Feser’s The Last Superstition on the Manner of Existence of the Final Cause

0. In “Aristotelian Realism in the Theory of Universals of Feser’s The Last Superstition,” my post of February 17, 2015, I continued my discussion of the problem of universals. In that post I took as my point of departure Edward Feser’s review, in The Last Superstition,* of Aristotelian realism in the theory of universals and I offered as an alternative to that view a neo-Aristotelian anti-realism in the theory of universals. This theory conjoins an anti-realism, rejecting all universal forms, natures, or essences with a neo-Aristotelianism, affirming the existence of individual forms, natures, or essences.

1. The Aristotelian theory of universals, of course, is one in which the distinct members of a set of similar existents, say that of human beings, are what they are similarly by virtue of their each possessing some one and identically the same human form, nature, or essence by which they are all human. But the Aristotelian theory of knowledge includes a further and related thesis which, I hold, must be rejected, the thesis that that concept by which we intellectually grasp, and so know what a human being qua human being is, is identical with the form, nature, or essence which the human being has and by which it is a human being. Thus we find a passage (pp. 121-122) in which Feser, comparing the human soul with the “nutritive soul” and the “sensory soul,” identifies “abstract concepts” with “the forms or essences of things.”

When we come to human beings we have what is called a “rational soul,” which includes both the powers of the nutritive and sensory souls and also the distinctively human powers of intellect and will: that is, the power to grasp abstract concepts – namely, the forms or essences of things – and to reason on the basis of them, and freely to choose between different possible courses of action on the basis of what the intellect knows.

And another passage offers an even more explicit statement of the thesis. That is, a paragraph or two after having told us (p. 198):

Ironically, the Mechanical Philosophy [as found in Descartes, among others] (in this and other ways, as we shall see) made a direct appeal to God more necessary than it had been in the Scholastic view (which does not appeal to God to safeguard the possibility of knowledge, committed as it is to an Aristotelian understanding of causation on which the connection between the mind and the world is not especially problematic).

and in speaking of “[t]he  problem of skepticism,” Feser he asks us (pp. 199-200) to:

Recall that in the Aristotelian conception of the soul, when the intellect knows something outside it, one and the same form exists both in the intellect and the thing known. For example, when you perceive or think about triangles, the very same essence or naturetriangularity – that exists in actual triangles also exist in your mind. A kind of union between the mind and its object occurs by virtue of their sharing a form, nature, or essence that is irreducible to either of them. This is what makes knowledge possible: there is no gap between the form as it exists in the mind and as it exists in the object, because these are the same form.

2. To restate in this paragraph and the next what I said at the end of “Aristotelian Realism in the Theory of Universals of Feser’s The Last Superstition”: the anti-realism which I have been setting forth denies, of course, the identity of the form, nature, or essence which one human being has and by which it is a human being with the form, nature, or essence which another human being has and by which it too is a human being; the form, nature, or essence of the one is not identical with, but distinct from, that of the other. The anti-realism which I have been setting forth must also deny the identity of that intellectually existent concept or intention by which we intellectually grasp a human being as the human being which he or she is with the form, nature, or essence which he or she has and by which he or she is a human being.

The neo-Aristotelian anti-realism under exploration in this blog does not, then, deny that human beings, for example, have forms, natures, or essences by which they are human beings, though it does deny the identity of one form, nature, or essence with another. Nor does it deny that there must be within the intellect that intellectual or conceptual means by of which we can intellectually grasp an extra-mentally existent human being as a human being, though it does deny that that intellectual or conceptual means is identical with, or even similar to, the form nature, or essence by which the extra-mentally existent human being is what is.

3. Now Feser’s The Last Superstition employs two closely related theses, or perhaps two versions of one thesis, in an attempt to address an oddity he himself sees in his Aristotelian teleology or theory of final causality or of goals, aims, ends, or purposes. Thus we find him, after he has just commented (p. 115) that “The Aristotelian idea is precisely that goal-directedness can and does exist in the natural world even apart from conscious awareness,” wondering how this can be (Ibid.):

Still, it is very odd that this should be the case. One of the raps against final causation is that it seems clearly to entail that a thing can produce an effect even before that thing exists. Hence to say that an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn seems to entail that the oak tree – which doesn’t yet exist – in some sense causes the acorn to go through every state it passes through as it grows into the oak, since the oak is the “goal” or natural end of the acorn. But how can this be?

Then, however, he continues by asking us to:

[C]onsider those cases where goal-directedness is associated with consciousness, viz. in us. A builder builds a house; he is a cause that generates a specific kind of effect. But the reason he is able to do this is that the effect, the house, exists as an idea in his intellect before it exists in reality. This is precisely how the not-yet-existent house can serve as a final cause – by means of its form or essence existing in someone’s intellect, if not (yet) in reality. And that seems clearly to be the only way something not yet existent in reality can exist in any other sense at all, and thus have any effects at all: that is, if it exists in an intellect.

4. I have, of course, no problem with the thesis that a builder building a house “is a cause that generates a specific kind of effect.” But I find the basis which Feser sees for the builder’s ability to generate, specifically, a house, that, according to the just given passages’ third sentence, “the effect, the house, exists as an idea in his intellect before it exists in reality,” more than unconvincing. That is, to put it quite simply, no house is an idea and no idea, even of a house, is a house. While, indeed, the idea of the house a builder is building exists in his intellect, the house itself just does not exist there.

The next sentence, the fourth, viz.:

This is precisely how the not-yet-existent house can serve as a final cause – by means of its form or essence existing in someone’s intellect, if not (yet) in reality.

introduces a somewhat different reason, or a variant of the first, for the builder’s ability to generate, specifically, a house. This is that the house’s form or essence, rather than the house itself, exists in the builder’s intellect; the difference is based in the difference between a house and the form or essence of the house.

I have no quarrel with the difference between a house and its form. But the form of a house exists in the house and not elsewhere and, as the house is an extra-mental existent, being, or reality, so then its form too is an extra-mental existent, being, or reality.

I have to conclude that the basis of Feser’s attempt at addressing the oddity he himself sees in his Aristotelian theory of final causality, at least as that basis is presented in The Last Superstition, is not sufficient for the task.

Not that I have a ready alternative.

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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2 Responses to Feser’s The Last Superstition on the Manner of Existence of the Final Cause

  1. Leon says:

    Hi Richard, I recently read a take on Aquinas’ take on universals which you might find interesting, and perhaps worthy of a post:

    Brower, J.E. (2015). Aquinas on the Problem of Universals. Philos Phenomenol Res.

    It discusses senses in which Aquinas both is and is not a realist about universals, and draws a number of useful distinctions, particularly in distinguishing the medieval and modern debates around the issue. I’m not sure how this connects with Feser’s treatment.

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