Beyond the Catacomb

There is a prophetic quality to much of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a quality present in his new book, God, Philosophy, Universities. MacIntyre traces the intellectual history of the Catholic tradition and describes with urgency the defining questions for work within that tradition. How do we understand the nature of inquiry if we assume a belief in God? Can we reconcile theism with philosophical inquiry? How do universities—and especially Catholic universities—provide the institutional setting for such inquiry?

Here as elsewhere, MacIntyre emphasizes the historical character of philosophy. For him, “Catholic philosophy is best understood historically, as a continuing conversation through centuries, in which we turn and return to dialogue with the most important voices from our past, in order to carry forward the conversation in our own time.”

This judgment is deeply rooted in MacIntyre’s overall philosophical project. Beginning in the 1980s, through the publication of three books—After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry—MacIntyre has offered a framework for moral discourse that tries to reconcile the claims of historicism with the need for objectivity. We are all historical beings, situated in particular times and places. We are also free and rational agents, responsible for our actions. A walk through the killing fields of the last century should remind us that some actions can never be justified. How do we balance the particular circumstances in which we establish our identity—our membership within a family, a community, a nation, a faith—with our need to ground our moral deliberations in something more solid than contingent circumstance? This is MacIntyre’s project.

The three volumes published between 1981 and 1990 read like an unfolding mystery novel. MacIntyre brought us along on an extraordinary intellectual journey that begins with the diagnosis of our current malady. We are disoriented because we lack a coherent context for moral deliberation—a common tradition within which we could understand and intelligibly contest one another’s moral claims. We are heirs of the Enlightenment’s failed attempt to purify reason by uprooting it from tradition. All we are left with now are the fragments of once-coherent traditions.

After Virtue reintroduces the resources of Aristotelian ethics, and a set of concepts—narrative, social practices, and virtues—that have informed moral discourse for the thirty years since the book appeared. As an alternative to both utilitarianism and a deontological rule-based ethics, After Virtue offers a third way, one grounded in the particularity of individual lives and communities.

In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre surveys the various traditions whose fragments shape our current context, seeking to re-establish their coherence and integrity. How is one to choose between competing traditions? MacIntyre’s great contribution here is to offer the “BA” principle: through rigorous dialectical engagement, that begins from within a tradition, we can explore the capacity of competing traditions and discover a “best account so far.” He continues with this understanding in God, Philosophy, Universities when he writes: “The most that we are all of us entitled to claim for any conclusion or argument is that it is the best supported conclusion so far or the best argument so far.” So what tradition, in MacIntyre’s judgment, offers the “best account so far”?

In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre contrasts the thought of Aquinas with that of two modern philosophers: the eighteenth-century encyclopedist Denis Diderot and Friedrich Nietzsche. In this book as in Whose Justice?, Aquinas’s ethical theory emerges as the best account so far.

In God, Philosophy, Universities, Mac-Intyre continues the work of intellectual history by exploring both the origins and the development of the Catholic philosophical tradition that took shape in the thirteenth century. A crucial failure of this tradition is its lack of engagement during important periods of modernity. For nearly a hundred and fifty years, from the dawn of the Enlightenment until the interventions of John Henry Newman, the Catholic philosophical tradition was out of the game. The absence of Catholic philosophy during so much of the modern age creates daunting challenges for both Catholic philosophy and the Catholic university today.

For MacIntyre, the three key figures in the process of re-engagement are John Henry Newman, Leo XIII, and John Paul II. Newman used a nonscholastic method to validate some of the assumptions of Catholic philosophy and proposed a comprehensive understanding of the Catholic university. Leo revived Thomism. John Paul II, in his 1998 Encyclical Fides et ratio, outlined the tasks facing contemporary Catholic philosophy.

MacIntyre underscores the distinctiveness of the Catholic philosophical tradition and of its natural home, the Catholic university. A theistic philosophy assumes an order of things, an underlying unity, a “universe.” A Catholic philosophy will restore a conception of the “universe as created and sustained by God, as embodying his purposes.” A university shaped by this conviction will provide a place for a variety of approaches to understanding the world, but it will also seek to explore the relationships between these different approaches, or “disciplines,” always striving to identify an underlying unity. It is the task of the Catholic university to integrate various disciplines and consider the “bearing of each on the others…asking how each contributes to the overall understanding of the nature and order of things.”

MacIntyre acknowledges that the organization of the modern research university is at odds with a theistic worldview. The fragmentation that characterizes contemporary intellectual discourse is related to its rejection of the idea of an animating purpose in our world—a purpose according to which we could order ourselves and our intellectual work. Catholic philosophy, now re-engaged with modernity, offers resources rival traditions lack, and Catholic universities need to make full use of these resources.

MacIntyre acknowledges the challenges of re-engagement. If the task now facing Catholic philosophy is so daunting, it’s because Catholic philosophers failed for so long to answer alternative perspectives, instead sealing themselves off in a kind of intellectual catacomb. Nevertheless, MacIntyre draws hope from the extraordinary resilience of the Catholic intellectual tradition. We must engage, like Newman, Leo XIII, and John Paul II, in a conversation that spans the centuries and includes Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas but also their critics. Such an engagement will ensure that the resources of this living tradition are applied to the most important questions of our own time. If they are, Catholic philosophy’s best days may yet be ahead of us.

Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: 

John J. DeGioia is president of Georgetown University.

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