Alasdair Macintyre: Philosopher of the Ages
For several decades now, Alasdair MacIntyre has been recognized—even by those who do not agree with him—as one of the most important and singular voices in philosophy. His work in the late 1950s through the 1970s was marked by an increasingly obvious dissatisfaction with, and alienation from, many of the ideas of modernity, including Marxism, about which he published his first book in 1953, the same year, as it happens, as Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. That dissatisfaction was perhaps best exemplified in his 1971 book Against the Self-Images of the Age but the force of that book (it is an anthology of essays and reviews) was blunted by its piecemeal nature. It was not until the 1981 publication of After Virtue that we had from MacIntyre his first full-scale critique of the philosophical currents of modernity in the form of an incredibly powerful narrative of how and why the moral debates of our time are so shrill, incommensurate, and incapable of resolution. That thoroughgoing critique, coupled with an attempt to find the resources necessary for the construction of an alternative narrative and, a fortiori, alternative forms of community “within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us” (to quote the famously apocalyptic and often misunderstood ending of After Virtue) would be continued in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) as well as Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (1990), which was based on MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures.
Since 1990 MacIntyre has published several works, including Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (1999). That book and the three under review here are not at all what many students (of whom I am one) of MacIntyre’s magisterium expected from him, but they are significant nonetheless, and they witness, once more, to the astonishingly wide-ranging and fertile mind of a Scotsman whose philosophical and geographical peregrinations have led him late in life to describe himself as a “Thomistic Aristotelian, as North American immigrant, and as [a] Catholic.” After birth in Glasgow, and education and early lectureships in England, MacIntyre came to the United States where he has taught at, inter alia, Princeton, Yale, Duke, and now Notre Dame.
MacIntyre’s Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 is a highly unusual treatment of a woman who was born a Jew, became a student of Husserl and an important philosopher in her own right, converted to Catholicism in 1922, became a Carmelite nun, was killed in Auschwitz in 1942, and was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1998. MacIntyre does not treat Stein’s religious views: His narrative ends with 1922, the year Stein was baptized. He recognizes at the outset the other limitations of this book, noting that in many respects it does not break new ground and “is not a scholarly work.” Why, then, did MacIntyre write this book? The answer was already given a quarter-century ago in After Virtue, where he dismissed the idea that a “moral philosopher can study the concepts of morality merely by reflecting, Oxford armchair style, on what he or she and those around him or her say and do.” In other words, a life can only be understood in context, as part of one and usually many communities, having numerous commitments and duties, and in light of the philosophical (and other) traditions that precede and form it.
In that light, MacIntyre argues that Stein deserves study precisely as a philosopher for two reasons. The first, more general reason is that Stein exhibits a continuity between her philosophy and her life that, in an age of what MacIntyre calls “self-imposed compartmentalization” (a phenomenon he discusses at length in several essays in both The Tasks of Philosophy and Ethics and Politics) makes her exemplary, especially relative to her contemporary, Heidegger, whose very different life and commitments function as something of a foil in this relatively short but densely argued book.
The second major reason for an interest in Stein’s life is less for the conclusions she arrived at than the important and compelling questions she asked in the first place. The emphasis on the importance of asking questions, of recognizing the limits of what one knows, and of humbly acknowledging what one does not know but needs to explore, is the greatest leitmotiv throughout all three of these books. Part of MacIntyre’s insistence on asking questions stems from his belief that ours “tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers . . . are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning,” as he writes in The Tasks of Philosophy. MacIntyre does not want to see an end to questioning, but argues that man’s end consists precisely in questioning, in searching for the truth, and that this is a process that continues until one’s death.
Thus what he says of Stein applies equally well to his own life: “What emerged in the end from her life as a philosopher was an incomplete project,” incomplete not simply because she was murdered at 50 in Auschwitz-Berkenau in August 1942 but also because “what she left us was not so much a set of answers as a set of philosophical and theological questions.” MacIntyre details some of those questions and how they came about in Stein’s life, which was bound up with various philosophers both contemporary to her—including Adolf Reinach, Max Scheler, and then of course Edmund Husserl—and more remote, including Hume and Kant. In sum, MacIntyre notes that it is “Stein’s questions that I am praising rather than her answers” because she “generally and characteristically identified those issues that were and are philosophically crucial.” (MacIntyre’s emphasis on the centrality of questions is no false modesty but is a constant acknowledgment throughout all his works, beginning with his earliest: “All philosophy is work in progress,” as he says in his 1959 book Difficulties in Christian Belief.)
The essays gathered in the other two books are all also clearly works in progress. The first book, The Tasks of Philosophy is, like the second, Ethics and Politics, a collection of essays, some but not all of which have been previously published, sometimes in more obscure places; several of those that were published have been revised and updated; and all these essays are rigorous and demanding as they range over a diversity of topics and thinkers including “Hegel on Faces and Skulls”; “Colours, Cultures, and Practices” (with an extended discussion of Wittgenstein); numerous essays on Aristotle and Aquinas and their ideas, influences, and disciples; truthfulness and lies in Kant and Mill; the relationship between faith and philosophy in Fides et Ratio (by the late Pope John Paul II); the relationship between Burke and Yeats in the latter’s poetry; and the legacy of the Enlightenment on social institutions and the so-called virtue of tolerance. These essays are largely works of criticism and analysis whose limitations MacIntyre repeatedly acknowledges. He characteristically resists the proffering of specific and practical prescriptions for alternative courses of action, and for two reasons: First, as he says in Ethics and Politics, “philosophical theorizing cannot construct blueprints for designing the future after the manner of Fabian Socialism or Soviet Marxism.” Second, reflecting a longstanding disdain, he argues in The Tasks of Philosophy that “so-called ‘applied ethics’ . . . is to some large degree not at all an application to actual social practice of the theories of academic moral philosophy, but is instead itself a substitute for those theories, providing ideological disguises for some of the limitations of the social settings in which moral discourse is deployed.”
The wide array of essays in these two volumes makes their reading, singly or together, a very demanding task. What links these essays together, and what therefore makes the task of reading and thinking about them somewhat easier, is MacIntyre’s well-honed and very characteristic narrative style that attends to important historical and personal contexts and allows the reader to see how, e.g., Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Stein fit into the “story” of philosophy. Though eminently learned and extremely widely read, MacIntyre has never been one to burden his reader with an excess of ostentatious documentation (notes are very sparely used in these books as elsewhere) or to indulge in a jargon-laden intramural discussion of limited interest or relevance. (He does, however, evidence a frequent unwillingness to use commas, and an overfondness for sentences of Germanic length and complexity—sentences where the lack of commas leaves the reader breathless, if not bewildered.) His panoptic historicism, first clearly on display in his 1966 book A Short History of Ethics, allows one to see how thinkers and theories relate to one another (or, of course, are in conflict with one another) and to demonstrate how, indeed, “ideas have consequences.”
There is a further link between all three of these volumes, though it is easy to miss. That link consists of the autobiographical glimpses each of these three books provides; sometimes explicitly but sometimes cryptically, and at all times incompletely and disconnectedly. Even when cryptic and disconnected, however, they go some way to filling in some of the gaps in the narrative of MacIntyre’s own life, about which he has been unaccountably reticent. For those who are keen to understand how MacIntyre’s claims about tradition and local communities of virtues are embodied in his own life, we have been given few resources over the many years by a man who, in an interview in 1994, said that “autobiography is a treacherous form” one should not attempt unless one is—like St. Augustine—a “genius” at it. Otherwise most autobiography becomes “tiresome” due to its “tedious self-preoccupation.”
There is, of course, no systematic autobiographical essay in these books, but MacIntyre does fill in some of the gaps by frankly telling us—often in a disarmingly off-handed way—about certain key moments, periods, and insights in his own life and in the development of his thought. “The Ends of Life, the Ends of Philosophical Writing” in The Tasks of Philosophy is one such piece that has recondite autobiographical clues in it; “Three Perspectives on Marxism: 1953, 1968, 1995” in Ethics and Politics is much more forthrightly autobiographical. In this latter piece MacIntyre tells us of how mistaken his early views of Marxism and Christianity were (“Whereas in 1953 I had, doubtless naively, supposed it possible to be in some significant way both a Christian and a Marxist, I was by 1968 able to be neither”), and how, only many years later (in the early 1980s), was he able to see “the removal of these barriers” that had hitherto prevented his “coming to acknowledge the truth of the biblical Christianity of the Catholic Church.”
In sum, we have from MacIntyre in these three books a continuation of some of his lifelong lines of inquiry and an opening up to other areas he has not explored as frequently. In all things, we have thinking and analysis of an incredible fecundity and importance, and we are, once more, enormously in his debt.
Adam A.J. DeVille is an assistant professor of theology at the University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. An Eastern Catholic, he has published widely in Canada, the United States, and Europe, in such journals as The Jurist, Eglise et Theologie, the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, the Canadian Journal of Orthodox Christianity, the Anglican Theological Review, Commonweal, and First Things.
Posted: September 6, 2008
The Critics of Burke
Volume 31, Number 3 (Fall 1991)