Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Help Me Read and Understand Alasdair MacIntyre

I've gained a new appreciation for fiction (specifically, science-fiction) since graduating from seminary. These books have impacted my thought and intellect far beyond what I ever considered to be possible. But I've sensed a longing over the past few months to tackle some of the texts that I was never able to tackle while studying in seminary. One of those books is Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. It's difficult to think of a professor that did not mention this book during a lecture, or a syllabus that did not have it included under the recommended readings section, or a required text that did not reference it as foundational to their own argument. Nevertheless, I was somehow able to make it through the entire program without ever having read it.

I picked the book up and began reading shortly after Christmas, but today find myself only on page 32 of 278. It's frustrating. I can't tell if the issue is that it really is a very challenging book, or if I am just un-practiced in following logical argument or the niche language of moral philosophy (also contributing is the little eight month old who takes up most of the "reading time"). Either way, I need something to assist me in understanding MacIntyre's work and have decided that I once again need to utilize writing on this blog as a method for processing. Also, I hope that this does not turn out to be a stale outline or summary of MacIntrye (or at least what I take MacIntyre to be saying), but instead has some type of practical insight for what we are trying to do in Westmont.

MacIntyre begins by setting up a fictious scenario in which the natural sciences are blamed for devastating natural disasters. The general public therefore riots and destroys all traces of the natural sciences (laboratories burnt down, physicists lynched, books and instruments destroyed). Years later, a group of people attempt to revive the sciences, but all they are left with are fragments:
a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them signifiance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiement; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred (1).
MacIntyre's hypothesis is that "the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described" (2). The moral arguments that we find ourselves obsessed over (i.e. - just war, abortion, equality) are incommesurable. These arguments are largely circular, for they attempt to grasp rationality, even though the dominant emotivist culture allows no space for the rational (only feelings or attitudes). This is the situation we find ourselves in today: a time filled with mere remnants of moral language/argument, without the narrative that makes moral discourse actually possible.

Is Marriage (today) a sign that MacIntyre is correct?

The first 30 pages are packed, and I am sure that I have misunderstood much. It is exciting material though. While watching the news the other day, I saw a segment in which an interviewer was asking people on the street whether or not they thought marriage should be abandoned in our culture, given the shockingly high divorce rates. The responses varied, but the majority of people wanted to hold onto marriage as a cultural practice.

From the little I understand of the book so far, marriage seems to be a clear sign that MacIntyre is correct. The vows spoken to one another in a marriage bind two together in a commitment: specifically, a type of commitment that is for all of life. Yet, marriage as a cultural practice cannot account for why two people should stay together through "good times and bad, in sickness and in health."

Anyway, I had to spend a few moments writing down some thoughts about the book so far and what I understand MacIntyre to be getting at. For those of you who have read it, feel free to correct me where I have misunderstood, clarify MacIntyre's assertions, or offer advice on how to grasp the remainder of the book.

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