Relativism, Dogmatism and Alasdair MacIntyre

In the above lecture (pointed out by John of St Thomas) Alasdair MacIntyre quotes Peguy as follows: “A great philosophy is not one that passes final judgments… It is one that causes uneasiness.” Googling the line reveals that MacIntyre has left something rather telling out: after “judgements” Peguy adds “and establishes ultimate truth.” MacIntyre has been accused of opposite faults– on the one hand of nostalgic anti-modernism, on the other of relativistic postmodernism. The latter accusation seems to come from MacIntyre’s sensitivity to the way in which one’s situation in particular historical and cultural surroundings affect what one thinks to be true. As he writes in the Preface to the 3rd ed. of After Virtue:

What historical enquiry discloses is the situatedness of all enquiry, the extent to which what are taken to be the standards of truth and of rational justification in the contexts of practice vary from one time and place to another. If one adds to that disclosure, as I have done, a denial that there are available to any rational agent whatsoever standards of truth and of rational justification such that appeal to them could be sufficient to resolve fundamental moral, scientific, or metaphysical disputes in a conclusive way, then it may seem that an accusation of relativism has been invited. (The word ‘accusation’ is perhaps out of place, since I have been congratulated on my alleged relativism by those who have tried to claim me as a postmodernist…)

In the above lecture MacIntyre talks much of the need to be unsettled in one’s own habit of thoughts, and praises the American tradition represented by Whitman  of valuing “other voices.” But the tradition of Whitman (he claims) is now all but dead. Nowadays Americans don’t want to listen to other voices they just want everyone else to join in there own affirmation of what seems patently obvious to them. It would be easy to see MacIntyre here as making a skeptical anti-dogmatic point– one against “ultimate truths,” but really precisely the opposite is the case. MacIntyre is in fact a dogmatist, and he praises philosophy that “causes uneasiness” on dogmatist grounds. Sean Kelsey, in his response to MacIntyre included in the above video shows why this is so by reference to two passages from Bl. John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and GainIn the first Newman’s protagonist, an Anglican, adopts the principle of dogmatism:

By means of conversations such as those which we have related (to which many others might be added, which we spare the reader’s patience), and from the diversities of view which [Charles] met with in the University, he had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them. He had been accustomed, as we have seen, to fix his mind on persons,  not on opinions, and to determine to like what was good in every one; but he had now come to perceive that, to say the least, it was not respectable in any great question to hold false opinions. It did not matter that such false opinions were sincerely held—he could not feel that respect for a person who held what Sheffield called a sham, with which he regarded him who held a reality. White and Bateman were cases in point; they were very good fellows, but he could not endure their unreal way of talking, though they did not feel it to be unreal themselves. […] Thus the principle of dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles’s religious views.

In the second the protagonist has determined to become a Catholic, and is explaining why:

[The majority of Church-of-England people] tell us to seek, they give us rules for seeking, they make us exert our private judgment; but directly we come to any conclusion but theirs, they turn round and talk to us of our ‘providential position’. But there’s another thing. Tell me, supposing we ought all to seek the truth, do you think that members of the English Church do seek it in that way which Scripture enjoins upon all seekers? Think how very seriously Scripture speaks of the arduousness of finding, the labour of seeking, the duty of thirsting after the truth. I don’t believe the bulk of the English clergy, the bulk of Oxford residents, Heads of houses, Fellows of Colleges (with all their good points, which I am not the man to deny), have ever sought the truth. They have taken what they found, and have used no private judgment at all. Or if they have judged, it has been in the vaguest, most cursory way possible; or they have  looked into Scripture only to find proofs for what they were bound to subscribe, as undergraduates getting up the Articles. Then they sit over their wine, and talk about this or that friend who has ‘seceded’ and condemn him, and […] assign motives for his conduct. Yet after all, which is the more likely to be right,—he who has given years, perhaps, to the search of truth, who has habitually prayed for guidance, and has taken all the means in his power to secure it, or they, ‘the gentlemen of England who sit at home at ease’? No, no, they may talk of seeking the truth, of private judgment, as a duty, but they have never sought, they have never judged; they are where they are, not because it is true, but because they find themselves there, because it is their ‘providential position,’ and a pleasant one into the bargain.

Kelsey argues that this is the reason why MacIntyre wants a philosophy that causes uneasiness–in order that one might be really impelled to seek the truth. But one can of course object that MacIntyre holds that it is impossible to take a position “outside” all traditions of thought and judge them against each other. So how can one say that this teaching whether some teaching which seems true viewed from one tradition, but not from another is “really” true or not. Again Newman can help here. In a letter quoted in his Apologia Newman is answering the charge that his changing his religious opinions after having been so emphatically convinced of his old opinions will lead to scepticism in his followers:

I wish to remark on W.’s chief distress, that my changing my opinion seemed to unsettle one’s confidence in truth and falsehood as external things, and led one to be suspicious of the new opinion as one became distrustful of the old. […] The case with me, then, was this, and not surely an unnatural one:—as a matter of feeling and of duty I threw myself into the system which I found myself in. I saw that the English Church had a theological idea or theory as such, and I took it up. […]  So far from my change of opinion having any fair tendency to unsettle persons as to truth and falsehood viewed as objective realities, it should be considered whether such change is not necessary, if truth be a real objective thing, and be made to confront a person who has been brought up in a system short of truth. Surely the continuance of a person who wishes to go right in a wrong system, and not his giving it up, would be that which militated against the objectiveness of Truth, leading, as it would, to the suspicion, that one thing and another were equally pleasing to our Maker, where men were sincere.

Having established that changing one’s settled position does not militate against the idea of objective truth, Newman goes on to argue that it does not follow that the way to seek that truth is to abstract oneself from all traditions and regard things from the point of view of Cartesian doubt. On the contrary:

For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? Yet in proportion to their previous zeal, would be their appearance of inconsistency. Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating. And though I have no right at all to assume that this mercy is granted to me, yet the fact, that a person in my situation may have it granted to him, seems to me to remove the perplexity which my change of opinion may occasion.

What Newman is saying here is that it is really those who are most sincerely devoted to the truth which they find in their own system who are likely to be unsettled by the challenges to that system from some other system. It is those who are most dogmatists who are most likely to see what is false in their own system and adopt another. Thus MacIntyre, as a good disciple of Newman, doesn’t think of the inevitable embeddedness of human thought in tradition as an obstacle to the attainment of “ultimate truth,” but rather as a condition of such attainment.


7 thoughts on “Relativism, Dogmatism and Alasdair MacIntyre

  1. Tellus of Athens did not live an unsettled life.

    While I can see being unsettled as a good for those outside of the Faith because comfort is an obstacle virtually impossible to overcome. Nevertheless, unsettledness is not a desired state, but a medicinal state that may be necessary to overcome an evil.

    But I do not get the impression that those in the video see unsettledness as an evil, and a sometimes temporary necessary medicine, but instead as a good we should strive for.


    • I think you’re right that unease is medicinal state. A medicine particularly necessary for those outside the faith, certainly, but in a different way for all those in the status viatoris. Two more Newman quotes seem relevant:

      1) from the Apologia on the tranquility of being in the true Faith: “From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no variations to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I never have had one doubt.”

      2) from a letter written from Rome where he was preparing for ordination, on the evil of superficial settledness in Roman theologians: “there seems something of an iron form here, tho’ I may be wrong; but I mean, people are at no trouble to deepen their views.” That I think is the key point. Insofar as truth has a depth that always exceeds us, we are constantly in need of deepening, as long as this life of looking into mirrors lasts…


      • That makes sense.

        But I wish for a better word than unsettled, because unsettled has the character of disorder in contrast to building upon a settled foundation. With foundation akin to deepening because what is deepened are the roots or foundation.


  2. “Newman goes on to argue that it does not follow that the way to seek that truth is to abstract oneself from all traditions and regard things from the point of view of Cartesian doubt.” Yes!

    FYC (for your correction):

    “But the tradition of Whitman (he claims) is now all but dead. Nowadays Americans don’t won’tto listen to other voices they just won’t everyone else to join in there own affirmation of what seems patently obvious to them.”


  3. Pingback: Meaning, Self-Determination, and Relativism | Musings and Philosophizings

  4. Pingback: Integralism, MacIntyre, and Final Ends: Towards a Secular Account of Christian Politics – The Josias

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