Aristotelian Realism in the Theory of Universals of Feser’s The Last Superstition

1. In my immediately previous post I took up the theory of universals, taking as my point of departure Edward Feser’s review, in The Last Superstition,* of realism in the theory of universals, more specifically Platonist realism. In that post I offered reasons for adopting a neo-Aristotelian anti-realist theory of universals, i.e., an anti-realism in rejecting all universals and yet a neo-Aristotelianism in affirming the existence of individual forms, natures, or essences. In today’s post I take as my point of departure some of the statements Feser makes, still in The Last Superstition, about the specifically Aristotelian version of universal-theoretical realism.

2. The Last Superstition introduces the Aristotelian version as more “down to earth” than that of Platonism (p. 50).

Like Plato, Aristotle is a realist in the sense we’ve been discussing. But he thinks Plato needs to be brought down to earth a bit. For Aristotle, universals or forms are real, and they are not reducible to anything either material or mental. Still, he thinks it is an error to regard them as objects existing in a “third realm” of their own. Rather, considered as they are in themselves they exist only “in” the things of which they are the forms; and considered as abstractions from these things, they exist only in the intellect.

We are thus told that one and the same form can exist both “‘in’ the things of which” it is the form and in the intellect. There is a difference between the state, if I may so put it, in which the form exists when it is considered as it is in itself and the state in which it is when it is considered as an abstraction from the things of which it is the form. But it is the same form in both sites.

In a later passage (p. 124), he provides us with both examples and an even clearer statement of the identity of “the nature, essence, or form of a thing” existing “in the thing” with “the nature, essence, or form of a thing” existing “in the intellect.”

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our mind when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form.

3. This but compounds the difficulties which I brought up in the previous post. It is not just that one and the same form, nature, or essence is found in all the many distinct members of some set of similar existents, say, dogs. Now that one and the same form, nature, or essence is also found in yet another and very different setting, the intellect, and fulfilling a very different role, that of being that by which we have an intellectual grasp of the members of that set.

The anti-realism which I find myself defending denies, of course, the identity of the form, nature, or essence which one, keeping with the example, dog has and by which it is a dog with the form, nature, or essence which another dog has and by which it too is a dog; the form, nature, or essence of the one is distinct from that of the other. The anti-realism which I have been setting forth also denies the identity of that intellectually existent concept or intention by which we intellectually grasp a dog as the dog which he or she is with the form, nature, or essence which he or she has and by which he or she is a dog.

My neo-Aristotelian anti-realism is, on the other hand, a neo-Aristotelian theory and as such does not deny that we are capable of grasping intellectually an extra-mentally existent dog, still keeping with the example at hand, as a dog. Nor does it deny that in that intellectual grasping there is within the intellect as its means that intellection or conception by which we so grasp an extra-mentally existent dog as a dog. But it does deny that that intellection or conception is identical with, or even similar to, the form, nature, or essence by which the extra-mentally existent dog is what is.

4. The “since” of the last, complex, sentence of the second of the two passages quoted above serves us notice that Feser offers us within that sentence an argument in support of the thesis expressed in its first sentence, that “when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect.” An examination of that argument is, then, called for.

As a first step and keeping our focus on dogs (surely they are, if not our best friends, at least good friends), let’s notice that the conclusion of the argument is expressed as a counterfactual conditional:

If this [i.e., that the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs] weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like….

Simplifying it a bit, transposing it, and rephrasing it as a straightforward conditional, we have:

If we are really thinking about dogs, then the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind is the same form that exists in actual dogs.

With the conclusion of the argument at hand identified, let’s next identify the premises. Feser has expressed them as follows:

since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form.

We can rephrase them as:

If we are really thinking about dogs, then we are really grasping what dogs are.

What dogs are is determined by their essence or form.

The argument is, then:

If we are really thinking about dogs, then we are really grasping what dogs are.

What dogs are is determined by their essence or form.

Therefore, if we are really thinking about dogs, then the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind is the same form that exists in actual dogs.

As an argument, this fails utterly; in no way does the conclusion offered follow from the premises.

5. It is easy, on the other hand, to see what the valid argument having the first of the premises and the conclusion of the argument just given would have to be.

If we are really thinking about dogs, then we are really grasping what dogs are.

If we are really grasping what dogs are, then the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind is the same form that exists in actual dogs.

Therefore, if we are really thinking about dogs, then the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind is the same form that exists in actual dogs.

I take it that the first premise is true and that the argument is perfectly valid. But its soundness is questionable, for the truth of the second premise is questionable. Indeed, if what I have said in this post and the previous one holds, the second premise is false. At any rate, at least as far as I can see, Feser has offered but various assertions of its truth or of the truth of similar propositions, but no sound arguments.

6. I think it safe to conclude, then, that Feser’s The Last Superstition, for all its virtues, provides us with no reasoned basis for accepting an Aristotelian realism in the theory of universals.

Unless I’m wrong.

Until next time.

Richard

*Edward Feser, The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

A September 14, 2017 Update. You may easily purchase a copy of The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism through Amazon.com., by clicking on the following:


**Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Reality. A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, translated by Patrick Cummins, O.S.B. (Ex Fontibus Co., 2006-2012)

About Rchard E. Hennessey

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