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Monday, August 14, 2006

MacIntyre and the state of philosophy

Alasdair MacIntyre is concerned that philosophy has come to play such a minor role in modern society, specifically with regard to moral philosophy in Moral Philosophy and contemporary social practice: what holds them apart?, and more generally in Philosophy recalled to its tasks: a Thomistic reading of Fides et Ratio. (Both articles in The Tasks of Philosophy, CUP, 2006, references below from this book unless otherwise stated.) 'Fides et Ratio' is a papal encyclical which sees a central and autonomous role for philosophy in the search to better understand 'truth' and what kind of 'good' it constitutes in our lives. Here is one part of MacIntyre's diagnosis:
Philosophers do in fact become irrelevant to others not only by making their utterances inaccessible, but also by losing sight of the often complex and indirect connections between their own specialized, detailed and piecemeal enquiries and those larger questions which give point and purpose to the philosophical enterprise, which rescue it from being no more than a set of intellectually engaging puzzles. Part of what is needed to remedy this is to call to mind a third salient characteristic of philosophy identified in the encyclical, its systematic character. Philosophy does not consist of a set of independent and heterogeneous enquiries into distinct and unconnected problems: the characterization of space and time, the nature of the human good, the relationship of perceived qualities to the causes of perception, how referring expressions function, what standards govern aesthetic judgment, the nature of causality, and so on. For the answers that we give to each of these questions impose constraints upon what answers we can defensibly give to some at least of the others. And when from collaborative work in a number of areas the logical, conceptual, empirical, and metaphysical relationships between each of these sets of answers begin to emerge, we commonly find that we have at least an outline of a system, a system that will inescapably have implications for how the philosophical questions posed by plain persons are to be answered. We will have reached a point at which we are able to recognize the need for a comprehensive vision of the human good and of the order of things (30, 46). System-building however can itself degenerate into a form of philosophical vice against which the encyclical warns us (4). Philosophers who are aware of the systematic character of their enterprise may always fall in love with their own system to such an extent that they gloss over what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions. Love of that particular system displaces the love of truth. If the vice of reducing philosophy to a set of piecemeal, apparently unconnected set of enquiries is the characteristic analytical vice, this vice of system-lovers may perhaps be called the idealist vice. (p. 181)
One would imagine, then, that MacIntyre would be pleased by efforts on the part of analytic philosophers to link virtue ethics to epistemology, see, e.g., here and here. After all, he's famed for his revival of the virtue-based ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas. However, epistemology is not the proper study of our quest for understanding,

For if the Thomist is faithful to the intentions of Aristotle and Aquinas, he or she will not be engaged, except perhaps incidently, in an epistemological enterprise...

The epistemological enterprise is by its nature a first-person project. How can I, so the epistemologist enquires, be assured that my beliefs, my perceptions, my judgments connect with reality external to them, so that I can have justified certitude regarding their error and truth? ...But the thomist, if he or she follows Aristotle or Aquinas, constructs an account both of approaches to and of the achievements of knowledge from a third-person point of view. My mind or rather my soul is only one among many and its knowledge of my self qua soul has to be integrated into the general account of souls and their teleology. Insofar as a given soul moves successfully towards its successive intellectual goals in a teleologically ordered way, it moves towards completing itself by becoming formally identical with the objects of its knowledge, so that it is adequate to those objects, objects that are then no longer external to it, but rather complete it. (pp. 148-149)
It seems that I should be reading Jonathan Kvanvig as a virtue epistemologist who explores the social and genetic aspects of enquiry.

Now, this linking of what others might consider disjoint areas of philosophy continues. Part and parcel of MacIntyre's position, is the inextricable unity of ethics and politics. If ethics is being related to a theory of enquiry, then so must politics. And this should hardly surprise us given what I mentioned before about MacIntyre learning from philosophers of science such as Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper and Feyerabend. What is very striking about these philosophers is how they understand aspects of science in political terms.

This now raises a further issue. In The Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts, Ethics 84(1) 1-9, 1973 (available on JSTOR), MacIntyre remarks:

Consider...the continuing argument between Kuhn, Lakatos, Polanyi, and Feyerbend, an argument in which what is at stake includes both our ability to draw a line between authentic sciences and degenerative or imitative sciences, such as astrology or phrenology, and our ability to explain why "German physics" and Lysenko biology are not to be included in science. A crucial feature of these arguments is the way in which dispute over the norms which govern scientific practice interlocks with debate over how the history of science is to be written. What identity and continuity are recognized will of course depend on what side is taken in these latter debates but since these debates are so intimately related to the arguments about the norms governing practice, it turns out that the dispute over norms and the dispute over continuity and identity cannot be separated. (p. 7)

A theory of intellectual enquiry must, then, include a theory of the writing of the narrative history of a tradition of enquiry.

A particular way of writing the history of science, the history of philosophy and intellectual history in general willbe the counterpart of a Thomistic conception of rational enquiry, and insofar as that history makes the course of actual enquiry more intelligible than do rival conceptions, the Thomistic conception will have been further vindicated. (167-168)

Of every particular enquiry there is a narrative to be written, and being able to understand that enquiry is inseperable from being able to understand that enquiry is inseperable from being able to identify and follow that narrative. (p. 168)

...from an Aristotelian standpoint it is only in the context of a particularly socially organized and morally informed way of conducting enquiry that the central concepts crucial to a view of enquiry as truth-seeking , engaged in rational justification, and realistic in its selfunderstanding, can intelligibly be put to work. (p. 169)
For some reflections on writing such a history for mathematics, see here and here.

So we have ethics, politics, philosophy of history and the theory of enquiry inextricably linked. But then,
...we need to learn from Aquinas that any such account of truth is incomplete, and therefore more questionable than it needs to be, until it is situated within a larger teleological view of human nature, according to which truth, understood as adaequatio, is also understood as constitutive of the human good. (p. 215)
If we follow MacIntyre, we can hardly avoid, then, encountering debates in the philosophy of mind concerning the relationship between the physical workings of a body and its directed activity. How far are we here?
We are able to say what the body is made of and this in reasonable detail. And we are able to identify the ends to which the activity of bodies are directed. But what we do not know how to answer is the question of how something of this kind of material composition could have this kind of finality. Medieval philosophers were not sufficiently puzzled by this question, because they knew too little about the materials of which the human body is composed. Modern philosophers have not been sufficiently puzzled by this question, because, from La Mettrie to AI programs to the theorizingof philosophers recently engrossed by the findings of neurophysiology and biochemistry, they have tended to suppose that, if only we knew enough about the materials of which the body is composed, the problem of how we find application for teleological concepts would somehow be solved or disappear. But perhaps the time has now come when we should recognize that progress in understanding the material composition of human bodies has brought us no nearer and shows no sign of bringing us any nearer to an answer to this question. So where do we go from here? The point of this essay is to identify just where it is that we now are and by doing so to suggest that we need to begin all over again. (pp. 102-103)
Enough for one post. What, I hope, is becoming very evident is that the interconnectedness of MacIntyre's philosophy. For me the question becomes, in light of my support for his theory of enquiry, how far must I follow him, and consequently Aquinas and Aristotle, in their teleological metaphysics, which, as MacIntyre points out, were indispensable parts of their respective systems.


Dick said...

I think you're skating on very thin ice here, as I'm sure you're aware. I merely point out that the occasion for much of what you quote here is a papal encyclical, and SAINT Thomas would tell you the Pope is divinely appointed to give us infallible direction on faith - which is inseparable from Thomistic phiosophical - matters.

August 14, 2006 4:49 PM  
beepbeepitsme said...

RE philosophy

“Philosophy is the science which considers truth”

August 31, 2006 3:13 AM  

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