"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Alasdair MacIntyre on Ethics Amidst the Conflicts of Modernity

One cannot do any sort of serious philosophy or theology today without attending to the context in which we live, a context that nobody has done more, in the realm of moral philosophy, to analyze than the greatest moral philosopher of our time, Alasdair MacIntyre. A new book by him--who is now well into his 80s--is therefore a signal event of capital importance. Just released at the end of the year is his Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 322pp.

MacIntyre has often been quoted, but too often those quoting him the most, or most often, have read him too little, as I have demonstrated and others too--most especially on the questions of conflict between monastic communities and Christian churches (variously understood) and the modern nation-state. MacIntyre is a careful thinker, and part of thinking with MacIntyre means taking the time to read him carefully, and to think about the implications of what he says. I wrote an MA thesis on him almost 20 years ago, and one of the many admirable things I found about him was how often he was willing to say "I know this requires more work" or "I thank my critics for pressing me to think more deeply about...." His genuine openness to recognizing what needs more work, or correction, or even outright retraction is refreshing to see today, and rarer than one might think among contemporary academics.

About this newest book of his the publisher tells us:
Alasdair MacIntyre explores some central philosophical, political and moral claims of modernity and argues that a proper understanding of human goods requires a rejection of these claims. In a wide-ranging discussion, he considers how normative and evaluative judgments are to be understood, how desire and practical reasoning are to be characterized, what it is to have adequate self-knowledge, and what part narrative plays in our understanding of human lives. He asks, further, what it would be to understand the modern condition from a neo-Aristotelian or Thomistic perspective, and argues that Thomistic Aristotelianism, informed by Marx's insights, provides us with resources for constructing a contemporary politics and ethics which both enable and require us to act against modernity from within modernity. This rich and important book builds on and advances MacIntyre's thinking in ethics and moral philosophy, and will be of great interest to readers in both fields.
And we are given the table of contents:

1. Desires, goods, and 'good', the philosophical issues
2. Theory, practice, and their social contexts
3. Morality and modernity
4. Neo-Aristotelian ethics and politics developed in contemporary Thomistic terms: issues of relevance and rational justification
5. Four narratives
I wrote to Prof. MacIntyre to see if he would be willing for me to drive up to South Bend to interview him about this book, but he wrote a gracious and kind letter in response saying that some time ago he took the position to refuse all further interviews. There have, in fact, been at least three over the years I have read to great profit, but I had hoped to add to those interviews by talking about his forthcoming book.  Alas, it is not to be. (I do not for a moment begrudge MacIntyre, now well into his 80's, for husbanding his energies selectively, as I should also do at that stage--especially when confronted with letters from provincial academics one does not know!)

For those few who do not know his work, MacIntyre really burst onto the scene with his 1981 book After Virtue, updated in 1984 and released in a third edition in 2006. This is arguably his best known and most widely read book whose ringing peroration has inspired some people with a notion of a "Benedict option" for Christians of our time, though MacIntyre himself greatly regrets that line, and it has other problems I documented here. In addition, such "option" talk is not nearly as new as some seem to think. Jonathan Wilson, e.g., already wrote along these lines in his 1997 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre's After Virtue

Many Christians have found MacIntyre's work very useful in a variety of projects--e.g., ecclesiology, moral theology of course, and much else besides. His work has been ecumenically engaged by Christians of all traditions, though Eastern engagement, as with many things, has tended to lag behind Protestant and Catholic engagement for several reasons.

Perhaps none has engaged MacIntyre more, nor forced other Christians to do so theologically, than Stanley Hauerwas, beginning with his collection of 1981, Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy. Pick up almost any book by Hauerwas and you can expect to find him telling you how much he is indebted to MacIntyre.

The 1981 publication of After Virtue was MacIntyre's first full-length book in a long time. Part of its success, I maintain, lies in its style: it is an extended narrative of "how we got here." It is not the usual horrid, turgid, incomprehensible analytic philosophy one (despairingly) finds in parts of 20th century academic philosophy. Instead, it tells a story of how philosophical developments have led us to the emotivism of our time. Ranging widely from Aristotle to Aquinas, from Kant, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Gewirth, Anscombe, and Davidson, MacIntyre shows the dead-ends to which we have come in our moral, social, and political lives by being trapped by emotivism.

He posits two ways out of this: a Nietzschean way or an Aristotelian, here and elsewhere arguing for the superiority of the latter (while also "ransacking," as it were, Nietzsche and others, including Marx, for what may be useful). Anyone who foolishly imagines that a book of moral philosophy written more than a quarter-century ago now must be hopelessly out of date has not been attending to any political discussion in 2016, or for decades before that. It remains as vital and helpful in understanding our world as ever, and I regard the reading of After Virtue as obligatory for anyone today who claims to have a post-secondary education.

Much of his writing before After Virtue was piecemeal and later gathered into such collections as Against the Self-Images Of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy, first published in 1971. I read this book in the 1990s, when John Spong fancied himself an avant-garde figure but in reality offered tiresome clap-trap too bloated on its own eminence to rise to the level of intellectually serious heresy. Thus I realized that one could easily substitute a figure such as Spong (a real "Dr. Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon” if ever there were one!) for those who come in for withering criticism in MacIntyre's book, which included wonderfully acerbic reviews of then-new publications by such Church of England heretics bishops as John Robinson (Honest to God)--to say nothing of others such as Bultman and Tillich, all of whom, MacIntyre suggests, seem engaged in some strange project of concocting a vaguely religious-sounding atheism to comfort bourgeois academics who would have us believe that "what Jesus really meant turns out to have been an anticipation of Martin Heidegger, and when the gospel is demythologized a theistic existentialism is what remains." In the end, such a project is summed up in one of MacIntyre's many memorable perorations: "the creed of the English is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to him from time to time."

In the 60s and 70s, MacIntyre had published some longer monographs as well, though these are not as well known. Of that period I would argue that A Short History of Ethics remains important, not least in showing MacIntyre's historicizing project and his work very much as an historian of philosophy in particular (which would reach fullest flower in After Virtue), but an intellectual historian in general as well.

Perhaps, for Christians today, his most significant and lasting book from this period remains Secularization and Moral Change, about which I noted a few things here.

After writing After Virtue, MacIntyre recognized just how much further work was to be done in order to demonstrate, verify, and even amend many of his claims in that book. Thus After Virtue has been regarded as the first volume of a trilogy, followed in 1988 by Whose Justice? Which Rationality? This is a longer, denser work than AV, and concentrates in good measure on the so-called Enlightenment in its various forms as well as more recent modern philosophers.

The third volume of the trilogy began its life as the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, and was published afterwards, in 1990, as Three Rival Inquiries of Moral Inquiry. This, too, is another example of historical "display" by MacIntyre albeit in different form than the two earlier books. Perhaps the two most important chapters here are his justification of pedagogical authority via a reading of St. Augustine, and then his calling for the overhaul of the modern university as an institution, and the modern lecture within it. 

I wrote my MA thesis on MacIntyre in 1997, and so ended with his then-latest book, Three Rival Inquiries, wondering what books we might expect from him next. I had several ideas--as did many others--as to where we thought he needed to go next, but his two books around the turn of the century were, to me at least, considerable surprises. Thus in 1999 we had Dependent Rational Animals and then in 2006 we had Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922.

I have written elsewhere several times about the latter book especially. As for the former, Artur Rosman's essay, here, accords well with my own views about this astonishing, under-appreciated book, which I have used in undergraduate ethics classes.

I attended the launch, in 2010 at Notre Dame, of God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. This came in the aftermath of the Jenkins-Obama debacle at UND, and while he didn't get into the matter directly even when pressed by a questioner, it seemed very clear to me he thought Jenkins guilty of treachery towards the Church and any university that takes itself seriously as Catholic. It was also an occasion to hear from MacIntyre why it took him so long to write After Virtue--why, that is, there was such a long gap between his last book in the early 70s, and the appearance of AV in 1981--and he answered with a disarming shrug, "Because I didn't think I had much to say before then." Would that more academics felt such apophatic restraint as we continue to drown under too many publications!

Since the book launch was about a book devoted in part to the nature of higher, and specifically Catholic higher, education, one questioner asked for MacIntyre's views on whether his conception of the teacher-student relationship was undermined by having students write evaluations of professors each semester. I shall never forget MacIntyre's wildly applauded and bracing answer: "Student evaluations are of the devil. Next question?"

In addition to all the foregoing monographs and collections, some of MacIntyre's most important pieces are also to be found in articles. I still regularly refer people to his very useful essay on epistemological crises, which was reprinted in The Tasks of Philosophy: Volume 1: Selected Essays. In this collection also we have reprinted his essay on first principles, which was published in a very small book after having been given as the Aquinas lecture in 1990 at Marquette.

In addition, Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays Vol. 2 contains an essay I have very often referred to, an essay Eastern Christians in particular would do well to study: "Poetry as Political Philosophy," one of the earliest places where MacIntyre begins to describe and denounce the "dangerous and unmanageable institution" of the modern nation-state in all its pomps and works--which he memorably disdains as no more substantial than the accoutrements of the "telephone company."

Moreover, his "Toleration and the Goods of Conflict" remains an important cautionary warning for Christians seeking to build communities of any sort today.

In sum, picking up any book of MacIntyre's will give you a lifelong supply not just of "things to think about" but a whole new way of thinking about thinking, of imagining the world we live in today--a new epistemology inextricably tied up with a new politics containing a new moral philosophy. Thus there are, to use one of his better known phrases, goods internal to the practices of reading. Tolle, lege. 

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