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.

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.

 

Minding Good Friday

The featured preacher on the second day of the retreat was a diminutive fellow, probably in his early to mid 30’s and who, according to his self-introduction, was also an active player in the preaching circuit.  He was also, as he claimed, a radio host and a book author.  In fact, he told his listeners, copies of his latest work were on sale outside the hall and that they, members of the audience, were bidden to buy them, adding in jest, on the pain of death.  He admitted he accepted the invitation to preach in the said retreat aware as he was of the prospect of huge receipts from his book. From start to finish, that would be the constant refrain of his preaching.  Each time he tried to make a point or cracked a joke, he would refer his listeners to his book in case they wanted more.  The audience loved him and was practically at his finger tips for the most part of the session.  They would laugh at the slightest suggestion, shrilled when he sang and reacted instantly to any remark he mouthed.  It was indeed a highly successful marketing pitch, garbed in the tone and language of a spiritual retreat. During the break, the listeners stepped out of the hall edified, “touched” as they described themselves, and went back to the session later clutching a copy of the book bought from the sales preacher.

Later that day, another preacher came in, a healing preacher according to the description found in the programme.  In his homily, the preacher narrated his journey from being an average pastor to becoming a much sought-after healing minister for over a decade now. He had travelled to different places said he and has delivered countless people from various illnesses through his miraculous touch.  He would remind his audience every now and then that it was not he but the Lord who heals. The actual healing session took place after the mass has ended.  It began with the healing preacher giving out basic instructions on what was about to happen: where to fall in line, how to keep oneself disposed, what to expect when one is “slain” by the Spirit.  Towards the end of his introductory remark, the preacher mentioned his “special request.”  He announced that a group of volunteers would walk around the hall with empty baskets in hand and members of the audience were encouraged to manifest their generosity by filling up those baskets with their “love offering”.  Proceeds from those offerings, said the priest, will go to a special project he was undertaking.  The audience was kind enough to understand and to oblige.  When the baskets gained weight, praying began and soon, people started to make a queue to receive the minister’s extended hand.

Both preachers appeared at the same spiritual retreat, on the same day and for the same reason of spreading of the Word.  They certainly did not charge anyone for what they did but that doesn’t mean they didn’t earn a profit out of it. If even the thought of fusion between God and mammon in the former times was considered sacrilegious, the two preachers showed how conveniently it can be done these days.  It is not just a case of money changers and peddlers swarming at the temple gates as reported by the Gospels; what we have here is prayer itself converted into a commodity, something that can yield profit or traded, a good that can tempt anyone to be a vendor, a buyer or a thief.

Karl Marx once called religion the opium of the people.  He was talking about the hallucinating effect of religion and its capacity to alienate people from the real state of affairs.  If he were alive now, he would probably be surprised to find out that even the religion he had in mind then has been displaced by capital.  Capital is the new religion of the people.  It is the Golden Calf mounted at the center of most modern institutions for worship and adoration. One wonders what kind of devotional purpose can explain the relation between the expression “In God We Trust” and the way we look at money represented by the mighty US dollars where that expression is found.

By capital we mean not just physical money; it also includes the acquisitive drive that it inspires, the illusion that more is better as well as the misbelief that everything can be commodified. It is not religion but capital that speaks when one hears a Catholic devotee glorifying his favorite patron saint for a material reward which he has received or has yet to receive. Even acts of piety has assumed some form of a trade, a kind of exchange deal: I’ll give you a prayer, give me my raise. It is the same with the examples cited above: the preacher gives a talk because he can sell his book; the priest heals the sick but only after the baskets are filled with love offerings.

Religion is a huge magnet for money and the people behind religious organizations registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission know this.  They won’t say it is not trading God for money. Another fellow ages ago argued the same way.  Apparently, he only realized the bad deed he made when the subject of the deal hung lifeless on the cross.