Insights into the nature of Aristotle’s philosophy confirm Edward Feser’s detailed argument that Aristotle, under the gentle care of later scholastically-minded thinkers, turns out to be right about more things than most of us dare hope.
Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, by Edward Feser (Editiones Scholasticae, 515 pages, 2019)
Philosophy departments are struggling in the West these days. Philosophy majors at most universities are as rare as a hen’s teeth, and students overall—like the adult population as a whole—remain almost perfectly ignorant of even the rudiments of intellectual history or any branch of philosophical inquiry. From the pre-Socratics to the Vienna School and everyone in-between, Leibniz to Plato to Kant, philosophy is a foreign country to all but a hardy few who still visit the shelves in the 100s of the Dewey Decimal System.
Why? Well, it is tempting to say that it’s because philosophy is a hard subject. Not all disciplines are the same. Some of them, yes, are more demanding than others. Philosophy gets passed up by most university students, the standard trope begins, because there are so many other classes that don’t require nearly so much heavy reading. The Intro to Western Philosophy class comes with a fat textbook full of big words and the requirement to write a twenty-page paper. So, it’s no wonder that all the gender and women’s studies classes fill up on the first day.
I submit that this argument is wrong. As the wild popularity of Bill McClay’s “Auden syllabus” class offered at Oklahoma University attests, students are looking for hard, not easy. They want the challenge, not the quick “A” and the shortcut to the exits.
No, philosophy is unpopular these days, not because young people are lazy, but because philosophers have more or less given up on truth. Many philosophers, indeed, argue that truth does not exist, or is at least subject to radically subjective interpretation. If students are seeking truth—as all humans do, being made to know it—then it follows that a discipline that denies the stuff is on the road to ruin. A fortiori if the discipline denying the existence of truth is named for the love of wisdom.
Pasadena City College associate professor Edward Feser’s new book, Aristotle’s Revenge, shows that philosophy does not need to languish in such a sorry state. Truth exists. It galvanizes the cosmos, it suffuses creation throughout. Truth is not a subjective feeling or a random process, but real and knowable, at least in part, by the human mind. This has been the starting premise of the greatest philosophers, and is the stepping-off point for anyone who wants to know the world, concretely, and not navel-gaze unto infinite oblivion. Perhaps best known for his previous book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, Dr. Feser is among the hardy band of truth-seekers leading the charge back from anti-intellectual listlessness (postmodernists, I’m looking at you) to philosophical, and, yes, theological sanity.
Perhaps nowhere has the confusion of the anti-Aristotelian present manifested more than in the realm of science. Many moderns seem to believe that science has turned turtle since the time of Einstein, with all the old Newtonian certainties thrown out like Victorian morals. Science, on this understanding, is the handmaiden of progressivism, with the Kuhnian revolution following one after another and obviating any appeals to truth on which a classical scientific worldview might stand. Aristotle, in other words, mortally wounded by Galileo’s telescope, was done in by Schrödinger’s cat.
In 456 very well-written pages, however (followed by a treasure trove of a bibliography), Dr. Feser shows in Aristotle’s Revenge that, point for point, Aristotle got science right, or as right as he could given the limitations in instrumentation and communication with other researchers during his time. Scientists since the so-called Enlightenment have been trying to detach Aristotle’s greatest insight, the telos of things, from the world around them. But the telos is the linchpin of the material world, so without it, everything, as is apparent from most philosophy lectures one attends nowadays, or nearly any philosophy book one reads, falls apart.
While science as a whole has almost completely succumbed to a-scientific sophistry, the brunt of the damage has undoubtedly been borne by the life sciences. Humans, gripped by post-human and neo-Darwinist ideologies, have forgotten their own place in the universe and, consequently, have no idea how to understand any of their fellow creatures. It is for this reason that the most compelling part of Aristotle’s Revenge is section six, “Animate Nature.” Here, Dr. Feser goes a very long way toward restoring the life sciences to their proper relation to purpose and cause.
One of the most bracing passages of the life sciences section comes when Dr. Feser turns to challenge a group with which outside readers may assume Dr. Feser, as a fellow believer, would be in broad agreement: the Intelligent Design school. Now, I am sympathetic to the arguments of the Intelligent Design school and appreciate William Dembski’s and his Discovery Institute colleagues’ efforts to show that Darwinian natural selection is not sufficient to have caused the highly-ordered complexity that one finds in nature, especially in organisms. Dr. Feser, though, seeks greatly to enlarge the Intelligent Design view, chiding Dr. Dembski (whose arguments about matter and information Dr. Feser calls “a mess”) for equivocating on the term “information” and thereby “confus[ing] epistemology with metaphysics.” Dr. Feser has elsewhere argued forcefully in favor of Aristotelian hylemorphism, a view that Dr. Dembski outright rejects, and I found myself convinced much more by Dr. Feser’s constructive critique of ID arguments than I had been by those same ID arguments in the past.
Dr. Feser’s skill in dissecting and analyzing some flawed ID arguments is in part a product of his fine understanding of the subtleties of philosophical language. Indeed, one of the greatest services of Aristotle’s Revenge, and of Dr. Feser’s work in general, is the clarity that Dr. Feser brings to discussions about terms and concepts. This clarity is absolutely essential for the difficult work of not only clearing the thick undergrowth of so-called Enlightenment “philosophy” and setting intellectual inquiry back firmly on the path to truth; terminological clarity is also, as Dr. Feser demonstrates contra the Intelligent Design thinkers, essential for keeping even fellow philosophers of good will in check and attuned to the same abiding telos. Without rectifying the names, we will find ourselves tangled up in the same linguistic quandaries against which Aristotle fought so mightily in his careful thinkings-through of Plato, Democritus, Parmenides, and other predecessors.
On this score, and in light of the sharp, close work he has done in setting biological philosophy back on a strong Aristotelian-Thomistic footing, I think that Dr. Feser’s call for a return to a teleological view of the cosmos could be even stronger with a more clearly-defined deployment of, for example, the term “species.” Dr. Feser goes to great lengths in part six of Aristotle’s Revenge to distinguish among various uses of the term, setting, for example, “logical species” off from the very different (but often conflated, to disastrous effect) “philosophical species.” This is helpful and correct, but I would suggest that Dr. Feser’s readers seek out the works of Peter Redpath, John Deely, and Charles Bonaventure Crowley for even deeper insights into the work that genus and species—not the terms, but the Aristotelian-Thomistic realities—really do. St. Thomas’ commentaries on the relevant works here of Aristotle also shed bright light on this often-overlooked corner of Western philosophy. Redpathian insights into the true nature of genus and species confirm Dr. Feser’s detailed argument that Aristotle, under the gentle care of St. Thomas and later Scholastically-minded thinkers, turns out to be right about more things than most of us dare hope.
In the life sciences, then, and in so much else, the combined wisdom of St. Thomas and Aristotle is proving to be a boon for those lost in the “post-truth” wilderness. Aristotle is, indeed, getting his revenge. But as Dr. Feser points out in closing, Aristotle is a “magnanimous victor” (456). Very much so. Aristotle himself was charitable to his opponents, usually stating their positions, as St. Thomas did, better than they themselves could. Edward Feser has taken up this very important legacy of Aristotelian-Thomism, and has done just what the Stagirite (and the Sicilian) did in their own day: he has gone among the intellectuals, listened to them, and replied with a voice of reason, speaking truth to the perplexed.
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 Wilfred McClay, “A Remarkably Hard College Course Proves Remarkably Popular,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, October 24, 2018.
 Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017).
 Edward Feser, Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science, p. 437.
 Ibid., p. 426-27.
The featured image is “Aristotle Teaching Alexander the Great” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.