The Way toward Wisdom: an Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics. By Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.


Pp. xxi, 618 , Notre Dame IN , University of Notre Dame Press , 2006 , $75.00 .

Although Benedict Ashley's work is written as an introduction to metaphysics, it proves to be the most profound contemporary defense of ‘River Forest’ or Aristotelian Thomism yet to be produced. Those who would like to decide for themselves whether this form of Thomism deserves to be praised or buried need look no further. While this might have been an achievement sufficient for a life time's contemplation on these matters, Ashley has additionally provided a uniquely relevant perspective in metaphysics, which is sensitive to the contemporary problems of multiculturalism and pluralism.

The aim of the work is precisely to resuscitate metaphysics in order to provide a framework for the fragmentation of knowledge that plagues contemporary higher education, in order that meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue might begin. To accomplish this ambitious task, Ashley confronts three central challenges: the development of the modern natural scientific method, the competing claims of other forms of Thomism, and contemporary challenges to the possibility of metaphysics as an enterprise, such as the Heideggerian critique of metaphysics as ontotheology. These problems, however, are not addressed systematically. Instead, what Ashley develops systematically is his exposition of Thomistic metaphysics, and addresses these concerns whenever the opportunity arises.

Ashley's exposition, then, falls into four parts. The first part, in addition to developing the general problem of the unification of knowledge, advances almost all of the major theses that Ashley requires to make sense of an Aristotelian Thomism. Here he provides his account of substance metaphysics, a defense of the a posteriori proof for the existence of a first case, and arguments for the existence of an immaterial soul as well as angels or pure spirits. The second part elaborates the various metaphysical topics that follow from the initial theses, such as an account of the transcendentals, the place of formal and final causality in the special sciences, and the role that modern logic and mathematics play in this account. Additionally, it is here, in the special science of ethics, that Ashley addresses the role of the good and the problem of evil. The third part addresses the essence of God, as well as God's attributes. This part proves crucial for the possibility of inter-religious dialogue, since it is here that Ashley advances his arguments for the relative superiority of monotheism to the variety of monisms. The fourth part concludes Ashley's argument by elaborating how metaphysics can serve to unify for the various discourses in contemporary education. In particular, he suggests the advantages of this approach by maintaining, against secular humanism, an account of spiritual reality, and, with secular humanism, a special place of concern for the special sciences.

While this work is likely to continue debates concerning Ashley's well-known controversial positions, such as his claim that men are the natural leaders of the household and should always have the final word in making decisions, the work also brings out more clearly certain concerns underlying these judgments. In particular, the need to address the accomplishments of natural science as well as contemporary mathematics is acute for Ashley, since his Aristotelian Thomism is methodologically committed to two theses. First, he argues that to claim that metaphysics is formally distinct from natural science is nonsense, unless one provides a valid demonstration of the existence of immaterial being as the cause of material being. Second, it is modern natural science that achieves this demonstration, provided that one has rendered its foundations unequivocally consistent with Aristotle's terminology in the Physics (p. 53). Metaphysics, then, is better understood as metascience, since it presupposes all the other specific sciences in its consideration of ens commune.

One wonders how these theses will fare. In order to achieve this univocity, that is to say, in order to claim that both modern natural science and mathematics study ousia in the restricted character of ens mobile, Ashley proposes two absolutely critical arguments. First, contemporary experimentation by means of the telescope or microscope only amplifies our sensory capacities. It helps us ‘arrive at finer details than our naked senses can give us’ (p. 86). Second, mathematical terms, in order to avoid confusion, must be grounded in physically real quantity (p. 205). That mathematics is grounded in physics is likely to strike most who work in the philosophy of mathematics as a non-starter. In order to maintain the integrity of the discipline, it seems that mathematics must be free to explore notions, such as large cardinals or n-dimensional spaces, which have no physical analogue. The first claim, at least as currently stated, is simply false. Even with a light microscope, the visual image that one perceives is not the result of reflection from a surface to the eye, but projection through a surface to the eye. The only way one can understand what one sees is by admitting a certain amount of knowledge of optics. This kind of ‘epistemic mediation’ seems irreducible. While such a thesis is not the same as the better known thesis of the theory-ladenness of perception, Ashley does not so much as even address either of these possibilities in his work. Since these arguments are of capital importance to his project as a whole, they indicate a critical weak point.

What has been noted as a weak point is just one of what will likely be many points of debate. This is not to claim that Ashley's work is shot through with holes, but rather that its enormous scope and intrepid suggestions are likely to continue fruitful discussions about some of the most central topics philosophy and theology have ever addressed. Perhaps it is for this reason that Ashley subtitled his work an introduction to these questions rather than a ‘summa’. As the culminating work of a lifetime, then, it can only be recommended that anyone interested in these matters attend carefully to the arguments in this work.