September 17, 2009

aquinas was not a hegelian

Probably the oddest blurb on the back of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is that from the New York Times Book Review:

"MacIntyre's project, here as elsewhere, is to put up a fight against philosophical relativism. … The current form is the incommensurability,' so-called, of differing standpoints or conceptual schemes. Mr. MacIntyre claims that different schools of philosophy must differ fundamentally about what counts as a rational way to settle intellectual differences."

It actually gets worse from there, if you will trust me. What is interesting is the author's confidence that MacIntyre speaks against relativism–including incommensurability–but immediately recognizes that MacIntyre, uh, claims that different schools of philosophy are incommensurable. Maybe the NYT reviewer did not know what incommensurability meant, or maybe she had an axe to grind, and MacIntyre's book was as good a stone as any other.

I am not claiming that MacIntyre is a relativist, but by the standards of analytic philosophy, he comes dangerously close, and we should understand what his proposed solution is.

And in order to grasp the proposed solution, it is worth noting something that MacIntyre's analytic critics are fond of pointing out: MacIntyre is a former Marxist–sometimes not even so former.(Specifically, he moved within Marxism from being a Stalinist to a Trokskyite.) There was an intermediate period where MacIntyre attempts to bring Christianity and Marxism into open dialogue, but by After Virtue, the Marxist influence is largely in the background, and mostly shows up via his vocabulary and asides.

In Three Rival Versions… MacIntyre's reading of Aquinas places him as an arbiter of the competing schools of Augustinian theologians and Aristotelian philosophers (the "Latin Averroists"). This is a reading that has a lot in common with Gilson's reading of Thomas as being a reaction against scholasticism, rather than being its best proponent. For MacIntyre (this is to simplify a bit), Thomas overcame the incommensurability of the two schools by being able to play both language games; Thomas brought out the best critiques from within each school against itself and then synthesized the competitors into a brilliant system which has never been fully appreciated.

It's difficult to say whether or not this reading of Thomas is warranted or not. It certainly is a leap. It seems reasonable within the bounds of his biography, but less so when you read Thomas, or read other medieval thinkers. While there were certainly schools and factions in the medieval university, the idea of a contemporary self-consciously carrying out the project MacIntyre proposes seems highly unlikely. In fact, Aquinas's project is often directed against the Averroists, while retaining a very medieval reverence of Aristotle. While Aquinas may have saved Aristotle from the Averroists (especially after the confemnation of the 13 theses), it does not seem as if Aquinas thought of himself as a synthesizer in any fashion.

Essentially, MacIntyre's reading of Aquinas flows from his foundational Marxism: It is Hegelian (or perhaps Fichtean, to be more precise): Augustinian thesis meets Aristotelean antithesis–thus, Thomist synthesis. It is a post-Kuhnian Hegel (the very use of the word "incommensurable" is the biggest evidence of the debt MacIntyre's model of competing moral schools holds to Kuhn), but Hegel nonetheless. I imagine that the historical inevitability and dialectic of Hegel would seem not that far from relativism to most readers, and I think they are somewhat justified.

This implicit Hegelianism in MacIntyre's elevation of Aquinas is further demonstrated by his lack of understanding in how Hegel underlies the two modern schools he opposes to Aquinas: The Encyclopedia (exemplified by the high Enlightenment attitudes of the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Ninth Edition), and the Genealogist (Nietzsche and his 20th century students). Hegel provided an important background for both schools: He was a point of influence and detraction for Nietzsche and the great monument of the late Enlightenment for 19th century liberals. (Americans are often at a loss to understand how Marxism was given birth by liberalism because we never read Hegel.)

The depths of MacIntyre's misunderstandings can probably be summed up in a few sentences from the book:

"The theologians of the late nineteenth century were not, of course, as yet aware of the genealogical challenge. But they could not but be responsive to the recurrent attempts within every major Christian denomination to reshape and to diminish central Christian doctrine in a way that would make it acceptable to post-Enlightenment culture, the culture of the encyclopaedia. And these recurrent attempts evoked a variety of theological restatements, of which Kierkegaard's and Newman's were among the most notable."

Kierkegaard and Newman! Newman's project (the "Development of Doctrine") was certainly of its time and place, and even quite Hegelian in a fashion, though I do not know if Newman read Hegel or only imbibed the spirit of his age. But Kierkegaard's project? It was directed against the heart of the culture of the encyclopedia, and Kierkegaard aimed constantly at the biggest target of all: Hegel. That MacIntyre is probably making the common mistake of reading Kierkegaard as a fideist and radical Protestant is forgivable; that he misses Kierkegaard's obvious lack of interest in making his ideas palatable to his age is ridiculous. The blind spot is glaring.

MacIntyre's final chapter is devoted to discussing a vision of the university. He returns again to his anachronistic vision of the University of Paris, circa Aquinas. He wants university professors to honestly hold forth their "schools", to duel openly and discard some of the niceties that have made the liberal university inane. This is likely preferable to the current situation. MacIntyre seems to believe that Thomism can play the role today, between the inheritors of Enlightenment rationalism and Nietzschean nihilism, of mediator. That it is questionable enough that Aquinas played that role in the 13th century should make us skeptical of the use of this suggestion, that (according to MacIntyre) Aquinas failed so miserably in having anyone understand his supposed synthesis should make us even more wary.

There is no way out of the relativism pictured, here. MacIntyre still dwells in the world he identified in After Virtue: A world where ethical emotivism may not be true, but is a definite description of the condition of that world. MacIntyre identifies "Thomism" as "tradition", but if there is tradition in a realm of dueling theses, it is not with the synthesis, but beyond it, as well.


I should add a bit to my suggestion of a comparison of Newman to Hegel: Reflect on the role of the world spirit in Hegel's philosophy of history, and that of the Holy Ghost in Newman's development of doctrine, and you will soon see the parallels.

Pelikan once called the development of doctrine to be Newman's "great idea", and based his entire remarkable history of Christian Doctrine on it. The development of doctrine is a philosophy of history, and Pelikan gave it a practical application. (That Pelikan ultimately rejected the development–implicitly–by embracing Orthodoxy is evidence of its weakness as a grounds for understanding Christian doctrine and faith.) In defense of Newman, the Cardinal often claimed in the essay that the development was simply the fact that no idea is ever first expressed in its fullest form. This seems reasonable enough, but flies in the face of traditional Christian conviction that the Gospel is the fullest form of all doctrine, and that the Church simply defends its deposit through the inspired Creed and councils. It would be truer to say that what develops is the number of occaisions to which doctrine has to be explicitly applied, though no father of the councils would have dared to say he was finding a new doctrine, rather they were always defending that which had always been taught. And from Nicea to iconoclasm, there is plenty of evidence for that fact. New technical language is applied to explain doctrine, but for the orthodox Christian, doctrine itself never develops*. Newman's essay, therefore, attempted to defend orthodoxy against the enlightenment by undermining it; Hegel simply defended incipient-liberal Protestantism against the enlightenment by removing from it all the content of the Gospel. But their methods of engaging it bear a more than cursory similarity.

Similarly, McIntyre's history of philosophy in Three Rival Versions… has a philosophy of history behind it that also bears strong notes of Hegel. Unfortunately, McIntyre's philosophy of the history of moral inquiry is not explicitly laid out anywhere (including–I would argue–in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), so we must presume its contents–to an extent.

As for the key to the cage…

*Lest this seem like splitting hairs, let me note: A single statement, "A", can have more than one explanation of its content. "A" remains the same, though the bodies of sentences explaining its content are altered.


  1. I agree about the mistake of reading Kgaard as a fideist and radical protestant. I'd like to know more about how your respond to this mistake.

  2. Bosphorus: That is something that I probably should expand upon, because dismissing conventional wisdom as an aside is probably not a good habit. ;)

  3. An excellent review! I've had these two books on my shelf, queued to be read, recommended by several friends who've been very influential. I'm likely now going to merely skim them.

    Do return to Kierkegaard!

  4. Looks like this discussion has been over for a few days, but I can't help posting a remark. Perhaps the heart of Newman's mistake is in the language used here: "development was simply the fact that no idea was expressed in its fullest form". Doesn't this betray an Enlightenment assumption, namely, that what we're after is clearly defined ideas and the more fully expressed the better? As an Orthodox Christian I'd suggest that nothing is more pregnant with meaning than the image of God on a cross, that this is the "fullest form", and if this is too murky and inarticulate for Enlightenment Man, so much the worse for him. Or perhaps the scene described in Revelation 5 is the "fullest form" and only the purified heart can take it in, rather than the rational mind alone.