Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

If anyone has both the ambition and the ability to complete a critical history of God, philosophy, and universities in 193 pages, who better than Alasdair MacIntyre?  Now a hair over eighty and still teaching a very-hard-to-get-into undergraduate seminar at Notre Dame, the Scottish-born philosopher and trenchant critic of modern morality has done just that in God, Philosophy, Universities:  A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I have been a fan of Alasdair MacIntyre since he made a guest appearance in one of my undergraduate ethics courses and warned the roomful of over-eager philosophy majors not to let our minds be ruined by philosophy.  Though he admits God, Philosophy, Universities is by no means a comprehensive history of any of the three, MacIntyre’s insights into all of the above are worthwhile.  What is particularly valuable is MacIntyre’s conviction that the three should somehow fit together.

As one might expect, many sections of the book are dense, summarizing centuries of philosophical arguments in a few paragraphs.  MacIntyre delivers a succinct summary of Aquinas’ metaphysics in a single memorable chapter, and his treatment of Pascal, the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, and the soul/body problem is enlightening.  He quotes Newman on conscience—“Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that moreover superior, to itself”—and even draws on Nietzsche’s criticism of the presuppositions of philosophers.

But more than providing a triptik through philosophical history, God, Philosophy, Universities gives us MacIntyre’s critical evaluation of the state of the modern university and of contemporary Catholic philosophy.  Contemporary research universities are particularly good, MacIntyre argues, at research into well-defined technical areas of inquiry.  They are also good at turning out the skilled professionals technically advanced capitalist societies need.  And they are finally “wonderfully successful business corporations subsidized by tax exemptions and exhibiting all the acquisitive ambitions of such corporations.”

One must probably be over eighty, have tenure, and be Alasdair MacIntyre to get away with speaking about one’s employer that way.  And with compliments like that, one soon realizes that MacIntyre has a critique or two for the academy as well.

His criticisms of the “silo effect” produced by the pressure to academically over-specialize resonated with several philosophy majors I discussed the book with here at Loyola.  Anyone contemplating a career in the academy today is faced with the prospect of doing research in fields that are more and more narrowly focused, confronting problems understood by fewer and fewer specialists, who increasingly lack the resources to communicate meaningfully with those outside their tiny guild.  The balkanization of knowledge that results can to some degree be traced to the pressures and incentives of university tenure and funding structures, but MacIntyre points to something more fundamental than these.

What is missing from the modern university, according to MacIntyre, is any system of thought capable of showing how the pieces fit together, a worldview comprehensive enough to encompass the sciences, the arts, faith, and philosophy.  MacIntyre pays a compliment of sorts to the now defunct Soviet university system where Marxist ideology provided just such an integrating framework, allowing different disciplines to communicate their relevance to each other and to the larger world.

Anyone familiar with MacIntyre’s After Virtue will recognize the theme of moral fracture.  According to MacIntyre, the modern world has inherited the remains of previous incommensurate moral systems—classical Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics; utilitarianism; Kantianism—and we use moral terms and concepts from these modes of thought, but without the underlying unity that any of these systems once provided.  The result is like learning a language’s vocabulary without the grammar.  As a society, then, we end up without rational ways to deal with moral problems.  This is why so many of our moral debates, such as those around abortion or war, seem so irrational.  Without realizing it, the different sides in these debates begin from premises that make “common ground” illusory.

Incoherence and fracture certainly seem, to this blogger, to be characteristics of post-modernity, and this fracture probably runs as deep as our notion of the human person, our way of being ourselves.  Sometimes even our own best intentions can reinforce the pressure, for example, to compartmentalize our lives.  I’ve found myself talking with students about the need for a “spiritual element” in their lives.  But an “element”—another line to fill in on the college application—is not what is needed; what is needed is a spiritual worldview, something capable of integrating all the disparate parts of our modern existence into a coherent whole, a person in full.

MacIntyre is pessimistic about post-modernity (or whatever it is we are living through), and he does not see a reform of the research university on the horizon either.  But in God, Philosophy, Universities, as he did in After Virtue, MacIntyre issues a challenge and a vision for the future, a vision in which Catholic philosophy contributes to the common good and to human wholeness.

After Virtue famously ends with MacIntyre’s comparison of our modern state of moral fracture with the Dark Ages that ensued after the disintegration of the Roman Empire.  His tone is not optimistic, but, perhaps, it is hopeful.  “This time,” he writes of our own day, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are not waiting for Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

God, Philosophy, Universities ends with a similar note of hope, which MacIntyre doesn’t confuse with prospects for success.  An awareness of the profundity of our tradition should serve us as both a comfort and a challenge.  We Catholics do, after all, still have a vision of what whole persons look like:  they look like the saints.  So perhaps what we need are not just new philosophers, but philosopher-saints.  St. Benedict reminds us that even in the midst of shards and ruins, we still can encounter human wholeness in lives given over—completely—to God.

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3 Responses to Alasdair MacIntyre and Fractured Modernity

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Thanks for this, Anthony. When I went to a Jesuit University back in the 90’s, I did not experience any “Balkanization” but rather a monolith. Nearly all the Philosophy, History and Political Science courses were taught by atheist/agnostic Jewish professors, whos thesis was usually “Why [philosopher X] was really an atheist” or if it was an overtly religious philosopher, “why [philosopher X] was wrong”. The ultra-liberal (and I’m seriously not using this phrase lightly) atmosphere from both the board and the donors created a very solid and totalitarian bloc of heterodox thinking, of which I was both victim and participant at the time.

    I agree with you that “common ground” is for the most part illusory at the University level. By the time the “tuckuses are in the seats” both student-body and Professors seem immobile in their conclusions and absolutely unwilling to accept or even look for common ground.

    Lastly, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility that you write “we have a vision of what whole persons look like: they look like saints.” Yes! It is sad that so many people usurp or corrupt our saints to fit their own vision of dissent. An example was when one particular author of this blog repugnantly wrote “luckily St Catherine was able to stick it to the pope”. Saints, as you rightly point out, are whole people; examples of the good in humanity. They are not saints because they dissent on a philosophical, moral or personal level. They are saints because they dealt with both their pesonal issues and the imperfect world they inherrited ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

    Great post as always.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    PS – off topic, but necessary: thanks for putting the clarification and more importantly, providing the links to the actual USCCB statements. What I said above re saints, ibid for bishops…until you made the clarification.

  3. […] to our desires is important. The felt absence of God is no obstacle to religious belief, for as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, the possibility of feeling the absence of God is inseparable from the possibility of […]

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