One can’t understand a human action without fitting it into a story. What I am doing right now—writing the opening sentences of this review—is intelligible only as a goal-directed activity, situated within a pattern of more encompassing activities: my work as a philosopher. So, stories of a sort: the story of this review; the story of my life. These stories needn’t be gripping. Nevertheless, human actions, and whole human lives, make sense only when contextualized as “enacted narratives.”
That pivotal thesis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is tested, indirectly, in Émile Perreau-Saussine’s “biographie intellectuelle,” first published in French in 2005 and now available in English. The subtitle notwithstanding, the book isn’t a biography of any sort. Perreau-Saussine tells no story about the decades-long development of MacIntyre’s views. The result is a book that doesn’t really illumine the movements of MacIntyre’s mind.
Perreau-Saussine’s book is a worked-up version of his doctoral thesis. Graduate study in philosophy is no preparation for life-writing, and the book is far heavier on allusions to other scholars and various “-isms” than on narrative interpretation. Though intellectual biography is its own subgenre and differs from ordinary biography, I had hoped to learn more about the origins and alterations of MacIntyre’s thought. Non-academic readers are likely to find the book off-putting. Despite all that, I am glad Nathan J. Pinkoski translated it, and I am glad to have read it.
Perreau-Saussine does offer an interpretation of MacIntyre’s thought, positing a unity behind or beneath his subject’s multiple (in)famous conversions: from communism to a renunciation of the modern state; from Protestantism to atheism to Catholicism; from Marx to Aquinas. Not content to regard these as turning points on a long-running quest for truth, Perreau-Saussine seeks “the meaning of these ruptures,” some constant that underlaid and generated them all. He finds this constant in “antiliberalism”: “the continuous base and the final cause of [MacIntyre’s] work.”
This clarifies the kind of book Perreau-Saussine has written. He remarks that he did not set out to study MacIntyre but antiliberalism. He turned to MacIntyre because MacIntyre is an especially influential and interesting antiliberal, and because MacIntyre was little known in France. Near the end of his introduction, Perreau-Saussine says that he intends to outline “the biography of a problem.” I doubt that the life of a problem can be told non-narratively any more than the life of a person. But taking Perreau-Saussine at his word: What is the problem, and how does he characterize MacIntyre’s engagement with it?
Liberalism itself is the solution to a problem: the problem of how human beings with conflicting goals and ideals can share a common life without any of them dominating the others. It is animated by fear of civil strife and the misery it inflicts. The liberal solution is to grant all members of society an identical but limited freedom to pursue their individual ends. Private citizens seek their fortunes within a rule-governed public realm on the condition that they do not try to impose their ideals on one another.
But this solution creates a different problem. Yes, there are dangers in communities openly debating controversial ideals. There are dangers in communities deciding together that they will pursue certain ideals while sacrificing others. But the liberal alternative, in which we treat our ideals as private—as nobody’s business—deprives us of necessary resources for discovering and refining ideals, and thereby diminishes our common life. As Perreau-Saussine puts it, a “too-exclusive concern with tyranny and anarchy impoverishes existence.”