Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (1)

Edward Feser’s Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is, as one would expect, an excellent, lucid introduction to the thought of the greatest Catholic philosopher, the creator of the Aristotelian-Christian synthesis now known as Thomism. Scholasticism was a genuine intellectual achievement that kept forms of intellectual debate and questioning alive. Indeed, its success in Latin Christendom against its doctrinal opponents may well have been a crucial preliminary to the Scientific Revolution: that the debate went the other way in Islam likely aborted whatever possibility there was for something similar in Islam.

Feser’s book takes us through the life of Aquinas, his metaphysics, his natural theology, his psychology and his ethics in five chapters. Feser is particularly clear in explaining the notion of the four causes (Pp16ff), especially that endlessly tricky issue of final causality, making it absolutely clear that final causality is an entirely unconscious notion of directedness (p.19). The trouble is, the human mind is so primed to see motive, that even Aquinas keeps sliding into language that implies intention. Hence Feser writes:
… by “desirable” Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen to contingently to have, nor even, necessarily, anything desired in a conscious way. … a thing’s final cause, and thus that which it “desires” (in the relevant sense) might be something of which it is totally unconscious, as in the case of inanimate natural objects and processes … (p35)
I am sorry, that is both poor terminology and revealingly poor terminology.

This matters. Feser has already written of something being a good or bad triangle and that:
“Good” or “bad” are taken to be understood here in the sense in which we describe something as a good or bad specimen or example of a type of thing; and as this makes it evident, the terms are therefore being used in a sense that is broader than (though, as we shall see, it also encompasses) the moral sense of “good” and “bad” (p.34).
'Encompasses', pardon? That something is a good triangle does not mean that it is good to be a triangle, or good that it is a triangle (it may be very bad if a square was what was needed, for example). Something may be a good virus in the relevant sense without it remotely being good that it is a virus: particularly not that it is good at being a virus. This would appear to be a philosophy that slides into inappropriate intentionality far too easily.

So, when Feser writes:
Philosophers in the classical (as opposed to modern) tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, tend to think of goodness as conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence (p.34)
he is presenting an idea that may be venerable, but would also appear to be wrong.

Feser takes us carefully through Aquinas’s concept of form as an inherent, indeed vital, constituent of the nature of things and the way Aquinas applied categories. The Thomist concept of categories is a very confident one. Confronted with how human societies have created a dramatic range of conceptual schemes (including extremely varied linguistic categorisations), this confidence begins to look rather overstated. Particularly given how Aquinas used the notion of truth. To Aquinas:
A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind it belongs to (p.33).
This is surely a lot more plausible in a society used to dealing with a small range of related languages (so closely related ways of dividing up the world) and which has not had to grapple with the re-conceptualisations of modern science. That Western philosophy abandoned Aristotelianism as its apprehension of the natural and the human world were massively expanding is not likely to have been a coincidence. (This applies even more to notions of “good” than this usage of ‘truth’.)

Feser is rather disingenuous about the success of modern science, which he characterises as powerful in terms of its expansion of human material capacities. Particularly when he writes:
If the new science of the moderns has “succeeded,” then it might be argued that this is in large part because they stacked the deck in their own favour. Having redefined “success” as achievement of dramatic technological progress and in general manipulation of nature to achieve human ends, they essentially won a game the Scholastics were not trying to play in the first place (p.40)
First, the moderns were clearly concerned with truth about nature, not merely “gadgetry”. Secondly, science’s application to technology has greatly increased human material capacities, but it has done so by greatly expanding our understanding of nature. That is, science is the finest means ever developed of revealing truth about the natural world and it is that feature which needs to be grappled with. This is what makes the rejection of final causality by many of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution so awkward, not that we have lots of cool gadgets. (Particularly given the medieval period was actually very into “gadgetry”—a denizen of Latin Christendom lived surrounded by more machines than those of any equivalent civilisation at or before that time.) Indeed, one way to summarise the Scientific Revolution is that it is the first time that science—precisely due to its massively expanded understanding of nature—comes to drive technology instead of science trying to explain after the fact what technology does.
Feser notes that Aristotelianism was rejected in part because it buttressed the existing political order (p.40), which is true. But it is worth noting that it was specifically priests-as-commissars that was very much at issue. ('Commissars' is a modern term, but not an inappropriate one since so many of the techniques of modern totalitarianism—agitprop, show trials, commissars, censorship, heresy hunts, population culls, informers—were pioneered by the Catholic Church: modern totalitarianism is the Holy Office with better technology and less capacity for mercy.) Nor was this a minor matter: people were burned alive for having the “wrong” opinions and what they were permitted to publish was tightly controlled. Scientific publishing, for example, was driven into Protestant Europe by priestly licensing of what could be printed: this despite Catholic theology being inherently friendlier to science than Protestant insistence on the primacy of Scripture. Descartes stopped working on his cosmology after Galileo was condemned and, when he resumed, published outside France. Scholasticism suffered from being an ideology of Inquisitorial oppression (generally run by Aquinas’s own order, the Dominicans): rejecting it naturally seemed a blow for liberty and freedom of thought.

Feser is on much stronger ground when he argues that rejection of Aristotelianism created a host of philosophical problems (p.42). One of the clearer examples of this is that al-Ghazali, in his rejection of Aristotelianism in Islam, ended up mounting the same argument against strong notions of causality in the C11th that Hume did in the C18th.

Similarly, there is, indeed, a lot of functionality in biological phenomena that looks somewhat final cause-like and Feser is correct to point this out against rigidly non-teleological conceptions of reality (Pp44ff). But it also might something that very much differentiates living things from non-living things.

Feser makes it clear that, in Aquinas’s metaphysics, chance happenings do not have final causes (Pp113ff). This is surely a necessary claim to make any sense of directedness in causation work, but it also seems a division of phenomena that would be hard to define in any useful way (and non-circular) way. The claim is that X is “directed to” Y and any case of X leading to not-Y is a chance happening. So, how do we know that X is directed to Y? And what sort of “directed to” is it that it is so directed, except when it isn’t? If final cause is an inherent tendency, what determines when it does or does not operate? Does this mean that chance happenings are uncaused? If they are caused, why do we need final causation?

Aquinas would reply we need final cause to make sense of the entire package of the universe. In particular:
What Aquinas actually says … is that every agent has a final cause; that is to say, everything that serves as an efficient cause “points to” or is “directed at” some specific effect or ranges of effects as its natural end. … He would insist … that such natural processes embody patterns of efficient causation that are themselves intelligible only in terms of final causation (p.114).
There are some real questions about knowing what these final causes are, what the concept is needed for and its connection to possibility (hence the issue of chance happenings). But there are also very real questions about a narrowly mechanistic view of the universe and modern science as well, which Feser takes the reader through with useful clarity.

Feser particularly shines in taking us through Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God. One really does have to approach them with a good understanding of Aquinas’s metaphysics, because “translating” them into modern philosophical assumptions turns them into caricatures of themselves. The centrality of the Aristotelian conception of causation (which is quite different from modern conceptions) to Thomism is made very clear.

In taking us through Aquinas’s psychology, Feser is at pains to distinguish between imagination and intellect. The intellect is where the mind grasps, stores and applies categories by a process of abstraction. It:
… it strips away all particularizing or individualizing features of a phantasm so as to produce a truly universal concept or “intelligible species” leaving you (for instance) with the idea not just of this or that particular cat, but of “catness” in general, of that which is common to all cats (p.145)
Which is actually a pretty good summary of how human infants learn about the world around them. In the words of a friend who is an early childhood educator, infants:
“… apply limited Action Schemes to everything they come across, which is part of learning about the world. The earliest action schemes are things like grab and suck. Babies are born knowing how to do this—or at least they can do it within hours of being born. Later there is grasp & shake, which is why we give babies rattles. There's also banging, dumping (around 9 months) and turning things over to see the other side. As babies develop they get to combine these basic action schemes into more complicated patterns. So younger babies are kind of looking at the world of objects as: is this something I bang, something I shake or something I ignore? Babies & toddlers put everything in their mouths too, just like animals do. Touch it, to feel its texture, grasp and shake and turn it over, taste it. Watch a gorilla do the same thing to an unknown item the next time you're at the zoo
So far so good. Indeed, just as things could not exist without having structure, so we could not act in the world unless there were identifiable commonalities in structure. Playing football without the balls having common and predictable properties would clearly be impossible: but that is true of any actions. Hence so much of how human infants learn is learning about pattern and structure by sought experience and testing. Hence also the ubiquitous utility of mathematics for science, as the science of pattern and structure.

But this is where we begin to get a certain unwarranted epistemic certainty in Aquinas’s thought:
… when the intellect understands something, it grasps its form. And that means that one and the same thing, namely the form of the thing understood, exists both in the intellect and in the thing itself. … There not two things, a subjective representation … and an external object … There is just one thing, a form which … exists in two ways (p.148)
(In what instantiates it and in the intellect.) In other words:
… what Aquinas is saying … seems, then, to be something like this: when the intellect grasps the form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form that exists both in the thing itself and in the intellect (p.153).
That would seem to create an enormous gulf between correct understandings and incorrect understandings. But if the form of something that does exist can be in the intellect and the form of something of something that does not exist can be in the intellect (either because one is in error, or it is imaginary or whatever), then there is no identity between what is in intellect and what is the case. It seems much more plausible to think that what is in the intellect is all the same sort of thing, it is just that its connections to what is the case that can vary.

A stronger sense of the epistemic frailty of sentience seems to be required than is dreamt of in Aquinas’s philosophy. Unwarranted epistemic confidence in such a basic matter is likely—as it indeed does—to have implications for the rest of Thomist thought.

Feser’s keenness to differentiate Aristotelian metaphysics (which he argues is fundamentally correct) from Aristotelian physics (which clearly is not) may mislead him on why Aristotelianism lost ground. It is not that this separation—the claim that the metaphysics stands or falls independent of the physics—is in any sense an illegitimate exercise. It is more that proving Aristotelian physics wrong (which various folk, including Galileo and Newtown, did rather spectacularly) suggested a human epistemic frailty—an ability to get conceptual schemas seriously wrong—that Scholasticism as a metaphysical system coped poorly with, given this notion of identity between what was in the mind and what was in the world, even beyond any contagion effect from the collapse of Aristotelian physics. The human intellect seemed to be both capable of great achievements (e.g. Newton) and getting things very seriously wrong (Aristotelian physics) even when guided by Aristotelian thought: indeed, particularly when so guided.

So the human intellect could apprehend the world, but could also get it strikingly wrong for a long time and do so within Aristotelianism. Not merely wrong in some details, but wrong in basic framework. Indeed, as people became aware of other civilisations looking at the world quite differently, the reality of very different conceptual schemas needed explanation. Hence the concern of modern philosophy from Descartes onwards with epistemology, with what we know and how, and so with learning how to learn and how we learn. Hence also Descartes’s wish to start with certainty—not merely to get over the shock of so many clever people being so wrong but wanting something that we could be as confident, or even more confident, about as Scholastic direct apprehension of the form of things. (Those who have read David Stove on Popper and the shock of the fall of the Newtonian empire in physics may note some familiar themes—though I would argue that there was a lot less to that fall than met the eye, however great Einstein’s achievement was, as Newtonian mechanics do work just fine except for very, very big and very, very small things.)

All this undermined the intellect as a direct path to knowledge and validated a much more empirical (in the sense of evidence-and-experimentation) approach that, in effect, overcame the frailties of the human intellect. (Evidence and experimentation that is, in a sense, a regularisation and immensely powerful extension of how children actually learn.) When it came to science, the methods of the Scholastics clearly did not work, and suffered a loss of intellectual prestige accordingly. Descartes kicking off modern philosophy with his concern with what we really know was not some wilful rejection of Scholastic truth. He was wrestling with what loomed as a fundamental failure in Scholasticism.

The subsequent failure of Cartesian physics simply further undermined the notion that metaphysics and pure reason was a successful way of apprehending how the world is.

Back to the book, and Feser takes us through Aquinas’s arguments for the immateriality of the intellect and his form-based (hylemorphic from the Greek ‘hyle’ matter and ‘morphe’ form) dualism. Feser usefully places this in relation to contemporary positions in philosophy of mind (such as functionalism). (Feser is also the author of a very useful book on the philosophy of mind).

This includes the following revealing passage:
… for the Aristotelian, a machine could not possibly count as a living thing, precisely because it is an artificial construct whose parts are naturally ordered to various other ends rather than to the flourishing of the system into which they have been for configured for human (and thus external) purposes (p.173).
Revealing in two senses. First, if people are constructed by God and directed towards an external end (Him: see the next post) then ‘artificial’ is doing a lot of work here, and how does it bear the metaphysical weight so loaded on it? Second, note the complete lack of any reference to human agency, which surely would be the obvious difference between human and machine.

But not to Aquinas, who held that two men having sex was a graver sin than a man raping a woman. Getting the category right, and the deemed ends of bodily organs, mattered more than human agency. Clearly, this is an ethical system that does not put much weight on human agency. This brings us to the final chapter on Aquinas’s ethics, which I cover in my next post.


  1. You are saving me from reading lots of books, Lorenzo, because your reviews are so comprehensive. This is very lazy, I know, and I need to stop it, but it is also a credit to your reviewing.

    When it comes to Aquinas, I must admit those links you put up at our place (on Adrien's Gentileschi post) had me thinking, 'what a moral dwarf'.

    But then I am an empiricist and positivist (as are most lawyers, when it comes down to it, even on the Continent). Law is about the messiness of humanity, not some ideal. Attempts to make it about some ideal tend to get very bloody.

  2. The thought that I might be stopping you from reading good books is a worrying one! But I am also flattered.

    The notion that we can achieve some strong level of harmony is, indeed, very dangerous. They end up as wars against people as they are in the name of how people are deemed to ought to be, and that is oppressive, often deadly.

  3. Can you comment on his defence on the Quinque Viae?

  4. Feser is very good at convey the five ways and, while I was not convinced of the success the arguments themselves, Feser is convincing on the point that modern critiques generally seriously misrepresent the arguments they are critiquing. (And I am not firmly convinced of their lack of success either.)

  5. What, in heaven's name, does convince you? Anything? Anyone? Just wondering, if I may...

    1. My problem is that I do not have a "yes, that's right" reaction, but nor do I have "this bit is obviously wrong" to the Five Ways arguments. It is not helped by the fact that I do not accept Aristotelian metaphysics, though I have done some more serious thinking on the last, and probably should have another look at them in the light of that.