In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre continues the line of investigation which he developed in Whose Justice? Which ploring the historical roots of the West’s inability to arrive at a consensus on the underlying moral principles by which it is going to rule. Current debates over abortion, preferential treatment programs, and the justice of gross inequalities of income are only the most obvious indicators of a breakdown of rational discussion among conflicting positions.
MacIntyre begins his historical analysis with the dominant tradition of moral enquiry in the nineteenth century and its crowning work, the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The thesis which supported this work was that a comprehensive scientific synthesis of all knowledge, moral and theological included, was near at hand. The editors’ confidence was based on three assumptions. First, the editors assumed that the history of Western civilization, at least from the Enlightenment onward, exhibited continual progress in moral and intellectual endeavors. On that basis they made a second fundamental assumption, that there was a unified and rationally incontestable scientific understanding of the whole universe. Finally, they assumed that all educated persons who examined the data objectively would assent to this soon to be finalized view of the universe, and hence, there would be a single substantive conception of rationality, namely, assent to the truths contained in their encyclopaedia.
MacIntyre does not share the rather complacent assumptions of these nineteenth century editors. The breakdown in moral arguments so characteristic of the late twentieth century clearly refutes the encyclopaedists’ optimism. The eleventh edition of the Britannica acknowledges as much in its preface. The assumption of the current editors is that their encyclopaedia embodies no more than “faith in the unity of knowledge,” and as MacIntyre says, that faith “increasingly flies in the face of contemporary realities.”
And what are those contemporary realities? The interminable and increasingly acrimonious debate over fundamental moral and political issues is only the surface manifestation of a more fundamental problem. The deeper issue concerns the very notion of rationality. Even as the encyclopaedists were putting what they thought would be the finishing touches on their project, a disgruntled German professor, Friedrich Nietzsche, resigned his chair of philology and began to cry that the encyclopaedists’ alleged objectivity was no more than a disguised attempt to sustain their own dominance in their culture. His cry was only faintly heard by his contemporaries, but it has been taken up by twentieth century university professors with a persistence which makes it impossible to picture the modern university as a place where knowledge of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful is impartially pursued by all involved.
According to Nietzsche, “truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” His genealogical project was to write the social and psychological history of movements and traditions which pretentiously claimed insight into the truth. After making clear the multiplicity of perspectives and idioms from which truth is viewed, he went on to explain the persistence and pervasiveness of this illusion in terms of unrecognized psychological motivation, especially the will to power by the inferior masses to escape domination by the superior few whose own will to power exhibits an aristocratic nobility.
It was no accident, says MacIntyre, that Nietzsche gave up his academic position. His very mode of argument was alien to the encyclopaedists who dominated the nineteenth century university. The inability of Nietzsche’s academic peers to understand his work illustrates one of MacIntrye’s major themes, namely, the incommensurability of rival traditions. Nietzsche’s peers could not, or would not, expend the time and effort necessary to understand him on his own terms. Instead, they read him with only enough understanding to be able to translate his theses and arguments into their terms. To be sure, his peers thought they were translating Nietzsche into a neutral idiom, a sort of metalanguage which impartially and objectively mirrored reality. The fact that this is what those in the encyclopaedist tradition thought they were doing is strong evidence that they did not understand Nietzsche. If they had understood him, they would have seen that they simply begged the question. After all, at the heart of Nietzsche’s project was the contention that there is no impartial metalanguage which speaks the truth and nothing but the truth. On this point at least, MacIntyre sides with Nietzsche against the encyclopaedists.
Clearly the encyclopaedists and the genealogists hold opposing views of what constitutes rationality. The former holds that reason is impersonal, universal, and disinterested. The latter holds that reason is nothing more than the unwitting expression of particular interests hiding behind the mask of an impartial pursuit of the truth. MacIntyre’s contention is that there is a third alternative, one which outside Catholic circles was only faintly heard in the nineteenth century, but which, according to MacIntyre, is now emerging as superior to the other two in dialectic conflict. This is the synthesis of Aristotelian and Augustinian traditions which was first formulated by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, misunderstood by his few followers during the Enlightenment, and finally canonized by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter, Aeterni Patris (1879; Scholastic Philosophy, 1879).
In the Thomistic tradition, reason is understood as neither the disinterested pursuit of truth nor the...
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