Whatever Next ?

[Caveat – this review may not do the subject justice, but I didn’t really notice how good a read it was until I was well into it, by which point not only did I not have any notes, but I was committed to read on to a conclusion. So from memory …  is the summary (in the bullets) any good ?]

[Post Note – Matt Kundert, in this (2008) post and the comment thread below, has turned-up as a McIntyre reference in my wider “Systems Thinking” context thanks to a (2023) post by Ben Taylor linking to an earlier (1977) piece pre-dating “After Virtue” (1981) by Al McIntyre and reviewed by Matt. And re-reading this post now in 2023, I see a wonderful irony in my use of the word “governance” in my implicitly cybernetic (psyberton-ic) context before I had made the connection explicit. What goes around comes around. ]

I’ve had a copy of Alastair MacIntyre’s (1981, 2nd Ed 1984) “After Virtue” tucked away on a bookshelf for some time. I vaguely remembered I’d bought it on the recommendation of Rev Sam, but no recollection of why it came to be tucked-away unread. [I since discover it’s Sam’s most important read ever – after being turned onto things philosophical by ZMM, like myself, and away from “scientism”, as I already was before I read ZMM, “After Virtue” turned Sam to Christianity and theology. Wow. Matt too claims MacIntyre and After Virtue as an important route to understanding the Greeks.]

So, my atheistic reading of “After Virtue”:

Firstly, it is a read that requires some effort – it is in large part a scholarly review of the history of philosophy on the subject of morals & ethics – the virtues, from the pre-Socratics forward. That might make him a mere “philosophologist” in Pirsigian terms, if it weren’t that MacIntyre were clearly working towards his own agenda. The difficulty of the scholarly subject matter is compounded by MacIntyre’s somewhat pompous and knowing, even supercilious, style …  I regularly got the impression of dense passages concluded with intellectually-smart-ass summaries and even dismissals (pot & kettle here maybe ?). Anyway, with your wits about you, the effort seems worth it.

As a reformed Marxist, he shows great fondness for Nietzsche and Marx, but ultimately these moderns too are flawed when it comes to virtue. In fact although MacIntyre does develop his after virtue agenda, it is clearly just a start to be further developed in his later writings.

In essence he is describing the interminable debate on the best or right ontology of “the virtues” and their relation to the ontology / epistemology of existence generally. That is, not only has the history of that debate been interminable, it is in practice never going to be complete and consistent, and therefore doomed to remain unintelligible, without a missing ingredient. [Ref Tom’s dissertation ?]

Nietzsche showed that as currently understood, all existing bases of morals were flawed, and his creative destruction was to sweep them all away. As I do, MacIntyre believes Nietzsche himself did not really provide a satisfactory alternative. MacIntyre uses his study of the Greeks to show that most interpretations of Aristotle which concluded that he too was flawed (haven’t we all ?), threw out too much of the Aristotelian baby with the bathwater.

Much of the history of the debate over the virtues is described – differences between doing the right thing for the right reasons, failing to do the right thing but for the right reasons, doing the apparently right thing but for the wrong reasons, internal and external goods, and so on. The game theory of needing to predict human behaviour in order to decide one’s own best behaviour – and all the Machiavellian twists that evolve from that. Reviewing all the Greek schools of thought, mediaeval, renaissance, post-enlightenment and modern schools – the index of references is a who’s who: Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, you name ’em.

Sticking in my mind Jane Austen and T E Lawrence. The latter a special interest of mine, the former still largely a source of ignorance to me unfortunately.

The T E Lawrence reference is simply of ironic value to me. In fact MacIntyre mentions TEL only in the context of the wickedness (or otherwise) of sado-masochism – whereas to me the TEL subject is that “it” – life, the universe and everything – “is (not) written” – the irony will become clear in the summary of MacIntyre’s thesis later.

Jane Austen ? A large part of the interminable historical debate on the virtues has been the relationships between them – whether it is possible to hold one virtue and not another – whether there really are virtues or simply virtue. Much of the discussion of the Greeks and other earlier commentators hinges on how imprecisely the linguistic translation of various words for various virtues can be unambiguous anyway. Where’s Wittgenstein when you need him ? MacIntyre draws heavily on the work of Jane Austen to illustrate the complexities of recognizing individual virtues in the lives of people who either are or are not virtuous, and either are or are not free to choose the right actions in their situations.

To cut a long story about which philosophers got what right and wrong, about rights and wrongs, I would summarize MacIntyre’s thesis as follows: So after virtues we get to virtue, and if even virtue is indeterminate, what after virtue … ?

  • All decision-making, expressed as well as in action & behaviour, of (human) individuals and institutions, is done with intention and in context.
  • In order for that decision-making rationale to be intelligible, to the participants and witnesses, they must be expressed as part of a greater “narrative”. A narrative with a beginning, a history, a middle, a now, a future, and an end. And that’s an end in every sense, place and time yes, but also in terms of telos, purpose and meaning towards that end.
  • So, we are all writing our local narratives, rationalizing our thoughts, intents and actions, in the context of that greater narrative, consistent with the telos (or not).
  • That greater narrative is provide by a mythological tradition within a culture. Clearly therefore different cultures will maintain and evolve different such narratives, even though they will share common features of being such a necessary telos. The grand narrative – the tradition of moral virtue – is cultural.
  • Good governance, of collections of individuals in societies and institutions is really based on that moral tradition of virtue. The rules of politics and institutional law are simply pragmatic issues of effectiveness and efficiency.
  • The grand narrative is “written” by the tradition, to provide the context within which individual local narratives may then be written, with or without levels of creativity and freedom, but the local narratives are not themselves pre-written in the tradition.
  • Those individual narratives are indeed written by the participants, but the individuals cannot choose their narrative completely independently of the the tradition and still be intelligible.

It is clear that MacIntyre’s thesis is leading to the Christian tradition – he concludes that what we are really waiting for is “another St. Benedict” to lead us out of the “predicament of our times”. Never been convinced of those “of our times” perspectives, but no matter – ’twas ever thus. Clearly the Christian thesis is developed in his later work, so the argument is incomplete here as to which cultural tradition – but the argument so far is well made. I would guess his argument is going to be that the best mythological tradition for you is the one that is already most developed in your culture – they can’t simply be written on a blank slate.

We need a cultural tradition that provides a telos – a purpose and meaning to life. No amount of logic, objectivity, science or rationality can define the narrative mythological content of that tradition. It is simply written. Even a scientist has to take that on “faith”.

[For me this is entirely consistent with the fact that the acceptance of any metaphysics depends on some ineffable core – not amenable to independent objective rationale of any kind. It is also consistent with my fascination for the teleological aspects of the more serious views of anthropic principles.]

16 thoughts on “Whatever Next ?”

  1. My understanding of MacIntyre is that he thinks two main things:

    1) Our contemporary Western culture has fallen apart because it has become entranced with Enlightenment liberalism, which on his account rests on a thesis that looks something like “morality is coextensive with rational objectivity.” He takes a defunct ethical theory called “emotivism” (briefly fashionable with a few logical positivists) and applies it to a larger cultural phenomena that has arisen since Kant said that ethics are deontological or nothing. This philosophical “tradition” said that tradition is crap, and Reason is God.

    2) Once one rejects traditionless Reason, the only tradition fully articulated in the West is the Aristotelian tradition (so long as St. Thomas Aquinas is understood as the last person to truly understand Aristotle). Once we deconstruct the very idea of a tradition/reason contrast, the liberal political tradition that stems from Mill is seen to be resting on quicksand. Our only rope, roughly, is Christianity.

    I think MacIntyre is partially right about (1). I think he’s a little too quick to tie the dialectic that moves from Plato to Aquinas to Hume to Nietzsche a little too closely to our “cultural condition,” but there is a malaise. MacIntyre is dead-on in his deconstruction, but I think he’s also a little too quick to assume that, even if Enlightenment liberalism has shown a great, Platonic pretension to being outside tradition, that doesn’t mean there is no tradition to which it belongs (a thorough critique, in fact, requires one to exist), nor a substantive one it can grasp onto (a minimalism does exist alongside the mainstream pretension), let alone that it is too late for it to create one. That is why I think he’s entirely wrong about (2).

    His later book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, tries to take on some of this, and it mimics the layout and content of his earlier brief history of ethics. This is where much of my admiration for his cooptation of the Greeks resides. If you want a great response to MacIntyre (and much else), try Jeffery Stout’s Ethics After Babel and especially his later Democracy and Tradition. Enlightenment liberalism has a telos already: its just that it was written by Mill, not Kant (so long as Richard Rorty is understood as the most recent person to truly understand Mill).

  2. That’s interesting Matt, but you’re describing the analytical aspect …. how he got to his thesis through the history of prior views – the deconstruction / reconstruction – and other later views on that, inlcuding yours.

    What I was just getting at here, in the bullets, was a summary of his thesis – the conclusion so far as he had got in After Virtue. Not the reasoning of how he got to it, but what it was / is ?

    (I had already “cut a long story short” on who else said and meant what – we can come to that again.)

  3. Well, mind you, I wasn’t really disagreeing with anything you said, perhaps maybe just adding and/or recapitulating. But you’re right, he doesn’t fully self-identify until later, though on the other hand that is one of the pitfalls of his analysis in After Virtue: he blasts pretty much everything in our “modern predicament,” but you are made to then wonder where the hell he’s standing if everything is really in as much disarray as his first chapter makes us feel. You summary might be too nice to him because it looks like something a secularist could agree to, but it is part of MacIntyre’s argument that a liberal secularist exactly cannot without being in bad faith.

  4. Thanks Matt. This was my first experience of MacIntyre, so I just needed some encouragement that I’d basically got what he was saying so far (or not) …

    … not sure I get the impression of your last statement yet … but there is time for more subtlety. Thanks.

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  6. Hi Matt, well almost exactly a year on, you may notice from that Psybertron trackback link, I find MacIntyre back in my thoughts. So I re-read mine and yours on the matter.

    (Matthew Crawford’s book, “Shop Class as Soul Craft” – living philosophy, in the flesh as it were; a lifestyle book, rather than a philosophical work – makes significant acknowledgement to both Pirsig and MacIntyre. I still have to finish writing that review.)

    I wasn’t really ready for your input when you last commented, (my problem, not yours) just a stake in the ground that I had got the “gist” of MacIntyre.

    So first, thanks for the “where next” references:
    “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” – Al MacIntyre
    “Ethics After Babel” – Jeffery Stout
    “Democracy and Tradition” – Jeffery Stout
    And thanks for where this links to your route to understanding the Greeks.

    I get your point about (1) being better than (2) above. In (1) is this unspoken idea that we are individually situated in “one” culture, clearly defined by tradition. Whereas, we are really part of many constituencies from ourselves, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our local, regional, national, continental, and global/human identities and “schools of thought” (eg Platonism and Christianity in your example) and “interest groups” that criss-cross these in time and space. (This “community of identity” aspect is strong in the conclusions of Crawford’s book by the way – those that provide more immediate feedback on quality and belonging.)

    You and I both reject (2), so I will have to ask Sam for his “where next” suggestions too.

    In your final comment about the “liberal secularist” view and the perennial “in our times” take on — “It’s all gone to rat-shit, if we don’t all [insert your latest fashionable issue for the current generation] then the end is nigh.” — I am immune to these, so I appreciate I am discounting them in my analysis, but thanks for making that explicit to me.

    Ok, so just for fun a change of subject – given two other current threads elsewhere:

    I am reading Damasio’s “Descarte’s Error”. After a very typical description of old-brain / new-brain behaviours and the neural-correlates of brain and mind, from the physio-psycho scientific perspective. (that is – Old in evolutionary terms, limbic, largely innate genetically – vs – New, modern in evolutionary terms, cerebral, plastic in living development terms.) He includes this passage:

    (a) the innate regulatory circuits are involved in the business of organism survival and because of that, they are privy to what is happening in the more modern sectors of the brain;
    (b) the GOODNESS & BADNESS of situations is regularly signalled to them; and
    (c) they express their inherent reaction to goodness and badness by influencing how the rest of the brain is shaped, so that it can assist […] in the most efficatious way.

    Pick the DQ out of that ?

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  8. Hi Ian; happy with your summary of After Virtue and I’d agree with Matt’s recommendations for further reading (I’ve read the MacIntyres but so far only purchased Ethics after Babel, not read it). Glad you’re reading Damasio – he was a big influence on the Eudaimonic thesis (as was MacIntyre, obviously) – you might want to re-read that essay given your last question about DQ!

    NB how can we subscribe to a comment feed on this? It’s difficult to pursue the conversation without it.

  9. Hi Sam, thanks.

    Comment feed – I have to fix.

    Damasio – doesn’t actually seem to express any “idea” I haven’t already concluded from Dennett, Sacks, Austin, Hofstadter, etc …. but re-inforcement in a pupolar book with a snappy title is always good. That’s a “meme” for you 😉

    Eudaimonia – check out Ron Kulp on the MoQ-Discuss board. (I’ll point him at this thread.)

  10. Has Ron been engaging with the paper?
    On Damasio, I think the unique bit is his ‘somatic marker hypothesis’ – he puts flesh on the bones of the philosophical insights (literally!)

  11. Sam,

    Ron has been likening Q and DQ to “love” and seeing the Greek and East/West patterns in its development, and when I poined him at your Eudiamonia, he said he was “gettng there”.

    The Somatic Marker formulation is Damasio’s but I’m sure I could show you the same idea by other names – if you gave me a moment to dig.

  12. I’ve pinged you Ron’s Eudaimonia response from MD.

    I am fixing the comment response discussion function (over the coming weekend).

    SMH I will have to come back to you when I have digested Damasio more completely – but no big deal who invented an idea – just a mater of whether it is any good / useful.

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