May 19, 2007

SYP blogging III: MacIntyre against the pluralists

MacIntyre is a contextualist:

There is no standing ground, no place for enquiry, no way to engage in the practices of advancing, evaluating, accepting, and rejecting reasoned argument apart from that which is provided by some particular tradition or other. (WJ? 350)

All reasoning and rational argument must take place within a tradition, or in roughly equivalent jargon, from some particular socio-politically, historically, and theoretically constituted standpoint.

But he is also very much neither a relativist nor a perspectivist. More specifically, MacIntyre seems to be a monist, someone who rejects the idea that there must necessarily be a plurality of acceptable or true theories. At least with regard to ethics, MacIntyre believes in an end or completion of enquiry, at least as what Kant would call an ideal of reason. He writes,

To engage in intellectual enquiry is ... to understand the movement from thesis to thesis as a movement toward a kind of logos which will disclose how things are, not relative to some point of view, but as such .... So the terminus and telos of enquiring into what justice is has to be an account of justice as such, of the eidos of all partial and one-sided [ie, contextually-bound] exemplifications and one-sided elucidations. (78-9)

Each of his four criteria for a successful tradition articulate the way in which `a retrospective examination [of the tradition, from within the tradition] shows, not merely a movement without [sic] direction, but progress pointing toward a goal' (79). (Note, however, that `although one can definitely progress toward the final completion of rational enquiry, that completion lies at a point which cannot itself be attained' in a finite amount of time (81). This completion is strictly ideal. Hence MacIntyre's nitpicking rejection of Hegel (361).)

Chapter XIX of Whose justice? is MacIntyre's rejection of relativism and perspectivism. Perspectivism seems to be defined as a realist pluralism:

Instead of interpreting rival traditions as mutually exclusive and incompatible ways of understanding one and the same world, one and the same subject matter, let us understand them instead as providing very different, complementary perspectives for envisaging the realities about which they speak to us. (352)

Relativism, by contrast, is an anti-realist pluralism, whether of a full-blown `anything goes' variety (Ibid) or a more moderated pluralism (366). Since it would be fair to call me a perspectivist by this definition (along with Longino, Dewey, Quine, and many of my other philosophical heroes), I'm most interested in trying to understand MacIntyre's rejection of perspectivism.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the rejection in its entirety:

The perspectivist ... fails to recognize how integral the conception of truth is to tradition-constituted forms of enquiry. It is this which leads perspectivists to suppose that one could temporarily adopt the standpoint of a tradition and then exchange it for another, as one might wear first one costume and then another, or as one might act one part in one play and then a quite different part in a quite different play. But genuinely to adopt the standpoint of a tradition thereby commits one to its view of what is true and false and, in so committing one, prohibits one from adopting any rival standpoint. Hence the perspectivist could indeed pretend to assume the standpoint of some one particular tradition of enquiry; he or she could not in fact do so. The multiplicity of traditions does not afford a multiplicity of perspectives among which we can move, but a multiplicity of antagonistic commitments, between which only conflict, rational or nonrational, is possible. (367-8)

The idea seems to be that, because the perspectivist is locked into her particular tradition (A), she cannot comment on whether a different tradition (B) is viable according to its own standards (the standards internal to B). All she has available are her own standards and assumptions, which are internal to A, and according to which, MacIntyre seems to claim here, B must be rejected as unviable.

This just seems to be a variation on a theme often used against simplistic relativism. The relativist says `All truths are relative!'; the anti-relativist retorts that this itself is supposed to be an absolute truth, and hence is self-defeating. Note that MacIntyre must reject this scheme for his contextualism: There must be a tradition (indeed, the tradition inhabited by MacIntyre himself) within which we can survey a variety of traditions and thereby contruct a theory of traditions. Such a theory will be tradition-bound, but this is only a problem if we require our theories to be tradition-independent.

Now look at perspectivism again. It is a claim of a theory of traditions: according to the theory of traditions we have constructed from within our particular tradition, traditions work in thus and such ways, and among their workings is this fact of pluralism. MacIntyre's monism is a rejection, not of the possibility of constructing a theory of traditions within some particular tradition, but of some particular part of a rival theory of traditions (whether this rival has been constructed in his own or an alien tradition).

However, what MacIntyre seems to reject in his argument is not the particular claim of perspectivism, but the possibility of any theory of traditions whatsoever. `From within our particular tradition', he seems to argue, `we cannot examine how well another tradition does according to its own standards, only our own, because we cannot internalise their standards'. This is not just incidentally incompatible with MacIntyre's approach; it's specifically rejected earlier in the chapter, when MacIntyre is rejecting anything-goes relativism and defending the claim that there can be rational, progressive engagement between traditions:

the adherents of a tradition which is now in this state of fundamental and radical crisis may at this point encounter in a new way the claims of some particular rival tradition .... They now come or had already come to understand the beliefs and way of life of this other alien tradition, and to do so they have or have had to learn ... the language of the alien tradition as a new and second first language.

When they have understood the beliefs of the alien tradition, they may find themselves compelled to recognize that within this other tradition it is possible to construct from the concepts and theories peculiar to it what they were unable to provide from their own conceptual and theoretical resources .... (364)

MacIntyre's philosophical methodology requires the possibility of at least partly internalising the standards of a rival tradition in at least some circumstances.

Indeed, there is an easy inductive argument here for pluralism. Start with the recognition that `Every tradition ... confronts the possibility that at some future time it will fall into a state of epistemological crisis, recognizable as such by its own standards of rational justification' (Ibid). As a lemma, recognise that some elements which we take to be fundamental to our own tradition will inevitably lead us (or our descendents) into such a crisis. This crisis will be concluded in part by assimilating the resources of a rival tradition, as per the observation above. That is, by our own standards, our current tradition contains some falsities and our rivals contain some truths. Finally, generalise this theorem to all traditions, and we have a claim as close to perspectivism as I think makes no difference.

MacIntyre's attack on perspectivism is too coarse-grained. He cannot reject all theorising about traditions, because his own work is a theory of traditions; he must instead target the particular rival theory (or theories) of traditions which endorses perspectivism. And, at least in chapter XIX, he has failed to do this.

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