Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most distinguished philosophers of our time. His study, After Virtue, changed the ethical landscape of philosophical inquiry by re-establishing the significance of contextual and practical analysis of virtue. His analysis of the social and cultural conditions fostering and sustaining inquiry, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, contributed powerfully to the transformation of epistemological thought by pointing to the indispensable role of traditions for understanding progress in knowledge. And his Gifford lectures, Three Rival Version of Moral Enquiry, demonstrated how his theory could be developed into an appraisal of currents of contemporary modern and post-modern culture. The present work, by comparison, is much more modest, reflecting its origins in MacIntyre’s lectures for undergraduates at Notre Dame. They do present, however, his conviction of the importance for educated Catholic laity to know their intellectual heritage and to act in accordance with it.
Achieving this requires that Catholics be introduced to what MacIntyre calls the “Catholic philosophical tradition,” a rather elusive notion. MacIntyre is well aware that identifying the unifying elements and concerns of a historical trajectory as a “tradition” is something that happens retrospectively (165). A part of his purpose in this work, then, is to attempt a sketch of this tradition. A key feature is to address the problem of the way in which a confident faith in God can function to promote an autonomous use of reason (14). This manner of expressing his point is unfortunate, given the way “autonomous reason” has been configured in modern Western culture. MacIntyre’s concern is analogous to Paul Tillich’s analysis of theonomy a half century ago, wherein he contrasted autonomy with heteronomy. McIntyre intends to defend the possibility of a faith in God which is compatible with a robust form of inquiry, including questioning the Catholic tradition’s formulations about God.
Whether or not this is possible becomes a contingent question whose answer can be found in the historical unfolding of inquiry by Catholic thinkers. His selective history aims to defend the view that it is. Hence, he treats Augustine and Boethius on this matter, particularly the latter’s view of philosophical inquiry as an autonomous enterprise. He acknowledges that, aside from Boethius, most the thinkers of the Western theological heritage did not do so, but their thought contributed to its emergence in the schools of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These institutional social settings became the scene for intense intellectual conflict that contributed to the emergence of the Catholic philosophical tradition. McIntyre claims that Aquinas implicitly considered philosophy an independent form of inquiry, yet still guided by the form of faith. This allows Aquinas to develop a profound formulation of the way in which God is to be conceived, namely as the source of intelligibility for the created realm – and not, as many contemporary atheistic challenges to theism hold, an infinitely powerful being within the realm of beings. MacIntyre’s point is that, while upholding the independence of the autonomous rational realm of thought, Aquinas was able to transcend its conceptual limits by being guided by his Catholic faith. This is confirmed in Aquinas’s analysis of the moral life, where a rational analysis of moral virtues and the law are valid in themselves, but incomplete until they are informed by charity and grace. Implicit in Aquinas’s position is a view of a university as an institution aiming to turn its students into independent practitioners of theoretical and practical inquiry guided by their ultimate end, the vision of God. We can understand this proper functioning of a university only by an adequate understanding of the universe. MacIntyre acknowledges that Aquinas’s view was remarkably uninfluential in the subsequent history of the development of universities in the West.
In the early modern period, Catholic philosophical thought developed outside the context of universities in the salons and social networks of leading thinkers. And during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was very little by way of Catholic contributions to philosophical thought, with a few notable exceptions. Not until John Henry Newman, who was an Aristotelian even before his conversion, was there a significant development in the Catholic philosophical tradition. He argued that most of our important beliefs are held probabilistically and are grounded in a wide range of tacitly held antecedent beliefs. In this way, he was able to conceptualize how our faith could contribute to an autonomous use of our rationality. MacIntyre concludes with discussion of the attempt to retrieve the Thomistic heritage within institutional Catholicism and the contemporary diversity of Catholic philosophical inquiry, including John Paul II’s contribution in Fides et Ratio.
His contention, then, is that there is indeed a Catholic philosophical tradition, and one of its principal characteristics is reflection on our ultimate source and final end. Unfortunately, the way in which the modern research university has developed typically precludes such questions, with the result that philosophy becomes simply one more isolated discipline with its own peculiar set of concerns like every other discipline and theology is marginalized or absent, even at universities that claim to be Catholic! Nonetheless, he calls those who consider themselves Catholic philosophers to implement the absurdly ambitious endeavor of engaging the entire realm of disparate disciplines to formulate how they might be understood within a comprehensive vision of the universe. This clearly requires ongoing inquiry, dialogue, and debate, both within practitioners of the Catholic philosophical tradition and those without. If this is what the Catholic philosophical tradition ought to be engaged in today, its institutional prospects, MacIntyre readily admits, are not terribly encouraging. But this has been true for Anselm, Aquinas, Suarez, and Newman as well. So, MacIntyre concludes, “like them we can take courage from the thought that, in the life of the mind as elsewhere, there is always more to hope for than we can reasonably expect” (180).