Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre is University Professor in Philosophy and Political Science at Boston University. His most recent book was Against the Self-Images of the Age.

Good for nothing

Alasdair MacIntyre, 3 June 1982

‘Philosophy, religion, science,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence, ‘they are all of them busy nailing things down … But the novel, no … If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, it either kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail!’ Hence Lawrence’s conclusion that only the novel can now do for us what philosophy once aspired to do:

Public Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre, 18 February 1982

When the Scottish radical lawyer, Thomas Muir, was tried before the infamous Lord Braxfield in 1793, he declared that if what he had advocated was treasonable, then Plato, Harrington and David Hume were equally guilty. To the present-day student of Hume, Muir’s inclusion of him in his catalogue of reformers must appear even odder than his appeal to Plato: for Hume is usually and rightly portrayed as a consistent defender of the 18th-century Hanoverian status quo. But Muir’s sense of Hume did not altogether lead him astray: for the essay by Hume which he cited, the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’, had already been put to revolutionary use. The list of books James Madison had recommended in 1782, as the first acquisitions for a library for the Congress, had included Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects as well as his History of England; and in his contributions to the Federalist in 1787-8, Madison had drawn upon several of those essays, including the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’. Hume therefore did in fact contribute to one of the classic statements of 18th-century republicanism. Douglass Adair – in Fame and the Founding Fathers (1976), but the discovery was made in his doctoral dissertation of 1943 – was the first to identify Hume’s detailed and specific influence on Madison, and to understand that influence as part of the general culture of the Scottish Enlightenment which Madison acquired at Princeton from the teaching of John Witherspoon. Professor Garry Wills has now followed Adair and extended his thesis in producing an interpretation of Madison in which the Scottish influence on him has a central place.


Alasdair MacIntyre, 16 April 1981

It is no secret that philosophy as it is taught and studied at UCLA or Princeton or Oxford is very different from philosophy as it is understood at Paris or Dijon or Nice. An intellectual milieu in which the household names include those of Quine, Strawson, Davidson and Kripke is unlikely to have much in common with one where Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Derrida are taken with great seriousness. This might seem obvious: but we ought perhaps to be a little more surprised than we generally are at the extent to which almost total ignorance as to what is going on in the other of these two philosophical communities is no barrier to advancement and distinction in either of them. For this fact at least suggests the question: how far and in what sense are the members of these two communities engaged in the practice of one and the same mode of inquiry? Has philosophy been irreparably fragmented?

Dr Küng’s Fiasco

Alasdair MacIntyre, 5 February 1981

When the name of a present-day Catholic theologian becomes familiar to the larger reading public, it is rarely because of his theology. Most often it is because he has been made vivid as a character in one of those miniature scenarios about religion which still fascinate the ostensibly secularised mind. Jean Daniélou’s fine book on the doctrine of the Trinity passed largely unnoticed: his death in circumstances which suggested that there might be a scandal to be unearthed secured the immediate attention of journalists all over the world. Edward Schillebeeckx’s work on Christology was not news until he was summoned to Rome. Then he was at once conscripted as a character in that so often rewritten melodrama – Brecht’s Galileo is the canonical text for our time – The valiant searcher for truth oppressed by Inquisitors.


Intellectual Pedigrees

6 November 1980

SIR: I am grateful to Professor Donald MacRae (Letters, 4 December 1980) for drawing your readers’ attention to an error that appeared in my review of Garry Wills’s Inventing America. The words ‘how closely Hutcheson followed Hume’ should have read ‘how closely Hutcheson followed a line of argument that was to be made familiar by Hume’. The missing words remove the impression that either...

If there is a single theme running through these essays it is the importance of our commitment to truth. Not just to the truth about ourselves and our relations with others, or to the truth about...

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Old Literature and its Enemies

Claude Rawson, 25 April 1991

In Alvin Kernan’s book The Death of Literature there is an account of the Lady Chatterley trial. It sports a pointless and omni-directed superciliousness so relentlessly predictable that...

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Bernard Williams, 5 January 1989

In a previous book, After Justice, which came out in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre claimed that the ideas of justice available in the modern world are like a pile of ruins, historical fragments that...

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Grounds for Despair

John Dunn, 17 September 1981

At one point in Thomas Peacock’s satire Melincourt, the heroine Anthelia offers a spirited sketch of the character traits which she looks for in a prospective husband. ‘I would...

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