Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead...What then sustains and strengthens traditions? What weakens and destroys them?
The answer in key part is: the exercise or the lack of exercise of the relevant virtues...Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues--these corrupt traditions, just they do those institutions and practices which derive their life from the traditions of which they are the contemporary embodiment...Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After Virtue, 222-223.
I often think that analytical philosophy is tainted beyond hope; our complicity in cultures of sexual harassment; our unwillingness to reflect on the patterns of exclusion, intellectual, racial, and personal; our repeated willingness to champion and be championed by intellectual bullies who have offered the world little of permanent value -- love, joy, beauty, etc.; our insistence that we're the party of truth and justice, while being unable to address in a forthright matter all the petty compromises with power and privilege we've made, etc. Of course, these are the predictable by-products of professional advancement. I recognize in myself the despair of a former-idealist; I should be a reactionary by now, but with age I turn the cliche up-side down: I am more critical of, and less comfortable with, the ways of the world than when I was a younger man.
But my heart is softened when I learned from MacIntyre this week that Gilbert Ryle wrote sensibly on Jane Austen's moral philosophizing; Ryle linked it, after distinguishing between a Calvinist and Aristotelian ethic, firmly with the "secular and aesthetic Aristotelianism of Shaftesbury." (No scholar would probably describe Shaftesbury like that now, but, when one reflects on it, Ryle is being insightful.) Not for the first time, I am struck by the fact that the more I learn about the history of analytical philosophy the quirkier -- in a good sense -- our tradition becomes.
Last week, after my rant went viral, with a guilty conscience, I found my copy of After Virtue and I decided to bring it on a conference trip to Austria and read it at earliest possible moment. I had been meaning to re-read it since I wrote this post (on MacIntyre's penetrating criticism of Rorty). Much to my surprise, the book had been clearly unread since I bought it second-hand in Red Lodge, Wyoming, during the Summer of 1992. (A stamp of The Broadway Bookstore is still clearly visible.)
I don't remember buying After Virtue. Judging by google.maps, the book-store is gone, although several others that look familiar are still in Red Lodge--a charming (undoubtedly quite touristy now) Western town that always stuck in my mind as the ideal quiet spot to write novels while having access to some of the comforts of civilization. Perhaps it's also a good place to await the fall of our civilization. (I have not been back.)
Even so, I don't share in After Virtue's narrative of decline -- it closes with the thought that we have entered 'new dark ages' -- and dreams of a new philosophical prophet to point the way out of our 'barbarism' (MacIntyre uses St. Benedict as exemplar (p. 263)). It's not that I am more optimistic than MacIntyre about our situation since the early 1980s, but rather because I have come to think that all ages, even the relatively prosperous and peaceful ones, are barbarous. That ours is an age of demagoguery and racialized nationalism -- identity politics is not limited to college campuses -- , and of demographic and environmental fears does not distinguish us from others. Even the sincerity of our religious fundamentalists is a recurring possibility. All ages call "men and women of good will" (263) to join in the endless task of minimizing the evils others inflict on each other. History teaches that more often than not those of good will are not up to the task.
Despite the gloom, or perhaps because of it, After Virtue is a book for adults; I found it exhilarating reading. It offers many complex, interwoven arguments and, despite its relentless earnestness and argumentative and historical short-cuts, each page contains a sentence or two that will stop you in your tracks. Long before academics invented a scholarly industry around neoliberalism as the vice of our times, MacIntyre sets his sights on the bureaucrat's disguise as a technocrat (and the odd alliance with the therapist as exemplars of our times). In chapter 8, MacIntyre defends so-called epistemic versions of Knightian uncertainty in order to undermine claims to managerial expertise. (He seems to be unaware of Knight; I return to that some other time.) Some of the best lines in the book are its critical treatment of the performative theory of self, now associated with Judith Butler, but apparently articulated by Erving Goffman in the 1950s and 60s.*
Indeed, I discerned I was right to feel guilty for not having mentioned MacIntyre in my rant because my distinction between the practice and the philosophical politics of philosophy that is presupposed in my rant, resonates with MacIntyre's use of a distinction between practice and institutions. And throughout the book he anticipates my own impatience with overblown and self-congratulatory claims of philosophical progress. More important, and much to my surprise, he articulates the ways in which taints from the past cannot be ignored for those that inherit tradition (country, practice, religion, etc.). Despite, or perhaps, because of his fondness for Aristotle, an unmistakable point of his argument is the diagnosis of what we would now call white privilege as a consequence of American slavery (220); he leaves no doubt that history generates obligations to latecomers.
I close with an observation on MacIntyre on Austen. At key junctures in his argument, MacIntyre tacitly corrects Ryle's claim that Austen's outlook is secular, by repeatedly insisting she is "a Christian." Evidently, classifying the past correctly is an urgent task if we fight the corrosion of intellectual narratives.