“Philosophical Vices,” A Discussion Continued

This is a contribution to the exchange David Riesbeck, Stephen Boydstun, and I are having below about the excerpt David posted from Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay, “Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks: A Thomistic Reading of Fides et Ratio,” in Alasdair MacIntyre, The Tasks of Philosophy, Selected Essays, Vol. 1. My response to David was too long for the combox (and too hard to edit there), so I’ve pasted it here. The block quotes are all from David. “You” refers to David. The post is probably not intelligible unless you’ve read the rest of the exchange.

I take the essential issue to be this: the claim of MacIntyre’s that we’re disputing is implicitly (but obviously) a criticism of liberalism as a culture, and implicitly (though less obviously) a comparative claim about liberalisms merits relative to some unspecified ideal. But every element of this procedure, and thus of the claim itself, is objectionably tendentious, polemical, and under-argued. He doesn’t specify the target of the criticism at all, much less specify it with the degree of precision that his criticism requires. He doesn’t specify in conceptual terms what it would mean for something to be a culture of questioning. He gives no examples in this essay of what he means by a culture of questioning, and contrary to what you’ve said in defense of him, he gives no relevant examples in anything of his that I’ve read of such a culture. (I haven’t read everything MacIntyre has ever written, but I’ve read at least a thousand pages of his work, so admittedly I’m generalizing across what I have read, not every last word he’s ever written or uttered.)

Since the essay is part of a two-essay appreciation and defense of Fides et Ratio, MacIntyre implicitly (but clearly) gives the impression that Fides et Ratio (and by implication the Church) is the contrast object he has in mind. In other words, his implicit claim is: liberalism is a culture of answers rather than questions; the Church, by contrast is the reverse, and Fides et Ratio is Exhibit A to this end. He doesn’t come out and say this, because the claim is so controversial that he knows that saying it would make his writerly task nearly impossible. But it’s made clear by the fact that the point of the essay is that Fides et Ratio is the document that is recalling philosophy to its task in a way (he claims) that philosophy by itself has not, and presumably cannot.

There would be no point to “Philosophy Recalled,” along with “Truth as a good,” its successor in the volume, unless MacIntyre was saying that the Church has performed a service for philosophy that contemporary academic philosophy, as an expression of secular modern liberalism, has not and cannot perform. The essay aims to defend Fides et Ratio, to valorize the Church, and by doing so, to offer a diagnosis of secular liberalism. My comment here is already excessively long, so I’m not going to parse each claim in the essay to prove this. I’d just invite anyone to read essays 9 and 10 in The Tasks of Philosophy and reflect on them. (Just look at the last sentence in the second full paragraph on p. 179.)

Maybe I’m wrong about the point I’ve made in the preceding paragraph, but if so, just read everything I say here as intended to exclude the possibility that the Church is the appropriate contrast object for liberalism in MacIntyre’s “culture of questioning” claim. No matter what you think about liberalism, or even liberalism of the Rawlsian-Estlundian anti-perfectionist-and acceptability-conditions variety, if you imagine liberalism competing against the Catholic Church in a “Culture of Questioning” derby, liberalism wins hands down. Maybe that wasn’t the contrast MacIntyre had in mind, but if not, then it is radically unclear what he has in mind. In neither case is the claim he’s making defensible. On one reading, it’s false. On another, it’s not just unclear but tendentiously polemical in its unclarity.

You write:

I think that critique is overstated in at least two ways. First, it suggests that a culture has to be either a culture of questions or not a culture of questions, while of course any actual culture might enable or cultivate the kind of questioning MacIntyre has in mind to various degrees and in various ways in its various parts. Second, it supposes that a culture of questions is one that does not recognize institutional authority and whose institutions are highly transparent, but MacIntyre at least plainly rejects the idea that questioning requires either. Your focus on the pathologies of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy brings these two problems together.

I don’t accept either of your two criticisms, or the claim in the last sentence.

On the first one: I’ve said nothing to suggest what a culture has to be. I’ve only said that the Catholic Church does not exemplify a culture of questioning.  Strictly speaking, not even MacIntyre is commenting on what a culture has to be. He’s just saying that liberalism is a culture of answers rather than questions. The point you make about the culture of questioning/culture of answers contrast is a legitimate one, but it doesn’t really apply to either of us. Neither of us is insisting that all cultures fall into one of two exclusive categories. But either of us can claim that some cultures fall neatly into one of the two categories, whether or not the categories themselves are exclusive.

On the second one: Nothing I wrote says or implies that a culture of questions is one that doesn’t recognize institutional authority. I don’t see what I said that licenses that inference.

On the last sentence: I brought up the pathologies of the Catholic Church (not merely of its hierarchy, but of the Church itself) for the reason I suggested above: to exclude the possibility that, if compared with liberalism, it “wins.”

It’s worth noting that in the lecture of MacIntyre’s that you mention (“Absences from Aquinas”), he himself refers to the pathologies of the Church, considered as a “culture” (around minute 31). He refers to the “culture of false deference” exemplified and promoted by the Church. In other words, he (correctly) regards the sex scandal as a scandal not of the Church hierarchy, but of the Church as such, and regards the Church (not just intellectuals conceived out of relation to their service to the Church) as defining Catholic culture wherever it exists.

In this respect, I think MacIntyre and I agree with one another against you: the Church (in its totality) is the essence of Catholic culture, and no plausible account of it can abstract from the Church as a political sovereign with explicitly national claims that (in cases of conflict) supersede those of any other sovereign. Put simply: there is no plausible account of Catholic culture that omits or ignores the claim that the Holy See is a sovereign nation whose legitimacy to rule arises from its unique, distinctive relation to God’s commands (a relation ex hypothesi exemplified by nothing else in the universe).

Though he’s not explicit about it in ‘Philosophy recalled to its tasks,’ in other work MacIntyre describes several cultures that I think he’d describe as cultures of questioning: classical Athens, the medieval universities, and 17th-18th century Scotland (none, of course, heavily influenced by liberal norms in any sense of ‘liberal’ that MacIntyre criticizes). In each case, the practices that he focuses on as embodying the sort of questioning that he is praising in the quotation above co-exist in the culture with attitudes, practices, and even authoritative institutions in conflict with that sort of questioning.

A first problem here is that I think you’d have to admit that that is painting with a very broad brush.

Second, consider the heterogeneity of the items on your list. Are “medieval universities” really a culture in the way that “classical Athens” is? Medieval universities are an institution within a broader, extremely heterogeneous culture. When MacIntyre discusses Enlightenment Scotland, what he discusses is not Scottish culture as such, but the micro-mini “culture” of heresy trials within Scottish churches and universities. Again, not a “culture” at all, but a sub-sub-sub culture within one institution in a larger culture.

Third, the claims you’re making about each of these cultures are highly disputable, even as an interpretation of what MacIntyre is saying about them, much less regarding the truth about them as such. MacIntyre’s account of classical Athens is in large part an account of how Periclean politics was not a culture of questions at all, but a question of answers which Pericles and his followers dogmatically asserted without grasping what questions they should have been asking.

In Whose Justice?, Athens is “put to the question” precisely because it wasn’t asking any. When MacIntyre later describes Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as inaugurating a culture of questioning, it is implausible to suggest that they exemplified “the culture of Athens,” at least in real time. (They may exemplify it to us retrospectively, but that’s because we’re often interested in what they had to say to the exclusion of whatever else was going on in Athens.) People dispute over how much influence Aristotle had over Alexander, but no one would be willing to claim without qualification that the Alexandrian conquests were Aristotelian conquests. If so, I don’t see how anyone can claim that the culture of Athens was the culture of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Fourth: I don’t think it’s at all obvious that 17th-18th century Scotland–the Scotland of Hume, Adam Smith, and John Witherspoon–was not  “heavily influenced by liberal norms,” whether in MacIntyre’s sense or any other.

But the most fundamental point is this: Let’s temporarily waive all of the preceding problems, and imagine that the items on your list are all “cultures of questioning.” What MacIntyre needs is evidence that shows that these cultures (“cultures”) were more cultures of questioning than contemporary liberalism (or indeed, were cultures of questioning in ways that liberalism is not).  He doesn’t–anywhere–even approximate a demonstration of that.

And he couldn’t. We lack the kind of evidence that would support such a claim. The generalizations he’s making are simply too vast for the evidence we have, much less for the evidence he actually presents. He gives no clear standards for what counts as a culture of questions in the first place, and one that fails to be one. His criticisms of liberal modernity often just strike me as handwaving and cherry picking. And then, in some cases, he will do the surprising thing and sign on to some aspect of liberalism (“Toleration and the goods of conflict,” in Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, vol. 2). But what, at the end of the day, is the actual evidence for the claim that we don’t inhabit a culture of questioning? Ultimately, he leaves it at the assertion and moves on.

But despite his tendency to “exaggerate both the coherence of the past and the incoherence of the present,” as Williams put it, MacIntyre is not committed to an oversimple view on which the existence of a culture of questions excludes the existence, or even the powerful influence, of such attitudes, practices, and authoritative institutions. It is not as though MacIntyre is somehow unaware of the condemnations of 1270 and 1277, or other efforts by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to silence disputes (or unaware of the fact that some of Aquinas’ own positions fell under the condemnations). He does not regard such ecclesiastical interventions as necessarily inappropriate or as incompatible with a culture of questioning, but neither does he think that they are always appropriate or even often appropriate (see ‘Intolerance, Censorship, and Other Requirements of Rationality’ and brief remarks in God, Philosophy, Universities, p. 170). More importantly, I don’t know that MacIntyre anywhere commits himself to the idea that the hierarchy has usually been well-ordered and properly functioning, let alone that its officials have been virtuous.

I haven’t (yet) read God, Philosophy, Universities, but I don’t see the relevance of the claims in this paragraph to the issue we’re discussing. Suppose that all of what you say in that passage is true. How does it help support MacIntyre’s claim that “this” is not a culture of questioning, but some unspecified thing is? It doesn’t present evidence that “this” is not a culture of questioning. It doesn’t specify the referent of “this.” It doesn’t furnish a contrast object to “this.” And it doesn’t explain why this unspecified contrast object does better than liberalism.

The appeal to the Church’s sexual abuse scandals has little bearing on the issue, since the numerous problems there do not have much or anything to do with philosophical questioning, and we need look no further than secular academia to see that an intense interest in philosophical or theoretical inquiry by no means excludes an intense interest in protecting a department or institution’s reputation by concealing accusations of sexual abuse.

I’m the last one to deny the claim you’re making in the second clause, but it’s a claim about academic politics, not the culture of liberalism. Academic departments are secretive and reputation-protecting, and always have been, whether under liberalism or under anything else. But there is no legitimate comparison to be made between that garden-variety phenomenon and the claims and crimes of the Catholic Church in the sexual abuse scandal.

At a minimum, the “culture of false deference” (MacIntyre’s phrase) that characterized and still characterizes the Catholic Church during the sexual abuse scandal (which started decades ago and continues to this day) shows that it cannot function as a successful contrast object to liberalism in MacIntyre’s claims. In other words, if liberalism is not a culture of questioning, it surely cannot be that the Church is the paradigm of one. The Church is not only not a culture of questioning but is less of one than liberal modernity. It was after all the institutions of liberal modernity–and the pointed questions of modern liberals–that brought the sexual abuse scandal into the light, and brought justice to victims and perpetrators. Left to the Church, that would never have happened. They’d still be raping children, and no one would be the wiser, which is exactly how they wanted it all along (and arguably, still do). And if, let’s say, I was raping students in my office, all it would take is one call to the police before I was arrested and prosecuted, regardless of any attempts my department made to protect me.

The irony here is that Title IX strictures on sexual harassment make it extremely easy to fabricate charges of sexual harassment or assault out of whole cloth. At my university, it is a reportable Title IX offense to look at someone with intent to get sexual pleasure from the encounter, whether or not the person you were looking at ever comes to know that you did. (If you tell a third party that you did, the third party has an obligation to report you, and the institution has an obligation to take you up on charges. So: “Wow, did you see Alison in that dress?” followed by a widening of the eyes to suggest that she looked really good in it sexually harasses her even if voiced to a third party, despite her complete ignorance of the fact that you were looking at her.) To compare a milieu of this kind with what the Catholic Church did for decades is, to put it mildly, not to compare like with like.

These facts incline the reader to ask sharper questions about what what contrast MacIntyre intends by saying that “this” is not a culture of questioning. To what is MacIntyre comparing liberal modernity and reaching such adverse conclusions when he says that? Even if we waive all of the problems with the examples you’ve adduced, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that MacIntyre is guilty of a double standard–the very double standard of Williams’s that you quote. If you compare liberal modernity at its worst to a cherry-picked, half-imagined conception of a heterogeneous set of cultures or quasi-cultures at their best, yes, liberalism will come short. But so will almost anything. That in turn suggests that the passage you’ve quoted is more polemic than part of a bona fide argument. It works well as rhetoric, but there’s no real argument there–a fact that tends to undermine his standing to say what he’s saying in the passage itself. (I also find it disingenuous of him to say that he objects only to liberal ideals and not to liberalism itself.)

Contrary to what you say, the sexual abuse scandals have a lot to do with philosophical questioning. Put differently, they raise lots of important philosophical questions, not one of which MacIntyre mentions in the “Absences from Aquinas” lecture. (The sex abuse scandal only comes up in passing in the lecture; the lecture is not really about the scandal at all.)

For decades, priests abused children with the full knowledge of their superiors in the Church hierarchy. This knowledge was systematically and officially suppressed, and the guilty were systematically protected at the expense of innocent victims. When the facts came to light through the liberal media–not the Catholic media, or the Church itself, or Catholic intellectuals–the Church then invoked canon law to defend the proposition that the Holy See is a sovereign nation that enjoys sovereign immunity against any and all legal charges that might be made against it or its members, whether through domestic criminal law, tort law, or international law. Despite equivocations, evasions, and deceptive testimony aided by clever mental reservations, this remains its position to this day–under both men currently regarded as popes, Francis and Ratzinger. (My point is not that Ratzinger is literally still Pope, but because he remains alive, he is widely thought to have quasi-papal authority, however absurd that sounds and is.)

But here are some philosophical questions worth asking, which occurred to me while reading Geoffrey Robertson’s The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Violations, a legal analysis of the sexual abuse scandal by an international human rights lawyer.

  1. Is canon law really a form of law? If so, what is its authority vis-a-vis other legal systems when conflict arises?
  2. Is the Holy See a sovereign state, as it claims? Does it enjoy sovereign immunity? Should states enjoy sovereign immunity at all?
  3. What are the limits of confidentiality in confession? How in general should we conceive of the limits of confidentiality in confession-like contexts so that our judgments cohere whether we’re talking about religious confession, attorney-client privilege, therapist-client privilege, and legislation like FERPA, HIPPA, and so on?
  4. Whatever the outcome of any pending legal proceeding, is the Church, all things considered, substantively guilty of criminal conspiracy or obstruction of justice? Supposing that it is, what further inference should we draw about its claims to moral leadership?
  5. Morally speaking should pedophilia function as an affirmative defense against a charge of sexual molestation of a child? The canon law position is that it does: if I prove that I am a pedophile according to some clinical definition, I cannot be judged guilty of or liable for sexual molestation because I lack the requisite agency for guilt or legal liability. True or false?
  6. How in general should we conceptualize sexual molestation in terms of reasons, causes, explanation, and moral responsibility?
  7. How in general should we conceptualize a duty to report child abuse, sexual abuse, or criminal malfeasance generally?
  8. How in general should statutes of limitation be conceived in cases where there tends to be a large temporal gap between the alleged offense and when it gets reported?

I could extend the list, but you get the point.

You’ll get no defense of the Catholic Church hierarchy or of its general lack of transparency from me, and perhaps there is a strong case to be made that such secrecy is in tension with a culture of philosophical questioning. But the fact that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy suffers from systematic pathologies in that area poses no problem for MacIntyre’s claims (and MacIntyre himself has recently criticized the hierarchy’s handling of sexual abuse cases quite strongly along with its other failures to care for children, as in ‘Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland’).

Well, we may get no defense of the Church hierarchy from you, but we’ll get a defense of the Church’s commitment to Canon Law, as well as the Holy See’s claims to political sovereignty, from MacIntyre. I don’t know if he’s ever published on those topics, but he made no secret of his views at Notre Dame. It was the subject of a public conversation he had with someone (I forget who) on the topic of sanctuary. I think it may in fact have been in the context of the sexual abuse controversy, but I don’t remember.

What I do remember is that he was asked whether the police had the authority to seize someone suspected of a crime from within the sanctuary of a church. He was very adamant that the answer was “no,” with or without a warrant. A person seeking sanctuary within a Catholic Church is to get sanctuary (he said) in defiance of the claims of the state; the state does the Church a grave injury if it forces its way in to seize the person in question. This implies (whether he admits it or not) that every church is in principle a State of Nature within civil society, an island of legal immunity against the claims of the State where (ironically enough) the “law” that applies applies by Lockean consent, and therefore cannot be forced on anyone. That, of course, is the position of the Church to this day. Naturally, I’m the one describing it as a Lockean position, not them. That raises another interesting philosophical question: is it Lockean?

The fact that there is a strong case to be made that the Church’s secrecy is in tension with a culture of philosophical questioning suggests that the Church is not a culture of questioning. But the fact that MacIntyre is discussing Fides et Ratio, written by Pope John Paul II, and criticizing liberal modernity while valorizing Fides et Ratio, and echoing the very critiques of liberal modernity that both John Paul and Ratzinger employed to attribute the sexual abuse scandal to the defects of liberal secularism, and that MacIntyre has said in public that he accepts the political sovereignty of the Church, and that it was liberal institutions that were forced to fight that sovereignty tooth and nail to save the children that the Church had consigned to hell, all suggests that MacIntyre is ignoring a lot to make a rather weak polemical point at the expense of liberal modernity. Considering that “Absences from Aquinas” deals with literally none of this, it strikes me as a remarkably disappointing lecture. And considering that the lecture dwells so insistently on “silences” and what they reveal, one can’t help applying that point back to MacIntyre’s own glaring, conspicuous silences on this topic.

That’s not to say that I don’t share your other criticisms of MacIntyre here, though. I’m inclined to think that we can identify other cultures of questioning in, say, Renaissance Italy, Enlightenment France, Victorian England, or 19th century Germany. But MacIntyre wants to have such little good to say about Enlightenment culture or liberalism that it’s not clear he’d be happy to acknowledge these examples. It’s not at all clear that recognizing them as such would be inconsistent with his general critiques of liberalism or Enlightenment thought, anymore than his recognizing Athens, the medieval universities, or 17th-18th century Scotland is inconsistent with his recognizing countervailing forces there.

This sounds like we’re agreeing, but in case we’re not, consider the passage of MacIntyre’s you quote below your first comment:

Liberal societies are commonly and characteristically ruled by elites, political, financial, and media elites. The members of those elites set the political agenda by determining what the range of alternatives is between which ordinary citizens will be allowed to choose, when they vote in elections. What is excluded is the possibility of putting that range of alternatives in question, of opening up for skeptical debate the shared assumptions of the elites.”

My point is that MacIntyre is implicitly making a comparative claim about liberalism, adverse to liberalism, that he fails to cash out. How do any of the cultures of questioning that you’ve cited escape the very criticism he makes of liberalism? Liberal media and political elites are problematic, but so were the Medicis, the Bourbon Kings, the British aristocracy and monarchy and Raj, and Bismarck. So was Pericles. So was the Athenian democracy and empire. So was the Catholic Church, and so was the Islamic caliphate. It’s hard to see how any of this would lead anyone to think that liberalism has some distinctive problem that other regimes or cultures have lacked.

There were, no doubt, strands of questioning in those cultures despite the Medicis et al–assuming that we call them “cultures” and assuming that we ignore huge swatches of those “cultures” that had nothing to do with “questioning” at all–but MacIntyre’s claims require a contrast with liberalism that has to redound to the discredit of liberalism, without invoking examples that overlap with liberalism (so that liberalism becomes a confounding variable), or are morally equivalent to (or worse than) liberalism.

Of course, if MacIntyre wouldn’t be happy with the examples you’ve adduced (and he shouldn’t be), we’re left at square one: we still don’t know what counts as an example of the kind he would adduce.

The example of Socrates shows that some questions couldn’t easily be posed in Athens. But such questions are more easily posed in liberal society than they were in Athens. Asking Socratic questions is not a capital offense in liberal regimes. Elsewhere, MacIntyre goes out of his way to defend American norms of free speech against European ones, e.g., when it comes to Holocaust denial (“Toleration and the Goods of Conflict”). You’d think that gives us some credit as a culture of questioning. Surely having a right of free speech (even in impaired and defective form) is a better indication of a culture of questioning than a society that lacks even this minimal necessary condition of having such a culture–in other words, that rules out a culture in which asking the wrong question gets you killed.

There are few analogues in history to Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, or even Julian Assange. In most societies, all three would have been assassinated by the security services immediately after they made the disclosures they made and raised the questions they did. All three faced legal jeopardy, to be sure, but there is a huge difference between being summarily executed and being put on trial. (And of course, Ellsberg prevailed in court, no small accomplishment, and a distinctively liberal one.) If not for liberalism, it would still be acceptable to kill such question-askers and leave the matter there.

Your point that he insists on concrete specificity of culture and practice in critical mode but not in constructive mode is on point; though it’s not part of what he’s trying to do and may not be something that he believes philosophy as such can do — if it’s a matter of building particular local communities and practices, then philosophizing about exactly how to do it is exactly wrongheaded — but once one begins to ask how things really would look on the ground and how we’d really get somewhere that MacIntyre would like us to be, it becomes difficult not only to see how to do it, but to determine whether we really can or should want to. I find that a common shortcoming in radical, quasi-utopian thinking, and it strikes me as something that he hasn’t discarded from his Marxist past; it’s not only unclear whether these ideals are practicable, it’s deeply unclear whether, in any form that they could actually take, they’d be worth wanting, and hence it’s unclear whether they’re really even worthy ideals.

I took his point to be that philosophy sets the ends of and constrains the means on our building local communities. And philosophizing about how to build local community is a necessity: there’s no other way to specify the ultimate aims, hence the common good of the community, or specify the means to it compatible with achieving its common good. That’s a general theme in his work. He makes it explicit in his interview with Giovanna Borradori in The Amercan Philosopher, and I took it to be the point of the example he cites at the end of the “Absences” lecture. I can dig up the Borradori reference if you want it.

On the whole I think MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment and liberalism is far too monolithic and coarse-grained, whether we take those as cultural phenomena or more narrowly as intellectual tendencies. In certain respects, though, he seems to me quite right, particularly when it comes to the centrality of a basically emotivist stance toward morality and value in general in our culture and the difficulties it poses to any meaningful, fruitful intellectual discourse within it. “We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.” That seems to me spot on.

I agree with the first sentence there, but the rest seems overgeneralized to me. It ignores the fact that we have much more evidence of popular attitudes now than we’ve ever had at any time in human history. So the emotivism we encounter seems salient, in part because it annoys us so much, and because the evidence we have of it is so good.

But that doesn’t mean that emotivism is worse or more ubiquitous amongst us than it’s ever has been in history. There is no way to know what findings would emerge if the Pew Charitable Trust developed a time machine, and somehow dropped into classical Athens one day to do a fully rigorous poll on “Athenian moral attitudes,” surveying the views of everyone in Athens, from Socrates and Plato down to Dikaepolis the farmer and his do-nothing sons and slutty daughter and gossipy wife and miscreant slave, etc., iterated thousands of tedious times over across the whole population. There’s no reason to think that the results for Athens would be better than the results for America.

Obviously, Plato and Aristotle were pretty exercised by the amorality and moral decline around them in Athens, and I don’t think they were being alarmist or paranoid. There were actual Thrasymachuses, Menos, Callicleses and Demostheneses around, along with the Anytuses and Meletuses and so on. I often like to think that my students, or the people I encounter on the highways, are the worst human beings on the planet, but in a calm moment, it occurs to me that they might be preferable to some of the raging assholes that inhabited classical Athens. Just try to picture Thrasymachus or Callicles in a Mercedes or a BMW on some interstate highway. And again, MacIntyre’s point about Pericles was that Periclean politics as described by Thucydides was proto-Machiavellian.

Is this really just how every culture is, though? I’m inclined to think that most people in most times and places will not go in for sustained reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life. On the self-understanding of the institution that employs me to teach the young, we are dedicated to helping students and ourselves develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning, and indeed to engaging in such questioning together. There are many obstacles to that, and they have different sources, but it is most definitely an uphill battle.

I agree with most of that, but don’t see how MacIntyre could, compatibly with insisting that our culture is worse than some others he fails to specify.

I am not convinced, though, that every culture poses so many obstacles as ours. Nor, for that matter, am I convinced that cultures that are in important respects non-liberal will generally face more obstacles. One of the major obstacles is that many students do not believe that there is any truth or understanding to be had independent of their own subjective attitudes, or that reflective and critical inquiry is a way to progress toward them. Religious cultures and traditions often close themselves off with a dogmatic insistence that all the important questions are answered, and not answered by rational inquiry; but religious cultures often also retain commitments to truth and the possibility of understanding that make for an openness to this kind of inquiry (hence the peculiarly maddening double obstacle of essentially emotivist therapeutic religiosity).

I’m not convinced that our culture poses more obstacles than the ones MacIntyre fails to specify. Subjectivism and dogmatism strike me as equally threatening dangers, even if dogmatism nominally holds out the possibility of knowing the truth that subjectivism denies. It doesn’t really help to be in the thrall of someone (or even just interacting with someone) who believes that objective knowledge is possible if his attitude toward his erring brethren is sufficiently hostile as to wreck their reputations, violate their freedom, or take their lives.

To start small: Many HR Departments are quite convinced that they are in possession of Truth. The problem is that they’ll fire you if you don’t assent. Same with half of the people on Yelp, who are content to destroy your reputation and kill your business because they’re absolutely convinced that anyone who does or fails to do X is evil, and must be destroyed in the cheap and easy way that Yelp makes possible. Not to mention the sort of person who will kill you if you don’t assent to whatever they regard as truth. Dogmatic truth seekers with guns can be a rather intimidating obstacle to inquiry, no matter how fervently they believe in the correspondence theory of truth, and the bivalence of moral propositions.

It isn’t clear to me that it’s worse to live among subjectivist relativists than it is to live among Pericleans who are quite sure that their tendency to collapse internal and external goods is The Truth About Morality, and want to conscript you into their evangelical project of spreading the Gospel of Success at Any Fucking Price At All to the world.

Once repression reaches a certain level, you not only lose the capacity to give voice to your thoughts or questions in public, you lose the sense of what they are in private. That’s the profound truth expressed by Orwell’s 1984, and the truth in question is a profoundly liberal one: no successful inquiry can take place under the threat of coercion. You can successfully coerce someone into engaging in a behavior, but you can’t successful coerce someone into exercising phronesis or sophia.

When push comes to shove, MacIntyre himself admits this, very grudgingly, half-crediting liberalism with the achievement. But a grudging admission doesn’t do justice to the achievement. Liberals like Milton, Locke, Mill, Madison, and Earl Warren fought for and got us free speech. Without it, there is no culture of inquiry and no culture of questioning. There are just “inquiries” carried on by means of shouted orders and force escalations with Tasers and guns.

I think your criticisms above wrongly focus too narrowly on the Catholic Church hierarchy, as though that were the essence of what Catholic culture is, let alone Catholic intellectual culture. But I know from experience that Catholic culture, in this country at least, is not really much more hospitable to the sort of questioning or inquiry that MacIntyre is praising than the rest of the culture is. I suspect he’d agree; American Catholic culture is pretty much just a stylistic variation on American culture more broadly (hence your progressive Catholics often have more in common with progressive atheists than with conservative Catholics, and conservative Catholics often have more in common with conservative evangelicals than with progressive Catholics). That said, I’m not wholly convinced that the sort of ideal of philosophical culture that MacIntyre has in mind is impossible, even for Catholics. But it’s far away.

I’m using “culture” the way MacIntyre uses it. A “culture” doesn’t consist of intellectuals disconnected from the world of practice–i.e., of Catholic intellectuals who don’t go to mass, who don’t go to confession, who don’t feed the poor, who don’t volunteer in homeless shelters or clinics, who don’t serve on the boards of hospitals or universities, etc., but who see their role as purely intellectual and above the fray. A culture consists of the world of practice and those intellectuals who participate in it.

So Catholic culture is the culture of the Church–not the hierarchy of the Church, but the whole of the Church, from the Pope through the cardinals and bishops and priests, down to the altar boys; from the Holy See to each of the churches to schools to hospitals, etc. To describe Catholic culture the way you have would be like describing liberal culture as the culture of universities and periodicals. But that’s just a small part of liberal culture. Liberal culture includes the culture of liberalism as a political regime. That’s why I compared the Church as a political entity to liberalism as a political entity, not The New York Review and Aeon with Commonweal, New Oxford Review, or First Things.

My bottom line view on this: The Church sets the terms of Catholic practice in a much more obvious and concrete way than Catholic intellectuals do–whether in the U.S. or anywhere else.

Anyway, that’s more than enough for now. Happy Easter. Whether or not Christ has arisen, I must now rise from this chair.

13 thoughts on ““Philosophical Vices,” A Discussion Continued

  1. I won’t be able to respond to all of that, so I won’t try. I’ll instead take up only a few broad points. Framing all of them is the overarching point that, in endorsing what MacIntyre says in the quotation I posted, I neither intend nor am logically committed to endorsing everything else he says. So perhaps some of what I’m about to say will be inconsistent with some of what he has to say elsewhere; if so, that’s his problem, not mine.

    First, I think it’s not at all clear that you’re using ‘culture’ as MacIntyre uses it. It’s not wholly clear how he’s using it, but it’s at least clear enough that he doesn’t use it in a way that excludes what we might want to call sub-cultures or mini-cultures or what not. That is clear because he is willing to speak of ‘our’ culture as such-and-such, of the culture of Western liberal modernity, and of at least one culture of the Church — these are not identical cultures, nor does membership in one exclude membership in the others. Hence there can be more than one culture in the same place at the same time, with at least some of the same members. I haven’t thought much of it until now, and certainly haven’t done a careful search of his work, but I take it that ‘culture’ in his lexicon is a word that applies at many different levels: a culture of advanced modernity, a culture of Ireland, a culture of the Church, a culture of the American university, a culture of Notre Dame, a culture of academic philosophy, etc. So I take it that the medieval universities could have a culture of questioning even if medieval European culture in general did not share that characteristic, and that classical Athens could contain a culture of questioning even if questioning were not part of the dominant ethos of ‘Athenian culture’ as a whole. If what MacIntyre wants is a whole macroculture of, say, The Catholic Church or 18th Century Scotland to be a ‘culture of questioning’ in the way that, say, pre-modern agricultural villages were agrarian cultures or patriarchal cultures, then obviously there’s no hope for him.

    But that doesn’t strike me as what he’s after, and neither does it seem to me that he offers “no clear standards for what counts as a culture of questions.” He writes: “We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained.” I take it that the existence of such milieus is part of what makes one culture more one of questions than another. Such milieus existed in classical Athens: the Academy, the Lyceum, and shortly thereafter, the Stoa and the Garden were such milieus. Such milieus existed in medieval Europe: the universities were such a milieu. It seems to me, though apparently not to MacIntyre, that the public intellectual cultures of Renaissance Italy, Enlightenment France, and Victorian England also offered such milieus. Where are ours?

    In each of these cases the institutions and practices in which sustained critical reflection could be carried out co-existed with countervailing forces and movements, some of which were stronger and some of which actively obstructed questioning. But what is important is not whether we would say of Medieval Europe or The Catholic Church that it was a culture of questions; what is important is that it was possible to engage in this sort of inquiry in a sustained way, that there existed institutions and practices that supported it rather than undermined it. We find some pockets of these sorts of practices and institutions in our culture, but not many. The American university in general is not such a place; the ideal lives on in propaganda and professorial aspirations, but the actual culture of academia typically undermines the effort, and in different ways at different levels — the university’s main role now for undergraduates is to help them gain credentials for more economically rewarding work, and its main role for graduate students is to train them for specialized studies that, whatever other value they have, do not highlight systematic critical inquiry into the central issues of human life.

    I disagree with much of how you read ‘Philosophy recalled to its tasks,’ and particularly with the notion that it is intended to praise the Church as a culture of questions. On my reading, the point is rather that a culture of questions can exist within the Church — i.e., among faithful Catholics — and that the Church’s own teaching as articulated in the encylical calls for such a culture rather than, as one might suppose, to putting an end to questioning on the grounds that truth has been authoritatively revealed. You seem to take MacIntyre for a Catholic triumphalist proclaiming that the Church as it presently exists on earth has achieved some well-ordered, stable culture that will solve our problems as adequately as they can be solved in this life if only the rest of us would embrace it and submit (I trust that this sort of Catholic figure is familiar enough to you). I take him rather to hold that if all of us were to live out the Church’s teachings, we would overcome the problems of modernity, but not that the Church — broadly or narrowly construed — does now or ever has done an especially good job of living out those teachings. “Catholicism wins” if that means that it offers the best view of things and that the best way of life will accord with that view of things; but it doesn’t win in the sense that actually existing Catholic practice, whether among laypeople or the hierarchy, is in every respect in better condition than every aspect of actually existing non-Catholic practice. Perhaps you can ask him what he thinks; his remarks on the Church in Ireland virtually commit him to it.

    I, of course, do not agree with MacIntyre even on my weaker interpretation. The more interesting interpretive question is whether he thinks that the kind of questioning that he finds lacking in our culture can be sustained best or only by practices that take their bearing from within Catholicism. I doubt that he thinks so. But in any case I would not agree with that view. Indeed I am not so sure that MacIntyre really succeeds in what I take to be the actual aim of his essays on Fides et Ratio, viz. of showing that Catholicism is or can be a supportive framework for the sorts of milieus that would sustain critical and reflective inquiry about the central issues of human life. I am convinced that accepting divine revelation and even accepting the authority of the magisterium to articulate and develop that revelation need not put an end to questioning in the way that many non-Catholics and far too many Catholics have supposed. But I suspect that it is not only existing Catholic culture that is not entirely hospitable to such milieus, but that any future Catholic culture likely to exist will preserve severe tensions with that kind of questioning, at least so long as fidelity to the magisterium remains of crucial importance. It does not have much importance at all in the lives of many Catholic intellectuals, but that fact alone puts the depth of their commitment to Catholicism in question.

    Be that as it may, the most important questions, to my mind, are whether it is liberalism as such that is hostile to a culture of questioning, regardless of whether MacIntyre has liberalism as such in his sights in that passage. Here again I think it is important to distinguish the kinds of questioning that MacIntyre has in mind — sustained critical reflection on the central issues of human life — from the kind of questioning that liberal and Enlightenment culture indisputably cultivates to a far higher degree than the Catholic Church ever has: critique of authority and skepticism of those who have it. Our culture in general is not one to shy away from criticizing authority. But skeptical critiques of authority are quite another thing from sustained critical reflection on the central issues of human life; my students will criticize authority all day if I let them, but I fail regularly to lead them to serious, sustained reflection on their lives.

    I’m not sure I want to grant that there is any such thing as liberalism as such. Does liberal ideology obstruct practices of serious philosophical reflection? It does insofar as it is wedded to various sorts of subjectivism that treat questions of value and meaning as beyond the reach of reasoning that might lead us to better or worse answers, answers more likely to be true or false. It does insofar as it relegates those questions to a purely private realm from which they are not to intrude on public discourse. It does insofar as it promotes a culture focused on wealth, material goods, easy entertainment, and a lack of anxiety as the central aims of life. How far is ‘insofar’?

    I long ago concluded that MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism is really a critique of certain sorts of theorizing or ideology about liberalism along with certain features of our society that are in fact probably only contingently connected to those theories and ideologies, let alone to other ideas and practices that should probably be called ‘liberal.’ I am a philosophical liberal of some sort or other because I do not think that liberalism requires those theories or ideologies or that it is necessarily connected to those features of our society that I agree with MacIntyre in finding troubling. I am inclined to think that MacIntyre depends more on broadly liberal and Enlightenment ideals than he typically admits, and I certainly do not think that he has laid out a viable, desirable alternative that involves a strong rejection of liberalism or Enlightenment ideals as such, as opposed to this or that interpretation of them. If his claim is that if we want a culture of questioning — a culture more hospitable to sustained critical reflection on the central issues of human life — then we should cast aside modernity and go back to the Middle Ages, then I want no part of that. But insofar as his point is that our culture is inimical to that sort of reflection, and that other cultures have allowed for it to be sustained better than ours has, so that we should not think that it’s simply impossible, I think he’s right and that much of your response has little bearing on whether he’s right.

    The one institution that we should expect to be a milieu for the kind of questioning MacIntyre describes is the college or university. It isn’t. That’s not a sheer accident of life or an unchanging feature of higher education; it’s a fact that has a great deal to do with our broader culture. That MacIntyre’s imaginary Catholicism can do no better does not show that all is well or that all is as it always must be.


    • I guess my response to your account of “culture” is that if we accept your view, we trivialize what MacIntyre is saying in the passage you originally quoted:

      This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning. So it is not just that the philosophy of the academic philosopher has been marginalized in the college curriculum. It is also and more importantly that, when plain persons do try to ask those questions about the human good and the nature of things in which the philosophical enterprise is rooted, the culture immediately invites them to think about something else and to forget those questions.

      This passage can’t be glossed as a claim about the sub-culture of universities under liberalism, or as a claim about sub-cultures at all. The last two sentences make clear that he is talking about something a lot wider than any mere sub-culture. And the most obvious candidate for the first “this,” given the rest of his work, is liberalism as tradition, practice, social system, and/or culture (in a sense compatible with conservatism). Otherwise, we’re left with the trivial claim that there are contexts within our liberal culture such that in those contexts, one encounters more dogmatic answers than searching questions. To which the obvious retort is the one that Roderick has in effect been making (and that I would make): there are likewise contexts in liberal societies in which one encounters a bona fide culture of questioning rather than of dogmatic answer-giving.

      I actually do regard MacIntyre as something of a Catholic triumphalist, or at least under so strict an obligation of polemical advocacy on behalf of the Church as to overlook ways in which it is, as an institution, morally inferior to the secular culture it relentlessly criticizes. And I take myself to have gotten answers to the questions I’d most want to ask him: (1) Does the sovereignty of the Church and of canon law supersede the claims of the secular State? I take his answer to be “yes.” (2) If a priest is reasonably suspected of having committed sexual assault, are his superiors obligated to call the police and surrender him to the civil authorities, or is their morally prior obligation to the Church and to its legal processes? I take his answer to be “the latter.” (3) All things considered, which is morally and practically the superior institution when it comes to dealing with crime, secular criminal law in Western liberal regimes or canon law as practiced by the Catholic Church? My answer is “decidedly the former.” I don’t know his answer to this last question, but I think he faces problems whichever answer he gives.

      The supremacy of canon law over secular law is among the Church’s teachings. The Church’s practice reflects faithful adherence to its requirements, not deviation from them. If MacIntyre’s view is “if all of us were to live out the Church’s teachings, we would overcome the problems of modernity,” he is seriously wrong, and the Church’s sex scandal helps explain why. If all of us were live out the Church’s teachings, we would have no objection to shielding child rapists from the processes of criminal justice (processes, by the way, that the Church wants to impose on the producers and consumers of pornography, but not on child sex offenders who happen to be priests). That seems pretty objectionable to me. I’d say that the view that you ascribe to MacIntyre gets things backwards: it’s the Church’s teachings that are the problem, not modernity (and not just its practice, but its teachings as such).

      Some of what you say about liberalism strikes me as having a straw man quality, or else as involving a conflation of species with genus (e.g., of Rawlsian liberalism with liberalism).

      First, nothing in the text of MacIntyre’s essay makes clear that the phrase “culture of questioning” refers to a culture that asks one type of question but shirks another. If he intended to make that distinction, it seems like a large and substantial thing to have omitted.

      But suppose he somehow intended it. Shouldn’t liberalism get distinctive credit for the sort of questions it did ask (when nobody else did)? It was liberal questioning that dismantled the ancien regime, led to the abolition of slavery, facilitated the emancipation of women, produced the labor movement, generated anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements, led to gay rights, and led to a general democratization of elitist societies. Those are epoch-making and distinctively liberal changes for the good. It strikes me as remarkable that non-liberal philosophers have conceived of “reflection on the central issues of human life” in such a way as either to be indifferent to these things, or to get so many of them wrong. It was liberal questioning that not only led to progress, but helped us grasp what was narrow and blinkered about non-liberal ways of thinking about the central issues of human life. It does liberalism an injustice to attack it while bracketing all this. To do so is simply not to give liberalism its due. Contrary to MacIntyre’s rhetoric, without liberalism, we would be living in a moral wilderness—as we did for the thousands of years that preceded it, and as people do in the parts of the world that remain anti-liberal.

      But most fundamentally, I would dispute your characterization of “liberal ideology.” Surely prominent liberals have reflected on the central issues of human life, and had flourishing careers for doing so from Locke and Mill on down. Further, a commitment to liberalism obviously doesn’t logically commit anyone to or presuppose subjectivism, or to the (complete) privatization of the good, or to hedonism (or to treating anxiety-avoidance as a central aim in life). Logically, one can be a liberal and reject all of these things. Beyond that merely logical point, liberal perfectionism is a prominent strain within the liberal tradition; it’s not a marginal phenomenon. Rawlsian liberalism is not the only kind of liberalism. Going a bit further: subjectivism/privatization/hedonism/anti-anxiety-ism obviously does not characterize the views of the rank-and-file liberals who fought to abolish slavery, emancipate women, etc. etc.

      So while I couldn’t say offhand how far “insofar” goes, one couldn’t plausibly conclude that the trends you’ve described are definitory of liberalism or even characteristic of it, especially if we think of liberalism in broad historical context. And though I’m not a Rawlsian liberal myself, the view you’re attacking doesn’t strike me as a fair representation of theirs. An “ideology” is in any case a debased or deviant form of a bona fide philosophical position. It seems unfair to me to treat the ideology as though it were the bona fide philosophical position.

      Put it this way: you say that you are a liberal of sorts, just one with sympathy for some of MacIntyre’s criticisms of liberal society. That could probably be said of any party to this conversation. All of us have some sympathy for MacIntyre’s claims. Call us all neo-Aristotelian liberals of one kind or another. The question arises: why hasn’t MacIntyre even considered adopting the type of view that we hold? Why the adamant refusal of anything remotely related to liberalism?

      The answer, I think, is that MacIntyre believes in a liberalism as such, and regards it as a distinctively nefarious thing. It certainly has its nefarious features. But if we assume that there is such a thing as liberalism as such, what is distinctively nefarious about it, as compared with other similar phenomena in human history? You can read hundreds of pages of MacIntyre and not get a clear answer to this obvious question.

      On universities, I basically agree with Roderick. Your description seems to me an overstatement, and one that contradicts my experiences at Princeton, Notre Dame, and The College of New Jersey, as well as at the prep school I attended for 7th-12th grade.

      The American university in general is not such a place; the ideal lives on in propaganda and professorial aspirations, but the actual culture of academia typically undermines the effort, and in different ways at different levels — the university’s main role now for undergraduates is to help them gain credentials for more economically rewarding work, and its main role for graduate students is to train them for specialized studies that, whatever other value they have, do not highlight systematic critical inquiry into the central issues of human life.

      Even if all of it were true, it’s a claim about American universities in the early 21st century, not about universities under liberalism. But in any case, I think it’s an overstatement. Obviously, people have to make a living, and the university has to give them the skills to do so. It would be irresponsible to ignore that fact. But that in and of itself is not incompatible with systematic critical inquiry into the central issues of human life. I got both things from my education, and try to impart both when I educate students. There’s nothing impossible about combining the two aims (as Dewey thought we should), and certainly nothing about liberalism that makes it impossible.

      Standing back from that issue, I think it’s worth noting that if three or four like-minded neo-Aristotelian liberal intellectuals disagree about their own experiences of university life in the same country between, say 1980-2019, it’s going to be hopeless to generalize about things like “the medieval university,” “intellectual life in classical Athens,” or “the intellectual culture of Renaissance Venice” on the kind of evidence we have.

      Finally, to repeat something I’ve said before (but never tire of repeating), nothing is more subversive of a culture of inquiry than initiatory coercion directed at inquiry. The ban on doing that is a distinctively liberal norm, and one that MacIntyre himself accepts without quite being able to admit that liberalism should get the credit for it. One can, after all, read Alasdair MacIntyre’s work within a liberal regime, spend a few years studying with him, defend his claims in learned journals, create learned societies devoted to the study of his work—make a thriving career on it, and make a lasting impression on the profession and beyond it. It’s a little hard to square that non-hypothetical scenario with the picture you paint of liberalism as a culture in which such questions never get discussed or dealt with in a sustained way.

      I went to Notre Dame to study with MacIntyre precisely because he was The Big Name that so many people at Princeton loved to hate. But it’s not as though he was unknown, marginal, or ignored at Princeton (much less Notre Dame). His books were assigned and discussed in both Philosophy and Politics. Those discussions often involved a fair bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but that was as true of discussions of MacIntyre as it was discussions of Nozick. The point is, if you knew where to look, you could always find devoted MacIntyreans (or conservative Catholics) lurking about Princeton (Robert George, Victor Preller, Russell Hittinger, Robert Hollander, David Tubbs, etc.). I did and profited from the experience without being converted to their cause.

      You’ll be happy to know that the quotation that adorns the wall of the foyer in Princeton’s Corwin Hall (the Dept of Politics) is one, in huge red letters, from Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics. Not bad for such a marginalized point of view! And not bad for a bunch of liberal subjectivists!


      • I can see that my points have been missed, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to make them any clearer without writing more than I can. So I’ll try the opposite tack of trying to be more concise, and say just a few things, even though I’ve already said them:

        1. One need not accept MacIntyre’s criticisms of liberalism as such in order to agree with what he says about our culture in the quotation.

        2. One need not accept MacIntyre’s Catholicism as a plausible solution to the problem he is discussing in order to believe that it is a problem; our culture’s problems, whatever they are, do not vanish because a culture dominated by the Catholic Church would be worse.

        3. I obviously do not think that the trends I described are definitory of liberalism as such, and I said as much in other words in my previous post.

        Finally, I remain surprised that you and Roderick think that our culture in general, and universities in particular, are in perfectly good order, and that reflective, critical inquiry is flourishing as it should be, or as much as it could be.


  2. When we compare contemporary universities with their predecessors, it’s not obvious to me that the latter come out superior to the former. I think there’s plenty of “reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life” to be found in the modern university. To be sure, it’s subject to various regrettable pressures, but so were its predecessors. Both had political infighting; both were often shaped by the career-oriented desires of students (mainly priesthood and law, in the case of medieval universities). And I doubt that an impatient career-driven student sitting reluctantly through a modern-day philosophy lecture is any worse than Alexander.

    And the range of issues on which dissent from orthodoxy is permitted is far greater in the modern university than in the medieval ones (though the ones in southern Europe tended to be a bit more tolerant of intellectual diversity than those in northern Europe — at the University of Louvain, for example, philosophers were forbidden to teach anything that contradicted Aristotle, except where Aristotle contradicted Christian teaching, while such deference to Aristotle was far less marked in the Spanish and Italian universities). Sure, many modern administrations have overzealous PC cops, but being charged with heresy for expressing the wrong view on the truth value of future contingents was no picnic either; see this book with a very nice index: https://www.amazon.com/Quarrel-Future-Contingents-Louvain-1465-1475/dp/940106959X/?tag=praxeologynet-20

    As for “the Academy, the Lyceum, … the Stoa and the Garden” — the Academy and the Lyceum were fairly open to intellectual dissent, but the Garden by contrast famously required a dogmatic adherence to Epicurus’s views, and the Stoa was only slightly better.


    • “I think there’s plenty of “reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life” to be found in the modern university.”

      I’m not sure if we just have different experiences here, or if we have very different ideas of what that kind of inquiry looks like. As an undergraduate I had exactly one professor whose classes I would characterize that way; other classes covered material that would be relevant for anyone interested in engaging in that sort of inquiry, but the classes did not even distantly approximate engagement in that sort of inquiry. As a graduate student, there was nothing remotely like critical reflection on the central issues of human life going on in the Classics department, nor was there in the Philosophy department; as a scholar of classical philosophy, I have no shortage of appreciation for technical scholarship, but graduate school is about technical scholarship, not about making sense of human life. At Rice and Dartmouth, I repeatedly had students tell me that what they liked about my classes was that we dealt seriously with things that “really matter,” that they wished their other classes were like that, and that they had been disappointed to discover that college classes were generally not like that (I wasn’t doing anything special; I taught classes on Greek and Roman ethics, psychology, and philosophy of religion, on the Republic, or intro to ancient Greek literature — it was just that I approached that material in the old-fashioned humanistic spirit of reading old books on the assumption that perhaps we could learn something about human life from them). I don’t mean to suggest that what went on in my classes was the sort of thing that I am joining MacIntyre in finding lacking; I mean that if that kind of thing were really prevalent in colleges and universities, my students would not have found my classes remarkable in the respect that many of them did. Of course many folks teaching in colleges and universities might be trying to engage their students in that kind of inquiry. It’s just that that’s not often what happens. Colleges and universities remain the best places to do it — and I agree that ours are by and large better off for their embrace of intellectual freedom, however shaky some administrations’ commitment to it might be — but it seems to me that reflective critical inquiry into the central issues of human life has been effectively marginalized. If that’s too pessimistic a take, I’ll be glad to discover that I’m wrong.


      • Absent further evidence it’s hard to say whether a) I’ve been unusually lucky or b) you’ve been unusually unlucky or c) we’ve been equally lucky but interpreted our experiences differently. But I’ve been involved with six universities (either as student or as faculty) and my report would be the opposite of yours.


          • I mentioned the different criteria just to cover the logical possibilities, but I’d be really surprised if that were it. My university experience (at its best — not exceptionlessly, of course) seems to me a paradigm case of the desideratum you’re talking about. Of course in recent years I have more experience of philosophy depts. than of other depts.


            • You yourself felt the need to write ‘The Temple’ to address to students at your own university. Is it your considered judgment that most students don’t need to hear that message, and that most of them take the university to be what you claim that it is, rather than serving primarily to give them credentials and professional training? Does Auburn generally embrace the vision of its nature and function that you lay out there?

              I’d certainly agree that at most universities there are people engaged in reflective critical inquiry about the central issues of human life, among a whole lot of other things that are not central issues in human life. If I wanted to engage in that kind of inquiry, I would want to be at a university (indeed, I do want to engage in that kind of inquiry, and that is one of the reasons why I am in perpetual mourning about no longer being a part of a university). But I’m sincerely surprised if you think that the vision of the university that you articulate in that lecture is not in decline, or at least not nearly so strong as it ought to be, in our colleges and universities in general if not at Auburn.


                • Particularly:

                  “Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before.” (11th century)


                  “Some studied merely to acquire knowledge, which is curiosity; others to acquire fame, which is vanity; others still for the sake of gain, which is cupidity and the vice of simony. Very few studied for their own edification, or that of others.” (13th century)


                • If philosophy majors were representative of university students in general, and good philosophy departments representative of what goes on in universities in general, my assessment would be different. That professors have always found plenty to complain about in their students and institutions does not strike me as a particularly good reason to think that everything is hunky dory.


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