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On the Pitfalls of Having an Intellectual Hero

March 11, 2012

The reputations of great, pioneering intellectuals tend to be damaged more by their admirers than by their critics. I’m not sure why this is, but it is a pattern I have seen repeat itself again and again. Thus, for example, I never had doubts about the wit and wisdom of GK Chesterton until I began attending Chesterton society meetings and conferences. Suddenly, all kinds of doubts began to creep in. The Chesterton I admired had genuine sympathy for the socialists, theosophists, and progressives with whom he so often found himself in disagreement. The Chesterton I admired read their works carefully and not only understood, but appreciated whatever was good and true in them, while maintaining (correctly in my view) that only orthodox Christianity contained the fullness of truth. The Chesterton I encountered at meetings and conferences, by contrast, was a zealous culture warrior, willing to concede that his opponents had a point or two, but quick to rally the troops of the One Truth Faith off to battle – especially in defense of the family, which of course was code for opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

To take one more example — this time from the other end of the cultural/political spectrum — while a grad student in English literature, I was expected to bow down and genuflect before literary theory. No commentary on Jane Eyre or Hamlet was complete without reference to the postcolonial Other or a discussion of the relevance of Lacan’s mirror stage. I hated and resented literary theory and thought I hated and resented literary theorists – until I read them, at which point I realized that intellectuals like Foucault and Marx were not “literary theorists,” but perceptive and engaging writers who had been disfigured by a discipline that had desperately sought for itself the credibility and prestige of the sciences. (As I later discovered, literary theory also served as a convenient means of socializing grad students, ensuring that the bold and promising projects of human liberation undertaken by humanities faculty members were not thwarted by the heterodoxy of their students.)

Reading this piece by Thaddeus Kozinski, I fear that Alasdair MacIntyre may soon take his place among intellectuals made to look bad by their followers. The MacIntyre I recall reading was indeed a fierce opponent of classical liberalism, but also understood and respected liberalism — responding to its strongest arguments on their own terms, rather than staging a siege against what he perceived to be its most vulnerable points. Kozinski’s MacIntyre equates liberalism with nihilism and nihilism with the Virginia Tech massacres and a girl who committed suicide by driving into oncoming traffic. Kozinski’s MacIntyre makes essentially the same rhetorical move against liberals as liberals have historically made against Catholics: which is to claim that liberalism is inherently violent. Just as liberals like Christopher Hitchens have used the Inquisition and Crusades against Catholicism, so too are Catholics like Thaddeus Kozinski attempting to tarnish liberalism by associating it with violence – as though tolerating pornography and violent video games are somehow key tenants of that tradition. (Kozinski apparently failed to notice the uproar among political liberals over violent video games following the Columbine shootings).

Similarly, the MacIntyre I recall reading proposes a solution to what Kozinski deems the traditionalist dilemma. Certainly, this is not apparent in the passage Kozinski quotes in which MacIntyre states that theologians who wish to “translate what they have to say to an atheistic world” will fail in one of two ways:

Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves.

Actually, if there were true, there would be no point in attempting to translate ideas from one’s tradition into the language of another tradition at all. But, in fact, it is precisely the problem of incommensurability that MacIntyre’s three great works seek to overcome. If it is not possible to learn another tradition as one’s “second first language” (MacIntyre’s term), identify key respects in which that tradition fails by its own standards, and explain to that tradition’s adherents how and why one’s own tradition is able to both diagnose the problem and supply the resources necessary to overcome it, then what we are left with is relativism. The MacIntyre I recall reading is thus committed to ongoing rational debate between traditions and goes so far as to propose modeling universities on such debate in Three Rival Traditions of Moral Enquiry. The MacIntyre Kozinski presents us with despairs of rational debate; Kozinski’s MacIntyre seeks to shore up Catholic triumphalism via the equivalent of a reductio ad Hitlerum rather than seeking to test the Augustinian Thomist tradition against the strongest possible objections.

So in each of the instances I have mentioned – Chesterton, Foucault, and MacIntyre – the pattern seems to be this. A great writer absorbs, but surpasses the insights of his heroes, while at the same time continually scrutinizing these insights and subjecting them to the strongest possible objections from unsympathetic outsiders — which, in turn, serves to further refine the insights. This combination of intellectual rigor, creativity, and willingness to learn from others generates enthusiasm and cult-like devotion among followers. But, unlike their intellectual hero, the followers do not concern themselves with all of the complexities and nuances of the debate. Nor do they actively engage intellectual opponents. This leads to a choking off of the lifeblood of the argument, rendering their hero’s insights flat, stale, and unprofitable.  What a shame.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2012 12:12 pm

    If you think MacIntyre “respects” liberalism, you haven’t read MacIntyre. He detests the pluralistic, “secular” nation-state. And he doesn’t deal with liberalism’s strongest arguments in his books, but I do in my book, by taking on the pragmatic liberalism of Jeffrey Stout and Gary Gutting.

    One cannot defeat the errors of liberalism on rational grounds alone, for it is a theological construct. It’s good to use dialectic, as MacIntyre does, but it’s not enough.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      March 12, 2012 8:11 pm

      The post isn’t about MacIntyre’s attitude toward the nation-state; it is about his attitude toward classical liberalism. It goes without saying that MacIntyre opposes liberalism as a philosophical system. My point is that MacIntyre respects liberalism in the sense that he takes it seriously. MacIntyre never assumes that Kantian and Utilitarian arguments can be lightly dismissed in the way that, say, Ron Paul’s pro-gold standard arguments can be lightly dismissed. Rather, he carefully and painstakingly dismantles the Enlightenment project.

      At the same time, as is clear from his essays “What can we learn from Mill?” and “What can we learn from Kant?” (Ethics and Politics), MacIntyre recognizes that liberals have made genuine contributions to philosophy — just as GK Chesterton recognized that a heresy isn’t so much an outright falsehood as an isolated truth taken out of context.

      As for the sufficiency of reason, MacIntyre, as I understand him, argues that liberalism is ultimately self-defeating and that the rational superiority of the Augustinian Thomist tradition resides precisely in its ability to provide an account as to why this must be so and how the limitations of liberalism can be overcome. This, I take it, is one of MacIntyre’s key philosophical moves. Yes, liberalism is, in a certain sense, a “theological construct” — but unless it can be shown wanting by reason alone, I’m afraid what we’re left with is relativism.

  2. March 13, 2012 7:58 am

    The great question at issue here is really the question of whether philosophy has any autonomy at all–the old nature/grace question which vexed the 20th century neo-thomists and ressourcement theologians. MacIntyre sides with the two-tier view, according to which there is a space for natural reasoning apart from theological principles. Kozinski, following John Milbank (who has in turn followed De Lubac), I presume, is arguing for the one-tier view, according to which there is no such space.

    I’m not sure which side to take, but this is the conversation that needs to be worked out more fully.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    March 13, 2012 11:20 am

    Interestingly, in his follow up to my comment on the post Kozinski stated that he takes Milbank to task in his book “for his tendency to fideism.” Yet reading Kozinski’s post, it seemed immediately apparent to me that he is giving us MacIntyre filtered through Milbank. To my mind, this one-tiered approach is actually fatal to MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism, due to the fact that it makes MacIntyre into a relativist.

    More generally, Kozinski’s claim that classical liberalism is responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre (which I find absurd and which I think most people who haven’t spent every waking hour pondering the evils of liberalism would find absurd) echoes Milbank’s claim that secularism stems from an “ontology of violence.” I personally find this view very dangerous, as it locates violence not within the human heart, but within a rival ideology. Presumably, if one were to eradicate the rival ideology, one could reduce — though not, on a Christian account, altogether eradicate — violence. Milbank is supposedly a follower of Augustine, but actually I think he and Kozinski miss a key point of Augustine’s, which is that the City of God is not an earthly city. A Catholic confessional state is not the City of God, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Middle Ages should be well aware. Moreover, it is *simply not possible in the current cultural and political milieu* and therefore not worth debating or discussing. (John Medaille’s proposal that we reinstitute monarchy is similarly unhelpful.)

    Rather than fantasizing about restoring a golden age that never was, I think what’s needed are real solutions to the complexities of modern life. In this respect, John Medaille’s book “Toward a Truly Free Market” has a few useful suggestions, though it is nowhere near adequate.

  4. March 21, 2012 9:17 pm

    I would like to find anyplace where John Médaille suggested that we reinstate monarchy. I know him pretty well, and I’m sure he made no such suggestion, since you can’t “reinstate” what was never in our tradition. He did suggest that within our own tradition, there was a larger reliance on Aristotelian polity then modern conservatism allows, a polity which recognized a combination of monarchial, aristocratic, and democratic institutions. Just sayin.

  5. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    March 21, 2012 11:38 pm

    This passage from from your three-part series on monarchy come to mind:

    “Concerning the king, he needs to have real authority, an authority that extends to the executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Of course, he should not be the only authority in these areas, nor even necessarily the ordinary authority; but he should, in some sense, be the ultimate authority.”

    Now, perhaps you didn’t use the word “reinstate.” But the future society you envision clearly makes room for monarchy, albeit monarchy tempered by aristocratic and democratic institutions. As for the past, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that you “can’t reinstate what was never in our tradition.” Does medieval Europe not count as part of our tradition? Was not monarchy an integral feature of medieval Europe?

    Regardless of the details of your argument, and whether or not my passing comment adequately characterized it, my broader point was that the monarchy is totally irrelevant in an American political context. It is like debating the merits of pyramid building or foot binding. Perhaps we are on the brink of social and political collapse. I certainly share your pessimism. Still, instead of preparing for an imagined socio-political apocalypse, doesn’t prudence dictate that we do everything in our power to prevent it?

    • March 21, 2012 11:56 pm

      The thing about a three-part series is that you have to read all three parts before drawing a conclusion, and the third part was about how it applies to our political traditions. And it does. The founders clearly had the Aristotelian polity in mind, but we have since become a pure democracy, which is to say, a pure oligarchy (and Aristotle predicted democracies would always become such.) So, far from being irrelevant to our situation, it goes right to the heart of it. We’ve reached the height of pure democracy; no place to go but down.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        March 22, 2012 8:17 pm

        John, I read the essays awhile back so I don’t doubt that I am glossing over the nuances of your argument. When you say “the founders clearly had the Aristotelian polity in mind,” I presume you mean that the three branches of government were to roughly approximate king, aristocracy, and democratic representation. Fair point. And I certainly agree that we’ve degenerated into pure oligarchy. Still, the distinction between executive branch and monarch seems significant — certainly it seemed significant to the founding fathers!

  6. dwightlindley permalink
    March 22, 2012 11:47 am

    I agree that for Milbank, MacIntyre is a relativist, but Milbank doesn’t think that problematizes MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism per se, as he thinks everyone is a relativist with respect to nature. The only foundations are supernatural, and the Christian God is the only true option among these. So Milbank thinks MacIntyre’s critique is right because [and this is where he diverges from MacIntyre’s conception of himself], unwittingly, he is writing from a Christian point of view. The question, then, is whether there are natural foundations (as MacIntyre believes there are) or not.

    On the question of the Ontology of Violence: I don’t think he has to be understood as trying to remove all causality from human nature; rather, he can be taken as observing the fact that liberalism encourages and fosters the violence of original sin already present within us. It doesn’t have to be a question of a simple internal cause vs. a simple external cause.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      March 22, 2012 8:06 pm

      I just don’t see how Milbank can be reconciled to MacIntyre. Taking away natural foundations turns liberals and Catholics alike into fideists. And if that is the case, there is little use in rational debate between adherents of rival philosophical traditions, let alone modeling universities on such debate, as MacIntyre proposes in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Milbank seems, to me, like a Stanley Fish (the postmodernist literary and legal scholar) for Christians. Or, I should say, Protestant Christians, as fideism is actually considered heresy by the Catholic Church.

      I see the distinction you’re making with respect to the Ontology of Violence. I’d be curious as to how Milbank attempts to rationally support this view.

  7. tjkozinski permalink
    March 24, 2012 7:39 pm

    Here’s my critique of Milbank, from my book, Political Problem of Religious Pluralism, and I also show why MacIntyre is better and provides a rational foundation for dialogue:

    Milbank: Anti-Liberal Fideism
    John Milbank’s critique of MacIntyre’s thought is along the same lines as ours, centered on what he considers its inherent “liberalism.” Milbank judges MacIntyre’s project as ultimately ineffective in combating the nihilism at the heart of modern liberalism, an ineffectiveness due not to any particular error in MacIntyre’s philosophy, but to the general ineffectiveness of philosophy itself. Philosophy cannot mount an effective critique of liberalism because it is limited by its own methodology; its abstractness and formalism prevent it from making the kind of substantive and content-rich moral and theological judgments that could expose liberalism’s bankruptcy and present a viable alternative. MacIn-tyre’s theory of tradition-constituted rationality, with its component idea of an “ethics of virtue,” is much too abstract and formal to deal with alternative con-ceptions of rationality and virtue whose informing content (as in the case of PL) are simply incommensurable: “Virtue, dialectics, and the notion of tradition in general” are not adequate to defeat liberalism because there are no “arguments against nihilism of this general kind.” For Milbank, MacIntyre’s attempt to refute liberalism using a “content-free” methodology is akin to using liberalism to attack liberalism:
    The tradition-specific content that one pours into this container [“a general conception of the structure of an ethics of virtue and its accompanying psy-chology”] cannot easily come under discussion by MacIntyre because it does not fall within the purview of philosophy as he understands it. Thus at the phi-losophic level, an air of non-commitment hovers over MacIntyre’s work, an implication even of the inevitable liberalism of philosophy itself.
    Milbank characterizes his own project as “a temeritous attempt to radicalize the thought of MacIntyre.” While locating all rationality within a socially embodied framework of historically conditioned traditions requiring obedience to hierarchical religious authorities and canonical texts might seem radical enough when compared with the mainstream, modernist view of rationality as individualist, autonomous, and tradition-independent, nevertheless, Milbank considers MacIntyre to be a fundamentally modernist thinker. The problem is his strictly philosophical approach: “I approach social theory finally as a theologian, while he approaches it as a philosopher. They key point at issue here is the role that must be accorded to Christianity and Christian theology.” Because MacIntyre’s project excludes any specifically Christian theological content, it is, notwithstanding its ostensibly anti-liberal stance, a fundamentally liberal project, and ultimately unwittingly anti-Christian in import.
    Milbank sees evidence of the intrinsic liberalism of MacIntyre’s project in the latter’s explanation of inter-tradition conversion. While Milbank, of course, recognizes that such conversions do take place, he rejects MacIntyre’s explana-tion of them as the result of rational judgment:
    Here MacIntyre wants to say that such a switch can be legitimated according to the criteria of the older tradition itself; . . . However, if the criteria are still in full force, and, as MacIntyre says, all criteria are tradition-specific, then how can we really talk of a rational switch in tradition? If a tradition has really collapsed, then this must mean that its criteria—which are part of its very warp and woof—have split asunder. . . . Here there is a questionableness about every switch of tradition, which escapes dialectical adjudication. What triumphs is simply the persuasive power of a new narrative.
    For MacIntyre, while rationality is tradition-dependent, it leaves room for an inter-traditional application of rationality by which engagement in argumenta-tion regarding the rationality of one tradition in comparison with another can result in a rationally adjudicated abandonment of one’s present tradition for the other. For Milbank, however, rationality’s tradition-dependence is such that any change in traditional allegiance must be the result of a non-rational or supra-rational process. It is not a matter of rational argument only or even primarily, but rather rhetorical persuasion: “MacIntyre, of course, wants to argue against this stoic-liberal-nihilist ¬tendency, which is ‘secular reason’. But my case is rather that it is only a mythos, and therefore cannot be refuted, but only out-narrated, if we can persuade people—for reasons of ‘literary taste’—that Christianity offers a much better story.”
    While Milbank’s project identifies and provides a plausible explanation for and solution to some of the problems that MacIntyre’s thought fails to solve, ultimately, it is not an adequate alternative. I shall not analyze Milbank’s project in any depth here to evaluate its superiority or inferiority to MacIntyre’s project, for its sheer complexity and density would require a book-length treatment. What I will say is that Milbank’s thought illuminates the boundary, as it were, outside of which criticism of MacIntyre’s project becomes philosophically untenable. Although Milbank is justified in saying that MacIntyre’s reluctance to utilize the resources of theology renders his arguments against liberalism less effective than they could be, if Milbank is implying that what is required to defeat liberalism is the wholesale supplanting of philosophy by theology, he is moving dangerously close to a kind of fideistic, theological totalitarianism. If Milbank is correct in claiming that all traditions are essentially and exclusively grounded in mythos, not logos, and that rational argument is inextricably bound up with rhetorical persuasion and subordinate to it, then any project aiming at the articulation of a rationally persuasive argument for a tradition-diverse audience, that is, any philosophical project with live democratic political implications, must fail. Such a project could only serve to perpetuate the violent and nihilistic mythos of modern “secular reason.” Only the articulation of an alternative mythos, grounded in the rational “ungroundedness” of Christian theology, would suffice:
    One’s only resort at this juncture, other than mystical despair, is to return to the demonstration that nihilism, as an ontology, is also no more than a mythos. To counter it, one cannot resuscitate liberal humanism, but one can try to put forward an alternative mythos, equally unfounded, but nonetheless embodying an “ontology of peace”, which conceives differences as analogically related, rather than equivocally at variance.
    Although a theological radicalization of MacIntyre’s thought would make it more effective against liberalism, Milbank’s project is not a good model for this, for it can give no persuasive philosophical account of the why and how of such a radicalization; the supplanting, or at least, downplaying of moral and political philosophy by theology may be philosophically defensible, but Milbank does not provide an adequate philosophical defense of it. It is a purely theological one. Indeed, Milbank’s proposed solution bears a striking similarity to pragmatic liberalism in its rejection of the capacity for a rational defense of a tradition to those outside it. They both tend to absolutize tradition, whether pragmatic or theological, to such an extent that it makes rational evaluation and adjudication of the claims of one’s own tradition and rival claims between traditions impossible. If a morally grounded political order in a tradition-pluralistic society were possible, neither the pragmatic liberalism of Stout and Gutting nor the theological anti-liberalism of Milbank could articulate its blueprint; for, such would presuppose the capacity of inter-traditional ration-ality, for which both traditions have no place.
    A MacIntyrean Overlapping Consensus
    MacIntyre’s thought is the best philosophical foundation and starting point for what can only ultimately succeed as a joint philosophical and theological project. Unlike Milbank, MacIntyre provides two indispensable “tradition-transcendent” philosophical components that can serve as a bridge between political theology and political philosophy, between the particularity and incom-mensurability of theological traditions and the universality of human reason and human nature. The first of these components is an account of how “claims that some god has commanded human beings to behave in a variety of ways” can be justified as authoritative. In an essay entitled, “Which God Ought We to Obey and Why,” MacIntyre argues that “nontheological knowledge of what justice requires” can justify man’s obedience to divine authority. Thus, divine command theories that posit the divine command itself as the sole foundation and justification for obligatory obedience are unsuccessful. In response to the objection that any authority other than the divine command itself would subordinate the divine to the human and make God dependent upon something external to Him, MacIntyre argues that our natural knowledge of justice is not necessarily external to God: “From our own rational reflection upon our own natures . . . we are able to learn to recognize the standards of justice which we have used in judging God as well as each other have themselves the force and authority of law, and that the law giver who makes them law by promulgating them is God.” If we can see justice as an “analogous and historically ordered concept,” then the “standard by which we judged God is itself a work of God,” and thus not truly “external to his Word.” Without a purely human and rational standard to judge whether obedience to divine commands is justified, it would be impossible to distinguish between false and true gods, between “divine authority and tyrannical authority”—indeed, to justify rationally obligatory obedience to anyone.
    The second philosophical component MacIntyre proposes is an account of the rational process by which an individual can transcend an inferior tradition to discover the superiority of another. What is most significant about this account is that it is not tradition-specific; one can evaluate MacIntyre’s account of this process from the perspective of other traditions of rationality, for it is tradition-transcendent. MacIntyre writes, “Notice that the grounds for an answer to rela-tivism and perspectivism are to be found, not in any theory of rationality as yet explicitly articulated and advanced within one or more of the traditions with which we have been concerned, but rather with a theory embodied in and pre-supposed by their practices of enquiry, yet never fully spelled out.” What are these tradition-transcendent norms of rationality? One is “empathetic imagina-tion,” the capacity to enter into the perspective of another tradition and observe how the world looks from within it. This capacity is itself tradition-independent, since all traditions must be able to develop this capacity in their adherents if rational progress within a tradition and conversion from one tradition to another are to occur. A second tradition-transcendent norm is the “weak standards of rationality,” such as coherency and comprehensiveness, which we have already discussed. The reason a member of one tradition might initially become con-vinced of the superiority of another tradition is the incoherency and narrowness he perceives in his own tradition when compared to the coherency and compre-hensiveness he perceives in another. A third tradition-transcendent norm is the “natural law,” which MacIntyre defines as “the exceptionless precepts . . . which, insofar as we are rational, we recognize as indispensable in every society and in every situation for the achievement of our goods and of our final good, because they direct us toward and partially define our common good.”
    For MacIntyre, a morally grounded political order is possible on the condi-tion that the populous is united in the same tradition of rationality, and only small-scale, tradition-homogenous communities can properly effect this condi-tion. However, if a large-scale, tradition-homogenous political order is required for tradition-homogenous local communities to remain intact and flourish, as we have argued, then it must be possible to overcome the fact of reasonable pluralism and secure a tradition-united populous on a large scale. For this to occur, the political order would have to facilitate the exercise of both tradition-constituted and tradition-transcendent rationality, avoiding the extremes of foundationalist liberalism on the one hand, and pragmatic liberalism on the other. It would have to embody socially the conviction that large-scale political unity in a particular tradition of rationality is possible, and the hope that the true tradition of rationality could be discovered and embodied on a large scale without the use of coercive force and through rational argument and debate. MacIntyre’s theory of Thomistic and tradition-constituted rationality, with its tradition-dependent and tradition-transcendent conception of human reason, is the best foundation for this conviction and hope. Herdt writes,
    The notion of tradition-transcendental standards of practical rationality would allow MacIntyre to continue to insist that all of our conceptual resources come from within the historical and cultural matrix in which we are embedded. At the same time, he would be in a position to defeat the relativist challenge and to maintain that rational debate and choice among rival traditions is possible, be-cause of the general standards presupposed by traditions of enquiry . . . . What tradition-transcendental norms contribute is not a concrete resolution to a par-ticular debate but the confidence that such a resolution is indeed possible and that it need not involve an irrational conversion but a rational exchange.
    Thus, MacIntyre’s theory can serve as the philosophical foundation for a political order oriented to the eventual eradication of tradition-pluralism and the attainment, through nation wide rational debate, of a political order morally based and tradition-unified. A theologically informed and politically embodied version of MacIntyre’s theory of rationality would be the best theoretical and practical foundation for such a project, and it would have the best chance of successfully solving the political problem of religious pluralism.

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