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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Versions of Philosophy

As it evolves from its Greek origin, philosophy assumes a variety of forms throughout history. These varieties of philosophy are what other textbooks call branches or kinds of philosophy.  For our purpose, we prefer to call them versions of philosophy.  There is only one love of wisdom but there could be different ways by which the same philosophy expresses itself in different  ages and cultures. Even authors vary in the way they present philosophy in its different forms. Sometimes it is labeled according to the nationality or geographical location of certain philosophers (German philosophy, French philosophy, British philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, Continental philosophy) or according to an identification with a particular period of history (ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, renaissance philosophy, modern philosophy) or according to affinity with a religious thought (Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Daoist philosophy).  Philosophy is also identified following the name of the philosopher which espoused a certain system of thought (Thomistic philosophy after Thomas Aquinas; Cartesian philosophy after Rene Descartes; Kantian philosophy after Immanuel Kant; Hegelian philosophy after George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; Marxist philosophy after Karl Marx among others).  It is also common to name philosophy according to different schools of thought which embody the spirit of the times of different epochs (skepticism, scholasticism, idealism, rationalism, romanticism, materialism, existentialism, modernism, structuralism). Philosophy also sometimes adopts the name of the method or tool it uses as in the case of logic, hermeneutics or analytic philosophy. The most familiar of all philosophy’s names is taken after the subject matter it covers.  Among the popular ones, we have epistemology if it concerns the question of the validity of knowledge; ontology if it concerns the question of the basis of reality; ethics if it concerns the question concerning the basis of human action; aesthetics if it concerns the question concerning the criteria of beauty. When it comes to the question of divinity, philosophy resorts to theodicy or if we turn to politics, we have political philosophy; for issues that concern fundamental questions related to our humanity, we have the philosophy of the human person.  Lately, we one can also hear of philosophy of science and philosophy of mathematics. In other schools here and abroad, one may also find courses on applied philosophy like environmental ethics, business ethics and philosophy of technology.

As one can see, philosophy excludes nothing in its purview.  Philosophy practically embraces the entire landscape of reality. Those who think of philosophy as a stand-alone discipline is gravely mistaken for philosophy’s real worth lies precisely in its ability to embed in other the disciplines the spirit of self-critique and rigorous inquiry. We do not philosophize if we merely subscribe to a particular philosophical doctrine or make ourselves blind disciples of this or that philosopher or worse, if we think and write as though philosophy will cure the ills of the world. The point of discussing the different versions of philosophy is for us to see the range of philosophy’s critical enterprise.  Philosophy has this distinct capacity to push the boundaries of its scope as wide as possible not so much by providing answers to all possible questions but by posing questions which enable it to establish “bridges”, to use the expression of Deleuze, with other disciplines. When philosophy dips its finger into seemingly alien frontiers like economics, quantum physics or biotechnology, it is actually engaging them in a kind of a critical interface in order to bring to the attention of the experts our human concerns. What appears like an interference is actually a necessary engagement which philosophy undertakes as a critical discipline. Philosophy does not compete with other fields of inquiry but puts itself at their service.

This is also the same spirit that we imbibe from studying philosophy. Philosophy introduces us to an interpretive life and makes more intense our yearning for wisdom by inspiring  and teaching us first of all to ask questions. A student of philosophy is a pilgrim and the questions he makes help him identify the landmarks in his map. A question is the first step towards understanding.  It creates the space and sets the condition of possibility for the construction of new meanings. It likewise opens up our sight to the multiplicity of alternative perspectives.  To live therefore an examined or interpreted life which philosophy offers us is to live a meaningful life.  It is to find the world and know it as if we see it for the first time.  We no longer look around us and see a world surrounded by dull figures and bland tones but trees, flowers, sunlight, air, raindrops which speak to us and out of whose language we are able to create meanings that make our lives worth living.  With philosophy, we no longer live inside the cave described by Plato. We become men and women of light, freed from the cave walls where the only images we see are shadows.

 

Learning Western Philosophy at the University of Santo Tomas

As we know, philosophy is Greek by origin.  The word philosophy itself is of Greek pedigree.  The whole Western civilization was born and cradled in Greece and much of the things we now know and see are part of this Greek legacy which the Philippines received by virtue of the Western expansion into our shores in 1521.  We know from our basic world history that Spanish culture, like others in most parts of Europe, was a by-product of Latin culture which is itself a progeny of the Greek culture. Jose Rizal himself, our national hero, was a huge fan of Greek poetry and literature as shown in his winning play El Consejo de los Dioses written in 1879 and awarded grand prize in the 1880-1881 literary contest sponsored by the Liceo Artistico Literario de Manila to commemorate the death of Cervantes.  The said piece, we should remember, was written when Rizal was still student of Ateneo, a school’s name which was taken from the Greek term athenaion (or atheneum in Latin), a temple of Athena, where Greek poets used to gather and read their works in her honor. Other schools which identify themselves as academy or liceo (lyceum) are also using names of Greek vintage.  Academy is a school associated with the Greek philosopher Plato and lyceum takes from the learning hub put up by another Greek philosopher and Plato’s student, Aristotle.  Even the Catholic church to which the majority of Filipinos belong is a beneficiary of Greek thinking.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholarly patron of the university, nourished himself from the genius of the ancient Greek intellectual giants.

When we use the term philosophy therefore, we have in mind Western philosophy, the kind of philosophy we inherited from the Greeks.  We need to use the qualification “western” in order to distinguish it from another breed of philosophy called “eastern” philosophy which is a way of thinking that germinate not from the West but in places like Asia, India and the Middle East.  Unlike its counterpart in the West, Eastern philosophy developed through closer kinship to religion and ethical life. It does not rely on heavy intellectualization and is given more to poetry and cultivation of a life lived according to an enlightened way.  The Western tradition however banks strongly on abstraction and chasing after ideas, which invariably are also referred to as form, theory, concept, or first principle or universals. Whereas the West emphasizes “grasping” of an idea, the East underscores “surrender.”  While the West puts premium on the mind, the East pays more attention to the heart. The West takes pride in being logical; the East finds pleasure in being spiritual. It may even be said that while for the West philosophy is love of wisdom, for the East it is more like the wisdom of love.

This is not to say that philosophy can be dissected into regions or geographic locations. In a school setting, the distinction between East and West is suggested merely as guide for academic discussion.  One thing we must emphasize about philosophy is its being universal, that is, it is something that is common and shared by all.  The desire to know belongs to us all as human persons , says Aristotle. That is one thing that binds us as members of one human community.  To promote philosophy therefore is to enhance appreciation of this natural patrimony of our common humanity.  The line drawn between the East and the West is purely a pedagogical tool.  Deep down, whether the person is Eastern or Western, as long as there is genuine desire to know and dialogue, there is philosophy in action.

The decision to begin our study of philosophy from the Western tradition is not arbitrary.  It is not even a decision for us to make. As suggested earlier, by virtue of our conquest, we were annexed by the Western powers around 1521 and since then, became more kindred to their influence instead of our Oriental and Malayan roots. Western philosophy is part of our endowment as members of a University founded on humanistic aspirations.  The figures that stand on the precipice of the Main Building testify to this.  The goal of studying philosophy is not really to make us philosophers or philosophy majors much less clones of the leading figures of Western philosophy but to make us philosophical, that is, to make us active shareholders and able participants in the creation, protection and cultivation of the common heritage of values, attitudes and beliefs that affirm our common humanity.  Such common heritage is what we call wisdom.  At the end of the day, it does not really matter whether one begins from the East or from the West because genuine philosophy always leads one to a path that meets the other. We seek and name it in different ways but deep down, true wisdom is one.

Remembering the Ancients

Imagine coming to a cinema halfway through the featured film, at the time when the climax of the story has started to build up, the identities of the characters have unraveled and the anticipation of the audience has mounted to another level.  It is still possible to feel excitement in this situation but the excitement has to compete with a thousand and one questions that whirl in our mind.  That is the price of coming late for a movie date. When we miss a substantial part of the movie’s preliminaries, we are bound to experience a kind of vacuum within and this can easily distract us from the movie’s narrative or  cinematic effects.

In our age however, this minor inconvenience can easily be remedied.  Most movies shown in theatres are preceded by comprehensive reviews long before their debut. In other words, when a cineaste visits a movie house, she is already loaded with substantial information about the movie she wants to see.  She might have read something from blogs or heard comments from talk shows or have browsed the movie’s book version. If she fails to do any of this, she can wait for the next screening and then tie up the loose ends once the movie starts again. Besides, most people these days no longer go to the cinema to watch a movie.  Movies today are either downloaded or burned and they are shown, no longer in huge cinema halls, but in offices, bedroom, waiting lounges, public transportations, practically any place where we can safely hold our gadgets where the movies are stored as files.

There is no shortage of options as long as the topic is confined to missing the beginning of a movie.  I guess it won’t be as easy once the issue shifts to life itself, how it began and how much we do not know about it.  As in the example given, we came to life in midstream. Events have taken place and episodes have transpired long before we barged into the scene.  History is past precisely because it is always ahead of us.  Like our tardy moviegoer, our advent to life is the entry of someone who is late for the screening. That explains why human existence is marked by so many unknowns.  This partial blindness to basic truths about life gives occasion to uncertainty but still, others take it as a motivation to journey and to search.

In the beginning of human civilization, our ancestors mitigate this problem of human condition by seeking recourse to religion, rituals, mysticism and superstition. They drew assurance and consolation from the latter to sustain them through a life marred by instability and doubt. From them, they derive answers that are ready-made and repeatable.  When we are dealing with something greater than ourselves, we often look for a north to give us constancy of direction.  In the old days, religion, ritual, mysticism and superstition perform that function. Then at one point, somewhere in ancient Greece, a group of people thought that maybe there is more to reality than what is prescribed by the oracle and the pronouncements of the gods.  There might be, they thought, a way of seeing life other than what is purported by the temple keepers and the worship leaders. Rather than relying on their word, these new breed of seekers started taking nature as it is – courting it, coaxing it to reveal its riches and secrets.  For this reason, these early thinkers are called sometimes as the first natural scientists because of their efforts to understand nature in its own terms. Their names, literally and otherwise, are indeed Greek – Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander among others.  They were collectively referred to by scholars as the Milesians. Their goal was to determine the primary stuff that underlies reality. They came up with different theories.  Thales thought it was water. Anaximenes thought it was air. For Anaximander, it was something undefinable.  Despite their differences, they were in agreement that a new and different way of looking at the world is possible.  They were breaking new grounds though unaware that they were laying the ground for a discourse which will be later known as philosophy.

We remember the ancients because they remind us of philosophy’s origin. While it can be said that philosophy historically began from Greece at around 6th century BC, it is also true that its being historical does not only mean it originated from the past; it also means its origin stems from our human nature to seek an alternative way of looking at the world.  Philosophy therefore has no fixed and single history because it always begins, even today, even from us, every time we venture to search for a way of looking at life differently.