Is Scholasticism Making a Comeback?

“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. Wilhelmsen followed the shift away from this type of direct philosophical education that educators denigrated to a short-lived “great books” approach that 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.

Wilhelmsen did not think everyone was an Aristotle, but he did not think they were dummies 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 these 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 Feser himself amusingly notes, his colleagues refer 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.

Feser has done his homework. He is quite familiar with modern analytic philosophy along with other modern systems. He came to Aristotle and Aquinas, whom he knows well, from his realization of problems in the modern systems. Likewise, Feser is acquainted more than most with the various texts that were once profitably used in Catholic university and seminary philosophy departments but later abandoned during the last half century. 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, Feser is familiar with a whole new group of scholastic and analytic thinkers who appreciate the scholastic attempt to explain reality. He admires in particular the works of David Oderberg and Brian Ellis.

II.

All of this treatment, of course, involves coming to terms with Scotus, Occam, Suarez, Hume, Descartes, Hegel, 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 Feser’s approach. He understands what is at stake when we fail to account for the world that is. Here we are mindful of 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.

Scholastic MetaphysicsOne of the pleasures of this book is that 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. 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, 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. And this judgment is what 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 essetia, and the validity of the mind’s knowing powers?

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. 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 Wilhelmsen, to whom Feser refers, rightly thought to be lost when the schools abandoned scholastic philosophy for what turns out to be mostly a mess of pottage.

III.

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 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 must students in more famous schools ever heard of. Though 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 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). Feser’s book is filled with such insightful passages that we so seldom hear.

In 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 won’t 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.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas” painted by Francisco de Zurbaran in 1631.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I’m reading this book now and it is really stretching my poor brain.

  • AcceptingReality

    “Multiculturalism and diversity, among other fads, become substitutes for thought.” True that!

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Interesting critique of the venerable St. Johns ‘Great Books’ program. I could never put my finger on what was wrong with it till now. The program is vast, yet inches deep, like a wading pool.

  • What I remember from attending Catholic schools during the 1950s is that St. Thomas Aquinas was revered and, in retrospect, that scholasticism was infused in everything we studied. Today I am appalled that most people cannot think straight at all, but reading this article I now see that what I have taken for granted all these years is a gift denied to most students today.

  • russell snow

    wonderful, as usual. Before they abolished my department of Social Science and Religion, the year I came for tenure, our main emphasis was helping the students understand the relationship between metaphysics, epistemology, and methodology–value, meaning and knowledge–in order to have them learn how to evaluate and understand how the relationship of knowledge claims to the epistemological-methodological frame in which they were perceived and conceived. Because of the relationship between science and religion at the core of our framework, a kind of practical Thomism, so to speak,this would invariably get into the question of where do people get the “knowledge” that God does not exist. It soon became possible for the many of the students to begin to see that the criteria of what constituted must of social scientific knowledge which ignored or denied the reality of God, was not based upon evidence, but knowledge claims grounded in philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality, nothing more than the “privileged insights” which were not open to free and open minded inquiry the fundamental principle of science. I used the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus based upon eyewitness testimony as an example of an actual historical event as a knowledge claim that could be tested, in many classes, and invited the students to refute them based upon actual evidence. Of course, there is no evidence to the contrary, just faulty principles and false privileged insights into the natural of reality not open to question. This open the door for them to discover the Gnostic character of much modern thought, but that was not to last. One of the best compliments we received was from a student who wrote that our department was the only place on campus where God had a chance.!

    • St JD George

      A student, ie singular? God bless him or her, and you for your dedication to faith as an educator all those years. I never lose hope, but I’m not sure how hopefully I am that there is a turning point yet.

  • St JD George

    Father James, thank you for the article. I am not so sure that we have reached bottom yet to believe that things are turning around, scholastically or spiritually.
    I’d like to ask your opinion if I may on something unrelated. I can’t to this day get over how Georgetown could allow the POTUS to bully his way in to use the university as a prop and demand to cover up the crucifixes less they offend. I appreciate the pressure to conform because of the power of the office, but that is a scar that will never leave me.

  • Anglicanæ

    Just got Schall’s book, “The Classical Moment” and his other one, “Reasonable Pleasures” — both solid stuff. I try to get everything this man has written: winsome and profound writing.

  • Paul

    Can’t wait to get the book (Scholastic Metaphysics) and read read up on it. Thank you for pointing the way.

  • Tamsin

    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… Arguments about
    epistemology and metaphysics are not mere “debates.” They are sketches of future political and social realities, of chaos or civilization.

    A political and social reality that comes home to families in the form of Common Core curriculum worksheets, for example. Why does my child’s homework look like it does? Because Common Core mathematics has revived teaching methods from the ‘90s based on an epistemology developed in the ‘70s known as “constructivism”, which became a handy tool for political movements seeking to remake the world by remaking children’s minds. The effort continues. To oversimplify somewhat, the same people who want to eliminate old social algorithms are keen to dispense with teaching old arithmetic algorithms. Every child his own constructor.

    http://ocw.metu.edu.tr/pluginfile.php/9155/mod_resource/content/1/1177059.pdf

    • St JD George

      Thankfully I didn’t experience a lot of turbulence even though I was a product of public schools. In HS though I remember being forced to endure Modern Grammar, another invention in somebody’s mind. Nobody really understood it, including the teacher, and I’m convinced that most left damaged from that experience never fully recovering.

  • Captain America

    OK. Fr. Schall. I’ve read Feser’s other works and I’ll be adding this to my 2015 “to read” list.

  • Arriero

    It would be interesting that American Catholics could delve into Spanish Scholasticism, a true an authentic source of knowledge, rationality, theology and Catholic Faith. Unluckily, Spanish Scholasticism is incredibly unknown outside non-Hispanic countries – and pretty much in Spain, with many work still not translated from latin -, although it conforms an essential part of Catholic Faith. Besides, Spanish Scholasticism entailed not only a theological debate, but one on politics, economy, sociology, etc. The majority of these studies and opus are not translated to english yet.

    These are only some names for those interested in Scholastic thought:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_St._Thomas
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domingo_de_Soto
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Su%C3%A1rez
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_de_Molina
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Vitoria
    http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_V%C3%A1zquez

    The Hispanic, Catholic and Imperial Monarchy from the centuries XV to XVIII – the Pope is now in Philipines, a Catholic nation precisely because the Spaniards were there too – gave some of the greatest names of Catholic Faith to the world. And this despite the «Black Legend» against what Spain and the Catholic Faith represented in the world for centuries. It is completely clear that one of the ways to revive Catholicism is through Scholasticism and Tomism. It couldn’t be otherwise.

    • Lee

      Spanish scholasticism had lots of Scotism in it, as well as a chair or two for nominalism and even Durandus.

      • Arriero

        It is clear you’ve not read enough from John of St. Thomas, Luis de Molina or Francisco Suarez. The best from the best in Scholasticism and Thomism.

  • Lee

    Judging by the picture of the “apotheosis” of Aquinas and the comment about “coming to terms” with Ockham and Scotus, it is clear here that fr. Schall by “Scholasticism” means just Thomism. The historical phenomenon of “scholasticism” was more of a method than a doctrine and included a variety of schools, such as Scotism and Nominalism, which are simply dismissed by modern thomists.

  • Gail Finke

    I am amused to see that Feser’s new book is the “#1 best-seller in Metaphics” on Amazon; I wonder how many copies that means? I enjoy his work and am looking forward to that one! And Fr. Schall’s, it goes without saying.

  • In the 1950’s I had the good fortune of completing a liberal arts and sciences B.S. at DePaul University, which required 18 credit hours of scholastic philosophy of all science majors. Having read “The God Delusion” by Dawkins, I read “The Last Superstition” by Feser. Although Feser gave an excellent review of scholasticism, he did not address the philosophical basis of Dawkins’ thesis. Dawkins’ proposed that all human knowledge is the inference of probability. Relativism is the immediate consequence of Dawkins’ epistemology. Yet, Feser never even mentioned probability, let alone address its inference as the basis of human knowledge.

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