On Reviewing Imaginary Books: Ed Feser Responds to Glenn Ellmers

One of the temptations to which reviewers are notoriously prone is to respond, not to the book actually under review, but instead to some other, imaginary book the reviewer wishes the author had written. With some reviewers, the motivation is to pontificate about some pet issue the reviewer is concerned about, even if the book he’s reviewing is not. With others, it is because the reviewer discovers that he is not competent to comment on the actual contents of the book, but still has to find something to say. It seems that Glenn Ellmers has succumbed to this temptation, and for just these reasons, in his recent review of my book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science.

As its title indicates, my book is devoted to issues in the philosophy of science and metaphysics. It is concerned with topics such as the presuppositions of scientific method, the nature of space and time, the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and scientific reductionism. As its back cover informs the reader, the book engages heavily with the relevant contemporary literature in analytic philosophy. It is very much a technical academic book, and has absolutely nothing to say about ethics or politics. And yet Ellmers begins his review with the bizarre remark that my book “can be seen as a welcome attempt to recover and strengthen the philosophical underpinnings of American constitutionalism”—of all things! To be sure, he acknowledges that “this is not its professed intent.”  All the same, he reviews it as if it were. I do not know whether Ellmers is a Straussian, but he has certainly taken the method of esoteric reading to absurd new lengths.

A String of Misrepresentations

Except that “reading” is not quite the right word, for given the kind and number of false things Ellmers says about my book, it is not clear that he has actually read much of it at all. There is, for example, his outrageous remark that “even such a massive subject as the objective existence of time is disposed of in a few pages.” In reality, my book devotes over seventy pages of dense argumentation to that topic (at pp. 233-306), and much of the rest of the book is relevant to it as well.

Ellmers tells his readers that my book aims to “correct all of modern science’s errors and misconceptions,” and in response he cites “the almost miraculous achievements of modern technology [which] indicate that science succeeds on its own terms quite stupendously.” But in reality, my book does not accuse modern science of any errors. In reality, I repeatedly acknowledge modern science’s predictive and technological successes, and indeed I defend at length (at pp. 151-177) the scientific realist view that the success of science shows that it captures objective reality and is not merely a useful fiction or instrument for making predictions. In reality, I state in the book’s very first sentence that I aim to argue that Aristotelian philosophy is “compatible with modern science,” not that it corrects modern science (p. 1). In reality, I also explicitly say that my aim is to address “the question of how to interpret the practice and results of science, not the question of how to carry out that practice or generate those results” (p. 1).

Ellmers alleges that my treatment of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s book on Darwinism “passes over too hastily the heavy criticism the book received from evolutionary biologists.”  In reality, I devote 10 pages (at pp. 411-420) to a discussion of criticisms raised against Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. It is true that I focus on the philosophical objections rather than objections from biology. But that is because it is only Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s philosophical claims, and not their biological claims, that I was discussing.

Ellmers even gets other work of mine wrong.  Readers of my earlier book Scholastic Metaphysics will have a good laugh at Ellmers claim that it was “directed to a more general audience.” In reality it is as much a technical academic book as Aristotle’s Revenge is (the latter book being, as I announce in its preface, a sequel to the former).

When he’s not stating blatant falsehoods, Ellmers is making sweeping and unsupported accusations.  For example, he never tells us exactly which devastating objection to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini I have overlooked. He alleges that, on other scientific topics too, “entire books in the secondary literature are dispensed with in a paragraph or even a sentence.” But he never tells us exactly which crucial books or arguments or objections I have failed adequately to address.

Aristotle and Teleology

Perhaps the most surreal part of Ellmers’ already weird review is his complaint that I don’t provide enough by way of “quote” or “specific citation” from Aristotle, and indeed allegedly show “consistent disregard for Aristotle’s own words.” (I am usually accused of too slavishly following Aristotle. So it is, I suppose, refreshing to have Ellmers accuse me of not being slavish enough!)  Ellmers is particularly exercised by the fact that what I defend in the book is the broad Aristotelian tradition in metaphysics and philosophy of nature, rather than merely the views of Aristotle himself. He complains that I too often speak of what “the Aristotelian” would say rather than of what Aristotle himself would say. Does Ellmers think that Aristotle got everything right and needn’t be corrected or even supplemented? Presumably not. So what on earth is the problem?

The closest Ellmers gets to telling us is to claim that I “repeatedly misunderstand or misrepresent” Aristotle’s notion of teleology or final cause. He writes:

[Feser] 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.

There are two things wrong with this.  First, Ellmers acknowledges that the view he’s objecting to may indeed have been that of later Aristotelians like Aquinas, even if it wasn’t Aristotle’s own. But as I’ve said, Ellmers’ complaint is precisely that I defend broadly “Aristotelian” views rather than Aristotle’s own views. So how exactly have I misunderstood or misrepresented Aristotle’s own view about teleology, if I only ever claimed to be defending an Aristotelian view? Ellmers can’t have it both ways. He can’t both complain that I don’t try to defend Aristotle’s own views and at the same time allege that I am misrepresenting Aristotle’s own views.

Second, Ellmers doesn’t correctly understand the broadly Aristotelian view about teleology that he rejects. As I explain in my book (beginning at pp. 38-39) there are five sorts of teleology that might be claimed to exist in nature, from a very simple kind to increasingly complex kinds. The first and simplest is what I call a “stripped-down” kind of teleology that involves nothing more than a cause’s being “directed” or “aimed” toward the generation of a certain kind of effect or range of effects. That is the kind of teleology that some Aristotelians would claim that phosphorus (say) has, insofar as it has certain regular and predictable effects. The second and somewhat more complex kind of teleology would be the kind some have argued exists in natural cycles such as the rock cycle and the water cycle.  Here what is in view is a regularity in a sequence of causes and effects rather than a regular connection between a single kind of cause and a single effect.

Notice, though, that what is in view in these rudimentary kinds of purported teleology is nothing more than a bare pointing or aiming toward an outcome. There is no suggestion that the causes in question somehow serve some larger end, such as human wellbeing, or the good of the universe as a whole, or anything as fancy as that. What is in view, again, is merely a kind of aiming or directedness toward an outcome.

It is only with the third kind of teleology that a larger end comes into view. This is the sort of teleology that involves a part of an organism serving the good of the whole organism. That is something the Aristotelian tradition claims exists in all living things, though in plants it exists only in an unconscious way. Conscious directedness toward some end is the fourth kind of teleology, which Aristotelians attribute to animal life. Finally, the fifth kind of teleology is the kind that involves a rational or conceptual grasp of the end toward which a thing is directed. That is the kind that human beings exhibit.

See my book for a more detailed explanation. The point for present purposes is just this. Ellmers goes on to complain that what is needed for a defense of “the doctrine of natural right articulated by the American Founders” is a robust teleology of the kind that makes reference to distinctively human natural purposes. He waxes eloquent on the theme, and complains that the sort of teleology that might be attributed to phosphorus and the like just doesn’t do the trick. Hence, he judges, my book is “less valuable politically” than it might have been.

Missing the Point

But this whole line of criticism is simply incompetent. For one thing, Ellmers assumes that all teleology is of one kind, so that to speak of the teleology of phosphorus is, he thinks, to attribute to it the same sort of thing that natural law theorists would attribute to human beings. But this completely ignores the distinction between different kinds of teleology that I refer to throughout the book—evidence, once again, that Ellmers didn’t even bother to read it very carefully. The kind of teleology that some Aristotelians would attribute to inorganic substances like phosphorus is of the first and simplest kind, whereas the kind of teleology required to undergird natural rights theory is of the fifth and most complex kind. So, yes, to establish that the first kind exists would not suffice to establish that the fifth kind exists. But who ever claimed otherwise? Not me, and not any Aristotelian I have ever heard of.

But then, Aristotle’s Revenge is not a book about natural rights, or the American Founders, or ethics or politics, in the first place. Again, it is a book about some highly technical issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of science.  So why on earth would any sane reviewer evaluate it on political grounds?

To be sure, I would be the last to deny that the question of whether teleology is a real feature of nature has implications for ethics and politics. That is true even of the rudimentary teleology Aristotelians attribute to inorganic substances like phosphorus. For more complex kinds of teleology are more plausibly to be found in a universe that has at least rudimentary teleology in it than in a universe devoid of any teleology at all. This is an issue I am not only interested in, but have written on elsewhere.

But again, that is simply not at all what the present book is about. I just don’t get into those issues, because they are irrelevant to the metaphysical and philosophy of science related issues that the book is concerned with.  An Aristotelian view of the world also has relevance for theology and literary criticism. But it would be ridiculous for a critic to complain that my book doesn’t say anything about arguments for God’s existence or about Aristotle’s poetics. One more time: It’s a philosophy of science book, for goodness’ sake.

But then, as I have said, Ellmers is not really reviewing my book in the first place, but some other, imaginary book that is about the political topics he is interested in and that he is more competent to comment on. If only he had attributed this imaginary book to some other, imaginary author, I would have no cause for complaint.