The Cloud of “Tradition” 

Reading Professor Feser’s response to my review, one would never guess that I had described his book Aristotle’s Revenge as a welcome contribution to metaphysical realism, and noted how he “powerfully challenges” scientific reductionism and produced a “stupendous effort [that] corrects many philosophical errors.” Though I brought his work to the attention of a mainstream audience at Law & Liberty, he seems unhappy to have his “technical academic book” pulled out of the scholarly stacks. I wanted to show that his important metaphysical discussions are deeply relevant, because self-government depends on sound philosophical theory. But Feser’s view is that his arguments have “absolutely nothing to say about ethics or politics.” Moreover, my review was “false,” “wrong,” “weird,” “incompetent,” “outrageous,” and “surreal.” 

Rehashing all our minor quibbles would be tiresome. Let me simply note my erroneous contention that his earlier book Scholastic Metaphysics was directed at a more general audience. There, I stand corrected. 

Our major disagreements are not so easily dispensed with. Feser asks, “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?”

It is true that Aristotle may have been right in some respects, and may need to be corrected where we was not. But we can’t really know unless we take him seriously. This where Feser and I part. He thinks that it is adequate to have some familiarity with “the broad Aristotelian tradition”—a term of seemingly vast elasticity. I do not. To this degree I am indeed a Straussian, as Feser suggests—insofar as Leo Strauss taught that we must understand the great thinkers of the past as they understood themselves, before we can decide whether they need to be “corrected or even supplemented.” 

My quarrel, therefore, with Feser’s understanding of teleology—which has enormous political and moral significance—is not (as I explained in my review) simply a matter of bowing to authority. It’s important to get Aristotle right because he might have figured out something that’s really true—about the world, about nature, about ourselves. It doesn’t seem that Feser is with me on this.  

This is evident in the fact that, even in response to my direct criticism, he continues to back up his claims or ground his arguments in a confabulated notion of “Aristotelian views.” There is a lot of wisdom to be found in 2,000 years of commentary, but this body of scholarship consists of real people with names. Yet his rebuttal never mentions, let alone quotes, a single one (other than Thomas Aquinas, which raises other problems I can’t get into here).  

Granted, a good argument needs no authority. That is why the conclusion of my review suggested that Feser should have presented, in his own name, a coherent version of natural science and metaphysics without invoking any tradition. But he persists in invoking “some Aristotelians,” whose precise identities he can’t or won’t cite. This cloud of “tradition” obscures more than it clarifies.

“Ellmers doesn’t correctly understand the broadly Aristotelian view about teleology that he rejects.” Again, whose view are we talking about? How is one to respond when there is nothing to grab on to? As long as Feser himself defines the meaning of this “broadly Aristotelian view,” he will always be correct. This does not take us very far.

The teleology Feser attributes to unformed matter and chemical compounds—a view that finds no support in Aristotle’s writings—“involves nothing more than a cause’s being ‘directed’ or ‘aimed’ toward the generation of a certain kind of effect or range of effects.” This just means that a cause has an effect. It is a tautology.  

A thoughtful debate about this question would have involved the metaphysical basis of natural right. Apart from its moral implications, it is a fascinating topic. The famous passage in the Physics about whether rain has a purpose is both interesting and, though it may not seem so, deeply political. Alas, there is no room to engage the matter here; the editors have already been gracious in allowing a brief response. I do plan to develop and publish these arguments elsewhere.

Professor Feser and I have many friends in common; we are both conservatives and patriots. I found his book imposing and dense, but nevertheless informative and stimulating. As for the matters on which we continue disagree, I for my part would be happy to resume this debate sine ira et studio

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