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4.0 out of 5 stars Fundamental Foundations for a Cathedral's Crypt, 4 April 2012
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This review is from: Whose Justice? - Which Rationality? (Paperback)
I was introduced to Alasdair MacIntyre's `After Virtue' by my philosophy tutor when I was at university in the early 1980s. Recently published, it was causing profound ripples of perplexity in academic circles; if MacIntyre was right, then one conclusion that could be drawn from his brilliant assessment was that the study of ethics was now moribund. MacIntyre himself never proposed this, and `Whose Justice? Which rationality?' is his sequel. (The title could have been snappier!)

MacIntyre writes in its introduction that, following `After Virtue', "I promised a book in which I should attempt to say both what makes it rational to act in one way rather than another and what makes it rational to advance and defend one conception of practical rationality than another. Here it is." He argues that the book can be read independently of its predecessor, and he again addresses the academic philosopher and the lay reader: "The attempted professionalization of serious and systematic thinking has had a disastrous effect upon our culture."

MacIntyre states that the meditations of his new book will focus on Aristotle, Augustine, Hume, and modern liberalism. Whilst aware of the importance of Judaism, Islam, and Kant, he admits too that his book has no room for Chinese or Indian traditions. He describes himself as an Augustinian Christian (although now this has progressed to a Thomist Aristotelian). What follows is an attempt to inform the potential purchaser of the arguments on offer in the book's twenty chapters.

First he reprises `After Virtue', setting the scene of present-day confusion in ethics. The Enlightenment tried to induce reason into mores but failed. MacIntyre argues that by turning its back on tradition and narratives, the baby was chucked out with the bathwater. His focus on the tradition of the virtue of justice points to classical Athens as the prime source, but "Athenian arguments and conflicts begin with Homer".

Thus he starts his work with a critique of Homeric concepts of justice and reasoning. The going can be tough, as one wrestles with distinctions between `the goods of effectiveness' and `the goods of excellence'. In one sentence there are fifty two words before the main verb is reached. MacIntyre goes on to place Homeric conceptions within a historical context: Pericles saw Athens as Homeric, but Sophocles (through his drama), Thucydides (history), and Plato (philosophy) question this presumption. Plato is then compared to the Sophists; the former seeks a concept of justice grounded in theory, the latter argues that there is no theory.

And thus we arrive at Aristotle: "It is important to remember that Aristotle was both Plato's pupil and Alexander's tutor", writes MacIntyre. Plato glorified the polis; Alexander glorified the man, but Aristotle chose the former. His concept of justice relies on the social construct of the polis. Here MacIntyre addresses some of the paradoxes of Aristotle's writings, arguing for a dialectic between knowledge and experience.

Not only could we have done with a glossary of Greek terms at this point, but MacIntyre seems to take the reader (well, this reader) down a rabbit hole. Things get tedious. Try this: "What such commentators have failed to notice is the character of the practical syllogism as a performance on a particular occasion in which the action which is the conclusion corresponds to the utterance of a statement as the conclusion of the recital of a theoretical syllogism."

Moving on to Augustine, MacIntyre argues (not very clearly) that Christianity's origins in Judaic law produced a rival and not wholly conformable approach to justice. And thus we come to Aquinas's attempt to square that circle, Aquinas arguing that Aristotle was right but that he was ignorant of man's true telos, which requires God's grace. Aquinas thus adds a theological dimension to classical concepts of justice.

From here MacIntyre jumps to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland and the contrast between the theologically-based law of Scotland and the common law of England. Interminable and dry discussions of theories of `moral sense' and the juxtaposition of rationality and theology in Scottish thought follow. MacIntyre focuses on Francis Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy, whose work had, apparently (the argument was, for me, not easy to follow; one sentence had eighty-six words), a fundamental contradiction between concepts of justice and rationality.

And thus we move onto Hume. MacIntyre charts Hume's persuasive and remarkable grounding of morality in property and the English common sense of its eighteenth-century society. At last we arrive at a consideration of modern concepts of justice in the liberal modern world. The incommensurability of arguments is revisited; the rooting of liberalism into the soil of western society is explored. MacIntyre argues that liberalism has unintentionally become yet another tradition, with the result that contemporary debates fail to question the weakness of its foundations.

MacIntyre ends his survey, pointing out that "A book which ends by concluding that what we can learn from its argument is where and how to begin may not seem to have achieved very much." Indeed, but overall it was an interesting journey, despite the occasional detours into obscurity of language or subject. (I'm still not sure what chapter nineteen is about!) But at the end of my reading, I can only conclude that instead of some mighty Gothic cathedral having been constructed before my eyes, all that we have are four graves and the dull but fundamental foundations for a crypt.
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