      I also wonder whether surrealist painters are onto something for Thomists to think about in the sense that a train coming out of a fireplace (as Magritte once painted and wrote about) reignites in us the mystery of trains and fireplaces, shaking us out of a habitual understanding of what they are capable of producing (at least in us).

      I also wonder if Thomists are under the spell of naming, thereby splitting off pieces of the world from their participation in wholeness ("The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,..." etc.).

      This is why I'd be very curious to hear Feser's opinion (or yours) on ecology in relation to Aristotle.

    3. @Santi

      You know, I've defended you on more than one occasion on these boards due to your stated desire to move away from your previous trolling. And, contrary to the incessant protestations of "Anonymous," several of your posts were no more off-topic than the comments of the other regulars here, so they didn't bother me. But your persistent effort to weave in "ecology" is getting a bit tiresome. The more you do that, the more you validate the claim that you're a troll in sheep's clothing. You would garner a lot more respect if you try to stay on-topic.

      Now, if you've read Feser's works, then you know that "possible worlds" is, for the most part, a non-starter. We can imagine worlds where things pop into existence uncaused, but that's not the world we live in, and the fact that something doesn't square with our imagination has nothing to do with the way things ARE. I can also imagine a world without language so what you're saying makes no sense and can therefore be dismissed. If "context" is the key, then the context in Thomism is what's real, not what's imaginable.

      I'm not getting any sense from your posts that you're really trying to learn Thomism; you appear to be on a mission to poke as many holes in it as you can in order to justify your social/political biases. The very thing you thank Ryan for is one of the most fundamental aspects teleology, yet that apparently swept right by you.

      Ordinarily, your sexual orientation should be of no relevance to any on-topic discussion we're having, but in my experience, some "non-conventional" persons feel the need to justify their existence by attacking any ideology which poses a "threat" to the notion that their lifestyle is aberrant. If that's not what you're doing, then I offer my apologies, but that certainly appears to be the case by my lights.

      I gently urge you to stay on-topic and ask questions if there's something about Thomism that you don't understand. And if at the end of the day you're simply not convinced that our conclusions are rightly drawn, you're not going to change minds by appealing to possible worlds or ecology.

    4. A sentence in my second-to-last paragraph should read: attacking any ideology which poses a "threat" to the notion that their lifestyle is normal.

    5. Hi Bill,

      I'm a married, heterosexual person, just for the record. The "gay" hazing from the Russian guy has no basis in fact.

      As for Thomism, part of deciding on one's relation to Thomism--or anything else--is to probe it for "holes." That's usually evidence of serious, as opposed to therapeutic, intent.

      I'm sorry to rankle you in raising ecology. I bring up evolution and ecology because these seem to be alternative ways of looking at essences--and I'm trying to understand how Thomists respond to these hard cases.

      Feser's treatment of evolution in his book elided a lot. And no one in these threads with practice in using Thomistic language appears to have a response to the simple question of what an Aristotelian/Thomistic relation to the planet implies.

      If you can't degrade the womb, mouth, or anus on natural law grounds, can you nevertheless drive a Humvee through a fast food drive-thru, participating in the degradation of ecosystems?

      It can't possibly be "trolling" to ask such a question. It's a serious issue.

      As for the word ecology, I could replace it with "systems thinking" if you find that preferable--but the problem is the same: what is being bracketed when you extract a part from the whole--and when does what is bracketed get brought back in again?

      The laws of physics--for example--if they are bracketed as a background given to any object in the world--nevertheless must be, in their particulars, returned to the object at some point--and doesn't that then confound the location of the part's essence?

      You can call that an ecological insight, or a dynamic systems insight, but the physicist Carlo Rovelli prefers to speak of things as "events in relation"--and I'm trying to understand, from a Thomistic perspective, what's wrong with that. What is accomplished by locating essences/powers/ends in the thing itself and not in the larger structure/system of relations?

      Why are Thomists (for example) so intent on locating color in the piece of fruit?

      By way of contrast, read the first precept of the Tao te Ching. What's a Thomistic critique of that?

      Or perhaps such holism is actually consistent with Thomism?

    6. @Santi

      And there you go again. Bring up ecology when Feser talks about it. That's not the topic, so it only "rankles" me when off-topic matters are raised again and again and again.

      Asking questions and making certain one understands a topic are prerequisites to hole probing or criticism. If you would do more of the former and less of the latter you will find it necessary to take your foot out of your mouth less often.

      And again, my apologies for the assumption about your orientation. I figured Ya'Kov was referencing a previous conversation with you.

    7. Bill,

      You said to me a couple of threads back to ask questions. I asked the ecology question of you, and you said you had no interest in the subject. So I asked another person above in a single sentence--I didn't make a big deal of it--his take, since he seemed willing to talk, and it was pertinent in the context of what he had said to me previously.

      You then interfered with my question to somebody else, telling me to stop raising ecology until Feser--who may never do this--explicitly brings it up.

      I then explained to you--since you jumped in--why I'm raising the issue--it generates a different frame or wider circle for thinking about Thomistic essence--and why I think it's pertinent--and yet you will have nothing to do with the substance of my response because it is now (supposedly) "off topic."

      It's simply not fair to thought to set such parameters. Thought doesn't function by setting up categories of acceptable and unacceptable frames or circles for thought.

      Think of Emerson's great essay, "Circles." (If you've never read it, it's short.) Zooming out and framing issues in ways larger than the way someone has already framed them often casts light on the previous framing. It is part of the process of thought. It makes no sense to constrain to thinking the rule: "Only apply x in the context of y frame--and only accept the first speaker's framing of a thing."

      And conversation is organic. Of course issues will come out of conversation that drift from the first thought. How could they not?

      As for the Russian guy, I note that you did not say that he was wrong for his behavior. I would like to see Christians in this thread not go silent when someone gets explicitly, verbally gay bashed. It's not right. Red said it wasn't right. No one else said a word.

    8. @Santi

      The parameters are set by the site administrator (Ed Feser). The topic is Ellmers' horrible review of Feser's book. You abide by your host's wishes. You're a guest in his "house," so you should do what you can to abide by his rules. If you don't like the rules, don't post.

      As to other posters, Feser has asked us not to reply to them when they make troll-like statements. The only reason I'm stepping in now is to help you understand why increasing numbers of us feel that is what you're doing. If you really want to step away from your troll past, you need to try a little harder.

      As to asking questions: You should ask on-topic questions, or you ask them when Ed posts an open thread. You don't ask irrelevant questions when the topic doesn't suit you.

      I'll reply in the future if you stay on-topic. If not, consider this my last reply.

    9. Bill,

      I reject your premise that I've ever trolled here at any time. I've been consistently respectful in the midst of frequent obnoxiousness directed toward me as an interested, secular outsider.

      I understand that most here are religious and that religion is hard to talk about in mixed company, but Anonymous, for example, not only didn't discourage the Russian person's gay bashing rhetoric, he encouraged it, telling him to engage in it. By contrast, I've never returned evil for evil. I have expressed my opinions out of interest, my opinions are sincerely held, and Feser has never blocked a post of mine, ever.

      I assume this is because he believes strongly, as I do, in free, argumentative speech--and that the flaws in my arguments will out, regardless. He may also regard me as an eccentric. But calling someone like me a troll is really just a way of setting up artificial boundaries for natural human dissent.

      Please recall that Feser has addressed at least one of his books directly at atheists/agnostics like me--so naturally he expects his readers to find him online and to perhaps argue contrary viewpoints at his blog. It goes with the territory of the books he writes.

      Religion is inherently controversial. Philosophy is inherently controversial. Politics is inherently controversial. Religion's relation to philosophy and politics is inherently controversial. Naturally, people are going to contend basic premises and boundaries for what's reasonably in and out.

      Our otherness in relation to each other can be seen as a stimulant to thought and an introduction to people's otherness, not something to be shunned. And it's not a zero sum game, in any event. People who don't like my occasional comments at this blog can gingerly move on after seeing my name. I do that with various others here all the time--the Russian fellow, for example. I don't try to run him off as a troll. I leave him alone to have his say--and for anyone who interacts with him to have their say. It would never occur to me to thought police other people's conversations.

  12. It semi-OT, but at L&L I made a rather bland comment to Ellmers's reply. I got a pair of responses from a guy who argued that information-physics shows that Ed is wrong.

    Are we really living in the Academy of Lagado?

  13. Ellmers walked right into a beat up here, didnt he?

  14. "Hence he keeps trying to bring the discussion around to that, like the guest you get stuck sitting next to at a dinner party who won’t shut up about some pet topic he is obsessed with."

    I keep trying to explain to people why The Beatles' Rubber Soul fails as a Bebop jazz album, but they just look at me like I'm crazy.

  15. This seems like Homer Simpson's complaint that To Kill a Mockingbird taught him nothing about killing mockingbirds.

  16. There is a guy over at Strange Notions who has a similar problem as Ellmers'(thought the man is very congenial & I suspect a PhD in his own right he can read Aristotle in the original Greek).

    He sometimes argues against Thomism by exegeting the texts of Aristotle and coming up with different interpretations other then what Aquinas came up with. That is interesting but it has nothing to do with philosophy or how the broader philosophical tradition developed or what the School as a whole is saying today.

    What if we did that with other philosophers?
    Let us take Democretus. He was an Atheist "the gods do not exist and all is Atoms in the void" & he was an atomist and materialist. Is materialism or Atomism (as concieved by Democretus which has nothing to do with "Atoms" as we understand them today) false or true because Democretus was a flat Earther? No that has nothing to do with it? Can I dismiss a modern materialist philosopher's arguments by interpreting Democretus other then how he does? No we cannot.

    It isn't relavant. Why does Elmer not get this because I believe after enough brow beating by moi the guy over at Strange Notions does get that? I hope....

  17. I guess that "Ian" schtik wasn't so cute after all.
    Funny how people become punctillious in ther manners when they don't have any response after being taken to the woodshed.

  18. It does seem like there's a genuine philosophical question here.

    Does saying heating is the "final cause" of fire say anything more than to say that a fire heats because it is its nature to heat, or is it just the same thing using different language?

    If it means something else, then is final cause an accident? And if so, how can a teleology be accidental?

    1. It is in the nature of this structure in relation to the structures around it that it is most likely to end in the generation of heat?

  19. "Over and over he gilds his arguments with the adjective 'Aristotelian' which apparently means whatever Feser happens to think." Not really. One can hardly be considered a genuine Aristotelian if one doesn't have a nuanced understanding of the famous Aristotelian doctrine of the four causes, and the reviewer doesn't supply any evidence of possessing anything better than a superficial grasp of this key Aristotelian doctrine, in which the final cause is of central importance.

  20. We know that when we try hard for something good, we have acted good. This shows the impossibility of the Thomistic God who merely possesses the good, without effort or trying. For how can God be effort or trying in it's essence without having ever to try? A God who is always at ease is nothing like us, for we would be greater. A God who earned his right to be God might exist. It would be interesting if he did..

    1. @Gregory

      What you describe has nothing to do with Thomism. In fact, you're so far off, I suspect you were trying to get at something else. Care to try again?

  21. Thomist say that God is forever in happiness, so he never earned being God. He never strove or worked like we humans do. So he can't be greater. It's beyond easy to be God. That's simple logic and should be obvious. Greg

  22. This is existentialism challenge to Thomist. And I don't see how it can fail. A possessed good would be like a baby's innocence. Someone who has only done good is greater than that, and greater thus than the Thomistic God. Thomism is about an idol, a Platonic form personalized, nature preceding personhood. You will never find that God in the next world. No one ever sees the "beatific vision". It's a fantasy about one's rationality

  23. "Take any claim of the form 'A is the efficient cause of B.' Some Aristotelians, such as Thomists, hold that the only way to account for why A generates B, specifically (rather than C or D or no effect at all) is to hold that A is inherently directed toward the generation of B. This entails a kind of necessary connection between A and B."

    Yet using the language commonly used here, a tautology also "entails a kind of necessary connection between A and B." So stating the "necessity" that A causes B does not mean the statement is not a tautology.

    Ellmers is correct on this point. I've made a similar argument myself. If a jury is looking for a motive, and the prosecutor says, "The explanation for this crime is simple and logical: The defendant was 'directed toward' committing this crime." No serious jury would accept this as an explanation.

    Teleology merely restates what we already strongly suspect. It describes but it does not explain. It's empty of any meaning beyond something like identity. IOW, it's the most trivial of meanings.

  24. I think Glenn makes a good point. I would have liked to see Feser interpret Aristotle in response. If someone consistently referenced a vague "Thomism" while advocating central ideas that Thomas opposed, Feser would take issue just as Glenn did. I will look forward to Glenn's elaboration.