Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre is University Professor in Philosophy and Political Science at Boston University. His most recent book was Against the Self-Images of the Age.

Good for nothing

Alasdair MacIntyre, 3 June 1982

‘Philosophy, religion, science,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence, ‘they are all of them busy nailing things down … But the novel, no … If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, it either kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail!’ Hence Lawrence’s conclusion that only the novel can now do for us what philosophy once aspired to do:

Public Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre, 18 February 1982

When the Scottish radical lawyer, Thomas Muir, was tried before the infamous Lord Braxfield in 1793, he declared that if what he had advocated was treasonable, then Plato, Harrington and David Hume were equally guilty. To the present-day student of Hume, Muir’s inclusion of him in his catalogue of reformers must appear even odder than his appeal to Plato: for Hume is usually and rightly portrayed as a consistent defender of the 18th-century Hanoverian status quo. But Muir’s sense of Hume did not altogether lead him astray: for the essay by Hume which he cited, the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’, had already been put to revolutionary use. The list of books James Madison had recommended in 1782, as the first acquisitions for a library for the Congress, had included Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects as well as his History of England; and in his contributions to the Federalist in 1787-8, Madison had drawn upon several of those essays, including the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’. Hume therefore did in fact contribute to one of the classic statements of 18th-century republicanism. Douglass Adair – in Fame and the Founding Fathers (1976), but the discovery was made in his doctoral dissertation of 1943 – was the first to identify Hume’s detailed and specific influence on Madison, and to understand that influence as part of the general culture of the Scottish Enlightenment which Madison acquired at Princeton from the teaching of John Witherspoon. Professor Garry Wills has now followed Adair and extended his thesis in producing an interpretation of Madison in which the Scottish influence on him has a central place.


Alasdair MacIntyre, 16 April 1981

It is no secret that philosophy as it is taught and studied at UCLA or Princeton or Oxford is very different from philosophy as it is understood at Paris or Dijon or Nice. An intellectual milieu in which the household names include those of Quine, Strawson, Davidson and Kripke is unlikely to have much in common with one where Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Derrida are taken with great seriousness. This might seem obvious: but we ought perhaps to be a little more surprised than we generally are at the extent to which almost total ignorance as to what is going on in the other of these two philosophical communities is no barrier to advancement and distinction in either of them. For this fact at least suggests the question: how far and in what sense are the members of these two communities engaged in the practice of one and the same mode of inquiry? Has philosophy been irreparably fragmented?

Dr Küng’s Fiasco

Alasdair MacIntyre, 5 February 1981

When the name of a present-day Catholic theologian becomes familiar to the larger reading public, it is rarely because of his theology. Most often it is because he has been made vivid as a character in one of those miniature scenarios about religion which still fascinate the ostensibly secularised mind. Jean Daniélou’s fine book on the doctrine of the Trinity passed largely unnoticed: his death in circumstances which suggested that there might be a scandal to be unearthed secured the immediate attention of journalists all over the world. Edward Schillebeeckx’s work on Christology was not news until he was summoned to Rome. Then he was at once conscripted as a character in that so often rewritten melodrama – Brecht’s Galileo is the canonical text for our time – The valiant searcher for truth oppressed by Inquisitors.

The Idea of America

Alasdair MacIntyre, 6 November 1980

Garry Wills has two distinct aims in this book. He wishes to demythologise American beliefs about the Declaration of Independence in order to discredit the view that the United States is founded upon an idea, upon a set of moral beliefs. In so doing, he is trying to refute, not only external commentators such as G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that ‘America is the only nation in the world founded upon a creed,’ but more importantly a central American tradition whose hero and spokesman is Lincoln. Lincoln is for Wills the prototype of the political moralist who is prepared to appeal to the Declaration against the status quo, even the constitutional status quo. From this moralism, so Wills believes, spring many of the evils that the United States, its aims sanctified in its own eyes by its high principles, has brought upon the world and itself. Yet it is, on Wills’s view, a moralism deeply alien to Jefferson’s own beliefs and intentions as embodied in his drafts of the Declaration.

John Stuart Mill’s Forgotten Victory

Alasdair MacIntyre, 16 October 1980

It is a long time now since any undergraduate class used Mill’s An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, first published in 1865, as a set text. But it has happened. George Santayana, who graduated from Harvard College in 1886, has described in Persons and Places the teaching of Francis Bowen:

The concerns of academic philosophy are to some degree the concerns of everybody. At the same time, they often appear to plain pre-philosophical men and women – including those perhaps not so plain persons who are professors of English or History or Physics – as vaguely ludicrous. On the one hand, academic philosophy is centrally concerned with such all-pervasive concepts as those of truth, rationality and goodness: and who, whether in other academic disciplines or in the transactions of everyday life, can disown an implicit commitment, at the very least, to some view of what rational justification consists in, and of what constitutes sound evidence for a belief, and who, consequently, can avoid admitting to a certain vulnerability to the conclusions of professional philosophers on these matters? Yet, on the other hand, the level at which academic philosophers treat these questions often appears to outsiders – including some philosophers themselves in their off-duty moments – as disturbingly abstract and unrealistic. So that outsiders tend to oscillate between a reluctant admission of the philospher’s status as universal legislator and an irritated dismissal of philosophy as unworldly and irrelevant. Philosophers themselves all too often respond by alternating between an ingrown professionalism in which they conceal themselves behind thickets of technicality and an equally self-indulgent form of popularisation in which the proportion of rhetoric to argument is unduly high. It is, then, something of an event when a book appears in which the central task which laymen demand of the philosopher – that of providing a clear and forceful statement of what conclusions of general importance emerge from the tangled encounters of professional argument – is discharged without sacrificing the requirements of detailed and rigorous argument.

Ayer, Anscombe and Empiricism

Alasdair MacIntyre, 17 April 1980

Locke, Berkeley and Hume were three very different philosophers with very different preoccupations, modes of argument and attitudes towards the world. But by the middle of the 19th century it had become the custom to view them as the successive representatives of a single empiricist tradition. It is the English rather than the British who excel in the invention of traditions. And although the presence of an Irish bishop and a Scottish sceptic in the empiricist trinity made it necessary to think of the tradition under the title of ‘British’ rather than ‘English’ empiricism, it was always as a very specifically English cultural tradition – like cricket, afternoon tea and Anglicanism – that empiricism flourished.

A few years ago there was a vogue in the social sciences for a certain type of real-life experiment. Experimental subjects were, for example, coached to exhibit the symptoms of psychiatric disorders and then presented themselves for admission to mental hospitals: could the psychiatrists tell which were the fake patients and which were the real ones? Some school-teachers were falsely informed that certain of their new pupils had high IQ scores: could the teachers tell which were the children with genuinely high scores from those about whom the information was false, what was the effect on their treatment of the children, and more important, the effect on the children? A skilled actor pretended to be a visiting professor and delivered a lecture on a subject of which he knew nothing and his academic audience was invited to evaluate it, to see if they could tell nonsense from sense in a subject other than their own.


Intellectual Pedigrees

6 November 1980

SIR: I am grateful to Professor Donald MacRae (Letters, 4 December 1980) for drawing your readers’ attention to an error that appeared in my review of Garry Wills’s Inventing America. The words ‘how closely Hutcheson followed Hume’ should have read ‘how closely Hutcheson followed a line of argument that was to be made familiar by Hume’. The missing words remove the...

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