14 May 2007

Epistemological Explorations II. MacIntyre on Tradition-Dependent Rationality

The whole idea that the linguistic turn is inevitable, that rationality has to be conceived as narratively framed, that there is no way to escape language… has taken today the form of a new ideology: the ideology of hermeneutic particularism. In different ways I would like to counter this ideology by investigating the aporias of this positions, as well as by exploring a different conception of rationality and subjectivity.

I’ve already taken a short look at Taylor’s conception of Modernity, but I will delve now a little deeper into the epistemology of Alasdair MacIntyre; an epistemology which I consider to be one of the strongest feeding the ideology of hermeneutic particularism, particularly for elaborating the idea of a tradition-dependent rationality. MacIntyre became known to the philosophical audience by publishing his highly acclaimed After Virtue[1]. In this book he opposes the modern, liberal project of a universalising ethical account, in order to return to a kind of virtue ethics as was known in Greek Antiquity. Precisely in its denial of the role of particularity and tradition, modern ethics is considered abstract and empty, and thus unable to provide us with a substantial vision of our goal in life. His epistemology, to which I limit myself here, can mainly be found in the sequel to After Virtue, namely Whose Justice? Which Rationality?[2]. This book can be read as a plea to always understanding philosophy “in terms of the historical context of tradition, social order and conflict out of which it emerged.”[3] Crucial is the idea of an ever-evolving historical story, constituting a tradition, and as such providing the framework for rationality.[4] In other words: conceptions of rationality always have their own story.

MacIntyre conceives the development of a tradition as an evolution through different stages. He distinguishes three. Every rationality starts in a condition of pure, historical contingency. The beliefs, the practices, the institutions and eventually the founding texts of a particular community constitute a given, which gives rise to a certain rationality, a certain way to understand the world. In this first stage, the authorative texts and voices have not yet been questioned. However, after a while, incoherencies appear and some lacunae in the particular system of convictions become visible. This marks the transition to a second stage. Normally, this transition takes place when a community is confronted with new situations it cannot adequately deal with by using its original system of beliefs. Therefore inadequacies become identified in this stage, but not yet remedied. This happens in the third stage by developing reformulations and re-evaluations, which should be able to overcome the limitations and inadequacies of the former system. This is the stage of inventivity. Important however is that this inventivity is never to be considered as a free or unbound inventivity: some ruptures may occur, but “some core of shared belief, constitutive of allegiance to the tradition, has to survive every rupture.”[5]
So far, it would be possible to reproach MacIntyre relativism. Because of the radical particularity-dependency we get the impression that he holds on to a pure coherency-theory of truth, and that there are in the end so many truths as there are traditions of rationality. MacIntyre however wants to tackle this impression by an account of interaction between different rationalities. According to him, the incommensurability and the untranslatibility of traditions does not exclude that a certain form of dialectics between the traditions can be thought of. MacIntyre points out the fact that a tradition is normally able to respond and to react to new situations by using its own resources and that within the account given above, there is no real interaction with other forms of rationality. It is possible however that a tradition reaches the point that it is no longer able to evolve by using its own standards. A situation may occur where a tradition exposes more inadequacies and previously unknown incoherencies in using its own methods of research. MacIntyre calls this an epistemological crisis: the tradition reaches a point where its own survival is at stake. Of course, the occurrence of such a crisis does not have to be fatal. It means that a tradition is falsifiable. It can be put into question as a whole. It is clear that there are two options in case of a crisis: either the tradition actually gets falsified, or it still manages to come up with a solution. A solution demands the invention of new concepts and frameworks, or theories that meet three specific requirements.[6] Firstly, the conceptually enriched schemes must provide a solution to the problems, which gave rise to the crisis. Secondly, it must provide an explanation of what is was that rendered the tradition sterile or incoherent. Thirdly, these first two tasks must be carried out in such a way that shows some fundamental continuity between the new schemes and the original tradition. If these three things are not compatible a conversion to a rival tradition becomes inevitable. Consequently a conversion is not arbitrary, but motivated by the failure of the own tradition. That specific tradition, which is able to answer the unsolved questions of the original tradition, therefore becomes attractive.

MacIntyre thus believes that the idea of falsification is tenable without returning to the idea of a reality independent of a particular, tradition-bound rationality.[7] The principle of falsification is grafted onto the possibility of uncovering the inadequacies of a tradition, always measured by its own standards. But because of the fact that other traditions sometimes may give better answers to problems of the own tradition, the closeness of a tradition is forced open and gives rise to a kind of dialectics and interaction. MacIntyre himself even speaks of the possibility of “a rational debate between and a rational choice among rival traditions.”[8] The opportunity of a challenge by other traditions rests on the possibility of the apprehension of a ‘second first language’ and on the skill of ‘empathetic imagination’[9]. The language of a tradition may be untranslatable, but this does not preclude the possibility of apprehending another language; apprehension as the condition to judge what exactly remains untranslatable.

It is clear that MacIntyre here offers for example theology a very interesting epistemology. Firstly, he demonstrates the constitutive role of authority and tradition for rationality. Furthermore, it is clear that the element of faith inevitably re-enters: holding on to a specific rationality always implies an element of faith, exactly because all rationality retains an element of contingency. Critical reasoning is in other words always already a ‘fidens quarens intellectum’[10]. Secondly, MacIntyre is convinced that his epistemology does not lead to relativism. The relationship between rationality and a particular tradition does not imply a need to abandon all notions of objectivity. It does not imply that in the end an infinite number of rationality-traditions exist next to one another in total incommensurability. Between the traditions there will always be a kind of dialectics, which makes a certain rapprochement between the ‘truths’ possible. However, exactly at this point, MacIntyre’s project becomes questionable. Crucial is the question of the statute of MacIntyre’s interaction-scheme. Is the scheme in itself a merely tradition-bound, particular scheme, or does this scheme, at least concerning the validity of it, transcend the different particular traditions? In his answer to the problem of perspectivism and relativism, he conveys the impression that this is happening. The problem with this however consists of the risk of contradicting the own point of departure. On the other hand, when he presents his scheme as merely particular, it becomes hard to see how he finally does not fall back to relativism.

MacIntyre thus presents us a general model, which explains how a form of dialectics between traditions can be thought of: on the basis of an ‘empathetic imagination’ a person learns ‘a second first language’, and so he goes on to investigate the relation between the newly acquainted tradition and the problems that gave rise to the epistemological crisis of the own tradition. MacIntyre presents both the skill of ‘empathetic imagination’, the possibility of learning ‘a second first language’, as well as the structure of the development of a tradition, namely the possibility of an epistemological crisis together with the step-by-step plan for the solution, as somewhat tradition-transcendent. That is at least the impression we get. Sometimes, he is even quite explicit.

“The grounds for an answer to relativism and perspectivism are to be found, not in any theory of rationality as yet explicitly articulated and advanced within one or more of the traditions with which we have been concerned, but rather with a theory embodied in and presupposed by their practices of inquiry.”[11]

The principles that should allow interaction and a form of dialectics between the (enquiry-bearing) traditions cannot be reduced to a specific tradition. According to this quote, they enable precisely a ‘dialogue’ between the traditions, and so seem to be presupposed by the different traditions. This sounds quite logical: to resolve a conflict between rival traditions on a legitimate basis, one cannot use principles that are restricted to just one of the traditions. MacIntyre’s problem however consists then of the fact that he falls back on a transcendental logic by speaking of “a theory embodied in and presupposed by”. Of course, he could claim that he only proposes a minimal, formal procedure as general, and not articulated substantive standards. But that would not solve the problem. On the contrary: a transcendental logic precisely rests on such a formal procedure. What’s more, it would just be highly ironic to slide back into a formal, procedural logic, exactly because this typifies the modern, liberal tradition he is in fact opposing.[12]

Nevertheless, an alternative reading seems possible. The system of interaction could be considered as universal on merely pragmatic grounds, more precisely because it would be for all traditions the most profitable scheme within the light of their own further development. He himself states quite clearly, that each system only has to gain by the idea that another system may be superior on some topic.

“The only rational way for the adherents of any tradition to approach intellectually, culturally, and linguistically alien rivals is one that allows for the possibility that in one or more areas the other may be rationally superior to it. […] Only those whose tradition allows for the possibility of its hegemony being put in question can have a rational warrant for asserting such a hegemony.”[13]

Progression then has to be evaluated from the possibilities to explain more in the future; as a possibility that becomes optimised by accepting MacIntyre’s interaction-scheme on a pragmatic basis. This would not have to result in relativism, because in the course of time a form of dialectics remains upright: one system will lose out on another, simply because e.g. system A will be able to explain more than system B. Thus to be able to explain more or less then becomes the criterion which allows for a legitimate comparison between different rationalities. Still, it can be doubted that MacIntyre here succeeds in escaping relativism. The ‘more or less’, according to MacIntyre’s own logic, can no longer be considered as a neutral criterion: there is no ‘more or less’ as such. Therefore he will have to admit that the ‘more or less’ is also tradition-bound and so already an internal principle. He will have to admit that with this criterion, it is impossible to install a genuine form of dialectics. The adherents of system A may be convinced that their system is able to explain more than system B, while the adherents of system B may be convinced that it can explain more than system A. When rationality as such is thought of as tradition-bound, one has to admit that all inadequacies as well as all solutions have to be thought of intra-systemically as well. Thus if an epistemological crisis can only be called so from within the rationality of one’s own tradition, nothing states that crises will keep occurring. Finally, it cannot be excluded that some traditions of rationality are able to reach such a high degree of coherence so that a number of traditions will exist next to on another, incommensurable and without interaction.[14]
[1] A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London, 1981.
[2] A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Notre Dame, 1988.
[3] Ibid., 390.
[4] This implies that all rationality has to be understood from within a specific tradition of understanding or research. MacIntyre himself uses the word of ‘enquiry-bearing traditions’. Cf. Id. 354. This idea is closely related to Imre Lakatos’ model of ‘scientific research programs’. What Lakatos proposes within the context of natural sciences, seems so to get translated by MacIntyre for a context of human sciences. On this affinity, cf. also A.N. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity. Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion and Ethics, 49-62.
[5] A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 356.
[6] Cf. A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 362.
[7] Cf. Ibid., 357: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention”
[8] Ibid, 352.
[9] [9] Jennifer A. Herdt turns attention to the ironical fact that this is precisely a liberal concept, and that by consequence MacIntyre does not manage to stay within his own tradition. Cf. J.A. Herdt, Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Rationality of Traditions” and Tradition-Transcendental Standards of Justification, in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998) 524-546; 531-532.
[10] Cf. also, C. Early, MacIntyre, Narrative Rationality and Faith, in New Blackfriars 82 (2001) 35-43.
[11] A. MacIntyre, o.c, 354.
[12] Cf. also J.A. Herdt, Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Rationality of Traditions” and Tradition-Transcendental Standards of Justification, in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998) 535: “Is MacIntyre’s rationality of traditions perhaps just a new Enlightment method?”
[13] A. MacIntyre, o.c, 388.
[14] Nowadays, it is still possible to present oneself as a die-hard materialist, or as a die-hard idealist, even as a neo-platonist or as a neo-scholastic.


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