Book Review: Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy and Tradition by Alasdair MacIntyre (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 241pp.

Since its inception in 1888, the Gifford Lectures have established its name as a champion of excellence in research and promoter of philosophical discourse.  The lectures are hosted by four Scottish universities – Aberdeen. Edinburgh, Glasgow and St. Andrews – following the will of Adam Lord Gifford, the originator of the lectures.  Many an illustrious name – William James, Hannah Arendt, Alfred North Whitehead, Jurgen Moltmann, Etienne Gilson and Henri Bergson to name a few – have taken part in this intellectual fest and a number of valuable publications have issued out of the scholarly discourses. Lord Gifford made an initial endowment of £80,000 as a seed fund for what would be carried on as a tradition of public lectures on  the appointed theme of natural theology. Gifford and his colleagues, staunch disciples of the legacy of Enlightenment, wanted to secure reason in its primacy in all the frontiers of human enquiry including what could be the highest object of man’s intellectual pursuit, God.  Natural theology is distinguished from  revealed theology which presupposes the existence of God based on the data provided by the divine revelation. Macintyre’s book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, is the text of his own Gifford lecture delivered at the Edinburgh University in April and May 1988. It also represents the third part of the triptych which included two other earlier works, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) where MacIntyre laid down his critique of the crisis that plagues contemporary moral enquiry and his argument for a remedy that he found in Thomistic Aristotelianism.  The term is not a romantic invocation to justify the revival of a bygone hybrid tradition. What MacIntyre did in his lecture was to problematize the tradition which the Gifford Lectures themselves represent and pointed out its inadequacies as a form of moral enquiry.  He called such tradition Encyclopedia, an intellectual movement which traced its origin to the birth of the first encyclopedia produced by Diderot and D’Alembert in the 18th century and whose influence extended up to the heyday of the 19th century, culminating in the publication of the pivotal Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica whose moral position Lord Adam Gifford and his confreres proudly endorsed. The encyclopedists were sons of the Enlightenment and were firm in their belief in a single, universal rationality that serves as a standard for all cultures and all moral questions. At the other end of the debate is yet another movement which MacIntyre called Genealogy, represented by Nietzsche and his disciples, Foucault and Deleuze. The primary text that contained the genealogists ethical position was no other than Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral and their basic presupposition was the complete abandonment of everything the Encyclopedia movement held dear. Nietzsche did not only reject academic lecture and systematization of knowledge as a form of discourse; he outrightly threw out of the window any talk about of ethical standards, claims to truth and rationality.  The two movements, therefore, represented, two extreme positions of the modern moral debate: the Encyclopedia with its dogmatic patronage of a unitary and universal rational standard and the Genealogy with its warrant for freedom any rational or moral standard.  The two movements were saddled by what MacIntyre termed as the problems of incommensurability and untranslability. Moral theorists were divided between their competing claims but they were helpless in the absence of common standards that can be utilized to evaluate them. The positions they made and the problems they raised seemed to be perpetually open-ended.  This is where MacIntyre’s Thomistic Aristotelianism comes in.  Thomistic Aristotelianism speaks of a tradition which provides the absent context and the evaluative standards which can measure the claims of encyclopedists and genealogists.  MacIntyre called the third movement Tradition, which is an admixture of the philosophical theology of Aquinas, the ethics of Aristotle and inputs from the political theory of Marx.  It is Tradition, according to MacIntyre, which will bridge the impasse between the rival moral theories of Encyclopedia and Genealogy and what will make the conversation between them possible.  It is also for the same reason why MacIntyre believes that Thomistic Aristotelianism as a form of critique is not only necessary but also indispensable.

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