Alasdair MacIntyre Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: MacIntyre makes a radical critique of much modern philosophy from a historicist and Aristotelian position, engaging a wide range of other academic disciplines.

Early Life

Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre was born the only son of two Scottish doctors, both graduates of Glasgow University. He was educated privately and at Epsom College, an English public school south of London. His interests began to focus on the classics (Latin and Greek), and in 1947, he enrolled at Queen Mary College, London University, as a classics major.

After graduating in 1950, he pursued graduate study in philosophy at Manchester University. His classical studies gave him a sound grounding in Greek philosophy because he could study the works of Plato and Aristotle in the original language, and his later writing on Roman jurisprudence and the early church theologians was made surer by his access to the original Latin of those texts.

Life’s Work

After receiving his M.A. at Manchester, MacIntyre was appointed lecturer in the philosophy of religion there in 1951. Two years later, he published his first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, republished in 1968 as Marxism and Christianity, a title that better expresses its subject matter. At the time, MacIntyre saw himself as both a Christian and a Marxist, and the book is an expression of this combined stance. However, the tensions between the two were already apparent, and between the two editions, he dropped his allegiance first to Marxism and then to Christianity.

However, on republishing the book, he refused to revise it, noting that “one cannot entirely discard either [Marxism or Christianity] without discarding truths not otherwise available.” He notes a number of similarities between the two. They are both constantly being refuted and yet survive. Both wish to exempt themselves from historical relativities, which means neither finds it easy to distinguish foundational truths from temporal responses to particular social situations. Attempts to demythologize either Marxism or Christianity leave only platitudes, and any radical criticism of the secular present is lost. MacIntyre saw demythologizing as a basically liberal enterprise, seeking to mask the illiberal realities of the established order. It is significant that his later work attempted to preserve this radical and ideological critique of the present, while presenting a sophisticated acceptance of historical relativism to ground his work concretely.

Later in life, he reclaimed his earlier allegiance to Christianity, especially to the Reformed tradition of his Scottish Presbyterian parents, although he also called himself an “Augustinian Christian,” going back to older roots. However, he never renewed his allegiance to Marxism, though he continued to view it with respect as one of the few coherent systems the modern age produced. Its failures, he later came to see, were in practice. The Communist Party as institution, just as the Catholic Church as institution, became problematic. As Marxism assumed power, it changed into something else, such as utilitarianism or Weberian economics.

More central to his teaching at this time was his Difficulties in Christian Belief, actually published after he left Manchester in 1957 to take up a post as lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University in the north of England. The book was one of a series published by the Student Christian Movement, a theologically liberal publishing house. The view taken in this work was that philosophy can help the religious believer engage in meaningful thinking about difficulties presented by Christianity (and often by other belief systems) without attempting to solve them all or abandoning discussion of them. He covers the usual list of difficulties—evil, miracles, proof, morality, immortality—but stresses that difficulties are not doubts. His conclusion is still to trust—people do not enter God’s kingdom by argument but by trust.

MacIntyre’s other interests in this early period were Freudianism and the process of analytic psychology, as reflected in the 1958 publication of The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis. At this stage, MacIntyre mostly concerned himself with the relationship of philosophy with other academic disciplines or discourses and the search for how philosophy could open up such areas fruitfully.

His commitment to pursuing ethics as a career within academic philosophy was helped by two periods of research, the first at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he was a research fellow 1961-1962, and the second at Princeton University, as senior fellow with the Council of Humanities in 1962-1963. These two stints were followed by his appointment as fellow and preceptor in philosophy at University College, Oxford. His three-year tenure at this post was marked by the publication of A Short History of Ethics in 1966. It soon became a standard textbook in undergraduate philosophy classes throughout the English-speaking world. It was written in the concise but narratively clear style that was to become a hallmark of his writing.

In his next book, Secularization and Moral Change, MacIntyre wrote,”We have to learn from history and anthropology of the variety of moral practices, beliefs, and conceptual schemes.” This and his earlier 1966 text demonstrate his belief in the importance of knowing the historical context before being able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of any philosophical position. A Short History of Ethics claims...

(The entire section is 2300 words.)