The Limits of Liberalism

A biography of Alasdair MacIntyre fails to illuminate
Alasdair MacIntyre speaks at the "Common Good as Common Project" conference hosted by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies in March 2017 (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame).

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.”

Perreau-Saussine does offer an interpretation of MacIntyre’s thought, positing a unity behind or beneath his subject’s multiple (in)famous conversions.


Perreau-Saussine’s chosen task is to explicate MacIntyre’s version of this criticism, insisting on both its power and its limits. After a foreword by Pierre Manent (Perreau-Saussine’s thesis director) and after Perreau-Saussine’s own introduction, the book comprises three long chapters: one each on politics, philosophy (chiefly ethics), and theology. In each chapter, Perreau-Saussine considers one of the contexts in which MacIntyre presses his critique.

Each of Perreau-Saussine’s chapters is very inside baseball, but none more than the chapter on politics. It traces the emergence of the New Left in postwar Britain and MacIntyre’s on-and-off relationship to the movement (sort of—the chronology is loose). To be fair, Perreau-Saussine teaches the reader lots of interesting things about, for example, the working ideologies of various short-lived-but-influential journals. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the debt owed by the New Left (or the first New Left) to G.D.H. Cole and his fin-de-siècle “Guild Socialism.” But Perreau-Saussine also serves up pages and pages of this sort of thing: “In 1946-47, intellectual milieus were rather complacent toward Soviet Russia. But in 1950, the wind had changed, and many returned to their ivory towers.” I more-or-less know what Perreau-Saussine means and he’s not wrong, but paragraph after paragraph of breezy, unillustrated assertions (and dead metaphors) make the chapter a slog. As do Perreau-Saussine’s frequent descents into jargon. Of the intellectual climate of the early sixties, he writes, “It is now the hour of Freudo-Marxist syntheses (in the manner of Herbert Marcuse), which reconcile political economy with the economy of desire through assimilating Freudian repression with social repression.” Maybe it sounds better in French.

The politics chapter is also the most nearly biographical portion of Perreau-Saussine’s book. I am trying to review the book for what it is, not for what its subtitle advertises. But as an emphatic caveat to any uncertain lector, here is Perreau-Saussine as biographer:

In 1949, at the age of 20, [MacIntyre] entered the University of Manchester, where he studied philosophy for two years. Several years later, he was to write an article on the spirit of this university. Retrospectively, it clarifies the nature of his choice: a choice for a provincial tradition, for a nonconformist spirit in religion, for a radical spirit in politics, and for a rupture with the establishment.

No quotes, no explanations. If you want to learn something about how MacIntyre’s university years shaped him, dig up the piece in The Twentieth Century for yourself. Also, maddeningly, for anyone wishing to trace MacIntyre’s development, essays like the one just mentioned are cited right alongside much later works like After Virtue and “Poetry as Political Philosophy” (the source of MacIntyre’s deliciously tart remark that dying for the modern state is like dying for the telephone company).

But this brings us again to Perreau-Saussine’s thesis: that MacIntyre’s concerns were ever the same. So chronology isn’t terribly relevant. The thing Perreau-Saussine needs (and works) to establish is that MacIntyre’s antiliberalism was present from the beginning, the basso continuo of his career. I won’t dwell on the details, but only say that Perreau-Saussine makes a credible case. And it is a significant contribution to offer readers an interpretive key to MacIntyre’s work, particularly his lesser-known early writings. Does Perreau-Saussine smooth out some edges? Yes. Every useful map simplifies. Nevertheless, it is instructive to bring Perreau-Saussine’s heuristic to collections like Against the Self-Images of the Age, testing the thought that MacIntyre was always against the state and for smaller communities of practice and deliberation.


Perreau-Saussine’s thesis is critical as well as interpretive, though. Throughout the book, he argues that MacIntyre’s antiliberalism, while provocative and even instructive, is politically unserious. This criticism is broached in the opening chapter but developed most pointedly later on.

Why is liberalism not safeguarding our public life as it is meant to do?

In his opening chapter, Perreau-Saussine compares MacIntyre to his contemporary and fellow “communitarian” Charles Taylor. Perreau-Saussine notes MacIntyre’s rejection of the label, but nonetheless sees significant likenesses between MacIntyre and Taylor, and between them and theorists like Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel. Perreau-Saussine characterizes the shared commitments of these “communitarians” as “what remains of communism after Stalin and Solzhenitsyn.”

Communitarianism brings out a singular edginess in Perreau-Saussine. Elsewhere he remarks, “Communitarianism…is the refuge of disappointed communists and socialists.” A bit later, Perreau-Saussine calls MacIntyre “a bit of a ‘poser’” for highlighting his family’s Gaelic heritage. (MacIntyre’s grandparents learned English as a second language.) This isn’t mere saltiness. It speaks to what most bothers Perreau-Saussine about MacIntyre: that MacIntyre doesn’t appreciate the history and importance of liberal institutions, the gory awfulness that moved people to fashion these compromised but necessary institutions after the Wars of Religion. He finds MacIntyre’s invocations of musicians and fishermen as moral exemplars at best “odd,” at worst “irritating.” What about the middle managers and other bureaucrats who keep the world running for the likes of antiliberals like him?

And this is where Perreau-Saussine goes in his final chapter: to an accusation of hypocrisy. In 1969, MacIntyre moved to the United States—the quintessential liberal state—leaving behind the practical political engagement of his earlier days, and built a career writing withering, outsider criticism of…the liberal state. I am not sure where Perreau-Saussine thinks MacIntyre should have lived, but the criticism still bites.

Or, it bites and it doesn’t. It is bracing, reading this book in 2023, because of how much the world has changed since 2005. In 2005, Manent could write, “the alternatives to liberalism have lost all credibility.” The landscape looks different now. A lesson I hope we are learning is that the liberal rules that constrain you likewise constrain your ideological opponents. The whole point of liberalism is that sometimes your opponents will hold power, and then you will want their power to be limited. Liberalism is a technique, maybe the only technique, for achieving this end: a common life without domination for people with conflicting ideals and goals.

But there is more to say, because liberalism does presuppose moral resources that it does not cultivate. Why is liberalism not safeguarding our public life as it is meant to do? Perhaps because we have nothing more? If that answer is even partly correct, then we continue to need MacIntyre (and writers he draws on, like Wendell Berry) to describe the communities we require.

There is much else—too much—to summarize and discuss in this review. To cite just one example, I found extremely interesting Perreau-Saussine’s discussion of MacIntyre’s debate with Peter Winch on the philosophy of anthropology. Again, I must caution non-academic readers against the book. It is not written for them. But if Perreau-Saussine sometimes lapses into dissertation-ese, the scholarship behind the book—the volume of Anglophone philosophy Perreau-Saussine had to absorb, inside and outside MacIntyre’s corpus—is hugely impressive. And we owe Pinkoski a debt for doing the unglamorous kind of work Perreau-Saussine himself did first. 

Alasdair MacIntyre
An Intellectual Biography

Émile Perreau-Saussine
trans. Nathan J. Pinkoski
University of Notre Dame Press
$40 | 216 pp.

Published in the October 2023 issue: 

Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb is professor of philosophy and director of honors at Houghton University in Houghton, New York. He is the author of The Women are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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