Book review: Scholastic Metaphysics

Scholastic Metaphysics: a Contemporary Introduction
by Edward Feser (2014)

This is a very useful introduction to scholastic metaphysics, especially for those who want to use Thomism for more than just theology.  What makes it “contemporary” (besides 2014 being not that long ago) is Professor Feser’s effort to relate scholastic positions to discussions in contemporary analytic philosophy on powers, causality, and mereology.  In each case, modern philosophers are being pushed back toward scholastic positions as their more ontologically-sparse Humean positions prove unable to make sense of the power of natural science.  It is bizarre, in retrospect, that philosophers have tied themselves into such knots denying such obvious things as that objects have powers (active potencies).  Yet the failure of the attempt to do away with them has been instructive.  Potencies really are funny things–they can’t be reduced to present structure–and yet it seems that we need them with all of their weirdness.  The resurrection of final causes in modern philosophy also proves instructive.  While Feser prefers the old language, I found the phrase “physical intentionality” from modern philosophers very useful in clarifying what it could mean to say that an inanimate object acts teleologically.

The book has a wonderful section on hylemorphism, laying out the full radical holism of the Thomist position.  We are all familiar with atomism, the idea that constituent parts ground the existence of their wholes, and that the parts therefore enjoy some sort of ontological priority.  To use scholastic language, the atoms (however conceived) are substances, while their wholes are mere accidental assemblages.  A more moderate position, what one might call “modularism”, is that substances could be composed of substances, with no ontological priority.  Thomists do not see this as meaningfully different from atomism; for them, an assemblage of substances cannot be a substance.  Instead, only the whole substance exists, and the constituent atoms exist only virtually, as potencies of the substance describing how it will respond to splitting.  That is–if I understand correctly–if I probe a substance with something that responds to single atoms–a high-energy photon, say, to take “atom” in its modern meaning–then of course it will register (e.g. scatter off) a single atom, but that doesn’t mean that the atom was really there beforehand or that the substance was actually always made up of them.

I am actually open to this sort of revisionism and have considered similar ideas myself but am uncomfortable applying it for parts larger than molecules.  Are cells real?  Organs?  Do citizens of a nation exist virtually?  Thomists would certainly say no to the last case.  People are substances, and their groups are only accidental.  Likewise, Feser insists that human artifacts like computers have merely accidental forms.  He may be right, but I think the criterion for identifying real substances must be made more rigorous, because nations and computers clearly do perform actions (government acts, algorithms) distinct to themselves as wholes.

The Thomist alternative would be compelling if atomism and modularism can be shown to be false.  The argument from Oderberg against atomism doesn’t work.  The idea is that water, for instance, cannot be made of hydrogen and oxygen because water lacks the properties that flow essentially from hydrogen and oxygen.  But an atomist would not say that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.  He would say that hydrogen and oxygen properties are emergent phenomena in aggregates of hydrogen and oxygen atoms or molecules, that water is made of water molecules, and water molecules are made of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, etc.  I would say that atomism is still viable, but readers will probably be surprised to realize that radically different ideas are viable too.

The book’s introduction carries the very good news that Dr. Feser is planning a follow-up book on the philosophy of nature.  This is a crucial field, since we can’t be confident in our grasp of metaphysical concepts unless we’re sure we know how to use them, and Dr. Feser is one of the most qualified contemporary scholastics for the job.

Dr. Feser is himself a Thomist and clearly sides with the Angelic Doctor when he relates intra-scholastic disputes.  As someone who generally takes the side of Duns Scotus where he disagrees with Aquinas, I appreciated that Feser explains some Scotist and Suarezian positions well enough for readers to know what they are.  I address some of these intra-scholastic disputes below.  Although Feser often makes good points, my Scotist sympathies remain largely intact, so I urge readers who identify Thomism with Catholic orthodoxy not to read further.

The principle that act is limited only by potency is contested within the scholastic position.  Thomists affirm it; Scotus and Suarez do not.  Indeed, I still find it peculiar.  An example that appears in the book is of a ball that is imperfectly spherical, or later in the book, an imperfectly drawn circle.  Feser posits that there must be some explanation for why these things only instantiate their forms to a limited degree, and this must come from the receiving powers of the receptical (e.g. the matter making them up).  But an object will be exactly some shape (perhaps one with a lot of bumps), which will make it resemble a sphere, a cube, and every other shape each to a particular degree.  It seems to be not a limitation of the ability of the matter to accommodate forms as limitations inherent in the forms themselves, that each one is only “imperfectly” any other.  The natural explanation for why the object takes the shape it does is to invoke the cause, as Duns Scotus does.

Duns Scotus also disagrees with Aquinas on the possibility of self-motion.  Or at least it seems he does.  From Feser’s discussion, it is possible that their disagreement is merely verbal.  Thomas does not, as I had expected, dispute Scotus’ claim that that an object can have an active potency to actualize one if its passive potencies, but only that the object should get causal credit for its motion.  That, say the Thomists (and Aristotle before them) goes to the cause that made the object with those powers, even if this cause is no longer exerting any influence on the object, even if it no longer exists.  So, in other words, if we are talking about instantaneous causes, Thomists don’t have a problem with self-motion; Scotus is just more clear about it.  One wonders why Feser bothers with other rejoinders to the claim that Thomism cannot accommodate inertia.  If things can move without an instantaneous external mover, what is the issue?  I suspect the unease is that if we invoke external movers of this sort, the stricture against self-motion becomes inapplicable to essentially ordered causal series, which is what the argument from motion is usually based upon.

This is my recurring quibble with the scholastics, that their principles seem much weaker when being defended than when being applied.  I have in the past been one of those critics who has said that the principle of proportionate causality is either false or tautological.  “X can only cause what it has the power to cause” seems unobjectionable but trivial.  Feser actually has a good response to this objection.  He grants that this quoted statement doesn’t tell us much, but it does tell us something, something sufficiently significant that many of Hume’s followers would refuse to grant it, namely that X has causal powers that we can infer.  However, in its unobjectionable form, the principle can’t be used as it often is to rule out naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life, of species, or of consciousness.  If, for example, scientists discover a way for inert matter to make life, all the philosopher can do is mark off a new form virtually present in inert matter.  Philosophers have no a priori knowledge of what these virtual forms and causal powers might be.





6 Responses

  1. Jacques Maritain, in ‘The Peasant of the Garonne’, expressed the formulation of a new philosophy of nature as an unfulfilled dream of his youth, but feared that it would be a very difficult enterprise to undertake. Let us hope that Professor Feser can be the man to, at least, make a start at it.

  2. […] for those to whom it was advertised as a complete worldview.  Reading Dr. Feser’s book on Scholastic Metaphysics made me realize how boring metaphysics, properly delimited, really is.  Scholastic principles such […]

  3. […] for those to whom it was advertised as a complete worldview.  Reading Dr. Feser’s book on Scholastic Metaphysics made me realize how boring metaphysics, properly delimited, really is.  Scholastic principles such […]

  4. Try 193-200 Real Essentialism by David Oderberg

  5. […] explains this pretty well in his previous book Scholastic Metaphysics by retrieving the concept of potency. He notes that contemporary analytic philosophers have […]

  6. […] explains this pretty well in his previous book Scholastic Metaphysics by retrieving the concept of potency. He notes that contemporary analytic philosophers have […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: