December 2016

Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction.  By Edward Feser. Editiones Scholasticae. 290 pages. $24.95.

Philosopher Edward Feser has earned significant fanfare in recent years for his lucid presentations and defenses of Thomism, with popular books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (2008) and Aquinas (2009), as well as a host of books and articles aimed at academic audiences. The fanfare is well deserved, for in addition to a witty polemical style, Feser has a mostly unrivaled ability to present faithfully the views of Aquinas in a deep and systematic way, without assuming a background familiarity with Thomism. This is not to say that Feser assumes nothing of his readers, as his writing can often be relatively dense and technical, even when it’s ostensibly targeting a broad audience. His approach is not that of a Peter Kreeft, for instance, whose works can be recommended to practically everyone, no matter their philosophical abilities. Instead, Feser’s books are relatively more demanding of the reader, as though Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., had sought to adapt his writings to a broad audience.

Given this background, readers familiar with Feser’s other popular works will take note of his newest “introduction,” this one on Scholastic metaphysics. As a branch of philosophy, metaphysics is an investigation into fundamental aspects of reality. The investigation conducted by the schoolmen of the Middle Ages involved no harmonious consensus, even if the present dominance of Thomas Aquinas makes it appear as though his work were a sort of brilliant torch in an otherwise dark age, calling forth the allegiance of his contemporaries and inspiring those after him to carry and spread the philosophical light into ages to come. Far from it. St. Thomas’s philosophical ascendency was gradual, competing as it did with sophisticated rivals, such as John Duns Scotus (among others), and exacerbated by the partisanship of the religious orders of the time.

Feser’s introduction to Scholastic metaphysics comprises five chapters. In the first — a chapter 0 — Feser briefly attacks the pop-philosophical fad of scientism, an exaggeration of natural science that makes it out to be the gold standard for all knowledge. In this prolegomenon, Feser sets the tone of the book: It is not centrally about providing an historical overview of the medieval positions and their arguments, as one might expect. Instead, a major theme of the book is in arguing that contemporaries, academic and non-academic alike, need to pay attention to the medieval debate and take seriously its central positions (especially that of Thomism) if they are to arrive at a proper understanding of the world.

Chapter one pertains to the distinction between act and potency, including an extended discussion of the necessity and relevance of causal powers and their importance in making sense of the laws of nature. Here Feser pays significant attention to showing why a proper understanding of the reality of act and potency, and all that this reality entails, is more plausible than rival views advanced by the early modern philosopher David Hume or contemporary neo-Humeans.

Thus armed with vindicated causal powers, in chapter two Feser provides an analysis of causation itself, particularly defending central Thomistic principles about how causation works against a host of objections (both past and present). Chapter three is about substance, which includes an extended explanation of the principles of hylomorphism, the Aristotelian-Thomistic position on what makes things what they are. The final chapter pertains to the (real) distinction between essence and existence and includes a useful explanation of Thomas’s notion of analogy and analogical being.

There is a lot to like in this relatively small volume, especially for advanced readers — and those having some Anglo-American philosophical background — who are interested in becoming acquainted with Thomistic metaphysics and the reasons why Thomism endures as a compelling philosophical position. I have personally found Feser’s contributions — here and elsewhere — practically indispensable for beginning to understand Aquinas.

However, those searching for an introduction to Scholastic metaphysics accessible to the general reader should look elsewhere, for a few reasons. First, although Feser’s explanations carefully avoid assuming any prior Thomistic background, the speed with which he introduces much of the relevant material indicates a target audience of academic philosophers (or at least advanced philosophy students) who do not need much extended explanation. The general reader will thus find the book slow-going and difficult, requiring frequent repeated readings of some sections. Second, the book appears far more concerned with defending Thomistic metaphysics against a range of historical alternatives than introducing distinctively Scholastic views on given topics. For although Feser discusses rival Scholastic positions, such as those of William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and Francisco Suárez, his discussions are abbreviated and polemical. Most of the minor Scholastic thinkers go completely unmentioned. A more apt title for the book might have been Thomistic Metaphysics and Its Critics.

Misleading title aside, my main critical concern is that Feser tries to do too much at once. Given the apparent aims of the work, I would have preferred to see a two-volume set that first dives into the Scholastic debates (in isolation from broader historical concerns) from an “orthodox” Thomistic perspective, addressing in greater depth the premodern views and arguments raised against Thomistic metaphysical positions, and then, in a separate work, addresses the sort of criticisms that have been raised from early modernity forward. Scholastic Metaphysics combines both efforts, and this can at times make the presentation appear hurried, especially if the intended audience includes academics.

Hurried or not, it’s difficult to think of another single text that presents and defends Thomistic metaphysics so systematically, worthily examining some of the finer points on which the schoolmen debated alongside many other historically weighty criticisms of the Thomistic position. Feser fans will be delighted, and those unfamiliar with his work have one more reason to acquaint themselves with him.

- Brian Besong



A Cut-and-Paste Country.  By Kathleen Hart. Franciscan University Press. 98 pages. $14.95.

The poems in A Cut-and-Paste Country by Kathleen Hart, winner of the Jacopone da Todi Poetry Prize from Franciscan University of Steubenville, highlight a variety of figures and brim with detail. The title poem offers an entryway to our country and its principal features. The poem’s main figure is American architect George Franklin Barber (1854-1915), whose designs “to this day, can be recognized in houses / still standing in Georgetown and Weatherford, / Tyler and Houston Heights.” While biographical in impulse, the poem does not give an overview of accomplishments so much as convey how Barber’s imagination shaped and reshaped his vision and how that artistic process connected with his understanding of life. “Barber worked,” the poem’s speaker explains, “as if he could engineer his own cut-and-paste country, / always trying to encompass and reassemble every text he studied to become a self-made architect.” One of the best places to see this process is in his book Cottage Souvenir, in which he “engraved his plans for a town’s / worth of houses and stores and churches / on design cards he threaded together / with a length of yarn.” Over the years, he added buildings and rearranged the sequence of houses and the layout of streets, a process the poem sums up as “twenty years of revision and / enlargement, evolving adaptations and versions.” While this incessant process was driven by Barber’s inventive imagination, it was also inspired by the “exuberance of Psalm 104,” which celebrates God as the “Builder of Everything.” And it is not only the God of the Psalms who inspires Barber but also the Psalm’s very form. He comes to see that his “best design longed to manifest / the form and massing of Psalms, which are generous / enough for additions and deletions or revisions.” What makes them capable of such capaciousness and change is that they are “being propelled…by a design which varies and repeats, / a design which is carried out through breath, / which is spirit.”

What does this poem reveal about Hart’s country? First, it reveals the spirit that animates her work. Although this poem contains explicit references to God, spirit, and things biblical, most of her work avoids explicitly religious topics and overt “church” language. That said, the “spirit” that propels the Psalms and Barber’s work breathes through all of Hart’s poems.

Second, it reveals Hart’s tendency to focus her poems on a person other than herself. With a descriptive-narrative emphasis, she presents artists, inventors, businessmen, and conmen, though she focuses especially on architects. Whether as third-person discussions of these figures or first-person voicings of their experience, they fit what Hart calls “eclectic poems” — poems in which she selects elements from a source (biography, guidebook, exhibition notes) and applies them in a new context. This process of selection and application in a new context, while certainly common in the architectural field, is an “activity that takes place in all forms of memory and imagination.” In that sense, then, not only does the architect (and the poet) construct cut-and-paste countries, we all do it through memory and imagination.

Third, it reveals Hart’s characteristic voice. Conversational without being colloquial, and smoothly engaging, her voice moves flawlessly among disparate materials. Like the tinsmith in one of her poems, she can “align sections” in such a way as to defy “the world to find a jagged seam in their makeup.”

The title poem also points to a dominant motif in the book: the longing for renewal, often expressed in the imagery of architecture and art. Many of Hart’s poems speak to the desire and the need for change. For example, in “If You Want to Make Your Past a Foreign Country,” she explores this desire in terms of migrating to a new place. The migrants to Texas, for example, told their neighbors they were “headed / for the Land of Beginning Again,” a place “with plenty of elbow room” for you “to try on / your better selves.” The poem ends by linking this place of renewal with the “promise of God, the Land of Beginning Again.” In another poem, Hart imagines “the whole world weeping, reconfiguring itself / weeping and healing.” And in “Mid-Life,” the poet describes a process of renovation that applies equally to a house and a life: “Sometimes the only way to make something / whole again is to gut it.”

Hart returns to the theme of accepting life as a gift. In “Also Celebrate,” the speaker provides a litany of things we ought to celebrate and closes with “celebrate / the space, revealed only to you, between being / born and dying.” Recognizing the things of the world as gifts might also help us recognize their beauty. In a poem that riffs on William Carlos Williams, the speaker says that if you can look at a thing and recognize that “it / doesn’t depend on you / for its beauty,” then you might witness “an ordinary instance of grace.” Such attentiveness might teach us what another character, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, learned — that “every breath he / had ever taken was a gift he’d have to return,” and with that knowledge “Lowe was poised for / death, or his next invention.”

Hart’s poems are straightforward yet supple, and their wisdom is bred in the bone, not brushed on the skin. A visit to A Cut-and-Paste Country rewards the reader at every turn.

- Eric Potter





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