“Truth is the self-manifestation and state of evidence of real things. Consequently, truth is something secondary, following from something else. Truth does not exist for itself alone. Primary and precedent to it are existing things, the real. Knowledge of truth, therefore, aims ultimately not at ‘truth’ but, strictly speaking, at gaining sight of reality.”
– Josef Pieper, Scholasticism. 1960.
“Like anything human, they (scholastic writers) have their imperfections. But the standard objections are just ridiculously overstated and there is some truly excellent and useful work to be found in many of those old books from the late nineteenth century through to the early 1960s. I think we are much the poorer for having let it all slip down the memory hole. Indeed, we’re paying a heavy price for it. If you want to know why theology is in such a mess today and secularism in such a position of strength, I would say that it has in large part to do with the fact that Catholic intellectuals have largely lost the intellectual muscle that Scholasticism use to provide.”
– Edward Feser, “Scholastic Metaphysics: An Interview,” Thomistica.
In the September 1987 issue of Modern Age, Frederick Wilhelmsen wrote a famous essay titled Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom? In it, he recounted his own experience as a student at the University of Detroit. He remembered in particular his courses in scholastic philosophy, which he went on to develop in his own later works. His army experience taught him that many other young men taught at similar schools had learned the basics of thinking in a way those unfamiliar with it did not. Mr. Wilhelmsen followed the shift away from this type of direct philosophical education that educators denigrated to a short-lived “great books” approach, which later gave way to what we know today: mostly eclecticism and relativism. The result of this shift, he thought, led to an educational system where no real philosophy was taught or learned—only opinions. Everything became relativized without any grounding in basic metaphysics with which to evaluate philosophical ideas, particularly ethics.
Frederick Wilhelmsen did not think everyone was an Aristotle, but he did not think they lacked intelligence either. Graduates of Catholic colleges at that time were given a pretty good foundation, often with eighteen to twenty-four hours of philosophical courses required. These courses served the students well for the rest of their lives. It is not so much that anything is wrong with studying “great books.” We need and want to know what they contain. But by themselves, they contradict each other. So without a foundation in philosophy itself, students of “great books” ended up in relativism with no real way to understand and defend the truth of things. Multiculturalism and diversity, among other fads, become substitutes for thought. All “cultures” are “true.” Every “diversity” is valid, not because it is true but because it is diverse. Indeed, these theories become enemies of thought because the noble name of truth is eliminated from the philosophy curriculum as a “prejudice” or “arrogance.”
All of this background comes to mind on reading Edward Feser’s remarkable book Scholastic Metaphysics. As Dr. Feser himself amusingly notes, his colleagues referred to his book as “Feser’s Manual.” It is that in the very best of a noble tradition that was in fact concerned with educating the mind so that it would know the truth of things. What this book does, and does very well, is give us an insightful introduction to metaphysics. First of all, the book is a basic introduction to thinking itself, even though it presupposes, as the manualists did, a good grasp of logic, or, in other words, to think systematically about what is. The book is similar in this sense to Robert Sokolowski’s The Phenomenology of the Human Person, itself one of the best books ever on the nature of philosophical issues and how to think about them.
Dr. Feser has done his homework. He is quite familiar with modern analytic philosophy along with other modern systems. He came to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, whom he knows well, from his realization of problems in the modern systems. Likewise, Dr. Feser is acquainted more than most with the various texts that were once profitably used in Catholic university and seminary philosophy departments, but were later abandoned during the last half century. Dr. Feser recognizes that these writers, who were perhaps not perfect, were often very good thinkers in their own right, as well as familiar with the intellectual tradition of the West. Along with participants of the century-long Thomistic revival inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII, Dr. Feser is familiar with a whole new group of scholastic and analytic thinkers that appreciate the scholastic attempt to explain reality. He admires in particular the works of David Oderberg and Brian Ellis.
All of this treatment, of course, involves coming to terms with Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Francisco Suarez, David Hume, René Descartes, Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and the whole effort of modern philosophy to explain what happens in the world. It is often said that the wars of the world are first carried out in the minds of the dons debating what appear to be obscure points of philosophic doctrine. We might wonder what difference do these questions about substance and accident, act and potency, causality, being and existence make? The fact is they make all the difference in the world. Aristotle’s famous remark that “a small error in the beginning will lead to a huge error in the end” is clearly at work in Dr. Feser’s approach. He understands what is at stake when we fail to account for the world that is. Here we are mindful of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that in the end we will have to be believers even to say that the grass is green and the sky is blue. Arguments about epistemology and metaphysics are not mere “debates.” They are sketches of future political and social realities, of chaos or civilization.
One of the pleasures of this book is that Dr. Feser is locked in argument with those who seek to explain reality but whose examination of it often leaves out something important. He is not afraid to say that an argument is “bogus” or “absurd” or “incoherent,” nor is he afraid to explain why. Dr. Feser says these things only after he shows the point that grounds his judgment. And lest we forget, philosophy is about judgment. Truth is in a judgment—we say of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. What is particularly good about this book is its order. Truth is reached by critically examining observations and explanations that do or do not explain reality.
In this sense, Dr. Feser’s book is quite the opposite of the “fuzziness” of the modern mind that claims that nothing is true or that all is relative. But once said, the truth of the position that nothing is true is open to judgment. This judgment is what Dr. Feser provides in this book. In this sense, it is one of the most refreshing books I have come across in years. Who else is willing to make a case, to articulate in the name of scholasticism, a cohesive case, for teleology, analogy, prime matter, causality, substance, common sense, esse et essentia, and the validity of the mind’s knowing powers?
Dr. Feser is aware of many good philosophers who, like himself, are working their way through the modern mind. They discover, often surprising themselves, that their pursuit leads them to Aristotle, Aquinas, and the scholastic tradition. This tradition, newly reflected on, turns out, after having been downgraded by Catholic educators for decades, to be the newest thing on the block. David Warren recently mentioned the interest in St. Thomas that is found among, of all people, contemporary Chinese philosophers. Dr. Feser’s book on metaphysics is a dialogue with many analytic philosophers. Not a few of them, as he shows, begin to see points of contact with Aristotle and Aquinas because of the limits of their own system.
But this book is not just a book on what various philosophers think. It is about thinking about reality. Each section of the book—1) act and potency, 2) causation, 3) substance, and 4) essence and existence—carries the reader through the experience of actually thinking of these issues, of why they make sense. Thus, it restores that awareness of philosophic immediacy that Frederick Wilhelmsen, to whom Dr. Feser refers, rightly thought to be lost when the schools abandoned scholastic philosophy for what turns out to be mostly a mess of pottage.
Dr. Feser has published a book on atheism, The Last Superstition—great title. He has a book on Aquinas, edited a book on Aristotle’s methodology, and promises one on the philosophy of nature. He has published any number of scholarly essays on such basic issues as teleology, natural law, motion, even on the Role of Nature in Sexual Ethics, as well as studies on several contemporary thinkers. I mention all of this scholarship in connection with another experience that I have had in recent years. Several philosophy departments in Catholic universities such as the University of Dallas, Steubenville, the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Fordham University, Ave Maria, the University of Notre Dame, and especially the Catholic University of America have graduated any number of young men and women of first-rate accomplishment in the field of philosophy.
Most Catholic universities prefer what critics call “prestige” hiring. They do not hire such scholars because they come from the intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism however good their knowledge of modern thought may also be. So these well-prepared young men and women manage to find jobs in seminaries, smaller colleges, in state schools, think-tanks, or even in business. More actual philosophy is probably taught at Christendom or Thomas More than most students in more famous schools ever heard of. Though Dr. Feser himself, interestingly enough, went to the University of California at Santa Barbara and teaches at Pasadena City College, he is a prime example of a quiet revolution that is taking place whereby the basics of the scholastic tradition are recovered and developed. Such scholars as Dr. Feser see that more needs to be said than modern thought or most Catholic thought has been willing to acknowledge.
Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics is an ordinary “manual” that is not ordinary. It is nothing less than a defense of reality, of the capacity of the mind to know what is. It is a book that puts science in the right place because it has the mind in the right place. Who else can teach us the real excitement that is metaphysics? “The best explanation of why the world works just the way it does is that there is something in the very nature of potency that requires actualization by something already actual—that is, the best explanation is that the principle of causation is true” (133). Dr. Feser’s book is filled with such insightful passages that we so seldom hear.
In Dr. Feser’s little “manual,” we have the seeds of something great, the realization that, on philosophical grounds themselves, the scholastic tradition in the heritage of Aristotle and Aquinas is in fact the newest thing in academia. The only people who do not know this are likely to be academicians, but they are often out-of-date. We need, as I have often said, to go to the books that tell the truth, not only tell it, but know what it is on the basis of reason and argument. This book on “scholastic metaphysics” is precisely one of these books. If professors do not assign it, let the student read it by himself. If the department will not consider it, go elsewhere to find someone who will. For we sense that, in our increasingly decadent culture, there is light in the darkness, a light that has been burning all along in obscure texts that a small but growing number of scholars like Edward Feser thought worthy to read.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on February 10, 2015.