Commentary Magazine


Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, by Alasdair MacIntyre

Traditions of Inquiry

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
by Alasdair MacIntyre.
University of Notre Dame Press. 410 pp. $22.95.

Since its publication in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre’s earlier book, After Virtue, has attracted a level of general attention seldom accorded to serious works in moral philosophy. The conclusion of that book is generally taken to be grim, even despairing. Nietzsche was right; public moral discourse is no longer possible; everything has descended into “modern emotivism,” in which morality is nothing more than individualistic preference; the barbarians have been ruling us for some time now; the jig is up; the only thing to be done is to retreat into whatever communities still have some memory of the meaning of virtue. MacIntyre’s final line: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

The present book is equally sobering, but its sobriety is directed toward resolution rather than resignation. Far from abandoning the modern world, MacIntyre now calls upon us to do battle for a tradition of virtue which, despite all, is alive, if not well. In making his case, MacIntyre does a good deal of historical backing and filling, and offers important revisions of judgments he entered in After Virtue and other writings. Throughout, he promises to address the issues in a manner attuned not to the guild of philosophical specialists but to the educated general reader. For the most part, that promise is kept, although even the most literate and attentive will find sections of the argument heavy going.

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Let us start with the apparently clumsy title of this book: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Our culture, it suggests, is awash in conflicting theories of justice. Whose should we accept? According to MacIntyre, the great ambition of the 18th-century Enlightenment was to establish public standards by which all could agree on what is just or unjust, rational or irrational, enlightened or unenlightened. But the champions of the Enlightenment could not agree among themselves on what those standards or principles were. The Enlightenment thus broke up into several Enlightenments. One kind of answer was given by the French philosophers who were the authors of the Encyclopédie, a second by Rousseau, a third by Bentham, a fourth by Kant, and a fifth by the Scottish philosophers of common sense and their American disciples.

The widely acknowledged failure of the Enlightenment project prepared the way for the relativism, perspectivism, and emotivism of the now-dominant tradition that MacIntyre calls liberal individualism. But there is, he writes, an alternative to the Enlightenment, and to the liberal individualism that is its bastard product, and that is to recognize that there are different traditions of rational inquiry, with very different understandings of what it means to be rational.

Thus, where the Enlightenment project gets bogged down in interminable dispute over an illusory neutral or universal grounding of truth, and radical individualism ends up abandoning rational inquiry altogether, MacIntyre urges us instead to take our stand within particular traditions of rational inquiry which can then contend with conflicting traditions offering different accounts of, among other things, the meaning of rational inquiry. He proceeds to examine closely several such major traditions that are, so to speak, in play in the modern world.

First MacIntyre looks at the Aristotelian account of justice and practical rationality, which was shaped by the structures and conflicts of the ancient polis. Then, in much less detail, he notes the ways in which the Augustinian version of Christianity entered the medieval world in antagonism to Aristotelianism (though the two were synthesized by Thomas Aquinas who was, MacIntyre believes, able to liberate Aristotelianism from the narrow limitations of Aristotle’s notion of the polis). But the discussion most thoroughly developed here, and the one that will present most readers with much unfamiliar history, is that of the Enlightenment in 17th- and 18th-century Scotland. The common-sense philosophy of such figures as Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson very impressively combined a Calvinist version of Augustine with a Renaissance version of Aristotle. Those who enjoy intellectual pyrotechnics will relish MacIntyre’s account of how David Hume subverted the Scottish Enlightenment from within. After Hume comes modern liberalism, which, as MacIntyre argues and as many of its own adherents are now recognizing, has spelled not the end of all traditions but the formation of yet another tradition.

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MacIntyre knows that his is not an exhaustive treatment of traditions of rational inquiry. He does not, for example, treat the Jewish reconciliations of Torah with philosophy. He notes also that it would have taken a much longer book to include an examination of the Prussian-Lutheran tradition in which Kant, Fichte, and Hegel tried, majestically but unsuccessfully, to construct a universal mode of inquiry. And of course there are quite different worlds of Islamic, Indian, and Chinese inquiry with respect to which MacIntyre declares himself manifestly incompetent.

The fact that he does not include everything, however, is not a weakness. It is precisely MacIntyre’s point that any claim to include everything is pretentious self-delusion. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are each participants in a particular, historically contingent, tradition, and those who flit betwixt and between in order to develop a more “universal” perspective are indulging in a frivolous mode of pseudo-cosmopolitanism.

This does not mean that the tradition of which one is a part is a matter of fate, or that the choice of a tradition is arbitrary. On the contrary, “a tradition in good working order” is to be valued to the extent that it is able to make sense of experience, to encounter and comprehend other traditions, and all the while to maintain enough continuity to be identified as a tradition. Although I do not recall running across the word “hermeneutics” in this book, most of the current disputes over the interpretation of texts and canons are engaged by MacIntyre in his lively depiction of the various ways in which traditions do battle with one another. Such contestation is essential: some win and others lose, but it is precisely the capacity to anticipate, respond to, and successfully incorporate criticisms from other traditions that marks the development of a living tradition.

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Where does all this put liberal individualism, the modern tradition and one that is, not coincidentally, the declared enemy of tradition? As I have said, MacIntyre suggests that it is running out of steam. This does not mean that the modern world is on the edge of a radical turn toward moral and philosophical sanity. There is not a hint of such euphoria in MacIntyre’s account. But he does seem to think that there is a chance of a modest turn toward sanity, that the theoretical and practical failures of liberal individualism have created a situation in which alternative traditions offering a more successful account of reality may begin to get a fair hearing.

There are, however, formidable obstacles, mostly in the form of entrenched ideas and entrenched institutions. The modern university is a prime example, according to MacIntyre—who, in his discussion of the condition of the universities, reveals just how far he himself has traveled from the reigning presuppositions not only of modern liberals but of most modern conservatives. Thus, whereas to most people the elimination of “religious tests” for faculty positions over the last two hundred years is thought to have been a great stride toward intellectual freedom and integrity, MacIntyre is not so sure. It might have been a great advance, had it led to universities becoming places of ordered intellectual conflict among rival traditions of rational inquiry:

Instead, what happened was that in the appointment of university teachers considerations of belief and allegiance were excluded from view altogether. A conception of scholarly competence, independent of standpoint, was enforced in the making of appointments. A corresponding conception of objectivity in the classroom required the appointed teachers to present what they taught as if there were indeed shared standards of rationality, accepted by all teachers and accessible to all students. And a curriculum was developed which, so far as possible, abstracted the subject matters to be taught from their relationship to conflicting overall points of view. Universities became institutions committed to upholding a fictitious objectivity.

In sum, MacIntyre argues that the modern university has become a massive exercise in what Marxists call false consciousness. This development has been least harmful in the natural sciences, which developed as a relatively autonomous tradition of inquiry with a more flexible orthodoxy in the service of limited goals. It was most harmful in the humanities. There, the ideal of a “fictitious objectivity” has deprived those teaching the humanities of standards. It is no longer clear why some texts are more important than others, or why some theories are worthy of greater respect than others. In this connection, MacIntyre dismisses even the “Great Books” approach to higher education, in which students enter a cafeteria line of learning to get a little Socrates with their Sartre, or Marx with their Boethius. That approach, he suggests, exemplifies the liberal, market-oriented, catering to appetites, rather than disciplined engagement in traditions of rational inquiry. It is a form of “objectivity” appropriate to a culture determined to go mad and stay that way.

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Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is a work of signal importance. I have offered here but the merest sketch of an argument that is usually convincing, always provocative, and has wide-reaching implications for the way we think about our historical moment. Alasdair MacIntyre is the perfect exponent of Richard Weaver’s famous axiom, “Ideas have consequences.” But the present work (like MacIntyre’s earlier writings) leaves me, for one, giving thanks that ideas are not alone among forces that have consequences.

MacIntyre is a master of the history of ideas, but the history of ideas is not the master of history. In the case of the modern university in particular, one must ask whether, in drawing his sword against liberal individualism, with its assumptions about universal reason, MacIntyre has not overlooked a much more threatening enemy within the gates. That enemy, whose shorthand name these days is deconstruction, exults in the conflict of traditions that cannot be adjudicated by, cannot even be understood by, recourse to something that approximates dispassionate reason. It champions the cause of “radical incoherence,” in which rational discourse is taken hostage to sundry political and ideological agendas, or simply submerged into the decadent pleasures of nihilism.

MacIntyre’s caricature of the Great Books program seems similarly oblivious of the trenches running through entire academic departments in our Western universities. Obviously, dilettantish tripping through the classics is to be deplored; obviously, students should be thoroughly immersed in the logic and language of particular thinkers and traditions. But the student must first be introduced to them, and that introduction is one purpose of the Great Books. Even more fundamentally, the Great Books approach insists that there is a canon of texts by reference to which we can rationally discuss the canons of reason itself. The war that is now being waged against the very idea of a canon is also and inevitably directed against MacIntyre’s own project, which clearly assumes a tradition of intellectual traditions.

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As in his treatment of the Great Books, MacIntyre also seems somewhat cavalier in his observations about the elimination of “religious tests” in the academy. He is right to note the “fictitious objectivity” that preserves its sense of superiority by simply eliminating from discussion any considerations that might disturb its complacency, but in the current intellectual wars—and, again, especially in the humanities—the champions of objectivity of any sort are very much on the defensive. Religious tests per se may still be excluded, but political and ideological tests effectively tyrannize many academic departments. It may be that in his own life MacIntyre encounters only people with whom he occupies a shared universe of rational discourse—or at least a working agreement on how to discuss what such a universe might look like—but most of us in his line of work today run up against talk of “regimes of truth” (Foucault) and the confident claim that any notion of such a shared universe of rational discourse is, indeed, a “fictitious objectivity.” The present book would have been better and stronger had MacIntyre addressed this plague.

Yet another set of questions must be raised. There are traditions of inquiry and discourse that may not be coherent enough to qualify for MacIntyre’s catalogue, but are traditions nonetheless. Two such he rather derisively dismisses, and a third he does not even mention: the Judeo-Christian tradition, Western civilization, and the American experience. It is arguable, however, that all three are, in historical fact, traditions, and that they qualify as such by his own test of what constitutes a working tradition, namely, “beliefs, institutions, and practices.”

For example, there are clearly practices that characterize the American experience, and those practices are embodied in institutions, and underlying those institutions there are, or used to be, beliefs. Nor is it the case, contra MacIntyre, that the American tradition is exhaustively or even adequately articulated in the terms of liberal individualism. This is not the place to develop the argument, but I cite it as an illustration of why MacIntyre’s notion of tradition is too narrow and, one might say, intellectual. For one devoted to the importance of the historically contingent, MacIntyre is in some respects strangely ahistorical.

All that said, however, this remains a critically important book. MacIntyre helps us to understand why so many people are stymied today in articulating the beliefs that underlie their traditions of inquiry, practice, and public discourse. One enemy, he makes clear, is the delusion of false universality, the impulse to escape from historical particularity, the adherence to a tradition of anti-traditionalism. MacIntyre also helps us to see how and why that set of ideas has gained such intellectual dominance, and why now its string of victories may be—just may be—coming to an end. At the very least, MacIntyre better equips us to expose the stand taken by the proponents of anomie and ideological rage who would deny to others the right to take their stand.

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