Three Rival Methods of Pursuing Truth

(Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry)

MacIntyre argues that the history of Western ethics (and epistemological inquiry as well) can be divided up into three long-standing approaches: tradition, encyclopedia, and genealogy.  Each has key figures that can be identified with it, and each has key claims about the nature and source of right and wrong action. For our course's purposes, these concepts below are valuable because they show us how differing conceptions of truth value the past, creativity, and symbols. 


    1. Like a journeyman in a guild or a novice in a monastic order, the seeker after truth is joined to an established tradition of inquiry. (Such as Christianity, but one could equally think about learning to play a sport or a musical instrument.)
    2. The seeker first learns the language, rules, and debates of the community. This most often takes the form of sacred texts.
    3. Every moral/aesthetic community has a specific goal or end (telos) that it seeks to achieve, e.g., the good life, the virtuous mean, the beautiful piece of art, the salvation of the soul.
    4. Within that tradition, its members tell each other the stories of their lives by relating them to the language and expectations of the community. Members hold each other accountable for their stories.
    5. As members grow in the tradition, they earn the right (so to speak) to help further define and relate the telos of the community (e.g., each person helps further nuance what kindness or beauty is, discovering ever new applications).
      [cf. Deut 6 – The blessing of the covenant community in the way of the Torah.]


(Part I – Enlightenment)

    1. Truth is something that can be obtained by an objective study of the facts, either by correlating all the available data or by an appeal to common rational principles.
    2. Seekers must eliminate their preconceived notions (a' la their traditions) and pay attention to the natural and social world.
    3. Truth and morality are not obtained by appealing to a divine or eternal standard of authority but by appealing to rational criteria. Individuals’ reasoned judgments are the test of reliability.
    4. The self is then the essential arbitrator of truth.

      (Part II – Romanticism & Existentialism)

    1. No consensus can be attained without a final ordering end (e.g., a revelation of truth); the search becomes essentially arbitrary.
    2. Ethicists moved from a reliance on reason to reliance on emotions (notions of natural sympathy) and imagination. This works for several generations, but soon this consensus (an "afterglow" of Christianity) breaks down as well.
    3. The next position is one of committed choice, a decision of the will (existentialism), but this also remains essentially arbitrary.


    1. Every claim of objective truth is an arbitrary will-to-power.
    2. There is no final truth, only the positioning of social groups, each seeking their own piece of the pie.
    3. "Truth" is power, discovered by uncovering one’s opponents’ hidden "genealogy," their suspect claims or secret motives. You gain power by deconstructing the other side’s claims to truth.
    4. Hence, there is no real self. People are products of psycho-social and cultural economic forces.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding