book cover imageNeo-Scholastic Essays
by Edward Feser.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2015.
Paperback, 392 pages, $26.

Reviewed by Ryan Shinkel


When the Prodigal Son decided to auction off his inheritance, his half of the estate did not disappear. Rather, the number of owners and of things owned both increased, though what held them together, the original context of the estate, was rejected and diminished.

This pattern happens in intellectual history as well. When people lose or reject a philosophical tradition to unite ideas across time and disciplines, its ideas do not go away. They are set loose and become redefined as new philosophies multiply. What had once been held together by one tradition is now held together by the single mind of an academic, of whom there are many. The result is that, as Etienne Gilson remarks, “there are as many philosophies as there are philosophers.”

The particular tradition in mind that was rejected is the moral and metaphysical tradition of Aristotle that climaxed in medieval Scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas. This scholastic tradition held together various ideas, such as the virtues, the teleology or purposes of nature, and doctrines of God. In particular, one can say its “estate” was a teleological understanding of the world—that every created thing has an end natural to it, such as an acorn whose purpose is to become an oak tree.

Early modern philosophers such as René Descartes and Francis Bacon rejected this estate, the teleology of the Scholastics. From then on, there was a multiplication of ideas and concepts set loose from their original context to become philosophical systems. One example is moral philosophy, as Alasdair MacIntyre documents in his book, After Virtue (1981). By rejecting the notion that human beings have a teleology, the virtues (temperance and honesty) are set loose, redefined, and diluted in their meaning. People had a cultural sense of the virtues, and came up with arbitrary lists of them and numerous systems to justify them. But their redefinition meant their dilution. Thus, while the word virtue used to mean valor in Latin, it came to mean Victorian female chastity; temperance meant self-mastery, but it came to mean prohibition of alcohol; honesty meant telling the truth for its own sake, but Ben Franklin said it was the best policy. Many new moral philosophies arrive, often as numerous as there are moral philosophers.

Another example is in metaphysics. The Scholastic understanding is that the world is purpose-driven, and that it is possible by our reason to ascertain the causes in nature. But the Scholastic understanding of an objective knowledge of ultimate causes became a subjective intellectual attitude towards life. That latter redefinition was most obvious with pragmatists like William James, but the transition can be extended to too much of modern philosophy. Affecting all its disciplines, philosophy was no longer about comprehending truth—whether the first principles of metaphysics, the natural world, or ethics—but about what works. At its best, philosophy became analyzing concepts. But the human mind remains stuck. Philosophical knowledge was no longer a matter of knowing about reality external to us, whether the principles of human nature or nature herself. Philosophy remains stuck inside our own heads with countless systems indifferent to how created things seek after to fulfill their innatepotential.

Against this degeneration stands the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser with his new book, Neo-Scholastic Essays. He has taken a route in metaphysics (the study of ultimate causes) similar to that of MacIntyre in moral philosophy—examining the historical loosening of Scholastic or Thomist ideas and defending their reasonability. This book addresses contemporary disciplines of academic philosophy from the tradition of Neo-Scholasticism, the study of ThomasAquinas prominent among Catholic thinkers in the late-nineteenth till the mid-twentieth century. He argues that philosophy needs the proper metaphysics of the Thomist tradition to guide our thinking.

Philosophy especially needs that overlooked branch of metaphysics known as philosophy of nature. It studies the teleology in nature that makes possible our discovery through natural science. What scientists call “laws of nature,” Neo-Scholastics call “laws of natures” since every object has an essence and purpose (what that thing is and what its end or ends are, or what Aristotle calls respectively form and finality) that determines their makeup and change.

According to Feser, this Aristotelian teleology explains what is scientifically measurable, since the tradition of Scholastic metaphysics show that scientific findings derive from objective causes of things in nature rather than deriving from the subjective preferences of scientists. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Neo-Scholasticism says we possess knowledge of causes rather than just subjective attitudes about the world around us. This Aristotelian tradition holds together the ideas of this philosophy of nature.

Early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon rejected this Scholastic teleology in favor “the new science.” The content of their new science soon became old science due to empirical evidence. Yet the anti-teleology, Feser notes, is an inheritance firmly embraced by later academic philosophers. Thus, the old ideas of scholastic philosophy were uprooted from their medieval context to become the many so-called “traditional” problems of philosophy.

Consider the supposed division of fact and value—that what we know about what human beings are does not entail what human beings ought to do, since the former consists of objective facts and the latter consists of subjective preferences. Before, Thomas Aquinas could say that principles of human action follow from the precept “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided,” because he presupposed discoverable laws of human nature. But by rejecting natural law, modern philosophers separated human flourishing from facts about our nature. This divorce of value from fact makes sense only if scholastic teleology is abandoned, while natural law marries fact and value by articulating the contents and implications of our essence human form and finality. Neo-Scholasticism in this way overcomes such “modern” problems of philosophy.

This method of Feser—to analyze contemporary controversies in analytic philosophy with the ignored answers from the older Thomist tradition—works well in a wide range of areas including cosmological arguments for the existence of God, the hard problem of consciousness, and property rights. Neo-Scholastic Essays makes a recommended introduction to Feser’s larger work, such as his books Philosophy of Mind (2005) and The Last Superstition (2008). It continues popularizing Aristotelian-Thomistic concepts and arguments, and would particularly benefit graduate philosophy students who aspire to the older framework of Aristotle and Aquinas. Stylistically, its particular method of editing recommends itself most to older readers of Feser. Substantially, Feser argues well about how old problems of philosophy are modern problems due to the modern rejection of teleology; yet there could be more to discover philosophically beyond what Feser asks of his Thomist philosophy of nature.

For example, Feser accounts for human flourishing with an external and third-person perspective on human nature known as natural law. According to natural law theory, human nature provides a structure for our ethics, such as the essences and purposes of our biology. Fulfilling our natural ends is what is good for human beings. His articulation is that metaphysics becomes sufficient for our ethics with this antecedent account of human beings.

However, one might consider again the distinction Aristotle makes between theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning. The former means science in its classical sense of knowledge, such as knowledge about the physical and metaphysical makeup of human beings. The latter means deliberating about how to live well. The first is asking, what is justice; the second is asking, what is the just action for this situation. As articulated in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that though his moral project uses theoretical reasoning, it is not done for the sake of contemplation (NE 2.2). That prerogative belongs to theoretical reasoning. Thus, theoretical reasoning is necessary but not sufficient: insights from human experience also prove necessary. By supposing Thomist metaphysics are exclusively sufficient, Feser may not provide a sufficient account of an alternative strand in the Aristotelian tradition that emphasizes discovering what is good for us beyond a philosophy of nature.

But this squabble is an in-house argument. Followers of Aquinas will disagree, for there are as many Thomisms as there are Thomists.  

Ryan Shinkel is a graduate of the University of Michigan and a 2016 fellow at the John Jay Institute.