Saturday, May 19, 2007

MacIntyre on Philosophers and Fundamentalists

A philosopher can stand in two very different types of relationship to the larger society of which he is a part. He can be in certain types of social situation an active participant in the forums of public debate, criticizing the established, socially shared standards of rationality on occasion, but even on these occasions appealing to standards shared by or at least accessible to a generally educated public....But when professionalized academic philosophy makes the rational discussion of questions of fundamental import the prerogative of an academic elite with certified technical skills, using a vocabulary and writing in genres which are unavailable to those outside that elite, the excluded are apt to respond by repudiating the rationality of the philosophers. In the forums of popular life rhetorical effectiveness in persuasion and manipulation prevails against rational argument.

The content of the doctrines propounded by those who place effectiveness in persuasion above rationality of argument is from this point of view less important than their function. That function is to prevent any challenge to the effective rhetorical performer which might make him or her, or seem to make him or her, rationally accountable by appeal to some public standard. So the doctrines of such performers characteristically present some not to be questioned, scrutinized, or argued about fetish or talisman as exempting them from rational accountability.


Alasdair MacIntyre. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Duckworth (London: 1990) p. 168. MacIntyre argues that this has happened before; in the late medieval period, instead of trying to maintain and develop Aquinas's integration of the contending traditions of Augustinianism and Averroist Aristotelianism, there was a dual trend tending to the dissolution of it and anything like it: the fragmentation naturally resulting from the demands of mundane academic life (which quickly began to split up the synthesis into minute manageable units which were treated as virtually independent), which might be represented at its best and most impressive in people like Buridan and Occam; and a populist preaching that, in the name of rhetorical effectiveness, began to ignore the possibility of any external standard, which might be represented at its best and most impressive in someone like Eckhart (MacIntyre doesn't mention him, but Lull comes to mind as well). In the above passage he is arguing that the two actually go together: overspecialized, jargonistic philosophy in the name of knowledge sparks a dismissal, in the name of life, of its standards of rationality and, indeed, of any public standard of reason. This dismissal leads to an attempt to find a sure ground of rhetorical persuasion that will allow the orator or demagogue to avoid being rationally accountable in his arguments to some public standard; which leads to fetishistic appeals to some talisman whose authority is so great that those who associate it with themselves don't have to hold themselves rationally accountable; in one iteration, this leads to fundamentalism. There are many other possible iterations of the theme. Both moments in the movement can have good or even impressive results, of course; but the dangers of both, the blindness of both, remain. It's an interesting argument, worth mulling over.

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