Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Unwise book reviewing

Honestly, what runs through editors’ minds when they assign book reviewers?  The Claremont Review of Books has just run a review of Aristotle’s Revenge, by some fellow named J. Eric Wise.  And, heaven help us, it’s Glenn Ellmers’ review redivivus

Anyone who has read my book will be keen to learn what a reviewer might say about my views on topics like: embodied cognition and embodied perception; epistemic structural realism; causal powers and laws of nature; the A- and B-theories of time; presentism; reductionism in chemistry; primary versus secondary qualities; computational notions in natural science; biological reductionism; evolution and essentialism; neuroscientific reductionism; and so on.  You know, the stuff I actually discuss in the book.

Wise has nothing to say about any of that.  Instead, he goes on at meandering length about (of all things) Machiavelli, Leo Strauss, and Harry Jaffa; about the views of physicist Carlo Rovelli; about the differences between Aristotle’s conception of God and those of the Scholastics; and other things that don’t actually have anything to do with my book.  Wise also laments that I defend broadly Aristotelian ideas and lines of argument rather than discussing the texts of Aristotle himself – never mind that the whole point of the book is to defend the broadly Aristotelian tradition rather than to do Aristotle exegesis.  As with Ellmers, it’s absolutely astounding how a “reviewer” could write so much and say so very little about the actual book under review.

One of the few remarks Wise does make about my book’s contents is a truly jaw-dropping piece of misrepresentation.  Here it is: “Only a few of Feser’s arguments, Aristotelian or otherwise, are likely to be compelling for anyone not already committed to an orthodox appreciation of Christian revelation.”  The title of the review also makes reference to “Christian science.”

Now, Wise offers no examples of any arguments I give in the book that rest on Christian theological premises, or any other theological premises.  The reason is that he could not have done so, because there are no such arguments in the book.

Wise’s rationale for his silly remark, as far as I can tell, is that since my understanding of the Aristotelian tradition is influenced by Aquinas and other Scholastics, and the Scholastics happened to be Christians, my arguments must rest on Christian revelation. 

Dear reader, if you really need it explained to you why this is a textbook non sequitur, please, please don’t review Aristotle’s Revenge.  I have little enough free time as it is, and I’d hate to waste any more of it replying to yet another inane book review that should have been assigned to someone competent to comment on the actual contents of the book.

UPDATE 12/12: Round two.


  1. Ed,
    Perhaps you misunderstand the genre of the review. The reviewer's name "Eric Wise" is a combination of the names of perhaps England's most famous comic double act, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise (usually known as Morecambe and Wise).
    Perhaps the reviewer is striving to reach the heights of the review of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the magazine Field and Stream by Ed Zern:
    "This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping."

    I did not make that review up.

    1. Tim, that is terrific. I wish I had known to refer to that when responding to Wise, Ellmers, and no doubt other reviewers over the years!

    2. I thought that you would enjoy it.
      I am sure that you will have ample opportunity. There is no such thing as J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping, so Ed Zern (likely a made up name also) was clearly having fun with Field and Stream.

    3. What I meant above is that you will still have ample opportunity to use Ed Zern's review when responding to future critics like Ellmers and Wise.

    4. FYI
      Ed Zern was a humorist in the vein of Benchley or Perlman. HIS was supposed to be rediculous.

    5. Sunshine,
      I assumed that the review was meant to be ridiculous but I was not aware that he was a well known humorist, so thanks for telling me. I was wrong about his name--that was his actual name. I shall have to read more about him.

  2. Hi Ed.
    This is off topic, but I was curious if on your theological model you consider God to be impassible? There is a recent and interesting volume on this here

    1. Fellow Tim,
      Impassibility follows from immutability. I don't even see the attraction of a God who "feels your pain" in Bill Clinton fashion. Patripassianism (the doctrine that God the father suffers) was rejected as heresy by East and West. Moltmann claims that his concept of a suffering God, which he calls theopaschism, does not commit this heresy but I find his arguments unconvincing. And most of the other "Suffering God" theologians are worse than Moltmann. Hebrews highlights a key purpose of the Incarnation--that through Jesus Christ, we would have a mediator who has suffered. If God had suffered prior to the birth of Jesus, this would have minimized the need for an Incarnation.

  3. Here is my review of Aristotles Revenge:
    Excellent book, I really enjoyed his cannoli recipe. I just wish he wasn't so christian about it.
    Kind regards,

  4. I haven't read the book but I am thinking of reviewing it anyway. I will probably refer to Donald Trump, guns, and the death penalty in my review, FYI.

  5. So, would it be unjust to conclude from the reviews of Ellmers and Wise that one must lose the ability to read in order to become a Straussian?

    1. You needn't necessarily lose your literacy.

      Merely becoming some form of monomaniac is sufficient.

  6. If Aristotle is to have “revenge” in metaphysics—if that is even desirable—I suspect it will come not from reiterations of the positions of the schoolmen, but from the re-characterization of Aristotle in ways that illustrate, in terms modern science understands (e.g., in math and symbolic logic and the like), the relevance of his thought to modern humanity.

    This is such a stupid point on which to end the review. Much of what Feser does is catalogue the ways in which philosophers who aren't particularly Aristotelian (much less Scholastics) have, knowingly or unknowingly, recapitulated key Aristotelian theses. In other words, much of the contemporary work Feser discusses is doing what Wise suggests ought to be done instead.

  7. >never mind that the whole point of the book is to defend the broadly Aristotelian tradition rather than to do Aristotle exegesis.

    I find more and more that is a "thing" among critics.

  8. Someone posted that on the Thomism Discussion Group and I thought the same thing!

    I think it is treated as “political” because it is unacceptable in modern times to have a natural philosophical framework that has implications for natural theology and psychology and yet does not rely on the Bible.

  9. A quick read of the review leaves me puzzled.

    Indeed, Feser, in a sidebar, briefly discusses the knowledge of angels as the instantaneous and incorruptible knowledge of incorporeal beings.

    My copy has no sidebars. Not sure what he means there.

    The preceding section is more interesting, the part referring to Einstein's late acceptance that space might be real. ("There he conceded, in the course of an examination of pre-scientific experience as it relates to time and space, that the field-equations of relativity are consistent with the notion of space having a real existence.")

    But I do not follow at all the following comments stating that Aristotelian "prime mover" is incompatible with the Scholastic. It reads almost as if Wise believes that "first" means "chronologically first". (But maybe he's not; Ellmers's review was better written than this one.)

    In any case, it does seem as if the review is intent on clinging fast to the Straussian doctrine that reason and revelation cannot be reconciled. And of course Straussians' hatred of the very idea of a school of thought; they seem committed to the view that there are only isolated writers, each to be read as a sort of intellectual monad.

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  11. BTW, has Ed ever discussed the Jaffa book on Aquinas and Aristotle, mentioned in the review? Didn't find it with a quick search.

  12. I suspect those who assign reviews think that some fourth tier Straussian who did an esoteric reading of the poetics one time is as good an Aristotelian as any other.

  13. It seems to me that Eric Wise's book review is about undermining a growing "post-Liberal" conservatism. Ed's book is just the foil.

    Wise states at the outset he is not going to talk about the book, but what he thinks the political import of the book might be:

    "Edward Feser’s [book]... is also, albeit inadvertently, a political book."

    Midway, his objection:

    "But he might consider whether such attacks [against Aristotelian-Thomism] were .... frustrating the actualization of human potential in both reflection and choice." ie, Enlightment Good.

    The concluding paragraph essentially says, "Let's be sure to keep Aristotelianism tightly confined within materialist sciences, the more technical and esoteric the better."

    Post-Liberal conservatism is in part an attempt to reintroduce concepts like form and finality into the public sphere. Establishment conservatism cannot afford a post-Liberal wedge, unless of course, post-Liberals are right that the Enlightment is a dead end.

    Have I projected onto Wise's review as much as Wise projected onto Feser's book?

    1. Well, we certainly can't just follow true arguments through to their consequences (sarcasm)! Just think of what would happen!

  14. Most people can't appreciate complexity. It's of great value to carefully and thoughtfully consider what your opponent has to say and most people just can't do it; it's hard work.