BMCR 2020.02.10

Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science

, Aristotle's Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science. Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019. 515. ISBN 9783868382006 €29,99 (pb).

Table of Contents

This book is a sequel to Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Feser 2014). While the previous book is a systematic introduction to Feser’s neo-Thomistic metaphysics, the current book is an application of this metaphysics to issues connected with physics, biology, and cognitive science. Although the reader will benefit from reading Feser’s previous book, the current book can be read on its own since its first chapter summarises the previous book.

In a nutshell, the argument of the book is that current best science presupposes Aristotelian metaphysics, by which Feser means, specifically, (1) the distinction between actuality and potentiality, (2) hylomorphism, i.e., the doctrine that natural objects are composed of matter and a substantial form, and (3) the full range of Aristotle’s four causes, viz. the material, formal, efficient and final cause. The book is not a historical scholarly work on Aristotle; it does not discuss different interpretations of Aristotle; and it only references a couple of works by Aristotle scholars. Rather, the book is a systematic work within metaphysics, philosophy of science, and what Feser calls ‘philosophy of nature’—which is basically a more traditional term for what is currently called ‘metaphysics of science’ (as in, e.g., Schrenk 2017). On a common conception, Aristotle’s philosophy is in conflict with much of contemporary science. Aristotle rejected atomism, ruled out evolution by chance, defended presentism (denied by Einsteinian relativity) and the independence of macro-level substances like organisms (in conflict with reductionism and quantum physics). Feser aims to show these conflicts to be illusory, and argues for agreement on a fundmental level.

Chapter 1 is a summary of Feser’s Aristotelico-Thomistic metaphysics, which is an Aristotelianism largely following Thomas Aquinas. Feser’s ontological commitments are fairly heavyweight, as he is committed to (1) primary substances, (2) prime matter, (3) facts, (4) abstractions, (5) intellects, and (6) potentialities. He contrasts this metaphysics with what he calls ‘the mechanical philosophy’, specifically the metaphysics of early modern philosophers who were critical of Aristotle, such as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza. In a very nice overview, he summarises and refutes their criticism of Aristotelianism (pp. 52–64).

Chapter 2 discusses methodological issues (induction, status of empirical claims and observations, mathematical characterisations, etc.), defends the principle of sufficient reason, and argues from a phenomenological background that science presupposes a thinking, conscious, embodied subject, namely the scientist. To defend this last claim, Feser introduces retorsion arguments, which refute a claim “by showing that anyone making it is led thereby into a performative self-contradiction” (p. 80). Feser makes frequent use of such arguments throughout the book.

Chapter 3 polemizes against verificationism, falsification, and variants of structural realism (such as Ladyman 2014). Some of this material, like the discussion of Cartwright’s account of laws of nature (Cartwright 1999), is fairly textbook material, but there is also some original content, like Feser’s defence of Cartwright against some recent criticism by Hoefer (2008) and Smolin (2013).

Chapter 4 discusses space, motion and time. With 112 pages, it is by far the longest chapter in the book, and it answers to arguments that cite results from contemporary physics, such as inertia and Einsteinian relativity, as empirical refutations of Aristotelianism. Feser’s reply, in short, is that space, moments of time and inertia are all abstractions—and although they are, in some respect, real, nonetheless they leave out many aspects of reality. Feser also argues that a presentist view of time is preferable over other A-theories of time (growing block, moving spotlight), and preferable over any B-theory, as these cannot account for the special role of the present.

Chapter 5 discusses several topics related to the philosophy of matter. Feser discusses what sense Aristotelianism can make of (prime) matter in quantum mechanics, and he joins the mainstream of philosophy of chemistry (p. 332) against reductionism. Feser also rebuts the classic distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Finally, Feser rejects the view that material things like the world as a whole, the brain or a genome are computational systems running certain programmes. In his critique, Feser largely follows Searle’s (1992) critique of computationalism. However, while Searle argues that information is not a natural kind and thus causally inert, Feser defends the view that teleology contains natural information. For Feser, “computational notions are essentially a recapitulation of the Aristotelian notions of formal and final causality” (p. 351).

The final chapter 6 discusses biological issues, such as the origin of life, different variants of reductionism, teleology, species essentialism, evolution, the issue of free will and neuroscience, and the Intelligent Design hypothesis: Feser holds that evolution is compatible with and presupposes Aristotelianism, while the Intelligent Design hypothesis treats living beings like artefacts and is thus incompatible with the Aristotelian assumption of substantial natures inhering in living beings.

From the content, it should already be clear that Feser’s account is not a mere repristination of neo-Scholastic Aristotelianism but is also tailored to deal with current scientific ideas. Some of Feser’s discussions are of particular interest. For example, Feser’s mereological take on formal and material causation is highly original. Feser says that formal causation is what “Aristotelians” call the “dependence of matter on form and of parts on the whole”, and that material causation is what they call the “dependence of form on matter and of whole on parts” (p. 314). Unfortunately, there is no further discussion of this idea.

Another exciting topic, already dealt with in Feser (2014), is that of potentiality. One idea original to the new book is that kinds of natural substances can be ordered along a scale of potentiality, according to how many potentialities they have (p. 430). Highest on the scale is prime matter, which has the potential to become anything. Lower on the scale are fermions, even lower is water, and very low on the scale are, e.g., cows and other higher forms of life. Such a hierarchy might be implicit in Aristotle’s discussion of water, wine, and vinegar in Metaphysics VIII 5.

A potentiality, as understood by Feser, is “a real feature of the world, and a middle ground between non-being […] and actuality” (p. 15). However, Feser seems not to distinguish sufficiently between potentialities, possibilities, and dispositions (Jansen 2016). In cases like the fermions, what has many potentialities has very few dispositions, while for cows or humans, it is the other way around. This also points to a limitation of Feser’s idea of virtual existence: Saying that it is possible for a fermion to be part of a cow is not the same as saying that the fermion has a disposition to be part of a cow. There is a further problem. On the one hand, all ‘higher’ forms of being are already ‘virtually’ contained in prime matter—which means that there are powers in prime matter that allow for the generation of the other forms of being. (Remember that ‘virtually’ derives from Latin vir-, power.) On the other hand, Feser insists that substances (like fermions, copper or cats) bring with them new and irreducible powers. It is not obvious how he can resolve this tension.

Another problem is that Feser often confuses the metaphysical and the epistemological aspects of science. For instance, the Aristotelian doctrines are often argued to be indispensable because the phenomena otherwise would be unintelligible (p. 35). Similarly, the principle of sufficient reason is about intelligibility, rather than anything metaphysical (p. 75). This also extends to logic, for instance with Feser’s claim that inferences are concerned with intelligibility or explanatory adequacy. Similarly, in his discussion of reduction in chemistry, Feser argues that the identification of the lower levels presupposes a prior grasp of the higher levels (p. 340). In a similar vein, Feser says that Aristotle’s four causes are not only causes, but also explanations and even components of accounts (p. 39). Further, Feser accepts Locke’s point that “real essence, you might say, ‘piggybacks’ on nominal essence” (p. 333): But, this dependence seems to be merely epistemological, namely to know the real essence of a thing one must first know its nominal essence. However, nominal essences metaphysically depend upon real essences, and thus the relationship is not, as Feser claims, reciprocal.

Feser’s view of universals (as well as space, moments of time, inertia) has strong conceptual elements, despite his protestations to the contrary (p. 170). He does not claim that universals etc. are merely free creations of the intellect, but that they are abstracted from the perception of particular things in a systematic and scientific way. These abstractions only exist within an intellect (pp. 170, 176, 236). In this too Feser follows Aquinas, and one could possibly also draw lines to Avicenna, or even the recent work of David Wiggins.

Feser’s book adds to a growing body of literature on neo-Aristotelian approaches in metaphysics and the philosophy of science. However, Feser stands out from other analytic neo-Aristotelians with his in-depth knowledge and discussion of 20 th and 21 st century neo-Thomistic literature, and one can learn a lot from reading this book: for instance, that there is a transcendental Thomism inspired by Kant, or that a Thomist like Feser can make use of Heidegger’s phenomenology. However, while this eclectic breadth is certainly interesting, it makes for a less unified book.

Given the subtitle, “the metaphysical foundations of physical and biological science”, one would have expected a largely constructive account that shows in detail how today’s physics, biology and neuroscience rely on Aristotelian doctrines. This is not so. Instead, the book is largely polemical, and Feser should have spent more pages explaining his own views and claims. Also, while Feser occasionally criticises theories in the current literature (such as Ladyman’s ontic structural realism), he more often engages with older views, such as the early moderns, or logical positivism, or Russell and Quine; or literature from the 80s and 90s.

As a result, it is not easy to identify the intended audience. The book is certainly written in an accessible style and language, which makes it readable also for undergraduate students, and even a popular audience could find much of the discussion valuable. Feser presents many of the key topics and discussions from philosophy of science and metaphysics of science, as well as his own neo-Thomistic perspective. Maybe professional philosophers will be interested in reading some of Feser’s polemics, for instance, against structural realism, reductionism, or non-presentist views of time. Finally, the book can serve as a reference point for metaphysicians and philosophers of science interested in learning about neo-Thomistic approaches in these fields. All of these audiences can benefit from reading the book, although it is not ideally targeted at any of them. Nevertheless, it will certainly be exciting for scholars of Aristotle or Aquinas to see how these theories are used to elucidate the exciting discoveries of modern physics, biology and neuroscience.1


Cartwright, Nancy (1999). The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feser, Edward (2014). Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae.
Hoefer, Carl (2008). For Fundamentalism, in: Nancy Cartwright’s Philosophy of Science, S. Hartmann, C. Hoefer, & L. Bovens (eds.), London: Routledge.
Jansen, Ludger (2016). Tun und Können, Berlin: Springer.
Ladyman, James (2016). “Structural realism”, in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E. N. Zalta (ed.),
Rosenberg, Alex (2011). The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, New York: W.W. Norton.
Schrenk, Markus (2017). Metaphysics of Science: A Systematic and Historical Introduction, London and New York: Routledge.
Searle, John (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Smolin, Lee (2013). Time Reborn, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


1. Research for this review has been supported by the German Research Foundation under the auspices of the project “Formal Causation in Aristotle and Analytic Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science” (JA 1904/4-1).