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Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry

University of Edinburgh

In the opening chapter, MacIntyre posits that the overall effect of current philosophical debate is one of controversy without movement towards a decisive outcome. MacIntyre discusses three very different and mutually antagonistic conceptions of moral enquiry, each stemming from a seminal late nineteenth-century text: the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Nietzsche’s Zur Genealodie De Moral and Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris.


MacIntyre points out that deference on the part of the audience was one of the defining marks of the late nineteenth-century university. The transformation of the moral enquirer from a participant in an encyclopaedic enterprise shared by all adequately reflective and informed human beings into an engaged partisan against its rivals is an accomplished fact. Recognizing this results in the dissolution of the encyclopaedists’s standpoint, something MacIntyre finds evident in the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is thus an investigation of a different alternative to the encyclopaedic and genealogical means of moral enquiry that MacIntyre takes up in the next four chapters.


Where the encyclopaedist sees a unified history of progress, the genealogist sees a unified history of distorting and repressing function. But both at least agree in assigning a unified history. Both therefore are at odds with any view which understands the history of philosophy in terms of a fundamental break, so that philosophy has a divided history, a before and an after. In moral enquiry, MacIntyre is concerned with the question: what type of enacted narrative would be the embodiment, in the actions and transactions of actual social life, of this particular theory? Aquinas’s philosophy and theology were a response to conflict and it is from that therefore that all Thomistic argument begins, by evaluating the claims of Augustinianism and of Aristotelianism, for Aquinas was equally both. What, then, were these two forms of moral enquiry which Aquinas encountered as rivals during his own education?


Where Gifford held that the methods of enquiry required a starting point in universally available first principles, the Augustinian denies that there can be any such principles. Where Gifford held that enquiry required no prior initial and initiating commitment to any particular form of religious belief, the Augustinian claims that it is only through initial commitment to one Christian belief that rational enquiry can develop. And where Gifford held that tradition presents itself to be evaluated by our standards, the Augustinian holds that we must learn from authoritative tradition how to evaluate ourselves.


Within Aquinas’s scheme of thought, then, particular theses are justified dialectically or demonstratively or both. MacIntyre lectures that we move in our intellectual constructions from a beginning in which we are concerned with what is initially evident to us towards a projected end in which rational justification will be by demonstration from first principles.


MacIntyre argues that a mistake of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century Thomism was supposing that the task of rational justification against their Cartesian, Humean, or Kantian adversaries was due to the belief that they shared with their philosophical opponents more beliefs of rational enquiry than was actual.


MacIntyre argues that enquiry can only be systematic in its progress when its goal is to contribute to the construction of a system of thought and practice by participating in types of rational activity in the light of the best standards for judging of that perfection so far to emerge. A tradition of enquiry characteristically bears within itself an openness to revision history of itself in which the past is characterized and re-characterized in terms of developing evaluations of the relationship of the various parts of that past to the achievements of the present. A philosopher can stand in two very different types of relationship to the larger society: he can be an active participant in the forums of public debate, criticizing the socially shared standards of rationality on occasion; however, even on these occasions he is appealing to standards shared by a generally educated public.


MacIntyre finds it to deny that the claims of the ninth edition to intellectual and moral allegiance be taken seriously. The first is that those who in the earlier part of this century abandoned the beliefs, attitudes and presuppositions characteristic of the ninth edition left unfinished business. Second, the organized institutions of the academic curriculum and the ways in which both enquiry and teaching are conducted act as if we still did believe much of what the major contributors to the ninth edition believed. Third, one key encyclopaedic belief still informs general academic practice, even if in a modified and weakened version. MacIntyre refers to the belief that every rationally defensible standpoint can engage with every other. His understanding is that whatever may be thought about incommensurability in theory, in academic practice it can safely be neglected.


The main theme of the closing chapters is summed up well in chapter 9: conversations are extended in time. MacIntyre discusses that what is crucial to theological and philosophical conversations is how the participants understand the identity and continuity of those with whom they speak, of how each stands in relation to past and future utterances in what one says or writes now. Even more so, every particular life as a whole exists in its particular parts, in that range of particular actions, transaction and projects which are the enacted narrative of that life. MacIntyre continues on in claiming that the function of genealogy as released from deception and self-deception thus requires the identity and continuity of the self that was deceived and the self that is and is to be. 


MacIntyre closes his series with a discussion of ‘Reconceiving the University as an Institution and the Lecturer as a Genre’, where three related changes underlay this transformation. Enquiry had become finally fragmented into a series of independent activities whose results could find no place as parts in any whole. Second, an encyclopaedia could no longer be a set of canonical books for an educated public. A third change which made it possible was one within education itself, where moral and theological truth ceased to be recognized as objects of substantive enquiry and instead were deemed privatised belief. That such philosophical critics still cannot be heard in any systematic way in the central forums of our cultural and social order is a mark, not of their irrelevance, but rather of the importance of the task now imposed upon philosophy, of devising new ways to allow those voices to be heard.

  • J. Douglas Mastin