Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre and the Disquieting Suggestion

Alasdair MacIntyre, born this day (January 12) in 1929, opens his most famous work, After Virtue, with the following disturbing scenario (he titles it "A Disquieting Suggestion"):
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. 1.
Professor MacIntyre raises this discomfiting hypothetical history to illustrate the way in which the language of science would be used by those trying to put it together, although the context or more accurately the overarching paradigm or structure which gave that language its meaning would be lost. He then proposes that something of the sort has actually taken place, but in the field of morality rather than of technology, saying:
The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in 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. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. 2.
Without trying to analyze or even summarize the celebrated philosophical insights that Professor MacIntyre then goes on draw from his assessment of this bleak moral scenario (an area in which I am certainly not an expert), it is worth noting a few points that are at least tangentially related to the subject matter of this blog.

First, it is probably accurate to state that he sees the choices faced by those living in the aftermath of the "disorder" he describes as two: "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" I have heard this choice explained as "making oneself a work of art" in a meaningless universe (Nietzsche), or seeing meaning in the universe and seeing the universe as "a work of art" and trying to live in accordance with that very different view.

Interestingly enough, we have encountered Aristotle in this blog before, seemingly making a very important observation about what he called "our ancestors and our earliest predecessors." In his Metaphysics, he opines:
while probably each art and each science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure.
In other words, Aristotle himself seems to be talking about a scenario not unlike that which initiates MacIntyre's signature work: a time when "each art and each science" was developed as far as possible but then "perished." However, it does not seem that Aristotle is posing this statement as a hypothetical scenario or an analogy -- he seems to really mean it. One reason to conclude this is that he then says that certain important opinions from that distant past had survived "like relics of the ancient treasure." What opinions does he mean?

The antecedent of "these opinions" (in the fuller quotation cited in the post linked above) are two different but apparently related ideas, which Aristotle describes as "a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these bodies are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature."

In other words, the idea that "these bodies" (that is, the celestial bodies of the planets, including the sun and the moon) "are gods" is an idea that somehow preserves the "ancient treasure" of an ancient lost science! No wonder that this line from Aristotle is quoted in Hamlet's Mill, since they pursue the extensive evidence from around the world that the myths of the gods are exactly what Aristotle says they are -- an ancient treasure preserving a lost science.

That is startling, but no more so than the next concept that Aristotle introduces, the idea that "the divine encloses the whole of nature." In other words, it appears that the "whole of nature" being "enclosed in the divine" is related to, or at least perceived in conjunction with, the idea of the motions of the heavenly bodies (perhaps this is taking Aristotle's sentence too far, but I don't think so). This is clearly related to the hasty summary of the "Nietzsche vs. Aristotle" choice found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.

However, it also seems to indicate that the "disquieting suggestion" that opens his book is not just an analogy for the state of moral perception in the wake of the Enlightenment (as he says it is) but that something like that horrible scenario may have in fact taken place in the distant past long before Aristotle! Whether MacIntyre believes this or not (and I am not trying to suggest that he introduced his "disquieting" scenario as anything but a useful analogy, nor am I suggesting that he subscribes to any of the hypotheses about geology or ancient human history discussed in this blog or the Mathisen Corollary book), there appears to be evidence that such a collapse in knowledge took place. Some of the evidence even seems to come from Aristotle (although there is much evidence quite independent of that philosopher).

Professor MacIntyre suggests that it is quite plausible to believe that we are completely ignorant of the deliberate dismantling of moral context that took place in a previous century. Likewise, it appears that we can be blind to the fact that humanity also experienced a dismantling of scientific understanding in the far more distant past.

Nor is this a dry and academic debate: as we have explored in previous posts such as this one and this one, the question of how such a loss could have happened, and how some knowledge could have been (as Aristotle thinks it was) preserved and passed on like an "ancient treasure," is vitally important to everyone, if it indeed took place. However, we will never know the answers to those questions if we do not even start to see the signs that such a loss did once take place.

We wish Professor MacIntyre many happy returns on his birthday!