Scholastic metaphysics: an interview with Edward Feser on his new book

This past spring Edward Feser's latest book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, was published by Editiones Scholasticae. We recently talked with Ed about his new book.

*** Could you tell us something about the genesis of your book and what your aims are in it?

Feser: One of the aims of the book is to provide, for readers with a background in contemporary analytic philosophy, an exposition and defense of Scholastic (and especially Thomistic) approaches to causation, substance, essence, teleology, identity, persistence, and other issues in fundamental metaphysics.  Another aim is to provide, for readers with a background in Scholastic thought, an introduction to the many ideas and arguments in contemporary analytic philosophy which recapitulate themes in Scholastic metaphysics.  So, the book argues for the continuing relevance and defensibility of Scholastic ideas by revealing how much common conceptual ground already exists between Scholastics and analytic philosophers.

I did a bit of this in earlier work, such as the second chapter of my book Aquinas, but the subject really demanded a book-length treatment.  There is also the consideration that many of the most important arguments for the contemporary relevance of various Scholastic metaphysical ideas are scattered in various books and journal articles by a diverse group of writers -- “analytical Thomists,” Thomists and other Scholastics of a more traditional stripe, scholars who approach the subject from more of a historical perspective, older Neo-Scholastic authors of now out-of-print manuals, and so forth.  There is an urgent need for a convenient resource that gathers the main ideas all together and presents them systematically for philosophers, theologians, and other readers interested in Scholastic metaphysics and its contemporary relevance.  So the book aims to provide that.

The book is in that way somewhat like the old Neo-Scholastic manuals, though of course more up to date in the sense that it engages heavily with the literature in contemporary analytic philosophy.  My friend Bill Vallicella has already taken to referring to the book as “Feser’s manual,” and I’m happy to own the label.

But I should, I suppose, add that I use the term “metaphysics” a little more broadly than some Aristotelians and Thomists do.  Thomists in recent decades have distinguished those questions that are strictly metaphysical from those that fall within the philosophy of nature, though they recognize that there is some overlap.  They are right to make this distinction, but unfortunately it is lost on a lot of contemporary analytic philosophers, who tend to use the term “metaphysics” in a way that often includes topics that the Thomist would see as part of the philosophy of nature (such as the hylemorphic structure of material substances).

To make the book as useful as possible for furthering discussion between analytic philosophers and Scholastics, I have to some extent made allowances for this broader usage in the choice of topics I cover in the book.  But only to an extent.  I plan to follow this book up with a book on Aristotelian philosophy of nature that covers issues that I judged were too far from general metaphysics to be properly treated in the present book -- topics concerning the general structure of time and space, chemical and biological kinds, and so forth. Who is the audience of Scholastic Metaphysics?

Feser: Well, for one thing, and as I’ve indicated, the book is of course aimed at both analytic philosophers and Scholastics interested in questions of fundamental metaphysics.  But I hope it will also find an audience among philosophers interested in natural theology, philosophy of mind, and other sub-disciplines within philosophy, even ethics.  Certainly the key arguments in all these areas made by Thomists and other Scholastics cannot properly be understood or evaluated without an understanding and evaluation of the underlying metaphysics.  Hence you cannot understand Thomistic arguments for God’s existence without an understanding of the theory of act and potency and the other aspects of Scholastic thinking about the nature of causality.  You cannot understand Thomistic arguments concerning the mind-body problem and other aspects of philosophical anthropology without an understanding of hylemorphism.  You cannot understand traditional natural law arguments without an understanding of how Scholastic writers understand teleology (as opposed to the caricatures of their understanding of teleology, which is all that many people are familiar with).  And so forth.

So, while the book doesn’t really say much about these specific sub-disciplines, it is clearly relevant to them.  Indeed, I like to think it would be of interest to anyone concerned with questions about the most general structure of reality and questions about ultimate explanation  -- which includes scientists as well as philosophers -- because that is, of course, what metaphysics is all about.  Metaphysics is the most fundamental of all disciplines.  That is the traditional view, anyway, and it is one I try to vindicate in the book. At one time volumes of scholastic metaphysics were published quite regularly. Now they appear only rarely. The decline seems to have begun in the late 1960s. What do you think are the reasons for this decline?

Feser: That’s a large question, of course.  In part it is linked to the general collapse of traditional theology, philosophy, and catechesis within the Catholic Church and Catholic higher education over the last 40 or 50 years.  Scholastic metaphysics got swept away along with the rest of it.  In part it has to do with the alleged foibles of the textbooks that were so widely in use in the period prior to Vatican II.  The usual complaint against them is that they are dry, merely repeat each other, are somehow untrue to authentic Thomism, etc.   Accusations of “Wolffian rationalism,” “sawdust Thomism,” and other such epithets are routinely flung at them.

I think this is mostly nonsense.  Naturally, like any body of literature, not all the old manuals are of equal quality.  Like anything human, they 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 centuries 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 used to provide.

It is amazing how thoughtlessly people repeat the clichés about the manuals, including people who should know better.  More than once I’ve had people tell me, to my face and pretty much in the same breath, both how much they like my work and how bad the old manuals are -- evidently without noting the cognitive dissonance!   I hope my work will contribute in its own small way to reviving respect for and attention to what the manualists were trying to accomplish. How would you compare your book to some of the older ones, like, say, Klubertanz's Introduction to the Philosophy of Being, or even a recent one like Clarke's The One and the Many? What does your book have in common with them? What would you say is different about your book?

Feser: What it has in common with them is that it treats most of the same issues, in the same sort of systematic way, and defends similar conclusions.  It differs in three major ways.  First, and as I have indicated, it interacts heavily with contemporary analytic philosophy.  That is the tradition I was trained in, and I tend to think that, for all its real weaknesses, the analytic tradition is ripe for fruitful engagement with Scholasticism.  Like Scholastic writers, analytic philosophers emphasize conceptual precision, clarity of expression, and rigorous argumentation.  Recent years have also seen a serious revival of interest in metaphysics within analytic philosophy, including an interest in Aristotelian themes in metaphysics.  There are of course other contemporary philosophers bringing the two traditions into conversation -- David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism is outstanding in this regard -- but much more needs to be done, and my book aims to further that conversation.

Second, there are differences in the way I would understand some common Thomistic ideas.  For example, I’m not as keen on personalism as Fr. Clarke was.  Having said that, I have enormous respect for Fr. Clarke’s work and have profited much from it.

Third, for the most part my book does not deal directly with issues in natural theology, as older Scholastic books on metaphysics tend to.  In part this is because I have treated these issues elsewhere, such as in my book Aquinas.  In part it is because the book is long enough as it is, and to treat topics in natural theology adequately would in any case require a book of its own.  And in part it is because it is important to emphasize that the key ideas and arguments in Scholastic metaphysics are defensible and important whatever one thinks of their application within natural theology. How has your book been received?

Feser: So far, very well.  It’s gotten several good reviews, including one in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  It has twice sold out at, once not long after it was first published, and the other time after several reviews appeared at around the same time.  For a while at Amazon, it was trading the #1 spot in Metaphysics with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  Not that I checked it daily or anything.  (And of course, reaching the #1 spot in metaphysics for a few days or weeks doesn’t exactly get you into Stephen King bestseller territory!)

The most vigorous and interesting criticism has come from Scotists who think I haven’t adequately either challenged or defended the standard Thomistic construal of, and criticisms of, Scotist positions on those issues where Thomists and Scotists disagree.  That isn’t surprising, and it’s a good debate to have.  Indeed, if the main debate in contemporary metaphysics were between Thomists and Scotists, we’d be in a very good place indeed!  Though we are, of course, a long way from that ever happening.

From the analytic side, Stephen Mumford has said some very kind things about the book.  He is, by the way, one of several contemporary analytic philosophers whom Thomists and other Scholastics ought to be reading.  His book Laws in Nature and a book he co-wrote with Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers, are particularly recommended to anyone interested in seeing just how fruitful a discussion between Scholastics and analytic philosophers is likely to be.