Scholastic Metaphysics: Edward Feser’s Introduction


Edward Feser’s latest book gives readers who are familiar with analytic philosophy an excellent overview of scholastic metaphysics in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas.

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Upon entering a popular bookstore, it is not unusual to find a section devoted to “New Age Spirituality” located next to one labeled “Metaphysics.” Indeed, in the popular imagination, the word “metaphysics” is often synonymous with the occult and the obscure, empty word games with no reference to reality. For those who believe that the natural sciences tell us all that we need to know about the world, viewing metaphysics as an area of rational inquiry seems absurd. One might take some pleasure in metaphysics’ abstract mental gymnastics, they reason, but no one ought to think that philosophy provides truths about the world beyond those offered by the sciences.

For those contemporary thinkers who do use metaphysics to examine fundamental principles about reality, there remains a strong suspicion that metaphysics in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is a dead end. At most, one might look to “scholastic metaphysics” as a set of fossils: a subject for historical study, but not to be employed as a way to knowledge of the world. But a new book is setting out to challenge that assumption.

Bringing Scholastic Metaphysics into the Present

In Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Edward Feser defends traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. By “scholastic,” Feser means the metaphysical reflection characterized by thinkers in the Latin Middle Ages, most notably (but not exclusively) Thomas Aquinas. The book is neither a historical survey of the origins and development of scholastic metaphysics nor a sustained account of the development of Thomistic thought. Rather, Feser argues that Thomistic philosophy can expand and enrich today’s metaphysical reflection. His book is an effective challenge to anyone who would dismiss scholastic metaphysics as irrelevant.

Those familiar with Feser’s many books and lively blog will recognize his characteristic vigor and his wide-ranging reading of contemporary and medieval sources. This book is particularly aimed at those trained in the Anglo-American analytical tradition, repeatedly referencing contemporary debates in this tradition. For readers not familiar with contemporary analytical philosophy, Feser’s book, despite its title, is not really an introduction.

Scholasticism as an Answer to Idealism and Empiricism

Near the beginning of the book, Feser proposes scholastic metaphysics as an alternative to what many see as the bipolar philosophical distinction between Kantian idealism and Humean empiricism. The former grants the existence of necessary metaphysical truths but locates their source in the mind. The latter emphasizes the primacy of sense experience in our knowledge of the world, but relies on what Feser calls a “desiccated” notion of experience. According to Feser, neither rationalism nor empiricism is sufficient to understand the world. Scholastic metaphysics offers a better way, in part because it recognizes the primacy of existence over cognition. Metaphysics is prior to epistemology, and too often modern thinkers have reversed this order.

After an initial chapter dedicated to the presuppositions, limitations, and errors of “scientism,” Feser turns to fundamental concepts in scholastic metaphysics, examining them in the light of analytical philosophy. Thus, we have chapters on act and potency, causation, substance, and essence and existence—all key elements in scholastic philosophy. The organization of the chapters reflects what Feser thinks is the order in which these different topics need to be addressed, starting with the fundamental question of act and potency. The distinction between the actual and the potential is from Aristotle, who thought that the intelligibility of the world and, in particular, of change, requires a clear grasp of the distinction between act and potency.

Throughout the book, Feser confronts the heritage of David Hume, especially Hume’s analysis of causation. Hume thought that it was merely the “constant conjunction” of two objects in our experience of the world that led us to conclude that they were causally related. Hence, it is an illusion to think that there exist in nature any necessary connections between causes and their effects. The regular conjunction of events, such that we experience one event following on another, is all we can mean by a cause and its effect. There is no sense of some power in the prior event that helps us to see how the second event follows from the first.

Feser points out that recent analytic philosophy has come to see the poverty of a Humean analysis, especially of causality, and now speaks of dispositions and powers in different substances. Although some of the terminology is new, Feser thinks that the debate over how to speak of actual substances and their characteristic activities is anticipated in scholastic metaphysics.

Causality, Form, and Matter

In his discussion of causality, Feser highlights Thomas Aquinas’s unmoved mover argument and uses it to explore the “principle of causality,” which is a crucial concept in scholastic arguments for the existence of God. Feser examines objections based on Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics.

In a particularly insightful section, Feser analyzes the simultaneity of cause and effect in essential causality. This simultaneity, and the recognition of the impossibility of an actual infinity in essentially ordered causes, are the two key features of the argument for an uncaused cause. Feser shows that simultaneous does not mean instantaneous. Rather, cause and effect are features of one and the same event: they exist together. Contemporary discussions of relativity theory that deny temporal simultaneity, limiting their analysis to the observer’s frame of reference, do not actually call into question what Thomas means by the simultaneity between cause and effect.

In defense of form and matter (hylemorphism), Feser takes on various forms of contemporary materialism and atomism. He thinks that contemporary criticisms of reductionism suffer from accepting broader metaphysical assumptions that exclude the categories of analysis found in scholastic metaphysics, categories that Feser argues offer a better grasp of reality. Feser argues that David Odeberg’s book, Real Essentialism, effectively critiques contemporary naturalism and demonstrates the enduring value of scholastic metaphysics.

Feser's book contains a wealth of material about the debates in contemporary analytical philosophy. The references throughout the text enable interested readers to pursue the topics in greater detail. It is important to note, however, that much of Feser's discussion will make sense only if one is familiar with themes in analytical philosophy. In this respect, as I have already suggested, it is not quite accurate to call the book an introduction.

Some Critiques of Feser’s Approach

Feser offers a historical setting for some of the intellectual debates he describes. However, there is a more general meta-historical narrative than the one Feser identifies. This is the view that modern science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, has demonstrated that scholastic and Aristotelian natural science and philosophy are false. Thus, to accept the discoveries of modern science, one must reject the views of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. For modern thinkers, living in the midst of this narrative, there is an a priori disposition to dismiss scholastic metaphysics as a curiosity. Hence, for Feser’s project, it is important to identify this broader narrative and to argue against it through a historical analysis of its origins.

I also would emphasize the doctrine of creation more than Feser does. It is an important feature in scholastic metaphysics, but there is not even an entry for “creation” in the book’s index. Feser does point to Thomas’s view that to be created means to have being by participation. For Thomas, creation ex nihilo can be understood philosophically. Thomas thinks that in the discipline of metaphysics one can demonstrate that all that exists has been created by God, and that without God’s ongoing causality, there would be nothing at all. His understanding of creation in a philosophical sense is a crowning accomplishment of Thomas’s thought. It is an understanding that has its foundation in Thomas’s analysis of the real distinction between the essence and existence of creatures and their identity in God.

The Philosophy of Nature

In the beginning of the book, Feser promises to write another book on the philosophy of nature. This will be a welcome addition to his publications. Indeed, a problem that lurks behind the confusion in contemporary philosophy’s encounter with scholastic metaphysics is the loss of the sense of nature that is a characteristic starting point for Aristotle and Thomas. Feser takes up this topic in his chapter on substance, but such a discussion really ought to be conducted first in the philosophy of nature, not in metaphysics. The loss of an understanding of substance, of form and matter, and of similarly foundational ideas are all part of the larger loss of what we mean by nature.

The recovery of scholastic metaphysics depends on the recovery of that understanding of nature and substance that is central to the thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. That recovery begins, I think, by challenging the historical narrative that tells us that its loss was a necessary feature of the rise of modern science. In his new book, Edward Feser has taken a key step in this important endeavor.

William E. Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford. 

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