Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre

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Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre

An influential American philosopher, Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre (born 1929) wrote widely on such diverse topics as Marxism, the concept of the unconscious, the history of ethics, and the concepts of virtue and justice. He made a vital contribution to the revival of contemporary interest in the ethical systems of Aristotle and Aquinas and many significant contributions to the history of philosophy and ethical theory.

Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre was born on January 12, 1929, in Glasgow, Scotland, to John and Emily (Chalmers) MacIntyre. He was educated at the University of London and Oxford University and began his teaching career in Great Britain at Manchester University in 1951. He also taught at Leeds University, Essex University and Oxford. In 1969 he came to the United States and took a position as professor of the history of ideas at Brandeis University. In 1972 he was appointed dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of philosophy at Boston University. In 1980 he was awarded the Henry Luce Professor at Wellesley College, in 1982 the W. Alton Jones Professor at Vanderbilt University and in 1984 he was president of the Eastern Div. of the American Philosophy Association. He took a position as professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in 1985. He went to Vanderbuilt University in Nashville, Tennessee later in 1985. He was a professor of philosophy until 1988 when he became a visiting scholar at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University (1988-1989). He accepted the position of McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame (1989 to 1994). From 1995-1997 he was the Arts & Sciences Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

Relevance of the History of Philosophy

Alasdair MacIntyre believed the history of philosophy was profoundly relevant to contemporary life and thought; and the philosophical systems of such figures as Aristotle and Aquinas could and ought to be used as viewpoints from which contemporary thought itself can be criticized. For MacIntyre, the history of philosophy was not necessarily a history of progress in which our grasp of truth was improving. Rather, he argued earlier traditions within philosophy were, in many respects, far more intellectually adequate than contemporary systems of thought and people ought to in some significant ways return to these earlier systems for first principles. In this respect, he may be referred to as a philosophical conservative.

To illustrate his strategy, he conceived the major intellectual defect within contemporary Western civilization as: the absence of a coherent tradition which assisted us in resolving our moral dilemmas. He argued contemporary ethics were characterized by insolvable moral problems, precisely because the philosophical founders of Western civilization attempted to ground philosophy on something pure, solid, unchangeable and certain—namely, the mind. The mind was, for the British, French, and German Enlightenment philosophers, a storehouse of truth, not in the sense of containing sets of facts, but in containing the general principles of method by which the truth could be acquired. The mind was the foundation for growth in knowledge.

The fathers of the Enlightenment gave this foundation many names, but Kant's was perhaps the most familiar. He claimed the part of the mind providing us with the foundation upon which all further science could develop was pure reason. Pure reason, according to Kant, could liberate men and women by separating us from the dictates of tradition. One could, according to Kant, transcend the tradition into which one was accidentally born by following the methods dictated by pure reason. Furthermore, by following these dictates one could resolve the fundamental difficulties one encountered within one's moral life. In short, pure reason could answer and resolve our moral conflicts and, thus, the science of ethics could be founded by deriving our moral principles from pure reason alone.

According to MacIntyre, the main difficulty with the notion that ethics ought to be based on something standing over and above social traditions is it cannot be done. His argument for this sweeping claim was rather simple, but anything but simpleminded. He argued somewhat pragmatically the sign of an adequate philosophy was its ability to resolve practical, moral problems experienced by ordinary people; for example, should the active killing of terminally ill patients who are in states of persistent and unremitting pain be permitted? This was sometimes called active euthanasia. The abortion issue represented another such problem. According to MacIntyre, examples could multiply interminably. The common thread which united these problems was society was unable to answer any of them, and this inability was derived from the Enlightenment assumption—ethical problems can only be solved by pure reason. But since pure reason was silent on all of these questions, our society was at a loss to resolve any of the major dilemmas that it faced. In short, if the mark of adequacy of a philosophy was its ability to resolve practical ethical problems, then the philosophy of contemporary society was a bankruptcy.

MacIntyre's assault on the concept of pure reason was based on the notion that pure reason was simply not universal. As many anthropologists and sociologists (and later many feminist thinkers) have pointed out, there was no shared set of intellectual assumptions all men and women in all cultures shared. MacIntyre argued the empirical absence of such shared ideas indicating pure reason was another name for Western reason, not reason itself. It cannot be universalized without coming into conflict with the empirical facts of sociology and anthropology.

Does this mean ethical problems are unresolvable? MacIntyre argued moral problems can be addressed within the broader confines of a cultural or religious tradition containing substantive principles concerning the meaning and purpose of individual and social life. In short, to solve moral problems one needed a set of principles richer than what pure reason can supply. More important, he argued these traditions are somewhat immunized against rational critique since reason itself was not pure and isolated from tradition. Reason itself was, and needed to be, defined in terms of a broad context and, given the dependence of reason on tradition, it seemed impossible to use reason to undermine a cultural or religious tradition.

Traditional Christian Ethics

MacIntyre's rejection of the spirit of modernity left one with a fundamental question: To what tradition does he ascribe? His answer was quite straightforward. He was a Christian with the traditions of Augustine and Aquinas. When, therefore, he faced a moral difficulty, he faced it not as a pure reasoner but as a traditional Christian influenced by the ethics of Aquinas and Augustine.

Contemporary critics of MacIntyre emphasized some of the difficulties in his position. Three difficulties are prominent. First, given his objections to universalism, it would seem he could not ascribe to traditional Christianity since Christians of all denominations believe the gospel is directed to everyone. In short, it is a religion intrinsically universal. Secondly, our society is a pluralistic society in which there was a deep and binding commitment to individual autonomy or liberty. It was also a society deeply committed to the principles of social welfare. These principles went a long way toward defining our culture and, thus, they may be construed as the tradition of the West. A modern pluralistic society was based on a tradition which MacIntyre criticized. This culture was obviously very different from the cultures which spawned Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. While these cultures were rich in many respects, they had little respect for individual freedom. Individuals were, for the most part, forced into social roles and could do little to determine the course of their own lives.


Throughout his career he penned 33 books on philosophy, theology and religion. His book Whose Justice? Whose Reason? (1988) was published by the University of Notre Dame Press. He received a Metcalf Prize in 1974 and a D.H.A. from Swarthmoure College in 1983. Other honorary degrees include: D. Lit. Queens University of Belfast (1988); D.U.E. University of Essex (1990); D. Lit. Williams College (1993) and DHL for the New School for Social Research (1996).

He married Ann Peri in 1953 (divorced in 1963) and they had two daughters. Also in 1963 he married his second wife, Susan Margery Willans, and had one son and one daughter. They divorced in 1977. He married Lynn Sumida Joy later the same year. They had no children.

Further Reading

Maclntyre's style of writing was clear and straightforward and was, with patience, accessible to readers. His three most influential books were Marxism and Christianity (1953, 1984), After Virtue (1981), and Whose Justice, Whose Reason? (1988). In addition, see Against the Self Images of the Age (1971), A Short History of Ethics (1983), and, with Stanley Hauer was as co-editor, Revisions: Changing Perspectives on Moral Philosophy (1983). Commentary on his work was widespread. Among the recommended sources were Charles Larmore's review of Whose Justice? Whose Reason? in the Journal of Philosophy (August 1989). Richard Bernstein's Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983) has an excellent discussion of many of the issues that Maclntyre's philosophy addresses. □

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Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre

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