Alasdair MacIntyre: "Thomist”

September 1990By Philip E. Devine

Philip E. Devine is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island, and the author of Relativism, Nihilism, and God. His The Ethics of Homicide has just been reprinted in paperback.

Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.  By Alasdair MacIntyre. University of Notre Dame Press. 236 pages. $24.95.



One of the most frustrat­ing features of Alasdair MacIntyre’s writing until now has been its combination of bril­liant critiques of other posi­tions with fragmentary and apparently incoherent positive proposals. After Virtue asked us to become followers of both Trotsky and St. Benedict, while at the same time some­how managing to stay sane. Whose Justice? Which Rationali­ty? concluded by commending Thomism in a paragraph, after arguing at length that the case for one tradition against the others must be made in detail. MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures — published as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry — are his attempt to remedy the un­settled state in which his earli­er writings have left his readers.

MacIntyre defends what he calls Thomism — repre­sented by the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) — against two other traditions: that of the En­lightenment, and that of the subversive insight represented by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. (“Genealogy” thus be­comes MacIntyre’s word for the tradition founded by Nietzsche.)

MacIntyre claims to do on behalf of St. Thomas what St. Thomas himself did with the Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions that contended in the University of Paris of his day. He claims, that is, to be able to explain and resolve the epistemological crises gener­ated by the Enlightenment and the genealogical tradition, and to answer the criticism each of these traditions might make of Thomism. The outcome of such an argument, if success­fully stated, would make a very strong claim on our as­sent. (Still: Jewish, Islamic, and non-Western traditions need to be taken into account. And some showing that MacIntyre’s approach yields per­suasive resolution of concrete moral issues is also required.)

In a spirit of holism, MacIntyre is hostile to the distinc­tion between philosophy and theology, for which many people have found authority in the writing of St. Thomas. He attributes to St. Thomas a conception of philosophy as a craft, in which the apprentice must learn from his master the distinction between real and apparent goods before being able to give reasons for such judgments. Authority and tra­dition are consequently as im­portant for philosophy as for theology. Even interventions by authority to correct the re­sults of philosophical inquiry are in order, as a check on the pride of philosophers. He reads St. Thomas’s metaphysics of being as an implication of the distinction between truth and warranted assertibility necessary to the project of syn­thesizing contending tradi­tions. It should be clear that MacIntyre’s “Thomism” fits the text of St. Thomas somewhat loosely.

From the perspective of Thomism so understood, MacIntyre proceeds to criticize both the Enlightenment and the genealogical tradition. He sees the morality of the En­lightenment as a fragmentary survival of the cohesive way of life once sustained by Catholic Christianity. The genealogists, MacIntyre argues, lack a way of sustaining their own identi­ty behind the masks they as­sume in order to express their subversive insights. Thomism, by contrast, is able to under­stand personal identity in terms of bodily continuity and accountability to a visible Church. In his diagnosis of the problems of the contemporary university, MacIntyre, virtually alone among cultural con­servatives, refuses to engage in the ritualistic 60s-bashing which by now has become a substitute for thought, even in writers, like Allan Bloom, who know better. The rebels of the 1960s were right, MacIntyre points out, and their victorious opponents wrong, on one cru­cial academic point: The univer­sity of the 1950s had lost its credibility as a place in which inquiries concerning the good life for human beings in soci­ety could be carried on with any effect. And the reading of the Great Books, however necessary to a sound educa­tion, does not provide a reso­lution of the cultural conflicts we have inherited, for these conflicts include conflict about the proper way of reading texts.

MacIntyre argues for the replacement of the regime of constrained agreement charac­teristic of the pre-liberal uni­versity, and the regime of unconstrained agreement to­ward which the liberal university vainly aspires, with a regime of constrained disa­greement. He rejects both the idea that inquiry can proceed without agreed upon presup­positions, and the exclusion of alien traditions which his cri­tique of liberalism might be taken to imply. He appears to support a collegiate structure, in which scholars pursue their research programs among like-minded others during the bulk of their professional lives, but in which representatives of the various colleges regularly come together for purposes of dispu­tation. Thus we may expect Thomist colleges, genealogical colleges, and colleges repre­senting the tradition of the Enlightenment to co-exist with­in a consortium or university that makes regular provision for intercollegiate dialogue.

MacIntyre would be the last to expect his work to put an end to controversy. I here offer three criticisms, one on behalf of the Enlightenment, one on behalf of Nietzsche and his followers, and one on behalf of MacIntyre himself.

MacIntyre downplays those aspects of St. Thomas’s thought that support the En­lightenment project. But it is a direct consequence of St. Thomas’s philosophy that, say, atheists and Buddhists, as ra­tional creatures made in the image of God, are able to know at least the most impor­tant parts of the natural law, ignorant though they may be of its metaphysical basis. And it is possible to call interests protected by the natural law “natural rights” without laps­ing into the contemporary conception of rights as de­mands arising spontaneously and self-evidently from the shared consciousness of some vocal group.

As for the genealogists, it is easy to see their philosophy as the product of pride — even an atheist like Bertrand Russell so argues in his History of Western Philosophy. Hence Russell’s remedy for pride — a realist conception of truth — and MacIntyre’s — the ac­countability provided by a vis­ible Church — are both in or­der. But the genealogists’ reply is their claim to have discov­ered the will-to-power behind every known intellectual posi­tion, including those backed by claims to objective truth and those supported by appeal to — or exercise of — religious authority. An answer to Nietz­sche requires a deeper foray into theology than MacIntyre is prepared to undertake.

Sometimes MacIntyre ap­pears to take the view that the progress of human thought ended with St. Thomas, and that its subsequent history is merely that of sin and error. But in fact MacIntyre’s reading of St. Thomas is an idiosyn­cratic one and his Thomism a mask. On MacIntyre’s own principles, his position is intel­ligible only as developed in dialectical opposition to views of which St. Thomas was necessarily unaware. Also, MacIntyre’s philosophy owes a great deal to the unacknowl­edged influence of Hegel. What place is there for a person such as MacIntyre in the university as he conceives it? Not in one of its constituent colleges, whose loyalty oaths he could not take in good faith. Not in some sort of intercollegiate appointment, since MacIntyre’s holism makes it difficult to fragment a person’s position in the re­quired way. If such a person is to escape the condition of homelessness to which MacIntyre’s proposed constitution for the Republic of Letters would otherwise consign him, he will need to become its ruler.



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