Interview with Alasdair MacIntyre

pagal | 2015 12 22

Interview with Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.


Andrius Bielskis: Since part of this short book deals with philosophy as a meaningful human activity (or what I tentatively call a ‘structure of meaning’), I would like for you to elaborate on the reasons that prompted you to study philosophy. Your first degree was in Classics at Queen Mary University of London and you then went to study philosophy at the University of Manchester. While in London, you joined the British Communist Party and read Marx and Engels. At the same time you were introduced to Thomas Aquinas by several Dominicans. What then was decisive in your choosing philosophical studies? What was it like to study philosophy in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Manchester?

Alasdair MacIntyre: Your first question already suggests the answer to it. Because Marxists and Thomists were at odds not just over contemporary political and moral choices, but also about the way on which human agents should understand themselves and their activities, I found myself compelled to ask philosophical questions that I did not know how to answer. The classes in which I had read some Plato and Aristotle made me aware of how clumsy my own thinking was. And I knew that the positivism of the Vienna Circle, presented in A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, challenged the pretensions of both Marxism and Thomism. So it became important to study philosophy systematically.

At Manchester Dorothy Emmet had undertaken a defence of the possibility of metaphysics against its positivist critics in her 1945 book, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking, where she argued that the key to understanding metaphysical claims is to identify the different analogical uses of concepts by metaphysicians. My own work was chiefly in ethics, but I also took a course in social anthropology and became aware of the importance of a knowledge of the social sciences for work in ethics. Dorothy Emmet was keenly interested in the philosophy of the social sciences and introduced me to the writings of Alfred Schutz. In 1970 she and I coedited a volume of essays on Sociological Theory and Philosophical Analysis.

A.B.: What do you make of the long standing distinction between the so called ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ philosophical traditions? Even if we reject this distinction, as I think we should, a number of differences still exist between Anglo-American ways of doing philosophy and Continental philosophical traditions (first of all German, French and Italian). At the time of your postgraduate studies in philosophy, the contrast and animosity between Anglo-American and European philosophical approaches must have been very tangible. Yet in After Virtue, you engaged not only with analytic moral philosophy but also with thinkers as diverse as Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others. When and how did you come to realize that ‘Continental philosophy’ was an important part of philosophical investigations?

A.M.: I do not know who first made the unfortunate distinction between so called analytic and so called continental philosophy, but it only gained currency quite some time after I started teaching. Anyone at work in ethics had then and has now to reckon first with Kant and Hegel’s critique of Kant, and then with Nietzsche, with Moore, with Sartre and with Stevenson and Hare, and with their multifarious successors. There never was a time when the ‘continental vs. analytic’ distinction made sense.

A.B.: Your work has been saluted both for clarity of expression and for the depth of philosophical insight. It also draws heavily on the history of philosophical thought, the best examples being, in my opinion, A Short History of Ethics and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? What then are the key features of good philosophical practice by which I mean the kind of practices you discuss in After Virtue, i.e. practice as a cooperative activity which has its own standards of excellence? What are the key internal goods of philosophical practice?

A.M.: Philosophical questioning often begins in some situation in which we find ourselves puzzled by something that we have hitherto taken for granted. What we took to be true, perhaps evidently true, turns out quite unexpectedly to be false and now we have to ask what was mistaken in our understanding of the standards by which we distinguished the true from the false in this or that area of our lives: perhaps our judgments about the thoughts and feelings of others, perhaps our judgments about the past, perhaps our religious or moral judgments. So we may find ourselves asking what we mean by ‘true’ and ‘false’, what we mean by ‘mean’, and what a sound argument is.

If we are to learn how to engage in such questioning in a disciplined and systematic way, we will have to find teachers who are able to do two things: to instruct us how to engage in constructively self-critical argument with others, so that we expose any thesis that we are inclined to assert to the widest possible range of relevant objections, and to provide the resources for reading the texts from the Pre-Socratics onwards that define the enquiry in this or that particular area so far. We need the first because one of our aims is to open up our beliefs and presuppositions to critical scrutiny. We need the second, because only if we understand how enquiry has proceeded so far will we understand how to proceed further. As we proceed further, we need to do so along with others as participants in a shared conversation of mutual criticism whose end is the advancement of enquiry.

A.B.: As a follow up to the previous question, what are the dangers and pitfalls in our attempts to construct and/or advance philosophical enquiries? What kind of philosophical mistakes and failures are the gravest? What philosophical failures, if any, were most productive in your own work? What part do the dispositions and attitudes of character play in our serious (or ‘professional’) philosophical investigations?

A.M.: There are at least three philosophical vices, all of them counterparts of philosophical virtues. First, one can allow a praiseworthy concern to hold enquiry to rigorous standards to degenerate into a destructive wish to ‘win’ the argument. Philosophy cannot escape being adversarial to some degree, but enquiry is fundamentally a cooperative rather than an adversarial activity. Secondly, one can allow a praiseworthy concern to investigate some particular set of questions in fully adequate detail to develop into a narrowly focussed and highly specialized frame of mind, so that one writes only for other specialists and excludes from view much that is actually or potentially relevant. Thirdly, one can lose sight of the roots of one’s philosophical questioning in the prephilosophical questions of plain reflective persons and of the need to continue to address them as well as one’s philosophical colleagues. Note however that to lack either of these concerns is also a vice and that popularized philosophy is most often—not always—bad philosophy. As to my own philosophical vices I will let others judge.

A.B.: Your claim that “philosophy inescapably involves some measure of self-alienation” (The Task of Philosophy, p. 127) is in a way similar to J. S. Mill’s famous dictum that it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Reflection and reflective activity can cause, indeed often causes, disequilibrium and existential unhappiness. Friedrich Nietzsche’s life and philosophy are a good example. To live a meaningful life and to live a happy life therefore are not the same. And yet Aristotelian account of eudaimonia suggests that one without the other is not possible. What, in your view, is the relationship between philosophy and well-being / happiness?

A.M.: Much turns on how one uses the word ‘happiness’. Most often our contemporaries use it to mean a state of mind in which one feels satisfied with oneself and one’s mode of life, whether one has good reason to do so or not. This at once differentiates them from the Mill whom you cite. But Mill was inconsistent, since he held both that for one life to be better than another is for it to have a greater balance of pleasure over pain and that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. In fact, if we use ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’ as they are now most often used, it is often good for us to be unhappy about our lives and about the social order that we inhabit. And sometimes it would be good if philosophical questioning were to make us unhappy with some of our beliefs and attitudes. What matters is what we are unhappy about.

Aristotle meant by ‘eudaimonia’ a state such that there is nothing better that we could wish for ourselves or anyone else, a state in which the life of a rational animal is completed and perfected. There is no concept of ‘a meaningful life’ in Aristotle or indeed anywhere in thought, I am inclined to say, until the nineteenth century. It is only when people are unable to conceive of human lives as having by their very nature some telos, the achievement of which perfects and completes such lives, that they ask “What could give meaning to a human life such as mine?” The question of the meaning of human life, as distinguished from the question about the ends of human life, is posed only when it can no longer be answered.

A.B.: You emphasise a cooperative continuity between your work and that of other philosophers, most notably Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. This, after all, is what your philosophical conception of tradition is partly about: as philosophers we are called to acknowledge our debt to other philosophers and, if need be, to further their work. Such focus on continuity and on tradition is quite distinct from, say, Martin Heidegger’s and from many others who, in the spirit of modernism, make a big fuss about being as philosophically original as possible. So, for example, when reading Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit one cannot miss his deliberate, far too obvious attempt to impress his peers and the German cultured readers of his originality that is originality at the expense of the acknowledgement of his debt to Aristotle (in this respect, as I argue elsewhere, Heidegger deliberately misread Aristotle, especially Aristotle’s teleology and his theory of virtues). Yet, despite his monstrous moral blindness, Heidegger is still, whether rightly or wrongly, considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. So where then is the balance between ‘cooperative continuity’ and ‘originality’?

A.M.: Originality is needed when and where a new beginning is needed. So it is with the striking originality of the very great, of Frege, or of Husserl, or of Wittgenstein. It’s not just that they provide starting points for enquiry, but that they send us back to our canonical texts with new questions and new possibilities of interpretation. So it is too to some degree with all those philosophers who develop certain ideas powerfully so that the rest of us have to reckon with them: Davidson, say, or Lewis or Ruth Marcus or Sartre or Deleuze. Had Heidegger understood himself – correctly – as developing ideas initially propounded by Emil Lask, he might indeed have been just such a philosopher. But he insisted on inflating his insights and making claims for them that he could not sustain. It is no accident that he was unable to complete the argument of Sein und Zeit.

Philosophers of striking originality, such as Frege and Russell, test the resources of established and continuing traditions of philosophical enquiry, such as Thomistic Aristotelianism. Were the exponents of that tradition able to learn from the logic and the philosophy of logic of Frege and Russell? The answer is that it took a considerable period of time before some Thomists at least learned what they needed to learn. It was much to their benefit that they did so.

A.B.: What then is the meaning of philosophy? That is, what purpose should it play in the lives of local communities and in the life of late-modern ‘atomized’ capitalist society?

A.M.: Local communities need, among others, farmers and fishing crews, carpenters and construction workers, poets and singers. Why might they also need philosophers? The answer is that unless they are educated, so that they can distinguish sound theorizing from bogus theorizing, claims that should be treated with respect from claims that should be rejected outright, they will always be in danger of becoming the victims of bad, but rhetorically persuasive philosophy. So it is especially in the spheres of political and economic life.

A.B.: You engaged with Marxism at the beginning of your philosophical career and in the late 1960s rejected it, saying much later that “Marxism is not just inadequate, but a largely inept, instrument for social analysis” (The MacIntyre Reader, p. 258). My question, however, is not so much about the truthfulness of Marxism as a first-order theory. Rather, it is the question whether Marxism can or cannot be a tradition in the way it is defined by you in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (i.e., tradition as “an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflicts,” p. 12). Why then is Marxism not (or maybe no longer) a tradition?

A.M.: Marxism became an inept instrument of social analysis as it moved away from Marx and unsurprisingly, since capitalism exhibited a capacity for recovering from crises that Marx had not foreseen. The working class did not become a revolutionary class and the political and cultural formations of advanced capitalist society after 1945 had to be understood in terms very different from those in which Marx’s immediate heirs had understood the class struggles of the early twentieth century. Nonetheless the account of capitalism that Marx advances in Volume One of Capital, both his account of its economic structure and his account of how it functions so as to disguise from those who do its work the true nature of their social relationships, remains indispensable for an understanding of our social and economic order.

This makes it all the more unfortunate that, although there have been and continue to be major works of Marxist insight, nothing like a Marxist tradition of enquiry in which successive generations build upon their predecessors’ work has developed. There was in the past of course at least one such tradition, that which runs from Marx through Lukács to Lucien Goldmann and others. And the history of the Frankfurt School is certainly the history of a tradition, albeit one that has distanced itself from Marxism.

A.B.: Finally, at least within the scope of this project, the most important question: you start your essay The Ends of Life, the Ends of Philosophical Writing by pointing to the difficulty of posing questions about the ‘meaning of life’ or of the ends of life. You argue that questions such as “What is the meaning of life?”, “What is it to live our lives well or badly?” or “What is the significance of death in our lives?”, if posed outside the philosophy seminar, may cause embarrassment and distress. These questions therefore are rarely posed. Although it was not the task of your essay, these questions nonetheless were left answered. Therefore, I would like to ask if, in the briefest way possible, you could answer the question of the meaning of human life. (Please note that in Lithuanian ‘prasmė’ has less of a semantic connotation than ‘meaning’ has in English; hence, ‘meaning’ here in Lithuania is understood in terms of purpose / end; so, while being faithful to the key question of Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, I decided to leave ‘meaning’ intact). Is this question a legitimate philosophical question given that a number of analytic philosophers discard it as a nonsensical question?

A.M.: For those who find sufficiently good and sufficiently motivating reasons for pursuing the ends that they do the question of the meaning of life does not arise. They find their point and purpose in the point and purpose of the activities in which they engage. And they have learned to engage in those various activities through being initiated into some range of practices in which they have learned from others how to act so as to achieve both the common goods that they share with those others, the goods of the home and the workplace, of the soccer team and the string quartet, and their individual goods. But failure of various kinds, defeat in various enterprises, victimization by disorder, foolishly directed ambition, can lead to loss of any sense of purpose, as can depressive mental illness. The appropriate response to those afflicted by such loss is never an argument. It is to provide the means for them to become once again—or sometimes for the first time—the kind of person for whom the question of the meaning of life does not arise.


Originally published in Lithuanian popular science book
„Apie filosofijos ir meno prasmę“
(On The Meaning of Philosophy and Art).


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