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Alasdair MacIntyre
And Holistic Marxism

By Thomas Riggins

06 October, 2008

One of the more interesting establishment philosophers, MacIntyre has recently had two volumes of his essays and articles published: "The Tasks of Philosophy" and "Ethics and Politics." These observations are based on Constantine Sandis' review of these volumes ("Torn away from sureness") in the TLS of August 15, 2008. Some of MacIntyre's work has relevance to Marxist thought. He says for instance, as Sandis points out, that the concepts that are used to delineate an ideology (and this includes Marxism) cannot be understood free of their original contexts from which they derive their meaning. Treating them outside of this context makes them appear unwarranted or nonsensical. If we, for example, decide to adopt Marxism as a guiding light but lack the requisite background contextual knowledge regarding the origin of its concepts and doctrines, we run the risk of mixing up the ideological statements of Marxism with the ideological statements of other points of view (Liberalism,Buddhism, etc.)and we could end up with an incoherent mishmash of different points of views which will prevent us from having a proper understanding of reality.

It is the job of philosophy to prevent this from happening. We must, as Sandis says, engage "in socio-linguistic palaeontology aimed at unearthing previously hidden meanings and connections." We can then see how our concepts are related to our own tradition and to that of others. Marx, for instance, was influenced by Hegel and some of Hegel's concepts have come over into Marxism. The concept of "Reason", for example, reappears in Marxism as the concept of "Scientific Method." Lenin tends to rule out all theories that are not capable of scientific treatment (all religious explanations of reality, for instance). But, Sandis says, "MacIntyre rejects Hegel's faith in reason's ability to grasp absolute reality, substituting in its place a critical blend of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and W.V. Quine's more pragmatic approaches." This rejection of Hegel, as we will see, has led MacIntyre to abandon Marxism and convert to Roman Catholicism. This is always, to my way of thinking, an un
healthy sign. It does not however, negate, his contention that an ideology must be contextually understood.

Sandis reproduces a quote from the British philosopher Frank Ramsey: "it is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of the two disputed views but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, which we can only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by both disputants." This looks suspiciously like the Hegelian dialectic heuristically applied. Ramsey, along with the physicist Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all influenced MacIntyre. He. for instance, applies Ramsey's dictum to resolve conceptual problems between competing ideologies by rejecting some of the premises of both, and especially the idea that one is "right" and the other "wrong." His application of this method is not too bright.

He rejected voting in the 2004 election seeing the difference between Bush's policies (war and more war) and those of Kerry as insignificant. He said that "when offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives." MacIntyre is completely divorced from reality here. The choice between Bush and Kerry was not "false." Only propositions can be false. It was the historic choice that our history presented to us at that time. There were also other choices: Nader, the Greens, etc. To advocate simply sitting out an election that would determine the lives and deaths of thousands of people over a four year per
iod may not be the most ethical behavior for a philosopher to engage in.

In the early 1980s MacIntyre converted to Roman Catholicism because, Sandis suggests, he no longer thought he could make philosophical progress within a Marxist framework.The reason for this was has adoption of a view called "confirmation holism." This view says that an ideology, say Marxism, can only be understood holistically. This means its doctrines have to accepted completely and made to harmonize with one another and cannot be taken more or less generally and supplemented with doctrines from other traditions or ideologies. Sandis says, "Rationality may consequently require us to readily abandon our commitment to any world-view that comes to face an overbearing obstacle." Sandis doesn't tell us what the "overbearing obstacle" was that mandated a switch from the Marxist world-view to that of Roman Catholicism. Non Marxists, I am sure, can think of many just as non Catholics can think of the "overbearing obstacles" that prevent the adoption of that world-view. This looks like relativism, but Sandis tells us MacIntyre is trying to forge an anti-relativist philosophy.

Here is what MacIntyre says about the language used to explain an ideology: "the languages-in-use of some social and cultural orders are more adequate than those of some others in this and that respect." He also says, "the existence of continuing disagreement, even between highly intelligent people, should not lead us to suppose that there are not adequate resources available for the rational resolution of such disagreement." This is supposed to escape from relativism. But a Marxist will judge Catholic positions from the point of view of Marxism, and vice versa. So I don't see how relativism is overcome.

Sandis says that the "holistic answer is simply that some practices are pragmatically far more attractive than others...." That "attraction", however, will be in the eye of the beholder. Sandis then quotes MacIntyre's "famous" definition of a "practice"-- viz., "any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended." Whew! And we must keep in mind that any given practice, say Nazism, can be replaced by one that is better. That's encouraging.

Since a better practice may always be available any particular practice I hold to must be justified probabilistically. If I think Marxism is "true" [since only propositions can be "true" this is not a good word to use]or rather the most useful theoretical system for describing social reality, then I must realize, as Sandis points out, "one must aim for truth by aiming for justification, and the latter is in principle always open to revision."

MacIntyre's ethical system is cast in a Kantian mould rather that a utilitarian one (i.e., a consequentialist one). He thinks there are some moral rules that we can never be justified in breaking. Against this view stand those who contend "the moral polarity of any act [is] (at least partly) determined by the circumstances in which it was performed." That is that there is no universal ban on any act but each must be judged either by its results and/or motives and the context surrounding it taken into consideration.

Marx in his day didn't think much of utilitarianism, nor did Lenin of Kantianism. How sould a Marxist react to this choice? Sandis indicates that MacIntyre's position is not ironclad and plausible exceptions to it have been suggested. Sandis suggests that morality may be a disposition. To paraphrase him, we might say that if "fragility" is a disposition to break at certain times and not to break at others, so morality is a disposition to act in a certain way in certain cases and not in others. He gives as an example that "an act of intentionally not telling the truth need not be vicious, for there might always be circumstances where one virtuous disposition (say that of kindness) can only be manifested if another (say that of honesty, or of justice) is not."

Marxists can learn something from MacIntyre. I think his views on holism are useful, as are his remarks on the coherence of our ideas and their need for justification as well as his attempt to avoid relativism. A Marxist proposition should be part of a system of coherent (non contradictory)co-propositions which can be justified by an appeal to practice and that serve the interests, broadly defined, of the working class in its efforts to abolish the capitalist system. The construction of this holistic system is the task of 21st century Marxists.

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.

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