Preface: Warning the following is super long. No really, it's super super long. The following is not for the faint of heart...
A discussion, part of which is posted on my last blog, about Feser's interpretation of the cosmological argument for God's existence prompted me to pick-up at least his book on Aquinas for a more through discussion of his version of the cosmological argument and its relationship to Aristotle. I decided to start with Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, and read further as the situation warrants. In my reading, I ran across some discussion of Hume and allusions to the history of philosophy that I may disagree with. I figured that there is a good chance other folk have raised similar objections to my initial reactions. While researching some dialogue about these positions, I ran across some discussion on Reddit and some blog posts by Feser. I thought I would post some of my thoughts and findings here for future reference and possible discussion.
I'll first cover some of passages that I disagreed with and give an explanation of my current position on Hume's argument against causality and some other discussion I found online that was helpful or interesting. Then, I'll cover how it would apply to one of Feser's arguments. Finally, for future reference, I'll leave a link where people discuss the history of philosophy and Feser's claims about it. For those only interested in my opinion, the linked online discussions of history of philosophy lays outlines general concerns I also hold that, if pressed on the subject, would consider pursuing.
Feser, in his Aquinas book and on his blog, has some discussion of the Hume's skeptical argument against causation and responses to Hume's argument that doesn't strike me as well placed. Feser writes "As has already been noted, for the Aristotelian, efficient causes cannot be understood apart from final causes, and yet modern philosophers (for reasons we will examine presently) tend to deny the very existence of final causes. This seems to be the reason why modern philosophers have, at least since David Hume (1711-1776), tended to think it "conceivable" that any cause might produce any effect or none" (pg. 20). He then goes on to explain that modern philosophers have trouble justifying scientific conclusions.
Hume's arguments are epistemic arguments against more robust metaphysical positions, rather than against the validity of practical judgements based on casual relationships. In the context of the rationalist positions of his contemporaries, I'd argue that Hume was showing that casual relationships do not have a necessary relationship in the same way that mathematical and logical relationships do. Further, at the time, the test for a logical versus empirical claim was whether it was conceivable that some implied claim could not be true. For example, we cannot imagine a set of all even numbers that does not include some subset of even numbers while still being "a set of all even numbers." This would be incoherent. Yet, a window breaking does not imply anything else in the way "a set of all even numbers" does. Thus, we can conceive a window breaking and no other event.
Hume also makes arguments against inductive claims that are relevant to Feser's metaphysics. Against inductive claims, Hume points out that, in deriving a general claim from observation of particular cases, we can never develop a necessary relationship between the general claim and particular cases. For instance, while we might observe that no mammal lays eggs, it is conceivable that some mammal does lay eggs (see: Platypus). Thus, a general claim, based on induction, cannot be treated like a general claim based on deduction.
The arguments Hume lays out have no substantial impact on our practical lives and, on a whole comports with our common experience. Over the course of our lives, we come up with general rules and relationships about the world and how to interact with it based on our experiences. These relationships and rules gain credence due to their reliability and can be subject to change. So, it isn't like the skeptic is committed to believing that the world is nonsensical. Rather, s/he just believes that the way in which our experiences are related could be different than originally thought.
Here's the discussion of causality and Feser on Reddit I found that I thought was interesting. Reddit: Feser on Hume's causal skepticism. Here are two blogs by Feser on the subject: (1) Hume, science, and religion; (2) Empiricism versus Aristotelianism
Feser, in his description of Aquinas' first way, explains that the argument is not about claiming there is a first event that sets off all further sequences of events (ie, there must be a beginning to time), but rather that the change from potentiality to actuality must have something that facilitates that change. That is, he tries to answer where a new quality of an object must come from. Feser's answer is that objects already have this quality, but it is brought into existence through an actualizing entity. Feser notes that the potential qualities of an object are independent of a particular conception of physics and biology and that this is a metaphysical thesis, not physical.
As a metaphysical quality, the claim is that the concept of an object exists as part of that object. The potentiality of the object exists as part of its, yet unexperienced, conception. For example, a particular instance of wood contains woodness and fireness. It is from the concept of wood contain within that particular piece of wood that fire comes into existence. This is why Feser argues against a nominalism about our concepts. Concepts are part of the world apart from our experiences of particulars and do work in the world.
Going back to logical vs empirical claims, the reason rationalists appeal to claims like those found in logic is because mathematical claims determine our experiences in a way that we would like general concepts to similarly determine these experiences. So, it follows from the logic of our concepts that objects must function in particular ways. Additionally, judging from Feser's blog and book, we have to be realists about concepts (not just particulars) in order to make sense of how we are able to function in the world.
In order for empirical concepts to function like mathematical concepts, our empirical concepts should not to be subject to change in the way that mathematical concepts are not subject to change. However, as pointed out in both the problem of induction and problem of causality, our empirical concepts do not function like mathematical concepts. So, there is no reason to believe that these concepts function in the same manner as mathematical concepts. Further, our experience of empirical concept development suggests that we don't acquire empirical concepts from a concept "thing" in the world, but generalize about our experiences. Finally, Hume's explanation provides a plausible answer about why it is we come to the wrong conclusions whereas Feser's metaphysics does not.
History of Philosophy
Feser also claims that, since around the time of Thomas Aquinas, philosophy has gotten off track with no hope of progress without returning to the "Scholastic" framework. Here is a link to the discussion of this thesis: Edward Feser's History of Philosophy. Since there are particular comments, that were particularly struck home, I've put them below:
Argument/Summary for Feser's position (by /u/dhspence):
I think the relevant point is that with the Scholastics (culminating ultimately with Aquinas) we had an entirely constructive philosophy, an attempt at synthesis of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Christianity, all building off our common sense interpretations of the world. Grant act/potency, existence/essence, form/matter distinctions--very much a common sensical way of looking at the world--and certain conclusions are logically necessitated. Thomists rightly insist that Plato, for instance, got the theory of exemplary causes right, whereas Aristotle neglected this and left God aloof as "self-thinking-thought" who could never deign to meddle in non-divine affairs. You might say everything up to Aquinas built on Greek thought, whereas immediately after Aquinas, "deconstruction" begins. Ockham with his anti-realism and voluntarism certainly sought to preserve the theological doctrines of the Church, but it really ended up heralding the via moderna, which is certainly "deconstructive" in that it virtually pulled the metaphysical foundations right out from under the Scholastics. From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--that's what Descartes tried to do under the influence of the mathematical/rationalist view of nature espoused particularly by Galileo. That was, more or less, the M.O. of the continental rationalists. In Britain, however, there was another story entirely--you get Bacon and Locke and Berkeley and Hobbes and Hume starting with empiricist premises. Whereas the rationalists were enamored with the mathematical/rational nature of the universe (one aspect highlighted by the scientific revolution and Renaissance thought), the empiricists stressed, obviously, empirical study of nature (the other current of thought highlighted by the scientific revolution). So you get two modes of responding to developments wrought by the scientific revolution, but they are "positive" philosophies only in as much as they scrap everything that had gone before and start from scratch. That was Descartes' whole idea. There is a preliminary deconstruction, then, before the project ever begins--nothing that smacks of Aristotelianism can be admitted. Bacon redefined formal causes as "fixed laws" i.e. the laws of nature (not what Aristotle meant by the term), and of final causes he expressly stated, "inquiry into final causes is sterile and, like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing." So metaphysics, for Bacon, is all about "formal causes"--laws of nature. Final causes, whatever they are, do not "increase human utility and power," so they are of no use in his "positive" construction of philosophy. First deconstruct by repudiating the old--Aristotle--and then build from scratch. Descartes also spoke of his goal of making mankind the "masters and possessors of nature"--the first step of this was not to develop a quasi-mathematical metaphysic. That was step 2. Step 1 was to make a deliberate break with the past. While only one of the philosophical giants of the time actually understood what the Scholastics had ever said--Leibniz--at the beginning there was a conscious rejection of formal and final causes: we see this begin to fade after Spinoza, after whose time this was all old news and everyone assumed the early moderns got it right. But they clearly didn't, or, so Kant said. Kant was frustrated on the one hand with the lack of certainty, cohesion, and agreement within the rationalist camp--they had not made good on their promises to develop a purely rationalistic metaphysic. On the other, thanks in large part to Hume, Kant thought that thoroughgoing empiricism led to skepticism with regard to induction and science, and since he had such a high regard for the Newtonian science, he thought a synthesis of these two necessary.
And so on. The main point, however, is that "positive" philosophies were indeed attempted after the Scholastics. But it was only after tearing down half of the classical Greek and Scholastic philosophy. There is, then, a clear break, so it is inappropriate to view the history of philosophy as progressing on a single continuum. It was not a constant working and reworking and a natural smooth development and outworking of certain lines of reasoning. The only "smooth" progressions are (1) pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, early medieval (Eriugena), Scholasticism and (2) Scientific Revolution, British Empiricism/Continental Rationalism, Kant, and so on to the present day. But between these two periods there was a clear and deliberate break with the past, such that we can in no way say "it's just another step down the inevitable slide of history that ends in nihilism." Any good Thomist would rather say progression (2) inevitably leads to nihilism, while progression (1) found its zenith in the thought of Aquinas. It is the difference between being able to make sense of the world, and wallowing in skepticism.
Argument against Feser's position (by /u/wokeupabug)
Sure, but I think the relevant point is that with the Scholastics (culminating ultimately with Aquinas) we had an entirely constructive philosophy... whereas immediately after Aquinas, "deconstruction" begins.But this isn't an impartial data point to be offered as a premise supporting your account of the history, it's just a reiteration of your account of the history, the very thing that is in question. The philosophers after Aquinas of course don't agree to this division of the history of philosophy into constructive philosophy up to Aquinas and destructive philosophy after him, nor do the historians who would dispute the interpretation of history you offer here. Furthermore, to deny the constructive character of the projects of Renaissance Platonism and German Idealism is just surreal. And it's little better to deny the constructive character of a long list of other philosophical developments after Aquinas; I would argue all the important ones, but certainly the constructive character of their project is rather upfront in cases like Continental Rationalism, 19th Century Positivism, Neokantianism, and Phenomenology--to give those developments that come first to mind here.
The way you'd introduced this notion in the previous comment was to say that "The philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle were the basis for virtually all serious philosophical thought up until the early modern period." But this interpretation does a vast disservice to everything that is novel in Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus; in Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena; in Grosseteste, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon; and in Nicholas of Cusa, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Charles de Bovelles--to list only the greats (though you seem ambivalent about whether the epochal change was in the 13th or instead the 17th century; the way the thesis is given in the present comment, we would have to count Cusanus, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Bovellus not as epigone of Plato and Aristotle but rather as the first generation of great deconstructors!). On the other side of the equation, it ignores the continued relation pursued to the philosophies of the ancient period throughout the modern period: the Continental Rationalists saw themselves as the loyal heirs of Plato and Augustine, the experimental philosophy in Britain during the early modern period saw itself as the loyal heirs of the Hellenistic Schools, in German Idealism it was again Plato that was seen as the definitive source, and likewise in Neokantianism (e.g., on Natorp's interpretation) and Hermeneutics (e.g., on Gadamer's); phenomenology, first in Brentano and then in Heidegger, understood itself to be following Aristotle.
We might wish to reject the modern pretensions of a relation of their efforts to the thought of the classical period, if not on the plainly question begging grounds that we maintain the moderns were wrong, then perhaps on the grounds of a disputatiousness among them, and between them and the medieval past, as the sign of philosophical disunity. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander: the broadly painted notion of an ancient-medieval unity occludes but cannot erase the often emphatic disputes among philosophers in this period, and characteristically--in the medieval period--on this question of their relation to the classical sources. Even within high scholasticism we find such disputatiousness: Thomas only speaks for high scholasticism in the 20th-21st century imagination, while at the time his philosophy faced criticism from across the board- most notably, from Latin Averroists for not being a loyal Aristotelian, from the old Augustinians for not being a loyal Christian, and from the Albertists for having misunderstood or distorted the grand synthesis followed by Albert on something like Avicennian lines. And as we broaden our historical scope beyond the limits of high scholasticism, each step reveals all the more disputes: you've mentioned the via moderna in the 14th century, but well beyond late scholasticism, the central themes of Renaissance Platonism and Renaissance Aristotelianism were that the Scholastics had critically misunderstood or distorted the philosophy of the classics, or likewise in Renaissance Humanism that the Scholastics had critically misunderstood or distorted the thought of scripture and the Church Fathers. Going the opposite direction in history, it hardly needs to be noted how emphatic disputes between Neoplatonists and the Christians sometimes were. Likewise, you say that deconstruction begins with Ockham, but Plato prominently criticized Presocratic notions, Aristotle prominently criticized Platonic, the Hellenistic schools prominently criticized both their antecedents and each other, the Neoplatonists prominently criticized Aristotle... Of course, there were constructive relations between them as well, but this is also true of the philosophers you want to call destructive: even Ockham, your first exemplar, understands himself to be deeply Aristotelian (more than, say, Bonaventure did).
If attributing a unity to philosophy prior to the modern period requires us to repress the rich diversity and lively disputatiousness of its thought, and the sincere novelty of many great accomplishments made after Aristotle, this is a notion of unity our history of philosophy should do without. And if the virtues of modern philosophy, or the seriousness with which we take the modern's orientation toward the classic sources, are impugned by the disputatiousness of the moderns, then by the same principle and with as much force we're obliged to impugn the medievals.
From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--If you admit this, I'm not sure what is left of your construction up to Aquinas/deconstruction after Aquinas hermeneutic. Or rather, I take it that you'll try to salvage this hermeneutic in the face of obvious constructive efforts after Aquinas by arguing for the unity of philosophy pre-Aquinas and its disunity post-. But as for this thesis, see the preceding remarks. And the proceeding ones:
From then on, there were attempts at positive construction--that's what Descartes tried to do under the influence of the mathematical/rationalist view of nature espoused particularly by Galileo. That was, more or less, the M.O. of the continental rationalists. In Britain, however, there was another story entirely--you get Bacon and Locke and Berkeley and Hobbes and Hume starting with empiricist premises.This oft-repeated folk history of philosophy doesn't actually end up doing an adequate job. (It's actually a contrivance of Kant's, and serves a rhetorical purpose in explaining his philosophy as he understands it.) In fact, the major works of British philosophy in the early modern period are not autonomous of the works of Continental philosophy, but rather tend to be developed in explicit response to the latter. Newton is expressly and prominently responding to Descartes, Hume is expressly and prominently responding to Malebranche. Locke is often read as expressly and prominently responding to Descartes, though actually he's probably responding to the Cambridge Platonists--who disappear from the history in this Continental Rationalism vs British Empiricism interpretation, but who represent an important philosophical trend much more like the common view of rationalism than of empiricism, yet they are dominant in 17th century British intellectual culture (all the more evidence of the poverty of this interpretation).
So you get two modes of responding to developments wrought by the scientific revolution, but they are "positive" philosophies only in as much as they scrap everything that had gone before and start from scratch.They don't: the Continental Rationalists were thoroughly indebted to Augustine, Renaissance Platonism, and Second Scholasticism, the Empiricists to Renaissance Humanism and the revival of the Hellenistic schools. No one these days reads renaissance philosophy (and the way it disappears in the kind of hermeneutic you suggest is partly to blame), so these details don't leak into the folk philosophy of history that represents a kind of received view, but we shouldn't let that be our metric for considered history.
There is a preliminary deconstruction, then, before the project ever begins...Furthermore, insofar as there was a significant break or new beginning with the early modern period--and we should certainly say that there was, while rejecting the larger framework of your historical interpretation--there was likewise a significant break or new beginning with the early medieval period. The point is a banality in the history of other disciplines, but remains an obscurity in the history of philosophy, again, because hardly anyone reads late antique/early medieval philosophy, so its details don't leak down to the received view. But certainly there was a break: Christian ideas about nature having a history, about the individual's life-history being the unit of moral interest, and generally of development as an interpretive framework, represent a decisive break with the ancient view, and in a way that would be determinative of many of the important developments in culture even into the modern period; likewise, Christian ideas about inwardness, freedom, the cultivation of the passions, and universalism were a decisive break which introduced an anthropology unthinkable to the ancients. It's a great shame that these epochal contributions of Christian thought are not better known as such; and it's a great shame supported by one of the peculiar ironies of the sort of interpretation of history you offer here, where what is crucial and distinctive about medieval philosophy gets repressed in the aim of representing it as unitary with ancient philosophy, so that both may be opposed to the modern. The irony is that what thinks of itself as a defense of medieval thought ends up doing a greater harm to it than its enemies could have done.
There is, then, a clear break, so it is inappropriate to view the history of philosophy as progressing on a single continuum.There is a break between the early modern and the medieval view, but there is also a break between the ancient and the medieval view; for that matter, there is also a break between the early modern and the later modern view. What there isn't is a progression up to Aquinas and then a regression down from him; or at least, this isn't clear from any impartial facts of the matter you've suggested here.
Any good Thomist would rather say progression (2) inevitably leads to nihilism, while progression (1) found its zenith in the thought of Aquinas. It is the difference between being able to make sense of the world, and wallowing in skepticism.I know you mean that the good Thomist would say this (actually, it seems to me that this criterion would make some of the important Thomists of the 20th century not good Thomists, and that the interpretation you give here is associated particularly with a High Anglican theology, the specifics of which have tended to be opposed by Thomists; but for sake of discussion let's agree to call the sort of view you've described here as the view a good Thomist would have), but the question was what reason the good reader has to believe it.
I mean, I kept expecting you to be defending this thesis throughout your comment, so I was reading what you had written as if it were meant as such a defense. But all you seem to have argued for is a split between an ancient-medieval tradition of philosophy and a modern tradition. Except that you exaggerate the unity of the ancient-medieval tradition (both with respect to not seeing any break between the ancient and medieval period, and with respect to the degree of unity you see within each), exaggerate the unity of the modern tradition (at least with respect to not seeing the break after early modernity), exaggerate the disunity between the early modern and medieval periods (which certainly involves a break, but nothing so absolute as you've depicted it), and kind of lose renaissance philosophy in the ambivalence produced by wanting to make Aquinas your apex and the early moderns the great folly (when there are four hundred years between them)... this is a fine enough thesis. But it doesn't seem to get us anywhere near to the thesis that any modern philosophy leads inevitably to nihilism and skepticism, whereas ancient-medieval philosophy leads inevitably to Aquinas, whose philosophy is what is needed to make sense of the world--and surely that's the thesis at the core of the contention here.
I take it that the sort of reasoning you would offer in support of this thesis about the relative virtues of the ancient-medieval versus modern traditions is indicated by what you said in the previous comment, where you wrote:
The early modern philosophers, most notably Francis Bacon and Descartes, repudiated formal and final causes thinking them unnecessary to scientific advancement and man's control of nature. Essentially all of modern philosophy, then, is the logical outworking of this fundamental rejection: if we say that natures/essences are not a real feature of reality, then, as Hume saw, all sorts of "perennial" problems in philosophy arise (note that these were never problems for anyone pre-17th century). The mind-body problem thus arises, the problem of skepticism, the problem of induction, problem of objectively morality, problem of intentionality--all of these are symptomatic of modern thought and would never have been seen as even remotely problematic given the realist metaphysical picture espoused by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and virtually everyone else (save the sophists and atomists and their followers).
I don't want to sound unduly dismissive, but I honestly don't know how to interpret this claim which makes it both sensible and not egregiously mistaken: these problems are prominent in ancient philosophy, and indeed famously so.
Aristotle spends the whole first book of De Anima surveying the history of the mind-body problem, and his own response to it takes up the first half of the second book. This problem is also one of the central themes of Plato's Phaedo, which likewise discusses some of its history. And skepticism--there's famously two entire schools of skepticism predominate in the Hellenistic period; Aristotle confronts skepticism in multiple prominent places--e.g. his response to the skeptic on the law of noncontradiction in the Metaphysics; skepticism is raised as a problem in Plato's dialogues both structurally through the frequent use of an aporetic method and directly through the dialogical presentation of skeptical views--e.g. in the Theaetetus which not only gives skeptical rejoinders to multiple theories of knowledge, but ends in an aporia about the possibility of satisfactorily solving this problem. Augustine writes a whole book against the skeptics, the Neoplatonic tradition concludes in Damascius' engagement with skepticism... Or the problem of objective morality: a central preoccupation of the Presocratics, in the form of the nomos v phusis debate; a central preoccupation of Plato's, again presented both structurally in the themes and method of the dialogues, and directly- perhaps most famously in Euthyphro and Republic...
I just don't know how to make sense of the thesis that the ancients didn't think there were any meaningful problems about the mind-body relationship, skepticism, or objective morality. My only guess would be that you mean that these aren't problematic not in the sense that no such problems were recognized as significant, but in the sense that the ancients thought, and reasonably enough, that they had good solutions to them. NB: this is, in significant cases, obviously not true (e.g. the skeptics, of course). But in any case, this is another goose and gander situation: if we don't think of Aristotle as troubled by the mind-body problem because he thinks he has a solution to it, we can no more think Descartes, Hume, or Kant troubled by it--under pains of stark inconsistency.
Note also that Descartes doesn't repudiate formal and final causation, but only their supposed role in the methodology of natural science. He takes it that final causality is the subject matter of theology and ethics (we might say psychology). And he famously argues for an essence of mind and an essence of matter--it's just that this matter of essences is approached as part of the metaphysical foundation of natural science, rather than as part of the ongoing work of natural science. Even Hume--although this embroils us in some extended interpretive disputes--seems not to repudiates the reality of essences, but only to question how we could come to know them.
You also explain the thesis this way (Quote):
The problem is, Feser contends, modern philosophy and its metaphysical assumptions, especially its anti-realism, ends ultimately in irrationality and absurdity. There can no longer be any objective ground of morality (read MacIntyre's After Virtue for a full treatment of this), and, given materialism, reason itself is undermined--he comes to this conclusion by arguing that eliminative materialism is the only real materialist option, and eliminativism is, ultimately, self-defeating.But most philosophers even today, let alone throughout the modern period, maintain that there is an objective morality, and some of the most influential defenses of this idea are formulated by moderns. And even if eliminativism were the only coherent materialism (of course, most materialists would contest this premise), modern philosophy has also not characteristically been materialist--so this would be no reason to indict all of modern philosophy with the failures of eliminativism.
You even note this further down, recognizing alternatives to materialism as prominent options in modernity, but you seem not to realize that this critically undermines your argument that the modern must be an eliminativist to be consistent. Though, you wrongly identify substance dualism as the only alternative to materialism, when a property dualism might be a coherent alternative to materialism, while a variety of neutral monisms, idealisms, and skeptical positions are certainly alternatives.
Another oddity: your argument here seems to treats "anti-realism" as interchangeable with "materialism", but it's more natural to see them as mutually exclusive than as interchangeable.