Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Johnson on Aristotle’s Revenge
At Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Monte Ransome Johnson my book . Prof. Johnson is an Aristotle scholar and historian of philosophy, which is relevant to understanding his review. He says some nice things about the book, singling out my discussion of Aristotle and computationalism as “interesting” and writing:
Feser's book could be useful to those interested in defending anti-reductionist positions in various disputes in philosophy of science… Feser's impressive grasp of this anti-reductionist literature makes him a formidable polemicist, able to sift the avalanche of philosophy of science literature and find the concepts he is looking for.
End quote. The bulk of Prof. Johnson’s review is devoted to discussing how closely the views I defend do or do not correspond to those of either Aristotle himself or of later Aristotelian and Scholastic thinkers, and how closely the views I criticize as characteristic of the mechanical world picture do or do not correspond to those of specific early modern thinkers.
This is not entirely unfair, insofar as at least in the first chapter of my book I make some general historical remarks about the Aristotelian tradition and about the origins of the rival mechanical world picture. Johnson’s emphasis is also understandable given that he is, as I have said, an Aristotle scholar and historian of philosophy – and, I should add, a scholar and historian whose work I have long admired. I have profited from his fine book and often recommend it. If you are interested in either Aristotle or teleology, you should read it.
All the same, I think Johnson has let his own interests and expertise, rather than the content of the book, determine the amount of attention his review devotes to these questions of historical scholarship and Aristotle exegesis. And that has led him greatly to overemphasize these matters and to underemphasize others. (For example, my chapter on “Space, Time, and Motion” – at well over 100 pages, the longest chapter in the book and perhaps the most densely argued – is referred to in a single sentence and in only the most general way.)
The trouble is that the book is not really about Aristotle himself and it is not even about the history of philosophy. It is about certain ideas, considered more or less ahistorically. And Johnson is aware of this. As a result of his comparison of the claims and arguments I defend with those of Aristotle himself, he judges:
The true purpose of Feser's book, it seems, is not actually to avenge Aristotle, but to show how Aristotle affords concepts that can be adapted by neo-neo-Scholastics to combat certain metaphysical interpretations of contemporary science.
Given the lack of references to primary and secondary sources for Aristotle's views, the position defended in Aristotle's Revenge is better described, as Feser frequently does, as neo-Aristotelian or, more accurately, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy.
End quote. That is all quite true. But it isn’t like I hide this. Prof. Johnson is a bit like a detective who stands lost in thought before declaring “I conclude that the butler did it!” – when all the while Jeeves had been standing right there beside him trying to confess.
It seems that Prof. Johnson would prefer that I not describe what I am up to as “Aristotelian” – that I should stick to adjectives like “neo-Scholastic” or “Aristotelian-Thomistic” or even, if I must, “neo-Aristotelian.” It seems to me, though, that this is to demand too narrow a usage. Terms like “Platonic” and “Marxist” are commonly used to connote ideas that you won’t always find explicitly set out in Plato or Marx themselves, but rather are associated with the traditions they inspired. Of course, it is true that in some cases this can lead to misunderstanding. However, this loose kind of usage is so common that learned readers realize that it is intended only loosely. Hence, especially in academic contexts, it is perfectly innocent, and clear that all that is meant is that the ideas in question are associated with a broadly “Platonic” or “Marxist” view of things, and not necessarily with Plato or Marx themselves.
In the present case, the label “Aristotelian” is frequently used in contemporary academic analytic philosophy to refer to ideas that are broadly Aristotelian in spirit, whether or not one finds them explicitly stated in Aristotle’s Physics or Posterior Analytics or wherever. Consider, for example, Tahko’s anthology Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics and Groff and Greco’s volume Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism – in neither of which will one find much in the way of Aristotle exegesis. My book is intended as a contribution to this movement and literature, and I imagined that it would be taken in that spirit.
If this broad use of the term “Aristotelian” is a foible, it is not a foible unique to me – in which case, I think Prof. Johnson should blame the common practice to which I’ve acquiesced rather than my book, specifically. Anyway, I think that too much weight is placed on what is ultimately a minor semantic issue.
However, I do not want to fail to acknowledge the good points that Johnson makes in the course of discussing this issue. For example, he cites a number of works of contemporary scholarship on Aristotle that I might have cited but did not. I am indeed familiar with most of the things to which he refers. The Max Delbrück article is something I’ve quoted from several times in previous work. I reviewed the Armand Leroi book a couple of years ago. Carlo Rovelli’s interesting article essentially went to the periphery of my mind as I worked on my book given that, as Johnson notes (with apparent regret), I explicitly declined to defend Aristotle’s physics and focused instead only on matters of philosophy of nature. These materials simply got lost in what Johnson rightly calls the “avalanche” of literature I was interacting with, and I could mention yet other things that I kick myself now for not having included. To be sure, I don’t think any of the particular arguments I give suffers much for the lack of these references. All the same, Johnson is right that I should have included them.
Regular readers of this blog will find this much of Prof. Johnson’s review reminiscent of the reviews of Glenn Ellmers and Eric Wise, who also overemphasized questions of Aristotle exegesis. However, there are crucial differences between Johnson’s review and theirs. For one thing, unlike Ellmers and Wise, Prof. Johnson does not turn a review of a philosophy of science book into a verbose and irrelevant discourse about (of all things) modern politics and Christian theology. For another, unlike Ellmers and Wise, Prof. Johnson does actually engage substantively with some of the arguments of my book.
So let me turn to that. Johnson has a fair bit to say about my use of retorsion arguments, which I take to be a species of reductio ad absurdum arguments. Some of Johnson’s remarks seem to me to rest on misunderstandings. For example, he writes: “So Feser thinks that his retorsion arguments taken together undergird a positive doctrine he calls epistemic structural realism.” No, that’s not correct. Johnson is conflating two very different lines of argument from my book.
What the retorsion arguments to which he is referring are intended to show is the limits of what might be overthrown by either empirical science or revisionary metaphysics. For example, I argue that the reality of change, the reality of efficient causation, the principle of sufficient reason, etc. cannot coherently be overthrown in the name of science. The reasons for affirming epistemic structural realism are very different, and have to do with arguments concerning the nature of mathematical representation and considerations about what survives theory change in the history of physics.
Prof. Johnson also writes:
Although Feser is aware that "some have questioned the probative force of such arguments" (p. 80), he does not mention that Aristotle was chief among them. Aristotle holds that indirect reductio arguments are inferior to direct negative arguments, which are in turn inferior to direct positive arguments (Posterior Analytics I.26); reductio arguments must fall far short of demonstrative knowledge (as defined in Posterior Analytics I.2), since its premises are not only not prior to, not better known than, and not explanatory of their conclusions, but they are not even true!
End quote. That’s all fair enough in the abstract. However, which of these modes of argumentation are preferable or even possible depends on the subject matter. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle famously remarks that it shows a lack of education to try to demonstrate something self-evident like the principle of non-contradiction, since it is presupposed in the very attempt at demonstration. In the Physics, he says that it would be absurd to try to prove the reality of things with natures, since what is obvious doesn’t need proof. So, direct positive arguments are out of the question when dealing with a skeptic who denies the laws of logic or the reality of natures.
Does that mean we can say nothing to convince such a person? No, because we can instead deploy retorsion arguments. And it is precisely when defending rock bottom or basic assumptions about reality, of the kind Aristotle has in mind in passages like the ones I’ve referred to, that I deploy such arguments. Aristotle would hardly object to that, and I think that Prof. Johnson would agree that Aristotle does not question the value of reductio arguments full stop. Rather, he simply denies that they are the best arguments to use in some contexts. But those contexts don’t include the specific kinds of context in which I deploy them in my book.
Commenting on what I say about teleology, Johnson writes:
The fact that the early modern figures did apply final causality to human beings, to God, and to their accounts of the laws of nature, while readily acknowledged by Feser (p. 50), is not discussed much by him, except in order to assert that "an atheistic version of the mechanical world picture is incoherent" (p. 51). Feser's position is not argued but rather expressed in a series of rhetorical questions, such as: "If there is no God and no substantial forms either, how can we make sense of the operation of laws of nature?" (p. 51).
End quote. It seems to me that this is not at all a fair representation of what I say on this subject. As I argue, the mechanical world picture characterized matter in such a way that, if that picture is consistently spelled out, neither intentionality nor consciousness can be found in it. Dualist proponents of the mechanical philosophy like Descartes thus locate these phenomena outside the material world – in God and in human souls – but since atheists deny the reality of God and the soul, such a relocation of intentionality and consciousness are out of the question for them. But their characterization of matter, I argue, makes a reduction of consciousness and intentionality to matter impossible; nor can an eliminativist position vis-à-vis consciousness and intentionality be made coherent. Hence an atheist version of the mechanical philosophy itself cannot be made coherent. (This is why atheists are well advised to go the Thomas Nagel route of considering a neo-Aristotelian position – though of course, in my view this ultimately promises to pose other problems for atheism down the line.)
This is one of the lines of argument I give for the incoherence of an atheistic mechanical philosophy, and of course I develop all the relevant subsidiary points in detail. I also develop other arguments, such as an analysis of laws of nature that notes that the notion was originally a theological one and that alternative accounts of laws face insuperable problems (unless one opts for an Aristotelian account – but that would entail giving up the mechanical philosophy).
Hence, to characterize my view as defended by nothing more than a few rhetorical questions is unjust. I don’t think Prof. Johnson is knowingly being unfair here – I suspect he is simply too hastily and carelessly trying to summarize arguments he does not find persuasive. But the summary is very misleading.
Anyway, as I say, Prof. Johnson makes some fair points too, and I thank him for his review and once again recommend his own work to all students of Aristotle -- and indeed, to all students of Aristotelianism too.