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Ed Feser's Aquinas

Just concluded a pair of introductory philosophy courses wherein I used Ed Feser's Aquinas as a required text. Here's my Amazon review:

Two Mints in One

Not only is this the best introduction to the thought of Aquinas that you're ever likely to find, but it's also a superb primer on the metaphysics of Aristotle. Act & potency, form & matter, the four causes...they are all explained here about as clearly & simply as they can be.

When teaching philosophy, I prefer to use original texts. But it's not always possible - especially in introductory courses. Some of the greatest philosophers were also great communicators: Plato, Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche, & William James are among the names that spring to mind. But not all were: Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant & Hegel, among others, are notoriously difficult, without a Vergil to guide one from one hellacious circle to the next.

For Aristotle & Aquinas, Edward Feser here proves himself a reliable Vergil. Aspects of Aristotelian/Thomistic thought that once seemed to me like no more than antiquated curiosities suddenly come to life as real, philosophically defensible, options. In particular, Feser's defense of the A/T conceptions of efficient & final causation, as against the Humean account that has ruled the roost for the last couple of centuries, is a real eye-opener.

One word of warning: this may be, relatively speaking, a "beginner's guide" to Aquinas, but it is by no means "Aquinas for dummies." Feser frequently addresses recent literature, some of which gets a bit technical. Real "beginners" may need a lot of help from their professors to get the drift.

But, then, that's what professors are for, no?

Comments (12)

I found the book very good at explaining what Aquinas' views were. Though an introductory book may not be the place for it, I would be interested in knowing why Aquinas held the views that he did. In other words, why should I believe that Aristotle and Aquinas had true beliefs about the world? If anyone has any recommendations for further reading on that topic I would appreciate it. Thanks ahead of time.

btw - I really wanted to work in, somewhere there, the line:

"...qui n'est pas clair n'est pas Feser."

'cause our Prof. Ed writes so clearly that you pretty much have to be *trying* not to understand him in order not to understand him.

But I thought the connection to Maurras might be less than apposite.

>> I would be interested in knowing why Aquinas held the views that he did. In other words, why should I believe that Aristotle and Aquinas had true beliefs about the world?

I would start at the beginning. A great way to do that is with another great introduction that was recommended by Feser. Remember that Aristotle was called "The Philosopher" for centuries. This book shows in a fair way the debt owed to Plato, but why Aristotle's view was considered superior for those who think so.

An Introduction to Philosophy: The Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition - Daniel Sullivan

I'm just not seeing Descartes as a great communicator, at least not in The Meditations since I think the evidence is clear that it was a stealth project. Even the title is a clue that is isn't the philosophy text we think. There is even some evidence that his use of God was glommed on before publication to avoid the fate of Galileo. Here's a quote from a letter Descartes wrote to Mersenne (his administrator I think) written in the same year The Meditations were published.

"I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle."


Descartes wrote, but did not release for publication during his lifetime, a work entitled "The World," for fear of getting the Galileo treatment -- this was a decision also attested to in his correspondence with Mersenne. As I recall, it was composed well before the Discourse or the Meditations, and there's no doubt that the fear that led him to hold the earlier work back influenced his rhetoric in the writing of the later works. That his reticence on matters of physics and his eager solicitation of ecclesiastical approval (doesn't he commend the Discourse to the Church for its support against -- in the 17th c.! -- Averroism?!) affected his mode of presentation, there can be little doubt.

But does the fact that Descartes, perhaps no less than Spinoza, could serve as an exemplar for "Persecution & the Art of Writing" diminish the lucidity of what he *did* release for publication? I, at least, think not. That the basic elements of his thought can so quickly grab the attention and compel the understanding of most any bright undergrad with a modicum of interest in philosophy, despite his or her utter unfamiliarity with the milieu of Descartes's thought, only reinforces my opinion.

Lastly, as a reductio: if Descartes's rhetorical stealth disqualifies him from consideration as a great philosophical communicator, then how much more forcefully should we throw Plato from the ranks?!

Very kind, Steve, thanks!

(Your royalty check's in the mail...)

EF - it's I who thank you. You've changed my mind about some big issues...not something that happens to me every day. But, when it does, it's always a cause for gratitude.

(Only *some* big issues, mind you, but still...)

The extent to which he was trying to avoid the disapproval of the authorities is one thing, and no one can be blamed for that. But I still don't buy that "The Meditations" --his most influential book-- is an example of clear communication and can be approached as such, and I don't think the reductio argument is successful. The question is whether there is a method employed in writing of which his audience is not aware.

Even parables, riddles, and such are types of communication where the audience knows full well the method. Isn't the purpose of the Socratic method clear? In philosophy we can seldom legitimately attribute confusion to anything but the complexity of the subject, but one can only marvel that the main point of The Meditations is usually taken to be to defeat skepticism, whereas in his private letter he makes very plain the fact that overturning the current metaphysics was his purpose. This difference just seems pretty stark to me.

Maybe this explains the widely divergent views on Descartes, where those who take him to be mainly on a MP project see him one way and those who see him as mainly interested in epistemology in an entirely different way. Even as basic an idea as the doubts he employs will be seen as having radically different purposes depending on one's view on that. At the end of the day I just think when it comes to Descartes that there are layers that need to be peeled back before diving in that are far greater than other figures in philosophy, certainly including Plato. Just my $0.02.

I think I have to agree with CPM against Mark here: "the basic elements of [Descartes'] thought can quickly grab the attention and compel the understanding of most any bright undergrad with a modicum of interest in philosophy."

Precisely so.

And the first two, at least, of the Meditations, are not just classics of philosophy - they are also classics of literature.

The "piece of wax" passage, in particular: I mean, what can one say, to do it justice? It may well be the single greatest example of superficial clarity + deep incomprehensibility ever penned.

A more blunt way of stating my point is that without any background people read into Descartes what they think they should see, or what they wish to see, rather than what he actually said. So I don't see how the reactions of those who read him for the first time with no background is evidence otherwise, and I actually think it supports my view.

A subtext of this discussion is probably the sensibilities of analytic philosophers vs those of historians of philosophy. Though I'm neither professionally, my sensibilities are with the latter. I think this subtext is heavily present in most any discussions involving Thomists.

Just to be clear, I'm not disputing that The Meditations are not classics of philosophy or literature, but he was first a brilliant mathematician, and he argued for a mathematical representation of reality.

So on ontological grounds I can't count the "piece of wax" passage as the "single greatest example of superficial clarity + deep incomprehensibility ever penned." I thought the premises of his argument involving the wax was that the essence of matter is extension --a mathematical entity-- such that bodies can only be perceived by the intellect alone? I don't see the beauty in that.

That the basic elements of his thought can so quickly grab the attention and compel the understanding of most any bright undergrad with a modicum of interest in philosophy, despite his or her utter unfamiliarity with the milieu of Descartes's thought, only reinforces my opinion.

In response to the idea that any interested undergrad can understand Descartes' without background as a direct read, I cite the subsection "Problems of Cartesian Scholarship" in the introduction of Richard B. Carter's "Descartes' Medical Philosophy." It is a masterful expression of the almost unbelievably daunting challenges of reading Descartes for the uninitiated. He was a pioneer, but perspicuity simply isn't there for even the brightest of students that have no background understanding in what Descartes meant to say. Carter's introduction spells out in great detail some fairly astonishing facts about Cartesian scholarship. I'd summarize it if this were an active discussion, but it isn't. This isn't a dispute about teaching in any way, other than that any method of teaching must take into account the complexity of the subject.

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