I was asked if I have any thoughts about Michael Egnor’s article “Why Aristotle and Aquinas?”.
I think that there some pretty serious confusions here, about the history of modern philosophy and also about the relation between science and metaphysics.
Firstly, Egnor writes as if systematic philosophy begins with Aristotle and ends with Aquinas. I disagree with both claims. There’s no reason to think that comprehensive metaphysics ends with Aquinas — at least, one would need a really good argument for why Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, or Whitehead don’t make the cut. (Let alone non-Western metaphysics such as Madhyamaka Buddhism, etc.)
Secondly, Egnor conflates hylomorphism and realism about universals. These are different issues, and they need to be teased apart.
Hylomorphism says that for something to be a thing is for it to be a structured stuff: there is a structure that a thing has and there’s the stuff of which its made. So there’s the structuring aspect, what unifies something as a thing and makes it the kind of thing that it is. and then there’s the stuff which is held together by the structure.
Realism about universals says that concepts are part of the furniture of the world: the world has its own conceptual structure, and then what we need to do is figure out what that structure is. Inquiry is ultimately about bringing our own conceptual structures into alignment with the underlying conceptual structure of the world.
What holds these two ideas together, and makes them seem so wedded to one another, is the idea of essentialism: the idea that things have essences, or structures or forms that make it the kind of thing that it is, and which are also reflected or expressed in the concept of that thing.
(As an aside, I regard essentialism as both false — there aren’t any such things as essences — and also as evil — the belief in essences has legitimized millennia of atrocities.)
Now, I am (probably) a kind of nominalist. I don’t think that the world has any underlying conceptual structure. I think that conceptual structures are part of how complex organisms navigate their environments. I don’t think that the causal relationships between phenomena have the same underlying structure as the inferential relationships between thoughts. Egnor seems to think that nominalism is the Root of All Evil, and that just seems utterly baffling to me.
I can agree with Egnor that it is a profound error of much of modern thought that mind is conceived of as being independent of the world, so that the relationship between them is then a problem to be solved. And we do find the canonical version of this problem presented in Descartes. But this situation — what Jay Rosenberg calls “the Myth of the Mind Apart” — is really quite separate from whatever one’s views are about the nature of concepts.
It may be a contingent truth of the history of philosophy that the rise of mechanistic physics and nominalism about concepts rendered Thomism untenable. I think the Egnor simplifies the history in unhelpful ways. But Egnor seems to think that Darwinism and nominalism are part of the Highway to Hell, and I think he’s completely mistaken about that.