Aristotle Versus the Aristotelians

How do citizens maintain a system of government based on the idea of natural rights when the very idea of nature is under assault? 

Our equal rights, according to the Declaration of Independence, are grounded in “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Yet according to many leading intellectuals, nature or reality has no independent existence outside of human will. This postmodern notion—that an intelligible world and universally valid science are mere social constructs—has been orthodox opinion in many university departments for decades. In recent years, however, the repudiation of nature, including human nature, has burst into everyday experience, most strikingly in the controversy over transgender athletes dominating women’s sports. According to many leftist ideologues, even the most basic facts of biology must submit to the dictates of politics. As Planned Parenthood memorably declared in a March 2018 tweet, “Some men have a uterus.”

Because the American regime is founded on a philosophical idea, these developments threaten the health of our civic culture. What started out as academic theorizing and ideological posturing now undermines Americans’ conception of our government and the ground of its legitimacy. Strange as it may seem, to be an American citizen requires sound metaphysics. 

Though this is not its professed intent, Edward Feser’s Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science can be seen as a welcome attempt to recover and strengthen the philosophical underpinnings of American constitutionalism. It offers detailed rebuttals to various scientific and philosophical arguments that challenge what we might call “metaphysical realism.” Despite many sophisticated or sophistic arguments to the contrary, says Feser, modern science cannot escape the logic and axioms articulated by Aristotle. He writes that  “the very possibility of science presupposes the reality and reducibility of the conscious, thinking embodied subject,” and “we cannot in turn make sense of this subject without deploying the fundamental concepts of Aristotelian philosophy of nature such as actuality and potentiality, form and matter, and efficient and final causality.” 

A Series of Disputatios

Feser teaches philosophy at Pasadena City College and his writings focus especially on the Catholic scholastic tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle’s Revenge is a sequel to his Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (2014). Whereas the previous book was directed to a more general audience, this one has a more academic bent, consisting of a lengthy, almost overwhelming, series of disputed questions (disputatios) on a dizzying variety of topics including: philosophy of mind, quantum mechanics, evolution, neurobiology, epistemology, mechanical determinism, and the “hard problem of consciousness.”  

The highly ambitious scope of Feser’s project is impressive, but it leads him to a somewhat hubristic misjudgement about just how much he can really prove. It seems not only unnecessary but counterproductive to assert, as Feser does, that modern science’s strict materialism and rejection of metaphysics “settles nothing,” or that “both the practice and the results of natural science” are “in no way incompatible” with Aristotle. The almost miraculous achievements of modern technology indicate that science succeeds on its own terms quite stupendously, at least on the practical level. Because the author tries to prove too much, he persuades less than he might. Some readers might in fact come away misapprehending the real problems with modern science, and thus become more alienated from nature and classical metaphysics as a ground of moral and political legitimacy than they were. 

In Feser’s rush to correct all of modern science’s errors and misconceptions, entire books in the secondary literature are dispensed with in a paragraph or even a sentence. Some, to be sure, deserve such treatment. Yet the overall effect is like paging through a diner menu: the dozens of disparate choices—from shrimp scampi to meatloaf—lead one to doubt that so many dishes could be fresh and well-prepared. 

Longer treatments have problems as well. Feser devotes a full dozen pages (a large amount of space for this book) to examining Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong (2010) in the belief that it supports his thesis by giving “aid and comfort to Aristotelian essentialism.” Feser does a good job of explaining the authors’ complex arguments about the difficulty of knowing how evolutionary adaptations come about. What he doesn’t do is mention that neither is an evolutionary biologist (Fodor is a philosopher and Piatelli-Palmarini a cognitive scientist) and he passes over too hastily the heavy criticism the book received from evolutionary biologists when it was published. These points don’t mean the book is wrong, but surely they would be relevant for the reader to know. 

In general, topics as well as sources seem to be treated cursorily. Even such a massive subject as the objective existence of time is disposed of in a few pages, hardly enough to understand Aristotle’s own fascinating comments on the subject. Feser doesn’t quote or even mention Aristotle’s provocative observation in the Physics (remarkably, the only work by Aristotle included in the 40-page bibliography): “There is a perplexity about whether time could exist without human soul, for it is not clear how the counting of the passing of time could take place without a soul to count.” The author’s consistent disregard for Aristotle’s own words points to one of the book’s most curious and disappointing features. 

The Ubiquitous “Aristotel-ian”

The truly hard-working character in Aristotle’s Revenge is a fellow named Ian, who haunts the book like a shadow, liberated from any concrete existence or accountability. Aristotel-ian is a strongly favored term here, but one also encounters Darwin-ian and Newton-ian. Whenever (which is to say often) Feser wishes to advance an argument without any specific citation, its provenance is laid at Ian’s ephemeral feet: “An Aristotelian would argue”; “According to Aristotelian thought”; and many other examples. This reader grew weary of Ian by the end.  

This problem arises from Feser’s evident belief that Aristotle is all-but-interchangeable with his Catholic interpreters. But as Armand Leroi notes in his wonderfully engaging The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (2014), the scholastics’ “method was disputatious, their factions innumerable, their writings interminable and their conclusions stultifying. Much of it wasn’t very Aristotelian at all.” 

To some this may seem like quibbling: Who cares whether an idea can be traced to Aristotle or Aquinas, as long as it’s true? But on one key point, with significant implications, what Feser says isn’t true: He repeatedly misunderstands or misrepresents Aristotle’s explanation of final cause, or “teleology.” This is the notion that in addition to material cause (the bricks and mortar of a house), the formal cause (the architect’s blueprints), and the efficient or moving cause (the workers building the house), we may often find a final cause as well: namely, that for the sake of which the house is being built. (In this example, the final cause or telos is to provide suitable shelter.) Aristotle clearly says that living organisms have ends or final causes, and manmade artifacts such as a house also have them, in a sort of imitation of nature.

He repeatedly but erroneously claims that for Aristotle, everything with a regular or predictable effect, including inanimate substances, also has a final cause directing it to that outcome. Phosphorus exists for the sake of burning, says he, and ice has a final cause of cooling things around it. Possibly this is Aquinas’s view (I can’t say), but it isn’t Aristotle’s.  

It might seem like an abstruse point, but let me explain why this is wrong in a way that really matters. 

Obscuring the Early Modern Derailment

The soulless materialism of modern science, which Feser so powerfully challenges, had its origins in an explicitly anti-Aristotelian scientific and political project, launched by early modern philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes. These figures rejected the idea that nature contained any teleological ends or “for the sake of” causes. The world, they insisted, is just “matter in motion.” Politics in their view needed to dispense with the idea of nature’s pointing to anything normative any idea of “natural right.” And politics needed to join with science in conquering the natural world to bestow material benefits on mankind. Nature would cease being a guide to our proper ends in order to become mere workable material, to be shaped to our needs and wants.  

In the Declaration of Independence, the American Founders rejected this key aspect of modern science when they committed our new nation to final causes, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (This is almost straight out of Aristotle, who says in the Politics that people form a political community for the sake of securing life, but the real goalthe final cause is living well, happiness.) 

This idea of nature’s containing the ends for human life is difficult for many people today to accept or comprehend. To defend it requires rhetorical care and prudence. Unfortunately, Feser undermines this effort. It is easy for people to see (once it is explained) that the acorn has its own internal end; it exists “for the sake of” becoming an oak tree. Likewise, dogs have a proper end inherent in their nature, which involves a richer form of life than a tree. And humans, at the top of the complexity chain, exist “for the sake of” fulfilling their more elaborate potential, which is  encapsulated in the idea of happiness. 

All of this becomes very strange and unpalatable to modern ears, however, when Feser insists (as he does over and over in the book) that the properties of inanimate objects are final ends. But this is not correct. Phosphorus happens to be flammable; and ice cools its surroundings simply because frozen water is cold. That’s it. These effects are not why these objects exist; they don’t have a why. (When phosphorus burns human flesh, or ice causes frostbite, would Feser argue that these objects are fulfilling their final cause? Did nature create ice “for the sake of” damaging our skin?) Feser’s anti-Aristotelian arguments on this important point undermine his otherwise laudable project. 

Admittedly, he is not trying to defend the political implications of teleology; his book is not about the doctrine of natural right articulated by the American Founders. But he is trying to defend the very same philosophy of nature or metaphysical realism upon which the Founders relied. By misdirecting the reader on one of its most important concepts, he makes the book less valuable politically and undercuts his own professed aims.

Almost at the end of this work there appears a term that is used repeatedly in Feser’s earlier work: “Scholastic teleological realism.” This appears to be his own unique blend of metaphysical naturalism. It might have been simpler, less contrived, and more interesting if he had just distilled and served up his personal recipe for a proper philosophy of nature, rather than relying throughout the book on watered down helpings of “Ian’s Aristotle.” 

I commend Professor Feser on his impressive knowledge and wide reading. Aristotle’s Revenge represents a stupendous effort and corrects many philosophical errors. It is a pity that also it includes one major one, which makes the book deeply flawed.