Archive for Alasdair MacIntyre

Theory and praxis, or language game?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 15 March 2010 by Brendan

Is theology, as Gustavo Gutierrez and the other liberationists have argued, simply “critical reflection on praxis”? Or, to play it in an Hegelian key, does the owl of Minerva really fly at dusk? This hard division between the “facts” of practical existence and critical reflection upon those facts masks a rather coarse foundationalism, which presumes to identify the fundamental, constitutive aspects of social and personal reality apart from any reflective discourse. Theology is not simply reflection upon “basic human principles.”

Now, Gutierrez is perfectly right to argue, “A privileged locus theologicus for understanding the faith will be the life, preaching, and historical commitment of the Church”: as Robert Jenson and many others have argued, a test for the soundness of any theological proposition is its ability to shed light upon the established liturgy of the Church – that is, upon the indispensable aspects of the Church’s communal practice, such as the Eucharist, baptism, the passing of peace, etc. However, Gutierrez insists that theology must “go beyond the visible boundaries of the Church”; he quotes Yves Congar: “the Church” must “deal with the real questions of the modern world.” Only this will save her from “narrowness.” Theology must reckon with the truths of the world; it must become open-minded.

This Marxist dualism of theory and praxis misses the many ways in which “critical reflection” is itself a practice, historically bound and embedded within the Church’s other social disciplines, as well as the many ways in which all praxis is itself theoretical, capable of being rendered as conversation, speech, and reasoning (if only latent and halting). As Wittgenstein wrote, “To describe a language is to describe a way of life.” We reason our way to action, and indeed we reason in and through our actions: theological reflection constitutes and bounds ecclesial practice, even as ecclesial practice in turn governs and disciplines and informs theological reflection. There is no privileged, foundational substrate of the real upon which theology might gain traction; there is only a welter of competing “language games,” each striving to narrate the world and re-narrate their competitors (though MacIntyre is right in arguing that one discourse can short-circuit its rival by offering novel formulations of seemingly insoluble problems).

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A question of interest.

Posted in Links with tags , , on 11 January 2010 by William Brafford

Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has a partial summary of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? which ends with an interesting question:

Certainly, the eschatological dimension of MacIntyre’s arche is appealing in many ways. However, at times MacIntyre seems to be developing a teleological justification which contains elements similar to the Platonic noble lie. The arche is useful and, yes, it is extremely unlikely that any culture will ever self-consistently achieve its telos (80). But one wonders whether any completely non-transcendent arche will satisfy a community – unless, that is, the powerful tell a magnificent fiction in order to keep the tradition integrated, alive, and well.

What do we say? Does the always-on-the-road nature of moral enquiry mean that we’ll have to accept our conceptions of justice as we accept founding myths?

Also from Theopolitical: Jeffrey Stout on citizenship and anti-liberalism.

Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 7 January 2010 by John

In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffery Stout tries to play peacemaker between contemporary proponents of liberalism and what Stout dubs the “new traditionalists.” I became interested in this book because I’m rather of fond of the new traditionalists. The three thinkers Stout chooses to dialogue with (Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre) are three of the most interesting writers I’ve read. Furthermore, Stout’s tone is constructive. From what I’ve read so far, you could disagree with Stout on every point and take something away from the book.

The goal of Stout’s project is to forge a basis for civic unity in a democratic society. Stout is sympathetic to the new traditionalists’ claim that contemporary American civic religion is “incoherent and alienating”, but doesn’t think it’s wise to base civic unity on religion (1). However, instead of viewing democracy as an empty and corrupting force, Stout views it as a broken in American society today. Stout wants to argue for a non-Rawlsian conception of democracy. He identifies two premises of modern liberal thinkers that the new traditionalists have criticized: 1) that a nation-state can be ideally neutral with respect to conceptions of the good 2) that political discourse can occur on the basis of “free public reason” (2). What Stout wants to do is argue that a true democratic philosophy need not adopt these two premises: “Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece” (3).

Stout wants to argue that, instead of being the antithesis of tradition, “democracy…is a tradition” (3). The character of this democratic tradition is not forged from a Rawlsian agreement on the conception of justice, but rather is “more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions, and patterns” (3). To Stout, democracy is more than a system of government. Rather, it is an attitude and cultural phenomenon. The public deliberation required by political democracy makes it more than mere politics. The goal of political philosophy, therefore, is to cultivate this democratic project: “It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, ti articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny” (5).  Stout invites his readers to take the position of citizen while reading the book.

Stout envisions true democracy as able to break through the polarization of American politics today. The opposing positions adopted by new traditionalists and liberal secularists result in the “Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare”  and since “there are many important issues that cannot be resolved solely on the basis of commonly held principles,” we need some sort of mechanism to mediate these disputes (10). The democracy method Stout proposes is “conversation.” Conversation for Stout means a willingness to try to understand another person’s perspective and premises and freely subjecting your own views to criticism.

To try to generate this democratic conversation, Stout selects Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre as his interlocutors. He does so because “they represent the tradition to which most American citizens are committed” (11). Hauerwas has often said that Stout overestimates the influence of his work and I can see why with a quote like this. If Stout’s project is truly a pragmatic political endeavor, the selection of these three thinkers is puzzling to me because I don’t think any of them (especially Milbank, who is British) are particularly influential on the practice of American Christianity. Actually, these thinkers are critical of American Christianity. All this to say – I don’t think Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre represent the “tradition to which most American citizens are committed.” While I welcome Stout’s ecumenical efforts, I don’t think by dialoguing with Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre he’ll have any particular effect on the practice of American Christianity. Stout’s insistence on a pragmatic project is problematic here.

I also think Stout underestimates the problem that secularization poses for people with religious convictions.  Stout thinks the fears of the new traditionalists are unfounded because “modern democratic reasoning is secularized, but not in a sense that rules out the expression of religious premises or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions” (11). However, Stout thinks Neuhaus’ “naked public square” is either “unacceptable or unrealistic” (11). Such a proposal requires the church to rely on coercion (unacceptable) or persuasion (unrealistic). The only place for Christian convictions in the public square is in the form of individual expression. I find such a view theologically problematic for many of the same reasons that the new traditionalists do, I suspect.

Observations on PMN Chapter 1

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , on 20 December 2009 by Brendan

At the end of Chapter 1, Rorty is kind enough to admit being “painfully aware of the lacunae in the story [he has] told” (69). Such an admission will of course be necessary anytime one attempts to sweep 2500 years of philosophical and social history in a spare fifty pages, but in this case several such gaps are worth particular consideration. He identifies four distinct methods of framing dualist theories of human nature, distinguishing “a person and his ghost” (67), which was the prevailing “religious” explanation of “the peasant’s belief in life among the shades” (41) common to primitive societies; “a person and his Aristotelian passive intellect” (67); “res cogitans and res extensa” in a Cartesian sense; and the contemporary, modified Cartesian dualism which posits the immateriality of such “phenomenal” events as pains or other “raw feels” (67).

The common thread unifying these various formulations of the “mind-body” problem, argues Rorty, is the trope of an “Eye of the Mind,” a faculty of personhood which apprehends the immaterial, the abstract, the eternal in a manner analogous to the physical eye’s apprehension of sensate particulars. This trope emerged as the most compelling frame for Western philosophy’s account of man’s distinctive faculty of reason (and, to Rorty’s credit, it is a trope that is certainly still alive and well in everyday discourse, as in the commonplace, “rational insight”). That is, a foundational intuition of Western thought is that when a man thinks of “goodness” or “parallelism” as such, he is doing something qualitatively different than what he does when undertaking such “animal” enterprises as eating or sleeping or feeling pain.

Though he does not directly defend this position until the next chapter, Rorty argues that this distinction depends on a grammatical confusion (reinforced by the contingent selection of ocular imagery for the relevant mental machinery): “The only way to associate the intentional with the immaterial is to identify it with the phenomenal, and the only way to identify the phenomenal with the immaterial is to hypostatize universals and think of them as particulars rather than as abstractions from particulars” (31).

Thus, even once Western thought had jettisoned the metaphysical baggage of Platonic forms or Aristotelian sensing and intellectual souls, the problematic defined at the birth of philosophy continued to elicit arbitrary metaphysical—and so, the reader can sense already, rationally indefensible—distinctions, whether between the immaterial “mind-stuff” (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa) of Descartes, or between phenomenal mental processes and physical states. Rorty’s task in this chapter is purely deconstructive: he compares it to a psychologist’s helping a patient “relive his past” in order to overcome it (33). Modern man must realize his bondage to intellectual categories imposed by purely-contingent metaphors that have secured the boundaries of philosophical discourse; that being done, perhaps new possibilities will await.

However, Rorty does not consider with any rigor the possibility that one of these traditional modes of thought might have superior explanatory power or intelligibility, and this is particularly evident from the indifference with which he regards the dramatic differences between (for instance) a Thomist and Cartesian epistemology. A full elaboration of this curious lacuna in Rorty’s arguments would require another book (or at least a lengthy—and forthcoming—post on Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas), but a few points can be hinted at initially.

The “Aristotelian” (ancient?) conception of “mind-as-reason” was transformed by Descartes into “mind-as-consciousness” (54), and this shifted the focus of philosophy from “God and morality” to “epistemology,” which amount to shift in interest from “practical wisdom” to “certainty” (60-61). The Cartesian self is an isolated atom of purest interiority, known to himself as certain, and casting about for firm foundations upon which to rest his claims about the world. Curiously, Rorty almost immediately asserts, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom” (61). This is curious because the quest for certainty is very likely a secondary task required to sustain the individual once he is unmoored from the straitening ties of tradition and transcendence: the priority of epistemology presupposes the primacy of the individual, who requires “rational” foundations for his actions, whether individual or social/political. This historical narration is convincingly set forth in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, while Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue explains (to quote the title of chapter five) “why the Enlightenment project had to fail” (39).

If MacIntyre is right to argue that post-Cartesian epistemology was a doomed enterprise, that opens up the possibility that earlier strands of the philosophical tradition sketched by Rorty might be more resilient. First, Rorty’s assertion that the very notion of rational insight implies a mind-body dualism is open to almost endless supplementation: for instance, the Plato of the Phaedrus links knowledge of abstract universals with an erotic encounter with particular beauty (this interpretation is also Pickstock’s from AW; whether and how Phaedrus is compatible with other Platonic dialogues (the Phaedo and the Meno strike me as particularly troubling) is a different matter). Further, when the Church Fathers inscribed Platonic categories into Christian theology, they upset the unquestionably real dualist tendencies therein to such a degree that any such remaining tendencies must be characterized as residual, rather than essential.

It is on this point that Rorty seems least thoughtful (or perhaps its nearness to this reader’s heart simply enlarges the offense). He calls the Christianity of St. Paul a “determinedly other-worldly religious cult” (44), presumably to emphasize the Church’s role in exacerbating the arbitrary distinction between the immaterial and the material (though this admittedly is not explicit). Nevertheless, the “difference” that Christianity made in Western thought was overwhelmingly its determined devotion to the particular as the site of universal (this is the metaphysical significance—a term I used reservedly, for fear of transgression—of the Incarnation): thus, the salvation of men is not, as it seems to have been for Plato and Aristotle, the intellectual soul’s contemplation of the good, but rather the restoration of a unified spiritual body to fellowship with God in the “new heavens and new earth,” upon the resurrection of the dead. Thus, though Rorty seems to think that medieval Christian writers took for granted Aristotle’s priority of the “intellectual essence” (44), such a category could only survive in Christian thought as a modified explanatory device of the more fundamental ontological goodness of embodied life, which was essential for true salvation.

Richard Rorty loves sauerkraut pudding

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , , , , on 16 December 2009 by Brendan

If that sounds like a strange dish, well, Richard Rorty is a strange fellow, an Anglophone analytic philosopher of mind turned Deweyan pragmatist turned Heideggerian historicist. Now, if that sounds to you like a ridiculous combination—this is your fun fact for the post—consider that Rorty matriculated at the University of Chicago at age 14. Trained in the analytic school of Brandom, Quine, and Davidson, Rorty gradually became disillusioned with Western philosophy’s metaphysical and epistemological hubris; the first fruit borne by that frustration was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a meandering critique of the Lockean-Cartesian-Kantian tradition, which posits philosophy as a discipline “foundational in respect to the rest of culture because culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and philosophy adjudicates such claims” (3, all citations from the 1979 edition).

At the headwaters of this project, Locke sought to provide “a ‘theory of knowledge’ based on an understanding of ‘mental processes’” (3), Descartes postulated an interior mind  “in which ‘processes’ occur,” (4) and Kant cast philosophy “as a tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rest of culture” (4). Rorty positions analytic writers within this tradition “as an attempt to escape from history—an attempt to find nonhistorical conditions of any possible historical development” (9).

However, in the twentieth century, three philosophers—“Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey” (4)—questioned this quest for certainty in fundamental ways, though only, observes Rorty, after painful experiences in trying to refashion and recuperate its illusory certainties. Against philosophy’s flight from history, these three thinkers offered an “historicist” message, one which grounds philosophical pursuits and truth claims in the social and cultural developments of human societies: Heidegger’s historicism is most sweeping, relying on a vast revision of the “history of philosophy,” which “lets us see the beginning of the Cartesian imagery in the Greeks and the metamorphoses of this imagery during the last three centuries” (12). Wittgenstein showed how language could be conceived of as a “game” constructed for the achievement of social pursuits—in Philosophical Explorations, he wrote, “To imagine a language is to imagine a way of life” (§19). Each of these three, argues Rorty, “set aside metaphysics and epistemology as possible disciplines”: they do not so much debunk these realms, he suggests, as simply lose interest in them (4). For them, and for Rorty himself, “The notion of ‘accurate representation’ is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us do what we want to do” (10): “true statements” are socially functional statements.

This brings us to Rorty’s thesis, which bears a rather longer quotation:

The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in ‘the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought to be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant (4).

Rorty understands himself as continuing the historicist project of his three heroes, though rather in the manner of a double agent, still operating within the stifled confines of analytic philosophy, and even stealing his “particular criticisms” of that tradition “from such systematic philosophers as Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Ryle, Malcolm, Kuhn, and Putnam” (7). 

I know enough about where this book is headed to be interested in the trip, though I expect to have many a disagreement with our brilliant guide along the way. On one hand (as my title suggests), his deployment of sources is idiosyncratic: each of these three is historicist in his own way, but (perhaps, nudges my instinct) not necessarily in compatible ways. At a superficial level, consider that Heidegger considered Christianity the (quite literally) apotheosis of the mechanization at the heart of Western metaphysics, while Wittgenstein experienced a profound conversion during World War I that left him with a deep-rooted Christian faith (though how orthodox or catholic that faith was is admittedly fuzzy for me). Further, it is far from self-evident that historicism is incompatible with a certain kind of discourse about being: I am thinking here of MacIntyre (who, interestingly, was himself an analytic philosopher “converted” to a sort of Wittgensteinian historicism, though in an Aristotelian and Thomist, rather than Heideggerian, key), and more emphatically, John Milbank. In fact (contra Heidegger, whose reading of Christian history I find unimaginative at best), the very logic of the Incarnation seems to imply that a fully Christian metaphysics must in some sense be historicist, for there is no other “image of the invisible God” except this Jewish man, born of a Virgin and crucified under Pontius Pilate—of course, here I go sounding all Barthian, when a sensible person would let the analogia entis question rest for another day. 

We will surely have occasion later to discuss whether—as Rorty seems to suggest here—viewing truth as socially-constructed need commit one to abandoning the possibility of the “Truth,” of reality as such. MacIntyre argued that it did not, envisioning the possibility of one discourse’s instigating an “epistemological crisis” within a rival; Milbank argues that it does not, because of the possibility of an ecclesial community whose aesthetic splendor would overwhelm all rivals.