Friday, January 4, 2019

The Love of Knowledge

Philosophy: from Greek philosophia "love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom; systematic investigation," from philo- "loving" + sophia "knowledge, wisdom," from sophis "wise, learned;"

…for most of the history of philosophy and science, there was no rigid distinction between these disciplines; “philosophy” was just that general “love of wisdom”…

Philosophers were after an understanding of the world, whether this involved physics, metaphysics, biology, ethics, or any other branch of science – which explains much about why we brand the most formally educated in almost any discipline a “Doctor of Philosophy.” 

This very broad view of the meaning of philosophy was true for much of western history; it is only recently where science is somehow considered a breed apart and the final arbiter – one might say only since the Enlightenment.

Feser provides an overview of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle; in this post I will not get through all of this – much too heavy.  It will take a second post.


Feser describes Plato’s theory of forms, a complete account of the relationships between the material and immaterial worlds.  His “form” was the essence of a thing.  For example, although a triangle can come in many shapes, colors, angles, widths of the lines, etc., one could know the form – the “triangleness” of a triangle: three sides, angles add to 180 degrees, etc.  This idea of “form” is true for all things. 

Further, the form exists independent of anyone knowing it.  It is there to be discovered, not invented; it was there before our birth and will be there after our death.  No one invented the idea that a triangle had three sides, 180 degrees, etc.  It just is. 

One can consider the form of the thing to be the archetype.  This “real” triangle need not have a location in time and space; hence, if correct, Plato’s theory “proves” that there is more to reality than time and space. 

The ultimate form is the Form of the Good; to know any form, one must know the Form of the Good.  Does Plato see this form as God?  Some argue that he does, but it only becomes apparent through his followers in later centuries.

The word “good” is important.  Feser emphasizes – he says “good” instead of “moral values”; the term “values” implies something dependent on the person doing the valuing – and, as we know, value is subjective, based on each individual’s own scale.  If the “good” is as Plato describes, it is not dependent on any person’s “value.”  It just is; it is not subjective:

…the good for a thing, including for a human being, is entirely objective, it is determined by its essence or Form and has nothing necessarily to do with what we happen contingently to “value” or desire.

As these forms exist outside of and are not contingent on the material world, there must be an eternal source for these forms and morality is to be found in this source.  This Feser describes as “realism.”

Feser offers that it is very hard avoid something like Plato’s theory: one cannot make sense of mathematics, language, science, and even the structure of the world without this idea.  He offers three sorts of things as examples to demonstrate this point: universals, numbers, and propositions.  These all exist outside of the human mind and would exist even if there were no human minds.

The debate between the new atheists and their critics hinges on the idea of universalism – the universal triangle, the universal redness, the universal humanness.  Plato’s realism is abandoned by these atheists for either nominalism – a denial that universals are real, or conceptualism – the universals are real but they exist only in the mind.

Returning to the idea that what is good for a thing is determined by its form: when applied to a human, this idea leads to certain conclusions about a man, a woman and a child.  A question remains: what is “good” for a human?  Define “good.”  TBD.


Feser doesn’t give Plato a slam-dunk win; he offers Aristotle to clean things up a bit.  To get a couple of things out of the way: first, some consider Aristotle kind and generous, others a vain SOB; he “compared homosexuality to eating dirt” (Plato also offered that this practice was contrary to nature); he lacked Plato’s literary flair, although he was more down to earth.

Overall, then, Aristotle just isn’t as “sexy” as Plato. His only advantage is being right.

 Like Plato, Aristotle is a realist within the context discussed above; however he thinks it an error to consider that objects occupy a third realm – outside of the material or the intellect.  The triangleness only exists in the triangle that it occupies; considered as abstractions, these only exist in the mind.

What this means can only be understood in the context of Aristotle’s metaphysics: “his description of the basic principles and categories governing all reality, knowledge of which must inform any sound scientific, ethical, political, or ideological inquiry.”

Feser warns the reader: while understanding Aristotle is vitally important, get ready for some dry stuff!  Feser describes Aristotle’s version of realism as “the most powerful and systematic realist metaphysics ever developed”; however, it took Aristotle’s medieval followers to complete the development of his thought.

How significant is Aristotle?  Well, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate, so let me put it this way: Abandoning Aristotlianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought.

Mmmm…emphasis in original.  I think Feser really wants us to pay attention.

This abandonment has contributed to the civilizational crisis that has plagued the west for several centuries – and has accelerated in the last century or so.  Feser offers that there were other, non-intellectual, contributing factors – and some of these were more important. As this is an examination of philosophy, Feser is thus far staying in his lane:

It is implicated in the disintegration of confidence in the rational justifiability of morality and religious belief; …in the modern world’s corrosive skepticism about the legitimacy of any authority, and the radical individualism and collectivism that have followed in its wake…

Feser points to the depersonalization of man that has followed the abandonment of Aristotle: unparalleled mass-murder; abortion’s slaughter of countless millions; euthanasia; same-sex marriage and the sexual revolution generally.

This list of depersonalizations is interesting: he points to outcomes some of which an individualist could support and some that would make an individualist shriek in horror; yet both come from the same mother of abandoning Aristotle.  Depersonalizing by ignoring the human form has consequences, it seems.

It was the logical development of Aristotle’s ideas – as developed by his medieval followers – that offered the powerful and systematic intellectual foundation for Western religion and morality.  The unraveling of these ideas – despite the wishes of the new atheists – will undermine any rational and moral standards that these atheists attempt to claim.  I would say that we already have the proof.

I will develop Feser’s views on Aristotle’s ideas in the next post.


  1. Really excellent start to your series, thank you.

  2. I have read Plato a bit but I have never read Aristotle, so I am glad you will expanding on his teaching.

    Any discussion of Plato and Aristotle takes me back to Francis Schaeffer who was a Christian philosopher. He wrote books tracing the history of philosophy and how those ideas showed up in Western culture. You could tell he very much liked the classical philosophers, but the villian to his story was Hegel. He claims Hegel was instrumental in transforming philosophy from an objective search for truth to the more subjective activity it is today. I wouldn't be surprised if 'nominalism' and 'conceptualism' were the fruit of some of Hegel's ideas.

    I would like to propose that the biggest non-intellectual factor that lead to the the rejection of objective realism is World War 1. The depersonalization was partly responsible for the war as well. People were to be considered raw materials whether in a factory production or war destruction.

    After World War 1 (and 2), there was a huge amount of disillusion with Modernity, which was based on objectivism. Hegel was before all this but I think his ideas didn't become as widely accepted until the Post Modernists built upon his ideas. Kind of like Medieval philosophers with Aristotle.

  3. Long-time reader here and occasional commenter. I've read Feser's book at least twice, trying to absorb it all. The book is obviously not a systematic treatment of metaphysical realism, and it's not meant to be, but nevertheless it is extremely dense (in the good way). These ideas are so foundational, it's important to get them right.

    I know you haven't gotten to this part yet, but I'm fascinated by some of the early enlightenment philosophers, many of whom at least claimed to be Christian, who nevertheless assisted in the dismantling of Aristotelian/Thomist thought. We've been so inculcated in the notion that the enlightenment was a great and wonderful thing, it's disorienting to have someone come along and claim it's a major source of the destruction of Western civilization.

    Looking forward to your further analysis of this excellent book.

    1. I have been slowly coming to this realization about the Enlightenment - I continue to try to put it into words. Yes, I am looking forward to Feser's treatment.