|(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. (I
would argue that Christianity is most compatible with the practice of tradition.) 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. Consider how the following
are related to some of the writers we have been reading this semester:
- 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
- The seeker first learns the language, rules, and debates of the
community. This most often takes the form of sacred texts.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]
Consider how this understanding of things is present in Sor Juana.
She becomes a member of a tradition of seeking after truth; she appeals to its
common judgements (for example, the tradition of educated women, the pattern of scriptural
exegesis) in order to argue her case, and she tries (at least) to add to its understanding
of the role of women and education. We will see how this same understanding becomes
important to Eliot. [Look at his ideas about tradition to
further your understanding here.]
(Part I Enlightenment)
- 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
- Seekers must eliminate their preconceived notions (a' la their
traditions) and pay attention to the natural and social world.
- 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.
- The self is then the essential arbitrator of truth.
This notion of truth is present in Moliere's play Tartuffe.
Cleante makes appeals to nature and reason as if they were completely objective
sources of information that anyone with clear insight could see and understand. It
is even present in a more understated way in Pope's Essay on Man Part I because
Pope's appeals are mostly to reason, reason which he assumes is accessible to all
regardless of their confessional status.
(Part II Romanticism & Existentialism)
- No consensus can be attained without a final ordering end (e.g., a
revelation of truth); the search becomes essentially arbitrary.
- 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.
- The next position is one of committed choice, a decision of the will
(existentialism), but this also remains essentially arbitrary.
This pattern is present in Rosseau, Wordsworth, Keats, and even
Henry James. Each one seeks to depend upon an inward subjective understanding of
truth. This pattern takes its next logical step in Yeats and Stevens, who are both
seeking to create truth in some essential way.
- Every claim of objective truth is an arbitrary will-to-power.
- There is no final truth, only the positioning of social groups, each
seeking their own piece of the pie.
- "Truth" is power, discovered by uncovering ones
opponents hidden "genealogy," their suspect claims or secret motives. You
gain power by deconstructing the other sides claims to truth.
- Hence, there is no real self. People are products of psycho-social
and cultural economic forces.
We will not be looking at a specific example of this this semester.
However, this position is one that Derek Walcott is seeking to reject, even as he
also plays into it. (cf. "Crusoe's Journal".)