A Conference on Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre is an acclaimed philosopher in the US as well as in the UK and is a leading exponent of a contemporary reinterpretation of Aristotle. To date,  he is known, together with Charles Taylor  and Jean Luc Marion, as a leading living Catholic thinker after the likes of Karol Wojtyla, Gabriel Marcel, Max Scheler, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain and Maurice Blondel among others.  While committed to Aristotelian scholarship, his brand of Aristotelianism though is unlike a dogged apologia for philosophical orthodoxy but a critical engagement with Aristotelian thought in the light of the ethical and political questions of the day.  We may even consider his work as a correction of Aristotle or an attempt to push the frontiers of Aristotelianism beyond Aristotle himself. To carry out such  project, MacIntyre has to tap a variety of intellectual resources from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Marx and Thomas Aquinas among others.  In its core, MacIntyrean philosophy is committed to a promotion of an ethical life rooted on virtues that are borne out of moral discourse and practices participated in by the agents themselves.  His discourse is a rebuke of the ethics of modernity which either puts premium on the primacy of law (Kant) or utility ((Mill) or abandons the traditional notion of subject (Hume) or tradition (Nietzsche). The wide reach of his intellectual range puts MacIntyre right at the junction of a variety of philosophical debates. He agrees with Marx in his critique of the capitalist system but remains critical of  Marxism’s capitalist tendencies.  He is one of mind with Habermas on the importance of discourse but differs from him in his notion of ratonality. Together with fellow Aristotelian Hannah Arendt, he is committed to the promotion of pluralism but does not see eye to eye with her when it comes to the interpretation of the end of ethical life. In his critique of Enlightenment, he takes the side of Nietzsche but stands galaxies away from him with his defense of tradition-constituted rationality.  His advocacy of social and political change is matched only by his commitment to the critique of the sciences.  He has likewise remained sharply critical of  libertarian positions of John Rawls and Robert Nozick whose ideas find incarnation in the political and economic systems of the US, the country which has been MacIntyre’s sanctuary since his emigration from Scotland three decades ago.

I heard of MacIntyre in a seminar roughly four years ago but did not develop keen interest on him until two years ago, when I started mapping out a possible research project for my doctoral studies.  My interest on ethics and Marxist political philosophy coupled with my predilection towards Aristotle and Aquinas made MacIntyre a natural choice.  I was doing my preliminary collection of online materials about him when I chanced upon the website of ISME.  I merely wanted initially to simply get to know the group and hopefully seek membership  for possible research and scholarly exposure.  Hence, when Dr. Bolaños forwarded a call for papers from the said body, I lost no time in sending a paper proposal.  My surprise with their interest on my research project heightened likewise my enthusiasm to meet and learn from the people known across the globe for their scholarship on Alasdair MacIntyre.

The group behind the conference I attended is known as ISME or the International Society of MacIntyrean Enquiry.  The group’s website (http://www.macintyreanenquiry.org/index.html) provides us a clear idea about how ISME wants itself to be known : Inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of contemporary ideas and institutions, the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry is dedicated to the theoretical and practical pursuit of the human good. ISME seeks to bring together the different traditions that are informed by this Aristotelian principle. We therefore provide a forum within which contemporary Aristotelians, Thomists, Marxists,and others can explore the grounds for a common project. Scholars in fields ranging from philosophy to social sciences, and others interested theoretically and practically in human flourishing, work within ISME to try to identify and promote that common good. To this end, the Society convenes international conferences, supports publication of conference papers, collects a bibliography of MacIntyre’s work, publishes a quarterly newsletter, maintains a web presence, and supports emerging scholars working with MacIntyre’s ideas. We pursue these goals in a spirit of friendship and communal dialogue, whilst also engaging in dialogue with rival traditions. If you are interested in these pursuits or in MacIntyrean enquiry more generally, we invite you to join the Society.

ISME was founded six years ago by scholars from both US and UK who wished to commit themselves in the pursuit of the objective cited above. For the last six years then, ISME conferences have been held alternately in both US and UK.  For this year, ISME’s 6th conference, it was the turn of UK to host the event with the University of Nottingham as the venue. University of Nottingham has four campuses in Nottingham itself (Jubilllee, University Park, Sutton Bonington and Medical School) and two outside UK (China and Malaysia).  The ISME conference was held at the University Park campus.  To date, the University of Nottingham is ranked No. 10 in UK and 75th across the globe.

Serving as academic convenors for its UK leg are Dr. Tony Burns of University of Nottingham and Dr. Kelvin Knight of the London Metropolitan University and CASEP (Center for Contemporary in Ethics and Politics), the partner institution of ISME.  Dr. Tony Burns is the author of the book Aristotle and Natural Law released this year by Continuum. Dr. Kelvin Knight has also authored and edited books (Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Arsitotle to MacIntyre (2007); Revolutionary Arsitotelianism:  Ethics, Resitance and Utopia (2008); The MacIntyre Reader (1998);  and numerous articles on Alasdair MacIntyre.  Last year, Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, the book he co-ediited with Paul Blackledge was published by University of Notre Dame Press.

The ISME also counts either as officers or members scholars on MacIntyre of significant note among them Peter McMylor (Alasdair MacIntyre: Critic of Modernity, 1993), Christopher Stephen Lutz (Tradition in the Ethics of MacIntyre: Relativism, Thomism and Philosophy, 2004; Reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, 2012), Jeffrey Nicholas (Reason, Tradition and the Good: MacIntyre’s Tradition-Constituted Reason and Frankfurt Critical Theory, 2012) etc. All of them were present during the conference and have likewise presented their own papers and participated generously during the discussions.

Although dominated by participants from the UK and the US, there was also ample representation from various parts of the world like Portugal, Turkey, South Africa, Lithuania, Israel, Italy,  Japan, Germany and Middle East. The Philippines and UST were represented at the ISME by yours truly, apparently, for the first time.

My paper presentation was slated on the first day of the conference.  I was on the third batch of concurrent presentors. With me on the same room was Geoff Moore of  Durham Business School, UK who presented his paper on “The Christian Church as a Practice-Institution Combination: An Empirical Exploration of MacIntyre’s Conceptual Framework” and on the other room were Dominic James Burbidge of Oxford University, UK with his paper, “Civic Friendship as the Mechanism for Cooperation in the Polis” and Phillip Devine of Providence College, USA who read his work entitled, “Politics After MacIntyre.”

I received a handful of comments on and suggestions for my paper which I greatly welcomed and appreciated. I took note of those comments and suggestions and intend to use them for the sequel of my paper which I plan to submit to ISME’s conference next year.

The highlights of the conference of course were the plenary sessions where we had a chance to listen to the big names in philosophy in UK such as Dr. Kevin Knight who read his paper on “MacIntyre and Maritain On History and Human Rights”; Mary Midgley (The Ethical Primate, 1994; Utopias, Dolphins and Computers, 1996; Evolution As Religion, 2002; Beast and Man, 2002; The Myths We Live By, 2003; Owl of Minerva; A Memoir, 2005 among others) with her “Ought Humans To Be Immortal” and Dr. Greg Currie (The Nature of Fiction, 1990; Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, 1994; Recreative Minds: Imagination in Philosophy and Psychology, 2003; Arts and Minds, 2004; Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories, 2010)  with his controversial discourse, “Is Narrative Good for You?”

The whole experience was definitely worth it, in terms of cultural and philosophical exposure, of establishing network, of representing the country and the UST, of meeting people who previously were mere printed names to me and more importanly, of knowing how much more work do I need to undertake to learn more about philosophy and the thoughts of Alasdair MacIntyre.

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Disputatio

Back in the old days, long before basketball and cheerdance competition became university obsessions, there was only a single event which turned up the excitement of most students and professors of the medieval academia.  That event is called disputatio.  Disputatio was an intellectual fest. It was a gathering of professors and students alike and it featured free, uninhibited intellectual exchange on hot topics of the day.  A disputatio was always guided by a quaestio and steered by a master who acted as moderator and intellectual resource. On occasions, a disputatio would adopt a free-wheeling form and students were allowed a no holds barred interaction with their professor, who was usually a magistro, a master, in the university.  Given the enthusiasm, attendance and level of energy that accompanied such event, a disputatio can be said to be the medieval Woodstock of the minds.

Disputatio was one of those novel things which infused vitality into the university as a result of Aristotle’s entry into the academic world.  Aristotle’s emphasis on ratio as a tool towards a discursive approach to knowledge enabled the medieval academics to shift from the traditional commentary on sentences to a new epistemological strategy which allowed them space to trade and examine arguments in the hope of settling a given quaestio. Through the erudite handling of the masters, disputatio proved to be an effective exercise to expand the intellectual horizons of students and professors alike.

St. Thomas Aquinas, during his stint at the University of Paris, was a constant leading participant in such disputatio.  He came to Paris in the year 1251 to begin his preparations for a professorial career in Theology. That time, St. Thomas was being considered to succeed Elias Brunet of Bergerac, himself a successor of Albert the Great, in one of the professorial chairs of the said university. Despite earlier opposition from the seculars and due in no small measure to his exceptional intellectual prowess, St. Thomas was granted the license to teach in 1256 even if he had not reached yet the mandatory age of thirty-five.  As a magister, Aquinas was tasked to lecture on the Bible from 9:00 am to 12 noon and attend to the disputed questions in the afternoon, hence the term disputatio.  A disputatio had two formats, the regular type held once every two weeks and the impromptu session held twice a year, usually during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, otherwise known as the disputatio de qoudlibet or qoudlibetal disputations. Between the two, it was the latter that drew larger crowd because it was open to the public and members of the audience were given free hand to raise their own questions, any question at all, from a very sublime topic of metaphysics to the tiniest detail of a mundane issue.  St. Thomas was known and revered as one of those who pioneered the use of latter type of disputatio and some of his known works like the treatises on truth, God’s power, the question of evil, soul, virtues and incarnation were actually transcripts of his public address.

St. Thomas was a serious student of Aristotle and a fierce vanguard of ratio as a tool for searching the truth. He in fact wrote no less than twelve commentaries on major works of Aristotle (like Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, Politics, De Anima, De Ceolo)which  were considered by various commentators as works comparable in depth, integrity and scholarship as the Aristotelian sources themselves.  Aristotle stimulated excitement among intellectuals like St. Thomas because as explained by the Dominican author, Thomas O’Meara, “he brought a spirit of criticism over against piety, a realism in the structure of the human personality over against the reduction of faith or grace to signs or stories.” St. Thomas found in Aristotle freedom to explore new frontiers for Christian faith. “Within a freedom of inquiry,” O’Meara continued,  “Aquinas’ career unfolded around his constant and courageous assertion that Christian faith need not fear realistic world-views or sciences.”  Beside the Bible, St. Thomas used Aristotle as his constant reference notwithstanding the fact that he belonged to the Faculty of Theology and not to the Faculty of Arts which had the sole mandate to employ the corpus of the Stagirite in its curricula.

His Aristotelian devotion however was suspected by some colleagues as too avant-garde to fit the doctrinal canons of the Church.  Certain pronouncements of St. Thomas in fact, along with 219 others, were condemned by Bishop Stephen Tempier in 1277, a good three years after his death, all because of their affinity with Aristotelianism. While still alive, St. Thomas was already aware of this predicament but remained undeterred in seeking new expressions and formulating new resolutions for Christian faith with the help of Aristotle and his scheme for rational discourse. He was in constant engagement with those whose opinions were contrary to his –the neo-Platonists, the Averroists, the gentiles – exploring their arguments, clarifying them, detecting both their strong and weak points as he himself tried to fortify his own position in the context of their intellectual contrast. He wanted to spread the light (lumina pandit) not by throwing fireballs or hauling lightning from the sky but by letting it shine on its own through dialogue and reasoned argument.

He was at home with disputatio, had integrity of faith and genuine love for truth and he knew there was much to learn even from those whose judgments he didn’t share. He always believed we can discover truth only if we allow others to help us.

We must indeed guard truth against its greatest threat which after all is not falsehood but our arrogance and conceit which induce us to deprive others their space in what is actually a common enterprise. There is beauty in remembering that truth is a symphony and not a single booming sound that drowns out all other voices. The entire Summa Theologica shows us that.

Such is the legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which hopefully is kept in mind by us Thomasians.