. 2
( 7)


Satisfying the ¬rst of them would appear problematic. It seems to be
the case that participation in a tradition could be wholly lacking in his-
torical consciousness. Future craftsmen must be inducted into the craft by
a master, and thereby have their judgments informed by previous (which
is to say historical) experience re¬‚ected upon. But why must the form of
this re¬‚ection be itself expressly historical? The origins of the craft, or of
a speci¬c project, the names and contribution of predecessors, and indeed
the historical development of the craft itself could be quite unknown to a
contemporary master. He or she is required only to be imbued with the
tradition, not to be able to articulate its history. Arguably, this was precisely
the case with the engineers, architects, and stonemasons who contributed to
the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. They were masters
of a craft engaged in an inherited project with its special telos, one which
they in their turn sought to bring to ful¬llment and perfection. But it seems
reasonable to suppose that they did so without any formulable knowledge
or understanding of the past. In a few cases their originating predecessors
are identi¬able (Canterbury), but not necessarily known to them. If not,
were their endeavors any the less consequential?
It is open to MacIntyre to reply, I think, that whatever may be true
of other practices, such ahistorical understanding of a moral tradition or
a tradition of inquiry is impossible, since these crucially employ concepts,
and the use of concepts implies conscious re¬‚ection upon a cultural reality
and historical legacy, chie¬‚y that of one™s language.

Every tradition is embodied in some particular set of utterances and actions
and thereby in all the particularities of some speci¬c language and culture.
The invention, elaboration, and modi¬cation of the concepts through which
both those who found and those who inherit a tradition understand it are
inescapably concepts which have been framed in one language rather than
another. . . .
The conception of language presupposed in saying this is that of a
language as it is used in and by a particular community living at a particular
time and place with particular shared beliefs, institutions and practices.
(Whose Justice?, pp. 371“373)

It is this view of language that lies at the heart of MacIntyre™s criti-
cism not only of emotivist theories of ethics but of the ahistorical semantics
that has dominated philosophy in general, and philosophy of language in

particular, over the last few decades. To understand language is to under-
stand a language in a sociohistorical context. Each tradition of inquiry must
employ such a language and hence this context is a condition of the tra-
dition™s existence. For this reason the understanding of that tradition, by
practitioners themselves as much as by inquirers from other traditions, has
to be re¬‚ectively historical.
I still think there is a dif¬culty here. It is true that some practices
can be inarticulate in a way that others cannot. Nevertheless, while the
understanding of language that ordinary language speakers have is indeed
an understanding of a speci¬c language, socially embedded and with its
own history, this does not mean that that understanding is itself historical.
I should say, in fact, that it only very rarely is. In other words, speakers of a
language successfully use concepts with a history, but they do not generally,
and do not need to, know that history. In the absence of such knowledge,
their mastery of the concepts seems largely unaffected.
Of course, it is plausible to hold that the position is different with respect
to the philosophical use of that language, which must be re¬‚ective in ways
that other uses are not. However, to respond in this way to the dif¬culty
that I think I detect is simply to raise another. It seems that there can be a
philosophical use of language that is not historically informed. Indeed that
is the very point upon which MacIntyre criticizes emotivism, and contem-
porary analytical philosophy of language more broadly; these are engage-
ments in philosophy, after all, whatever else is to be said about (or against)
Now someone persuaded of the story so far is unlikely to be persuaded
to the contrary by this reference to the mere possibility of an ahistorical
philosophical use of and re¬‚ection upon language. Such a reference does
not seem persuasive precisely because the whole point is that it is inadequate.
This removes the discussion to another level. I remarked that philosophy is
essentially normative, and that any fusion with history (of the sort at which
MacIntyre aims) must preserve this normativity. To declare emotivism in-
adequate is to make a normative philosophical judgment. How does the
appeal to history sustain or underwrite it?
The answer given by this third strand in MacIntyre™s project is plain:
normative philosophical judgments must themselves be rooted in, and de-
rived from, a tradition of inquiry that has its own history. The question then
becomes: which tradition of inquiry are we to draw upon in making these
Can there be more than one tradition of inquiry? The answer seems
evident, of course there can. Moreover, the liberal/emotivist conception,
MacIntyre on History and Philosophy

and with it the encyclopaedist, is just one such tradition. To appeal to it,
therefore, would seem to endorse the position MacIntyre declares to be
inadequate. If its inadequacy is to be revealed, accordingly it must be some
other tradition that is appealed to, and evidently MacIntyre means this to
be the neo-Thomist one. But the attempt to do so raises an even more
important dif¬culty. Can a different, more subtle form of relativism be
avoided, one in which emotivism is inadequate relative only to one tradition
of inquiry?
This is a question John Haldane expressly raised in his essay
“MacIntyre™s Thomist Revival: What Next?” In a section of the essay signif-
icantly entitled “Suspicions of Relativism,” Haldane quotes the following
passage from Whose Justice? Which Rationality?.

[W]e must ¬rst return to the situation of the person to whom, after all, this
book is primarily addressed, someone who, not as yet having given their
allegiance to some coherent tradition of enquiry, is besieged by disputes
over what is just and about how it is reasonable to act, both at the level
of particular immediate issues . . . and at the level at which rival systematic
tradition-informed conceptions contend. (Whose Justice?, p. 393)

Haldane then comments:

[I]t is worth dwelling on the situation envisaged in the quoted passage.
Here we are to imagine someone who has not yet subscribed to ˜a coherent
tradition of enquiry™. That immediately raises the question of how such
a person can choose between rival suitors for his or her mind and con-
science. It would seem that his or her choice must be rooted in reason or
else be non-rational. But the former is excluded if rational norms are only
available to a participant within a coherent tradition, for, ex hypothesi, the
addressee is a complete outsider. . . . We are prohibited from saying that
the rootless addressee can choose on the basis of transcendent norms of
practical reason, so that excludes a realist resolution. This returns us to the
thought that all choosing is from within a tradition, but if so there is noth-
ing that is to be said by or to such a person, and a fortiori he cannot make a
rational choice. (Haldane 1994, pp. 96“97)

In Three Rival Versions MacIntyre expounds and defends the superiority
of the Thomist tradition of inquiry, but if Haldane is right this will not
help. To those within it, of course, it comes up with the right answers.
To those whose allegiance lies with some other tradition, its answers will
be deemed to be mistaken. But to anyone who stands outside these, and
outside any such tradition, the answers will be rationally unassessable, even

unintelligible perhaps. Haldane is unduly modest in entitling this section
of his essay “Suspicions of Relativism”; it seems, rather, that he has shown
MacIntyre to be a relativist.
Now it needs to be observed that MacIntyre anticipates this criticism
in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, where he writes as follows:

It is not . . . that competing traditions do not share some standards. All the
traditions with which we have been concerned agree in according a certain
authority to logic both in their theory and in their practice. Were it not so
their adherents would be unable to disagree in the way that they do. But
that upon which they agree is insuf¬cient to resolve those disagreements. It
may therefore seem to be the case that we are confronted with the rival and
competing claims of a number of traditions to our allegiance in respect of our
understanding of practical rationality and justice, among which we can have
no good reason to decide in favor of any one rather than of the others. . . .
Argument along these lines has been adduced in support of a conclusion
that if the only available standards of rationality are those made available
by and within traditions, then no issue between contending traditions is
rationally decidable. To assert or to conclude this rather than that can be
rational relative to the standards of some particular tradition, but not ra-
tional as such. There can be no rationality as such. . . . Let us call this the
relativist challenge. (Whose Justice?, pp. 351“352)

In the same place MacIntyre outlines a response to this challenge, one
which he elaborates at greater length elsewhere (MacIntyre 1994c). Its
basic thrust is that inter-traditional con¬‚icts can in a sense be transcended.
This transcendence is not Hegelian “ one that, instead of seeing traditions
of inquiry as having distinct and distinguishing histories regards them
as moments in the unfolding of human understanding across time, such
that earlier ones are aufgehoben or taken up in those that succeed them,
only to be aufgehoben by others in their turn. Though this picture ¬ts
MacIntyre™s account of the emergence of Thomism rather well (for by
his account Thomism takes up the rival traditions of Augustinianism and
Aristotelianism in a way that produces a new synthesis), here, it seems,
the process stops. The resultant Thomism not only stands in opposition
to the tradition generated by the Enlightenment Project, as it should in
accordance with the Hegelian dialectic, but it does so in perpetuity. In
any case, MacIntyre has expressly said (in a reply to critics) that he is
“irremediably anti-Hegelian in rejecting the notion of an absolute stand-
point, independent of the particularity of all traditions” (MacIntyre 1994f,
p. 295).
MacIntyre on History and Philosophy

If we cannot transcend differences between traditions by employing an
Hegelian-type absolute standpoint, an alternative would be to ¬nd some
hitherto undiscovered common ground. Arguably this is what Rawls at-
tempts with his concept of an “overlapping consensus” (Rawls 1993, p. 39).
It is also the strategy invoked by ethologists and sociobiologists, whose the-
orizing may reasonably be interpreted as modern versions of Aristotelian
naturalism. The con¬‚ict between traditions, and the place of the inquirer
innocent of traditional loyalties (around whose possibility Haldane raises
his objection), is to be explained in terms of an underlying common nature
that all human beings share in virtue of their evolved animality and the
condition in which they ¬nd themselves.
Once again, though, this appears not to be the line MacIntyre wishes
to take. In a 1994 essay (MacIntyre 1994c) he argues that all traditions
of inquiry are committed to an assertion-transcendent concept of truth,
committed to holding that “the account of morality which they give does
not itself, at least in its central contentions, suffer from the limitations,
partialities and one-sidedness of a merely local point of view” (MacIntyre
1994c, p. 12) and that this shared commitment implies further that

if the scheme and mode of justi¬cation to which . . . appeal [is made] to
support [an] account of the moral life were to turn out to be . . . incapable
of providing the resources for exhibiting its argumentative superiority . . .
then it must be capable of being replaced by some scheme and mode of
justi¬cation which does possess the resources both for providing adequate
rational support for [its] account and for exhibiting its rational superiority
to any scheme and mode of justi¬cation which supports conclusions incom-
patible with central theses of that account. For otherwise no claim to truth
could be sustained. (MacIntyre 1994c, p. 12; emphasis in original)

In other words, rational superiority is to be found in the circumstances
in which one tradition explains the persistent dif¬culties encountered by
another better than the other can itself, and in ways that the adherents
of the less successful tradition can recognize. Applied to moral thinking,
this means that if natural law theory (for example) can explain why social
contract theory encounters the problems it does better than social contract
theory does, but in terms intelligible to social contract theorists, then it can
be declared rationally superior.
The example of natural law versus social contract is mine, since
MacIntyre replies to the relativist challenge in exclusively general terms.
Yet to make good the abstract claim and produce some result with respect
to the real clash of actual traditions, speci¬c cases have to be explored.

Somewhat curiously, it seems to me, when MacIntyre turns (in his most
recent book) to address substantial moral issues, he appears to adopt the
second “ naturalistic “ strategy rather than the third I have just been de-
scribing. Though, as I observed, MacIntyre earlier expressly denied that his
aim was to restore a “morality of the virtues” in preference to a “morality
of rules,” this appears to be precisely the line he takes in Dependent Rational
Animals, in which he revives an Aristotelian conception that is entirely silent
on any historical dimension and that takes its cue from the vulnerability and
dependence that is the mark of human existence per se.
What is very striking about this new work is the difference in orientation
from the three books with which this chapter has been concerned up to this
point. Even earlier than After Virtue, in fact, in A Short History of Ethics, the
book with which I began, MacIntyre stressed not merely the important, but
the crucial role of history to any adequate moral philosophy. In this new
book, by contrast, there is no discernible historical dimension. The account
he gives us of human nature and the human condition aims to undergird
moral philosophy. Indeed his main question is precisely this:

[W]hat difference to moral philosophy would it make, if we were to treat
the facts of vulnerability and af¬‚iction and the related facts of dependence
as central to the human condition? (Dependent Rational Animals, p. 4)

The resulting picture, which, we might usefully observe, derives not from
historical but from ethological investigation, seems remarkably static, and
in fact wholly lacking in the spirit that declared history to be essential to
moral understanding. For my own part I concur with the suggestion (in
Dependent Rational Animals) that human beings should be regarded as hav-
ing a (broadly speaking) biological nature, and that the human condition is
one of vulnerability. So much we share with other animals. But an impor-
tant point of difference, which is stressed in the trilogy with which I have
been chie¬‚y concerned, seems to be this: Human beings have a history;
other animals do not. How does the conception of an adequate basis for
moral philosophy advanced in this book cohere with the strongly historical
conception advanced in After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and
Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry?
MacIntyre has replied to this question (in correspondence) by saying:

We need to distinguish philosophical work within a tradition that takes
the context supplied by that tradition more or less for granted from work
that appeals explicitly to the narrative history in which it is embedded or
work that defends one tradition and argues for its rational superiority to
MacIntyre on History and Philosophy

some rival. It is just the same in the natural sciences. Someone at work in
quantum mechanics now is able to work ahistorically, presupposing but not
making explicit the historical background in Bohr™s model of the atom and
the stages through which that came to be rejected.

In short, the historical dimension is in some sense metaethical, just as the
history of science is meta-scienti¬c. It is not easy to say, though, whether
this distinction can really be maintained consistently with at least one of the
important assertions with which the historical exploration of philosophical
issues began “ that “moral concepts change as social life changes.” As it
seems to me, it is much more plausible to make this claim with respect to
the concepts of justice and honor (for instance) than with the concepts of
vulnerability and dependence that are invoked in Dependent Rational An-
imals. No doubt these concepts have a history, but their moral relevance
derives not from this history but from a biological nature that human beings
share. And insofar as disputed ethical questions can be resolved by the care-
ful delineation and deployment of such concepts, to this extent, it seems,
we may disregard the interconnection of philosophy and history that has
been so central a part of MacIntyre™s enterprise.
2 Tradition in the Recent Work of
Alasdair MacIntyre

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre develops a narrative of late modernity in
which Enlightenment liberalism, attempting to construct a philosophy and
a society on the basis of nonteleological reason, falls into intellectual and
especially moral incoherence. The unhappy fate of the modern liberal, left
with only therapists for comfort and bureaucrats for security, is contrasted
with the happier situation of someone who aspires to a life of virtue in the
Aristotelian sense.1 Yet it is not clear that this is an option today, given
that classical and medieval versions of Aristotelian virtue ethics rest on a
“metaphysical biology” which is no longer tenable (After Virtue, p. 162).
MacIntyre accordingly offers a reformulation of Aristotelian virtue ethics
in which participation in a tradition plays a role analogous to that played
by Aristotle™s metaphysical biology “ that is to say, it gives a wider purpose
and meaning to the narrative that uni¬es the individual life.
The idea of a tradition continues to play a central role in MacIntyre™s
works. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? he develops a theory of ra-
tionality as tradition-guided inquiry, which he offers as an alternative to
the untenable options of Enlightenment foundationalism on the one hand,
and postmodern versions of perspectivism and relativism on the other
hand. The project of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is further devel-
oped in MacIntyre™s Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:
Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and Tradition, in which tradition, as exempli¬ed by
the work of Augustine and Aquinas, is defended over and against its other
two rivals.
Clearly, any study of MacIntyre™s thought must take account of the
central place that he gives to the concept of tradition. Yet this task is com-
plicated by the fact that, even though MacIntyre discusses tradition exten-
sively, he never de¬nes the term (so far as I have been able to determine),
nor does he situate his account of tradition in the context of other recent
discussions.2 Moreover, as we would expect, MacIntyre™s understanding of
tradition evolves over the near decade that elapses between the ¬rst edi-
tion of After Virtue and the publication of his Gifford lectures. In each of

Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

the three major books that have de¬ned MacIntyre™s mature philosophi-
cal program, we ¬nd a somewhat different account of what a tradition is.
Especially in his later works, MacIntyre moves between a wider concept
of tradition as an overall social and moral orientation, and a more limited
concept of a tradition as a focused scienti¬c or moral inquiry. Nonetheless,
we can arrive at an understanding of MacIntyre™s account of tradition by
attending to the ways in which he uses this idea in developing his overall
account of rationality and morality, and that is the strategy that I will follow
in this chapter.


After Virtue is essentially a critical book. MacIntyre™s aim is ¬rst to develop a
diagnosis of what he sees as the malaise of contemporary modern thought,
and second to provide a sketch of what a suitably reformulated Aristotelian
alternative might look like. This point should be emphasized at the outset,
because it reminds us that After Virtue is meant to set out a program for
future works. As such, it provides a key to understanding what comes after it,
even though, as we will see, MacIntyre modi¬es his program in signi¬cant
ways as he develops it. Even more important, it reminds us of a point
on which MacIntyre himself insists, namely, the tentative character and
incompleteness of the account of virtue that he develops in the last third of
the book (After Virtue, p. 271).
MacIntyre™s analysis of the failures of modernity is perhaps the best-
known aspect of his work, and only a brief summary is necessary here.3 In
his view we are in the midst of a catastrophic situation, and all the more
catastrophic because only a few persons are even aware of it. We have lost
the unifying frameworks that are necessary for any coherent moral dis-
course; what we have instead are fragments from earlier discourses, which
no longer make sense now that they have been wrenched out of their con-
texts, and which can serve only as vehicles for the expression of emotions or
as obscuring ideologies for the assertion of power. (That is why, in his view,
moral philosophers earlier in the century were so prone to emotivist theo-
ries of ethics, and why our contemporaries are so given to the assertion of
autonomy through the language of rights (After Virtue, pp. 6“22, 66“70.))
In this respect, our situation contrasts unfavorably with that of antiquity
or the middle ages, when moral discourse was given coherence through
ideals of virtue, which were complemented through re¬‚ection on the rules
necessary to sustain a moral community. At this point, MacIntyre considers

Aristotle to be the moral thinker par excellence; yet (as noted above) he also
claims that Aristotle™s account of virtue cannot be appropriated as it stands,
because it depends on a kind of metaphysical biology that is no longer
tenable. Nonetheless, Aristotle speaks from within a wider tradition of re-
¬‚ection on the virtues held together by a core conception of what a virtue
is, and MacIntyre does believe that this core conception can be cogently
reformulated for our own time (After Virtue, p. 186). These convictions
set the agenda for the last part of After Virtue: MacIntyre attempts to set
forth the key elements of this concept of virtue, and to sketch out what a
contemporary reformulation of that concept might look like.
As MacIntyre understands it, the core conception of the virtues that
uni¬es the tradition of virtue ethics with which he is concerned is built up
in three stages:

For there are no less than three stages in the logical development of the
concept which have to be identi¬ed in order, if the core conception of a
virtue is to be understood, and each of these stages has its own conceptual
background. The ¬rst stage requires a background of what I shall call a
practice, the second an account of what I have already characterized as the
narrative order of a single human life and the third an account a good deal
fuller than I have given up to now of what constitutes a moral tradition. Each
later stage presupposes the earlier, but not vice versa. Each earlier stage is
both modi¬ed by and reinterpreted in the light of, but also provides an
essential constituent of each later stage. The progress in the development
of the concept is closely related to, although it does not recapitulate in any
straightforward way, the history of the tradition of which it forms the core.
(After Virtue, pp. 186“187)4

MacIntyre goes on to de¬ne a practice as follows:

By a ˜practice™ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially
established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that
form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those stan-
dards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially de¬nitive 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. (After Virtue, p. 87)

Hence, what characterizes a practice, in contrast to a skill or technique,
is its orientation toward intrinsic goods that can be attained only through
the practice itself, and that require both skill and sensitivity to the aims of
the practice in order to be realized. Practices may be found across a wide
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

range of human activities, including skilled games such as football or chess,
complex skills such as architecture or farming, intellectual and scienti¬c in-
quiries, and artistic activities such as painting or music (all these examples
are MacIntyre™s own; see After Virtue, pp. 187“188). MacIntyre does not
claim that practices necessarily have intrinsic moral value, or that the attain-
ment of pro¬ciency in any of them is tantamount to moral virtue. Nonethe-
less, practices are signi¬cant because they exemplify forms of activity that
are good in themselves, without reference to any further aims toward which
they might be directed. In order to attain pro¬ciency in a practice, some-
one must value, and progressively attain, two kinds of qualities, namely,
the goods internal to the practice itself (understood with reference to the
individual as a kind of pro¬ciency in, or a sympathetic understanding of,
the internal goods in question), and qualities that are essential to any sort
of cooperative activity.
Nonetheless, the practices are not themselves virtues, nor are the quali-
ties that they generate in their practitioners necessarily virtues. In respond-
ing to misunderstandings on this point generated by the ¬rst edition of the
book, MacIntyre carefully notes that a quality cannot be considered to be
a virtue unless it meets the conditions speci¬ed in two further stages (After
Virtue, p. 275). Practices provide a conception of a kind of good which is
intrinsic and not merely instrumental, but the qualities intrinsic to one prac-
tice may be useless or even harmful in other contexts (although MacIntyre
hesitates to admit that a practice might be evil in itself ), and as such, they
cannot be considered to be virtues.
In order to move toward a conception of virtue, we must move to the
next stage of development, namely, a conception of a human life as a uni¬ed
whole (After Virtue, p. 205). MacIntyre develops this conception through
a re¬‚ection on the intelligibility of human actions, which on his view pre-
suppose that actions are embedded in an ongoing narrative that gives them
meaning and point (After Virtue, pp. 207“15). This in turn implies that our
lives as a whole are held together by a narrative unity, which is central to the
identity of the subject and forms the precondition for responsibility for one™s
past actions (After Virtue, pp. 216“218). At the same time, the narrative unity
of an individual life is teleological; it presupposes the possibility of evaluat-
ing a human life, in terms of its success or failure, as a life well lived or a life
perverted, frustrated, or wasted. This, in turn, presupposes that human lives
are oriented toward a good that transcends the individual, and at this point
we move to the last stage in the development of the concept of a virtue.
For Aristotle, the ideal of human ¬‚ourishing provides the orienting
good toward which we strive, and provides unity to our individual lives.

At this stage in the development of his thought, however, MacIntyre does
not consider this to be a defensible solution today. Nonetheless, he believes
that in order for a human life to ¬nd the purpose necessary for its successful
uni¬cation, the individual must be oriented toward a good transcending
the individual. For us, this will take the form of a “narrative quest” for
the good rather than a predetermined aim to be achieved (After Virtue,
p. 219). This will necessarily be a communal quest, and as such it will
require both devotion to a certain kind of good, and the attainment of
qualities necessary to sustain life in community (After Virtue, pp. 219“221).
The communal nature of the quest for the good, in turn, implies that it
has a history extending beyond the life of the individual. It is the historical
character of the quest for the good that situates it within a tradition: “I
¬nd myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or
not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition” (After
Virtue, p. 221). It would be misleading to assume that this tradition will
necessarily be ¬xed, or even clearly de¬nable. On the contrary, MacIntyre
insists on the open-ended character of traditions and on the fact that they
derive their unity from an orientation toward goods which are contested
within the tradition itself. He insists that debate is necessary to the life of
an ongoing tradition: “A living tradition then is an historically extended,
socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the
goods which constitute that tradition” (After Virtue, p. 222).5 Correlatively,
“when a tradition becomes Burkean [that is to say, ¬xed and static], it is
always dying or dead” (After Virtue, p. 222).
Hence, traditions provide the necessary ¬nal stage for developing the
concept of a virtue because they comprise communities of inquiry that
require virtues for their continued existence:

The virtues ¬nd their point and purpose not only in sustaining those re-
lationships necessary if the variety of goods internal to practices are to be
achieved and not only in sustaining the form of an individual life in which
that individual may seek out his or her good as the good of his or her whole
life, but also in sustaining those traditions which provide both practices and
individual lives with their necessary historical context. (After Virtue, p. 223)

These virtues will include (but will not be limited to) qualities of judg-
ment and practical reason that enable the individual to discern how the
insights and commitments of a tradition might best be extended into the
future: “It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests
itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available
to the present” (After Virtue, p. 223).
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

It is not necessary for our purposes to review the criticisms of
MacIntyre™s account of virtue and tradition in After Virtue in greater detail
because, as he himself notes, this account is only a preliminary to a more
developed defense of a particular conception of moral rationality, which he
subsequently goes on to develop in his later works.6 Any assessment of his
overall account of tradition must take his latter two books into account, es-
pecially since these latter works modify the account of tradition developed
in After Virtue in signi¬cant ways. At the same time, elements of this account
continue to inform MacIntyre™s later discussions of tradition. Although he
drops the claim that a tradition should be seen as a quest, he does retain
the sense that a tradition is centrally a kind of open-ended inquiry, rather
than offering something ¬xed and static. And even though he focuses in
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? on the epistemic functions of traditions,
his development of the idea is still clearly governed by moral concerns,
which come to the fore once again in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.
Finally, and most importantly, he continues to draw on the idea of tradition
as a way of reformulating insights drawn from premodern authors into a
contemporary idiom.
Before moving on, we should also note that in one of his most recent
works MacIntyre repudiates one of the claims on which his development
of the idea of tradition in After Virtue rests. In Dependent Rational Animals,
he claims that he was mistaken to reject Aristotle™s “metaphysical biology”
as a basis for virtue (Dependent Rational Animals, p. x). Although he does
not want to endorse all the elements of Aristotle™s own view, he now asserts
that an adequate account of virtue must include some account of human
¬‚ourishing: “What it is for human beings to ¬‚ourish does of course vary
from context to context, but in every context it is as someone exercises in a
relevant way the capacities of an independent practical reasoner that her or
his potentialities for ¬‚ourishing in a speci¬cally human way are developed”
(Dependent Rational Animals, p. 77). It is perhaps signi¬cant that in this book,
the concept of tradition plays almost no role, in contrast to each of his other
major works following After Virtue.


Whose Justice? Which Rationality? develops the critique of Enlightenment
liberalism ¬rst set forth in After Virtue, but unlike the earlier work, this
book is intended to set forth a constructive theory as well as a critique. As
its title suggests, the critique in this book takes its starting point from the

claim that it is possible to establish universally valid standards of justice,
which can be recognized as such by any rational person (Whose Justice?,
pp. 1“4; cf. the discussion of different conceptions of justice near the end
of After Virtue, pp. 244“55). MacIntyre attempts to show that this claim
is false through a close examination of con¬‚icting ideals of justice that
emerged in three societies: ancient and classical Greece, medieval Europe,
and eighteenth-century Scotland and England. His argument in each case
is that the ideals dividing these societies were not such as could have been
resolved through rational argument within a neutral framework of shared
beliefs or principles, since in each case the con¬‚icts were at least partly
grounded in incommensurable claims that shaped the ways in which the
interlocutors evaluated the relevant arguments and evidence (Whose Justice?,
p. 351; cf. pp. 4“7).
These con¬‚icts among ideals of justice might seem to lead to an impasse,
and so long as we stay within the parameters of an Enlightenment ideal
of rationality, we will indeed ¬nd that they cannot be resolved. It should
be noted that MacIntyre does not deny that there are some standards of
rationality that can be applied in any social or cultural context “ for example,
the fundamental laws of logic “ but on his view these are not suf¬cient by
themselves to resolve the kinds of substantive con¬‚icts that have emerged
in debates over competing ideals of justice. (On the universal validity of
the laws of logic and other similar rational principles, and their inadequacy,
see Whose Justice?, pp. 4, 351.) As MacIntyre argues in more detail later in
the book, this situation has led to the emergence of contemporary forms
of skepticism about the possibility of establishing genuine truth claims or
developing rational arguments at all. But there is another alternative:

What the Enlightenment made us for the most part blind to and what we
now need to recover is, so I shall argue, a conception of rational enquiry
as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards
of rational justi¬cation themselves emerge from and are part of a history in
which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations
of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the
history of that same tradition. (Whose Justice?, p. 7)

The bulk of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is devoted to a remark-
ably rich and detailed history of three of the four traditions that MacIntyre
mentions (liberalism receives a less extended consideration). With respect
to the Aristotelian tradition of justice, he shows how it emerged out of the
limitations and inadequacies of the Homeric and Platonic views to emerge
as one of the strongest traditions available in the medieval period. The
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

Augustinian tradition is similarly traced up to the point at which it comes
into con¬‚ict with the Aristotelian tradition in the Middle Ages. This con-
¬‚ict is successfully resolved through Aquinas™s synthesis of Augustinian and
Aristotelian commitments through a reinterpretation of each in the light
of the other. Finally, MacIntyre traces the development of another kind of
synthesis, namely, the distinctively Scottish synthesis of Calvinist and En-
lightenment perspectives that provided a genuine alternative to European
versions of the Enlightenment until it was undermined through David
Hume™s “Anglicizing subversion.” (This narrative comprises the bulk of
Whose Justice?, pp. 12“348; the phrase “Anglicizing subversion” occurs on
p. 281.)
In the closing chapters of his book, MacIntyre turns to the development
of his constructive theory of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry. (The
basic theory is developed in chapter 18, “The Rationality of Traditions,”
Whose Justice?, pp. 349“369.) Drawing on the narratives of traditions in
con¬‚ict developed in the ¬rst part of the book, he begins by rejecting what
he sees as the central claims of Enlightenment philosophy “ the claim that
it is possible to arrive at a set of rational standards both universal in scope
and substantive enough to provide a basis for judging the beliefs and com-
mitments of particular intellectual traditions. On the contrary, he argues,
we are in the same situation as the ancient Greeks, medieval Europeans, or
eighteenth-century Scots and Englishmen in that we must deal with social
and intellectual traditions that are to some signi¬cant degree incommensu-
rable with one another. He does not claim that there can be no meaningful
communication at all between those who stand in incommensurable tradi-
tions. Rather, he claims that for those in such a situation there will be at
least some disagreements that cannot be resolved by appeals to mutually
agreeable standards of reasonableness and excellence because the disagree-
ments have to do, at least in part, with those very standards themselves
(Whose Justice?, pp. 4, 351). Hence, MacIntyre contends, since we cannot
escape the necessity of arguing from within some tradition or other, we
must necessarily turn to the notion of a tradition to provide an alternative
framework for speculative as well as practical reasoning.
At the same time, however, MacIntyre also rejects two positions that
are so often presented as the inevitable consequences of Enlightenment

[It might be said that] if the only available standards of rationality are those
made available by and within traditions, then no issue between contending
traditions is rationally decidable. . . . There can be no rationality as such.

Every set of standards, every tradition incorporating a set of standards,
has as much and as little claim to our allegiance as any other. Let us call
this the relativist challenge, as contrasted with a second type of challenge,
that which we may call the perspectivist. . . . [T]he perspectivist challenge
puts in question the possibility of making truth claims from within any one
tradition. (Whose Justice?, p.352)

In contrast, MacIntyre proposes a third alternative, which will allow for
strong realist claims for the rationality and truth of speci¬c claims without
falling into some version of Enlightenment foundationalism. The plausi-
bility of both relativism and perspectivism derives from the fact that both
re¬‚ect the inversion of the Enlightenment ideal of a universally valid stan-
dard of rationality and truth. Since this cannot be attained (and MacIntyre
agrees that it cannot), the only alternative, it is said, is some form of rel-
ativism or perspectivism. On the contrary, MacIntyre responds, there is a
third alternative, the possibility that the development of traditions, both
internally and in relation to one another, can itself be considered to be a
genuinely rational process that, if it goes well, moves in the direction of an
ever-fuller grasp of reality (Whose Justice?, pp. 353“354). He goes on to de-
velop this third alternative through an account of the rationality embedded
in the development of traditions.

The rationality of a tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive enquiry
is in key and essential part a matter of the kind of progress which it makes
through a number of well-de¬ned types of stage. Every such form of enquiry
begins in and from some condition of pure historical contingency, from
the beliefs, institutions and practices of some particular community which
constitute a given. (Whose Justice?, p. 354)7

Initially, these starting points are taken to be authoritative in such a way
as to be placed beyond question, or at least beyond systematic questioning.
But matters cannot rest there. As the bearers of this tradition continue to re-
¬‚ect on these canonical starting points, internal contradictions will become
apparent, divergences of interpretation will emerge, and new circumstances
will call into question the signi¬cance or the practicality of earlier norma-
tive commitments. If the tradition is to survive at all, these tensions must
be resolved and the tradition must be reformulated, to some degree at least,
in order to retain its relevance and application in changing circumstances.
At this point, a tradition has the resources to generate a concept of truth
as the adequation of mind to reality. If the bearers of a tradition succeed in
resolving its internal tensions and carrying it forward successfully, they will
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

at some point be in a position to compare the earlier stages of that tradition
with its later, more successful stages. But by what criterion will they judge
that these later stages are in fact more successful? Whatever the speci¬cs
of the answer for a particular tradition, it will imply that the later stage of
an ongoing tradition is more adequate because it is in better accord with
the realities toward which it is directed. To be more exact, the tradition in
its later stages will provide a more adequate framework within which to
attain that adequation of the mind with its objects that MacIntyre takes to
be the authentic meaning of a correspondence theory of truth “ not that
the inhabitants of a tradition will necessarily express its greater adequacy
in such terms.8 Once this possibility emerges, however, it implies that the
present stage of any tradition (including the inquirer™s own) may similarly
be inadequate in some yet to be discovered way. And the emergence of
this further possibility marks an important intellectual advance because, at
this point, one can no longer equate the truth of a given judgment with its
adequacy by the best standards of one™s tradition. In other words, at this
point truth can no longer be equated with warranted assertability.
MacIntyre notes that the development of a tradition is neither Cartesian
nor Hegelian: just as a tradition begins from contingent rather than neces-
sary starting points, so its best conclusions are always provisional:

Implicit in the rationality of such enquiry there is indeed a conception of
a ¬nal truth, that is to say, a relationship of the mind to its objects which
would be wholly adequate in respect of the capacities of that mind. But any
conception of that state as one in which the mind could by its own powers
know itself as thus adequately informed is ruled out; the Absolute Knowl-
edge of the Hegelian system is from this tradition-constituted standpoint a
chimaera. (Whose Justice?, pp. 360“361)

MacIntyre goes on to observe that this fact, that tradition-constituted
inquiry does not provide for certainty in either its starting points or its
conclusions, gives credence to the perspectivist and relativist challenges.
In order fully to address these challenges, it is necessary to turn to a fur-
ther stage in the development of a tradition, which is occasioned by what
MacIntyre describes as an “epistemological crisis” (Whose Justice?, p. 361).
At every stage in its development, a tradition in good order is constituted
by a dynamic process of development and adaptation. An epistemological
crisis occurs when this process is in some way stymied: “At any point, it may
happen to any tradition-constituted enquiry that by its own standards of
progress it ceases to make progress” (Whose Justice?, p. 361). At this point,
the certitudes of the tradition are called into question and, in order to move

forward, its exponents must engage in genuine conceptual innovation. That
is to say, they must somehow arrive at new concepts or theories that are
not derived from the earlier stages of their tradition, which has so far been
inadequate to address the problems at hand; correlatively, these innovations
can only be justi¬ed in terms of their ability to resolve what had previously
been insurmountable dif¬culties. At this point, any retrospective history of
the tradition would incorporate some account of the crisis and its resolution.
Because it is (by hypothesis) an account of a successful resolution, this
account will include (or imply) a claim to offer a more adequate way of
understanding the issues at hand. Correlatively, it will include (or imply) a
better understanding of the structures of justi¬cation than was previously
available, in terms of which the earlier inadequacies of the tradition and their
subsequent resolution can be understood. Not only do these claims imply
the possibility of making truth claims that go beyond warranted assertability,
they actually amount to such truth claims, since they are themselves implicit
or explicit claims for truth (both about the subject matter at hand, and about
the tradition itself ) that go beyond a defense of assertability in terms of the
tradition as it exists at any one point.9 In this way, MacIntyre answers the
relativist challenge that truth is equivalent to warranted assertability within
the terms of a particular tradition. However, the perspectivist challenge
remains to be fully addressed.
In order to do so, MacIntyre considers a further (possible) stage in the
development of a tradition in epistemological crisis. That is, a crisis of this
kind creates a situation in which a fruitful encounter with a rival tradition
can take place and, as a result of such an encounter, proponents of the ¬rst
tradition may be forced to acknowledge that the rival offers a better account
of dif¬culties which they themselves could not have resolved “ better, that is,
by their own best standards of judgment. As a result, the proponents of these
two traditions are able to make a comparative judgment about the relative
rational superiority of one tradition over another “ precisely the kind of
judgment that the perspectivist claims to be impossible. That, at least, is
MacIntyre™s argument; in order to sustain it, he must offer a convincing
analysis of what is involved in the encounter between two traditions and
the relative vindication of one over and against the other.
In order for an encounter between two rival traditions to take place, it is
¬rst of all necessary that two rival traditions be brought into genuine con-
tact. This requires more than an awareness of each tradition on the part of
the bearers of the alternative tradition; it requires that some representatives
of each tradition be in sustained contact with the other, and that they re-
main suf¬ciently open to consider the claims of the rival tradition seriously.
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

Furthermore, it presupposes that bearers of each tradition are able to rec-
ognize that the alternative represents a genuine rival, that the alternative
offers a distinct account of the same realities with which they themselves are
concerned. Thus, the conceptual incommensurability between them cannot
be so great that proponents of each are unable to agree on at least a partially
shared description of the world; otherwise, communication and translation
of rival claims between them would be impossible. Before a physician and
a shaman can recognize that they have incommensurable views of medi-
cal practice, they must at least agree roughly on what counts as sickness.
(Otherwise, they would not be able to recognize that they represent two rival
traditions, which offer two incommensurable approaches to the same reality
or practical task.) At the same time MacIntyre insists, contrary to Donald
Davidson and others, that this level of agreement does not rule out genuine
logical incommensurability between the two traditions. (MacIntyre argues
for this claim in detail in the chapter of Whose Justice? called “Tradition and
Translation,” pp. 370“388; for Davidson™s argument, see Davidson 1974).
The shared agreements are not suf¬cient by themselves to resolve the dif-
ferences between the two traditions because, in addition, their proponents
bring radically different beliefs and standards of judgment to their evalua-
tion of whatever it is that they recognize in common.
At any rate, some degree of communication comprises only a neces-
sary condition for an encounter between rival traditions. In order for such
an encounter to take place, there must in addition be some members of
each tradition who are able to enter imaginatively into the central beliefs
and commitments of the other, at least provisionally. This process involves
assimilating the worldview of the rival tradition so that one can consider
its claims, at least provisionally, as one™s own. Someone who is able in this
way to move between two ways of viewing the world is thereby enabled
to recognize that the rival tradition offers conceptual possibilities that his
or her native tradition does not offer. From this vantage point, it becomes
possible to see that problems which arise and appear to be insoluble within
one tradition may be resolvable from within the second tradition. And if
this is indeed the case, then it makes sense for the proponents of the ¬rst
tradition to acknowledge that, by their own criteria of judgment, the second
tradition offers the possibility of a more adequate grasp of reality in at least
some respects. In that case, if the proponents of the ¬rst tradition are to
be rational by their own best standards of judgment, they will acknowledge the
superiority of the second tradition, at least in some respects, and will move
toward adopting its criteria for judgment, at least partially. Of course, the
encounter may go in the other direction. But if an advocate of one tradition

is to justify a claim to rational superiority over another tradition, he or she
must argue the case on the terms set by that rival tradition, initially at least,
showing that by the standards set by the latter, his or her own tradition can
better resolve what its proponents themselves feel to be serious dif¬culties.
This is clearly a more developed and sophisticated account of traditions
than that offered in After Virtue. It cashes in the promise of the earlier book
to offer an account of rationality that does not reject, but on the contrary
presupposes, the socially and historically situated character of all practical
and speculative reason. Yet MacIntyre™s account of rationality as tradition-
constituted inquiry also raises questions, both with respect to the relation
between the concepts of tradition in After Virtue and in Whose Justice? Which
Rationality?, and more generally with respect to the meaning of “tradition”
as MacIntyre understands it.
In comparing the earlier and later treatments, one difference immedi-
ately becomes apparent: what had initially been suggested as a moral con-
cept, a part of the necessary framework for developing the idea of virtue, has
now been transformed into an epistemic and linguistic concept, which plays
a central role in explicating the meaning of truth and rationality. On this
latter view, a tradition in good order provides a framework within which the
mind approaches, perhaps even attains, that adequacy to its objects that for
MacIntyre is the authentic meaning of a correspondence theory of truth.
This view, in turn, implies that a tradition is itself referential, at least in a
broad sense; it has a subject matter, it is “about” something that it mediates
to the intellects of those participating in it. This implication is not neces-
sarily at odds with the view that a tradition is constituted by debates over
the good, but at the very least we see a signi¬cant change of emphasis here.
In fact, these two different uses of tradition suggest two different un-
derstandings of what a tradition is. It is dif¬cult it see how the account of
tradition developed in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? could apply to all
of the examples of traditions that were suggested by After Virtue: what is
monasticism “about,” and what kind of encounter with a rival could lead
proponents of such a tradition to conclude that they have an inadequate
account of the subject matter of their tradition?10 This brings us to a more
fundamental question: What does it mean to say that any tradition is “about”
something in the necessary sense? To put it another way, in what way can
a tradition be considered to be referential, to be incommensurable with
another tradition, to be revised in light of a more adequate understanding
of reality, and the like?
MacIntyre does have an answer to this question, although to my
knowledge he does not develop it in these terms. The main lines of that
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

answer are suggested by one of his lesser-known recent works, a mono-
graph based on his 1990 Marquette University Aquinas lecture, First Prin-
ciples, Final Ends and Contemporary Philosophical Issues.11 On ¬rst glance, this
monograph would seem to have little relevance to the topic of tradition.
MacIntyre™s aim is to explain and defend Aquinas™ account of per se nota
principles, arguing that while they are in some sense the starting points
for all re¬‚ection, they nonetheless do not function as foundational ¬rst
principles in a Cartesian sense.12 The key to understanding Aquinas™ ac-
count, he argues, is found in the Aristotelian conception of a perfect science,
which Aquinas takes over and extends (First Principles, pp. 25, 28“29). On
the Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding of it, a perfected science would
consist of a series of propositions perspicuously derived from a set of ¬rst
principles, which are primary in the sense of being unjusti¬ed in terms of
the science themselves, although they may be justi¬ed in terms of some
higher science. This in turn presupposes a hierarchy of sciences in which
the highest sciences do rest on principles that are per se nota, which cor-
relatively display the implications of these ¬rst principles (First Principles,
pp. 36“37).
So far, this seems to suggest an account of truth and rationality that is
not only irrelevant to MacIntyre™s account of rationality as tradition-guided
inquiry, but actually antithetical to it. However, at this point we need to
recall a critical quali¬cation that MacIntyre has already made, namely that
the role played by the ¬rst principles in a completed science is logical or
conceptual, but not epistemic. The claims of the science do in fact follow
from its ¬rst principles, but this may not be apparent until the science
actually is completed, and the relation of its various claims is rendered
perspicuous.13 Matters are very different when we are dealing with a science
that is still in the process of development “ a condition that would apply to
nearly every actual form of inquiry with which we have to deal.14
When we examine what MacIntyre has to say about the forms of in-
quiry appropriate to a science under development, the relevance to his
discussion of tradition in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? becomes appar-
ent. Even though MacIntyre does not describe a developing science as a
tradition in First Principles, his description of a science in the process of for-
mation in this book is strikingly similar in several key respects to a tradition
as described in the earlier book. It begins from contingent starting points, it
develops through a process of self-correction and expansion until it reaches
a level of complexity at which encounters with alternative explanations of
the same set of phenomena can be fruitful, and it vindicates itself through
an ongoing series of encounters with its rivals, showing how its explanations

are more successful in terms that proponents of the rival tradition can them-
selves acknowledge (see, respectively, First Principles, pp. 31; 34“35; 37“38;
and 32). Finally, to turn to a point not yet remarked, a science in the pro-
cess of development must be understood teleologically. That is to say, if an
incipient science is fundamentally sound, it will develop in a more or less or-
derly way toward greater comprehensiveness and clarity, although of course
MacIntyre does not claim that this will necessarily be a smooth, unbroken
progression. Correlatively, a retrospective history of the development of
the science will evaluate its various stages in terms of their contributions
to, or inadequacies in the light of, the best possible grasp of the aims of the
science attained so far (First Principles, pp. 47“51). This is at least congruent
with MacIntyre™s claim, ¬rst asserted in After Virtue and repeated in Whose
Justice? Which Rationality?, that the history of intellectual inquiry needs to
be written teleologically, in terms of some assessment of its successes and
These points of contact suggest strongly that when MacIntyre speaks
of a tradition as a form of intellectual inquiry in the last chapters of
Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, what he has in mind, at least as the
paradigm case of such an inquiry, is a developing science understood in
the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense of the term. The chief advantage of this
interpretation is that it allows us to speak in a coherent way about the subject
matter of a tradition, that which the tradition is “about,” and to character-
ize it in terms of its adequacy to that subject matter. The referent of the
tradition will be the object of the science, of which the tradition represents
an incipient stage, and towards which its development is oriented so long
as it is in good order. Correlatively, this suggests that traditions derive their
identity and unity from this object in such a way that, for example, both
the Ptolemaic and Copernican traditions take their identity from the move-
ments of heavenly bodies. At the same time, the success of the Copernican
tradition relative to the Ptolemaic tradition has the further implication that
the latter tradition, but not the former, can be superseded by being incorpo-
rated into a wider tradition of inquiry into astronomical phenomena. The
Ptolemaic tradition has simply been dropped; the Copernican tradition has
been transformed into a partial but (within limits) accurate account of an
object that can be more comprehensively understood in another way. (The
same might be said of Aristotelian vs. Newtonian physics, seen in relation
to contemporary relativistic physics.)15 Finally, this account has the inter-
esting implication that we may not know what a tradition is about until
it approaches its ¬nal stages. That is, we may not be able to characterize
the identity of a given tradition, or to put it in its proper relation to other
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

traditions, until a fairly late stage in its development; indeed, we may come
to realize that our own apparent traditions are not only ¬‚awed but are
not even traditions at all because they lack any real uni¬ed object (perhaps
astrology would be an example of a pseudo-tradition of this kind).
What are we to make of the account of tradition developed in Whose
Justice? Which Rationality? This is clearly a more developed account than we
¬nd in After Virtue, and it offers an advance in many respects. It provides
a way of thinking about the epistemic functioning and rational status of
traditions that is interesting and (at least for this reader) persuasive. On this
account, genuine conversation and even intellectual conversion between
proponents of rival traditions are possible, even though there is no point at
which the interlocutors stand outside any tradition whatever. We might say
that, on MacIntyre™s view, the necessity for standing outside of any tradition
whatever is obviated by the possibility of standing within two traditions
at once in order to move between them in a comparative assessment of
their claims. At the same time, this account of traditions offers a plausible
resolution of key questions in contemporary philosophical discussions of
truth and rationality, one that preserves a strong meaning for both terms
without resorting to a widely discredited foundationalism.
However, it is not so clear that MacIntyre™s defense of the rationality of
tradition-guided inquiry can be translated straightforwardly into a defense
of moral rationality, or that it can address the problems of moral pluralism
that he raises in After Virtue. MacIntyre™s own agenda is set by moral philoso-
phy, and he explicitly says that the rationality exhibited in scienti¬c disputes
is no different from the rationality exhibited by moral disputes (After Virtue,
p. 268). Yet this is not evident. In my view, MacIntyre™s account of the ratio-
nal development and encounter of traditions is most plausible when applied
to rival scienti¬c traditions, understanding “scienti¬c” broadly to include
any kind of inquiry which would fall under the ambit of what Aquinas called
the speculative intellect. When these sorts of traditions break down or come
into con¬‚ict, the resultant dialogue is conducted in a context of observa-
tions about, and active engagement with, the natural world. It is true, of
course, that disagreements between incommensurable traditions cannot be
resolved simply by appeals to observation, since the terms in which pro-
ponents of rival traditions describe their observations are themselves in
dispute. Nonetheless, as noted above, there must be some level, however
rudimentary, at which shared description is possible, or there could be no
encounter between rival traditions at all. Correlatively, as con¬‚icts between
rival traditions are resolved, the parties to the con¬‚ict will ¬nd themselves
increasingly converging on a shared description of the observed world.

Yet as a number of moral philosophers have argued, moral claims can-
not be placed on a par with scienti¬c or observational claims because they
are grounded (in some sense) in our own collective commitments and
decisions.16 We, collectively, are the originators (usually not the conscious
and deliberate originators) of the basic moral concepts that structure our
lives. Of course, it might be said that this view of moral claims is itself a
product of a modern division between facts and values that MacIntyre wants
to repudiate. But MacIntyre himself agrees that moral claims are at least
partially grounded in our collective commitments. In commenting on the
in¬‚uence of Vico on his own work, MacIntyre remarks that Vico was the
¬rst to emphasize

the importance of the undeniable fact, which it is becoming tedious to reit-
erate, that the subject matters of moral philosophy at least “ the evaluative
and normative concepts, maxims, arguments and judgments about which
the moral philosopher enquires “ are nowhere to be found except as embodied
in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive
characteristics of historical existence: both identity and change through time,
expression in institutionalized practice as well as in discourse, interaction
and interrelationship with a variety of forms of activity. Morality which
is no particular society™s morality is to be found nowhere. (After Virtue,
pp. 265“266; emphasis added)

Given this conception of morality, it is not clear how the rival claims
of disparate moral traditions could be adjudicated. Indeed, it is not clear
that there could be suf¬cient genuine con¬‚ict between moral traditions for
them to count as genuinely rival traditions. (A similar line of criticism is
developed in response to After Virtue in Bernstein 1984.) You, collectively,
arrange your lives in one way, we arrange our lives in a different way. Is
it clear that we even disagree? What is the shared subject matter of our
disagreements? And what would count as resolving these disagreements,
since there is no question here of coming to agree on a description of
anything? Certainly, we might come to agree on the best way to arrange
our lives, but that would represent a change in mores, and not a convergence
of thinking about a shared object of inquiry. This need not imply that moral
traditions are arational in their internal development or their contact with
other traditions, but it does suggest that an account of practical reason
cannot simply be read off from the account of rationality as tradition-based
inquiry that MacIntyre develops.
In response to this, MacIntyre would probably reply that he does offer
extended accounts of moral traditions in con¬‚ict in both After Virtue and
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, to say nothing of the subsequent Three
Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. (See MacIntyre™s response to Bernstein 1984,
MacIntyre 1984b.) Certainly, the narratives developed in these books do
offer impressive support for his overall thesis. Yet they do not fully address
the questions raised above. While the scope of this essay does not allow for
a detailed assessment of MacIntyre™s narratives, let me suggest three issues
that remain to be addressed.
First, the moral traditions MacIntyre discusses are almost always tradi-
tions that are contiguous in some way; they represent successor traditions
within European society (classical and Hellenistic traditions, Augustinian
and Thomistic Christianity), or else they are contemporaneous and have
developed in close proximity with one another (Scottish and English tradi-
tions in early modernity). At the very least, this suggests that the proponents
of these traditions would have had a great deal in common, including (in
many cases) a shared past and many common customs and institutions. Of
course, this does not rule out the possibility of incommensurability among
them; indeed, it may be that some very considerable commonalities of these
kinds are necessary if moral traditions are to come into con¬‚ict in the sense
required for MacIntyre™s theory at all. However, this does raise the question
of how MacIntyre™s theory of rationality as tradition-guided inquiry would
deal with the case of moral traditions that did not develop in contact with,
or dependence upon, one another, and that therefore do not emerge within
a context of shared history, institutions, and customs. Would any rational
encounter between such traditions be possible at all, and if so, how might
it be resolved?17
Second, it is not always obvious that the traditions MacIntyre sees as
coming into con¬‚ict do in fact con¬‚ict as moral traditions. This is espe-
cially true with respect to the con¬‚ict he identi¬es between Aristotelian-
ism and Augustinian Christianity. Certainly, these do come into con¬‚ict
on questions of theology, metaphysics, and epistemology, but it is not so
clear that they are also incommensurably at odds with respect to moral
commitments.18 MacIntyre claims that every philosophical inquiry has
practical implications, and so he might respond that incommensurability at
the theoretical level implies incommensurability at the practical level (Three
Rival Versions, p. 128). But even if we grant that every theoretical inquiry
has practical implications (and this is not obvious), the conclusion does not
follow. MacIntyre would have to show that the speci¬c points of incom-
mensurability he identi¬es did in fact lead to speci¬c, incommensurable
judgments, and this (in my view) he does not do, at least in the case of the
Aristotelian and Augustinian traditions.

Finally, and more speci¬cally, MacIntyre underestimates the extent to
which Aristotelian concepts had already shaped Christian moral thought
before the reintroduction of Aristotle™s philosophical and moral works into
Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As the historian
Cary Nederman points out, key elements of Aristotle™s moral thought were
mediated to Christian theology through a number of classical and patris-
tic sources, and can be identi¬ed in medieval writings at least 150 years
before the reintroduction of Aristotle™s Nicomachaean Ethics into the West
(Nederman 1991). This may seem like a minor point, and yet MacIntyre
himself insists that his historical narrative is foundational to his philosophi-
cal argument: “I am committed to maintaining that although arguments of
the kind favored by analytic philosophy do possess an indispensable power,
it is only within the context of a particular genre of historical inquiry that
such arguments can support the type of claim about truth and rationality
which philosophers characteristically aspire to justify” (After Virtue, p. 265).
Furthermore, MacIntyre™s analysis of the encounter between Aristotelian
and Augustinian thought plays a pivotal role both in Whose Justice? Which
Rationality? and the subsequent Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Given
this, the relevance of Nederman™s observation to MacIntyre™s project cannot
be denied.
I do not mean to suggest that MacIntyre could not address these issues,
but only to indicate points at which his theory seems to call for further
development. Moreover, it would not necessarily represent a defect in that
theory if we were forced to conclude that, in some cases, moral traditions are
so profoundly divergent that no genuine encounter, or much less rational
engagement and vindication of one over the other, can take place.


In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre offers a more extended
illustration and defense of the central thesis of Whose Justice? Which Ratio-
nality? that

an admission of signi¬cant incommensurability and untranslatability in the
relations between two opposed systems of thought and practice can be a
prologue not only to rational debate, but to that kind of debate from which
one party can emerge as undoubtedly superior, if only because exposure to
such debate may reveal that one of the contending standpoints fails in its
own terms and by its own standards. (Three Rival Versions, p. 5)
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

This book thus continues the trajectory of its predecessor, and in ad-
dition, it returns to themes from After Virtue that were not so promi-
nent in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? At the same time, this latest
book also modi¬es the earlier account of tradition in subtle but signi¬cant
In order to trace the outlines of the concept of tradition developed
in this third book, we must ¬rst place MacIntyre™s discussion of tradition
within the context of his overall argument. The eponymous three rival
versions which he considers are encyclopaedia, exempli¬ed by the authors
of the late-nineteenth-century ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
genealogy, exempli¬ed by Nietzsche and his current postmodern heirs, and
Thomism, which properly understood entails an explicit commitment to
tradition-based inquiry.
The encyclopaedists were characterized by the belief that it is possible
to arrive at a set of universal standards, compelling to all rational persons,
within which the rival claims of different cultures and modes of inquiry
can be assessed and resolved (Three Rival Versions, p. 14). Clearly, this rep-
resents a version of the Enlightenment project, and MacIntyre ¬nds it no
more persuasive than he did when he wrote After Virtue; in his view, the
claims of the encyclopaedists have been decisively defeated (Three Rival
Versions, pp. 55“56). The genealogists, in contrast, appear to him to offer
an alternative form of moral inquiry that is still, so to speak, in play, inso-
far as it has yet to be decisively answered by its strongest antagonists. On
the genealogists™ view, the development of inquiry re¬‚ects social forces be-
yond it, and more particularly relations of power, which intellectual inquiry
serves to both support and conceal. The genealogist attempts to develop an
alternative mode of discourse, characterized by the adoption and expres-
sions of a multiplicity of perspectives, none of which is given foundational
or de¬nitive status (Three Rival Versions, pp. 35“36, 42“43). The genealo-
gist also takes on the task of unmasking, revealing the social arrangements
and special interests that seemingly pure theoretical constructs serve to
Before turning to a closer examination of his construal of Thomism as
tradition-based inquiry, we need to consider one other aspect of these two
rivals. That is, in what sense are these traditions of moral inquiry? When
we compare the two, it is striking that, while both have moral implica-
tions, these implications are central for the genealogical project in a way
that they are not for the encyclopaedists. (And although he does not ex-
plicitly say so, this may be another reason why, on MacIntyre™s view, the
genealogists represent the stronger alternative.) For the encyclopaedists,

the paradigmatic moral narrative is exempli¬ed by Agnes Mary Clerke, an
astronomer and historian of science who contributed articles on the lives
of the astronomers to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Clerke moved from a sheltered girlhood in Ireland to private study in
Italy, eventually to become, in MacIntyre™s words, one of “the foremost
minds of her age.” What is paradigmatic about her story, as he goes on
to explain, is its steady progress from cultural isolation to enlightenment,
understood in terms of participation in the highest rational discourse of
the age (Three Rival Versions, p. 21). The genealogists, for their part, clearly
bring a moral agenda to their work, driven by the desire to expose the
inequities and especially the relations of power and dominion hidden by
all forms of intellectual discourse. As this would suggest, they are com-
mitted to ideals of equality and individual freedom, seen over against
the oppressive structures of control concealed by intellectual discourse “
an agenda with which, as we have noted, MacIntyre has a great deal of
Having sketched these two alternatives, MacIntyre goes on in Three
Rival Versions to set forth his own preferred alternative, namely tradition
as a form of intellectual and moral inquiry. He takes Pope Leo XIII™s en-
cyclical Aeterni Patris to be the seminal nineteenth-century statement of
this alternative, and he argues that a Thomism that is true to the spirit and
intention of Aquinas™ own work offers the best option for carrying forward
a tradition-based inquiry today (Three Rival Versions, p. 2).
Correlatively, the extended example of tradition-based inquiry that
MacIntyre offers is taken from Christian thought in late antiquity and the
Middle Ages, beginning with Augustine and culminating with Aquinas. On
MacIntyre™s view, Augustine develops what becomes the canonical formula-
tion of Christianity as an intellectual tradition, at least for Western Europe,
through his synthesis of Scripture and neo-Platonism (Three Rival Versions,
pp. 82“103). This synthesis dominated both intellectual and institutional
structures up until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including, signif-
icantly, the University of Paris, which was structured on the basis of the
Augustinian conviction that “rationality [is] internal to a system of beliefs
and practices in such a way that, without acceptance at some fundamental
level of those beliefs and initiation into the form of life de¬ned by those
practices, rational encounter with Augustinianism is ruled out, except in the
most limited way” (Three Rival Versions, p. 98). At the same time, however,
the universities, and above all the University of Paris, provide the insti-
tutional setting for a radical challenge to Augustinianism in the form of a
revitalized Aristotelianism.
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

According to MacIntyre, Aristotle™s thought challenged Augustinian
theology in three fundamental ways: (1) Aristotle defended the natural ca-
pacity of the intellect to know its proper objects, whereas for Augustine, a
realization of the intellect™s incapacity is the necessary starting point for all
intellectual and moral progress; (2) Aristotle identi¬es truth as the corre-
spondence of the mind to its object, whereas Augustine locates it in the
source of the relationship between ¬nite objects and the primal truth, that
is to say, God; (3) ¬nally, Aristotle has no concept of the will, whereas
for Augustine the will exists and is the primary source of moral error. In
short, these authors re¬‚ect two incommensurable approaches to intellectual

For each contending party had no standard by which to judge the ques-
tions about which it differed from the other which was not itself as much in
dispute as anything else. And there was no possible neutral standard, since
all three key areas of disagreements are part of a systematically different
and incompatible conceptualization of the human intellect in its relation-
ship to its objects, to the passions, to the will, and to the virtues. (Three
Rival Versions, p. 111; the three areas of disagreement are spelled out on
pp. 109“111)

At the same time, these rival and incommensurable claims found an
institutional setting in the University of Paris, where the philosophers in
the faculty of liberal arts tended to defend Aristotelian thought, whereas
the theologians defended the Augustinian alternative (Three Rival Versions,
pp. 112“113).
Aquinas resolved these competing claims through a systematic reformu-
lation of Aristotelian thought in Christian terms (just as Augustine had re-
solved similar tensions through a synthesis of Neoplatonism and Scripture).
Not only did he show that Aristotle™s thought need not be inimical to
Christian doctrine, he also demonstrated that Christian theology offers
a more adequate resolution to problems Aristotle himself recognized but
could not resolve. In so doing, he transformed the Neoplatonic Christianity
of Augustine, but he transformed Aristotle as well, showing how a properly
reformulated Christianity is in fact the best continuation of Aristotelianism
as an intellectual tradition. By the same token, he offered a radical chal-
lenge to the university structures of his time, since he placed the study of
Aristotle within the ambit of the theologians rather than the philosophers
(in general, see Three Rival Versions, pp. 127“148; in particular, see pp. 122“
124; and with reference to Aquinas™ challenge to university structures,
pp. 132“133).

As this brief summary suggests, and as MacIntyre himself argues, the
view of tradition offered here is similar in key respects to that developed
in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (MacIntyre summarizes his key claims
about incommensurability and the possibility of rational encounter between
rival traditions in Three Rival Versions at pp. 116“120.) Tradition is seen as
fundamentally a form of intellectual inquiry, characterized by its own dis-
tinctive form of rationality. As in the earlier book, the development of tra-
dition is seen as a necessarily historical process, driven both by the internal
tensions of a given tradition and by the dynamics of encounter with other
traditions. The test of adequacy lies in the possibility of carrying a tradition
forward; the test of rational superiority is found in the ability of one tradition
to offer a more adequate account and resolution of the dif¬culties and
inconsistencies of another than that other tradition can do on its own
At the same time, MacIntyre quali¬es his earlier account of tradition in
a signi¬cant way. That is, in this book he emphasizes the parallels between
intellectual inquiry and the practice of a craft, parallels that become evident
once we realize that “to be adequately initiated into a craft is to be adequately
initiated into a tradition” (Three Rival Versions, p. 128). Of course the idea
of a practice, presumably including crafts, also played a central role in
After Virtue. But, at the very least, the parallels MacIntyre draws between
intellectual inquiry and the practice of a craft represent a new emphasis in
his thought, and they point to two signi¬cant modi¬cations of his concept
of a tradition.
Why does MacIntyre emphasize initiation into a craft as a paradigmatic
example of initiation into a tradition? Most fundamentally, he wants to make
the point that initiation into a tradition requires certain kinds of relation-
ships and, correspondingly, certain personal qualities and attitudes, which
are particularly apparent when we consider what is involved in becoming
pro¬cient in a craft, but which are just as necessary for initiation into a tra-
dition of inquiry. Indeed, rightly understood, moral inquiry is itself a craft
requiring certain kinds of relationships and personal qualities (Three Rival
Versions, p. 63). It is ¬rst of all necessary that the initiate stand in a relation
of trust to a master or teacher, someone who is able to judge the quality
of the initiate™s work and to direct him or her on how to go further (Three
Rival Versions, pp. 65“66). At least initially, the initiate must be prepared to
act on the master™s directions without him- or herself being able to grasp
the point of those directions; that is to say, initiation into intellectual in-
quiry is impossible except on the condition that the novice be prepared to
accept some form of intellectual authority (Three Rival Versions, pp. 89“93;
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

at this point, MacIntyre is discussing the Augustinian tradition in partic-
ular, but he clearly believes that the same may be said of tradition-based
inquiry in general). This places tradition-based inquiry squarely at odds
with both the encyclopaedists and the genealogists since, for the former,
rationality demands that from the outset one think for oneself, and for the
latter, such forms of authority can only be expressions of power (Three Rival
Versions, p. 66). Correlatively, the initiate must be open to developing cer-
tain personal qualities, namely, an adherence to the goods constitutive of
the tradition and a willingness to develop virtues in accordance with those
goods. Only in this way can he or she develop the capacities of insight
and judgment necessary to grasp the central texts and commitments of the
tradition (Three Rival Versions, pp. 62“63).
Tradition-based inquiry thus offers direct and fundamental challenges to
the conceptions of intellectual inquiry offered by both alternatives. How are
these to be adjudicated? As a self-professed partisan of tradition, MacIntyre
attempts to defend the claims of tradition in a way suggested by that mode
of inquiry: he considers how each of these forms of inquiry has fared in
resolving its inner tensions and in defending itself against its challengers.
He makes short work of the encyclopaedists, as we noted above. The con-
¬‚ict with the genealogists, on the other hand, is for him still very much
an open issue. In his view, tradition-based inquiry will ultimately be vindi-
cated, and he suggests that one point at which its relative superiority will
be vindicated lies in its capacity to give a more adequate account of the
self. However, he acknowledges that this forecast needs to be defended at
more length through ongoing argument and encounter (Three Rival Versions,
pp. 196“215).
The scope of this chapter does not permit a more extended assessment of
MacIntyre™s arguments in this brief but ambitious work.19 To a considerable
degree, it represents a defense and extension of the account of rationality
as tradition-guided inquiry developed in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,
and anyone who ¬nds that account fundamentally persuasive (as I do) will
likewise ¬nd much of this book to be persuasive. At the same time, this book
modi¬es MacIntyre™s earlier accounts of tradition in subtle but signi¬cant
ways, and these modi¬cations raise questions about the overall direction of
MacIntyre™s project. Let me focus on one such question, that of the role
played by authority in the processes of initiation into and participation in a
As we have seen, in his earlier accounts of tradition MacIntyre has
emphasized the open-ended and even con¬‚ictual character of traditions,
so much so that he sometimes has been characterized as a crypto-liberal

himself.20 In this book, however, he underscores another aspect of tradi-
tions, the essential role played by authority in tradition-based inquiry. This
new emphasis is signaled early in the book:

[The dichotomy between encyclopaedia and genealogy conceals] a third
possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being
genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disin-
terested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from
which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely ratio-
nal enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry. (Three
Rival Versions, pp. 59“60; emphasis added)

In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre mentioned one respect in
which authority plays a necessary role in tradition-based inquiry. He argues
that every tradition starts from contingent commitments, usually embod-
ied in oral or written texts that are initially given authoritative status. But
this form of authority is only provisional since, as a tradition begins to de-
velop, these authoritative texts will be inevitably subject to questioning and
reinterpretation; indeed, MacIntyre suggests that this process is a necessary
¬rst stage in the emergence of tradition-situated rationality. In Three Rival
Versions he reaf¬rms the necessity for this kind of authority (p. 91).
At the same time, in the latter book he adds two further respects in
which authority is necessary to the functioning of tradition. One of these is
implicit in the relationship between an initiate and master of any tradition-
embedded practice. Every apprentice in a craft, including the craft of intel-
lectual inquiry, must learn how to make two key distinctions, ¬rst between
a course of action that appears to be good and a course of action that is
genuinely good, and second between that which is good and best for the
individual and that which is good and best without quali¬cation (Three Rival
Versions, pp. 61“62). In each case, the initiate can only learn through rely-
ing on the judgment of a master who is capable of making the distinctions
that the initiate cannot yet make, and whose directives must therefore be
accepted as authoritative. The authority of the master, correlatively, is not
just an authority of expertise or accomplishment:

The authority of a master within a craft is both more and other than a
matter of exemplifying the best standards so far. It is also and most impor-
tantly a matter of knowing how to go further and especially how to direct
others towards going further, using what can be learned from the tradition
afforded by the past to move towards the telos of fully perfected work. It
is in thus knowing how to link past and future that those with authority
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

are able to draw upon tradition, to interpret and reinterpret it, so that its
directedness towards the telos of that particular craft becomes apparent in
new and characteristically unexpected ways. And it is by the ability to teach
others how to learn this type of knowing how that the power of the master
within the community of a craft is legitimated as rational authority. (Three
Rival Versions, pp. 65“66)

As this paragraph illustrates, MacIntyre™s claim for the necessity of au-
thority in this second sense draws upon the discussion of practices and
their relation to tradition in After Virtue. MacIntyre has modi¬ed the ear-
lier account in some respects; most signi¬cantly, he now appears to equate
tradition-based inquiry with a kind of practice, whereas in the earlier book
the idea of a practice plays a more preliminary and limited role in his over-
all account of virtue and tradition. Nonetheless, this represents a plausible
extension of insights from After Virtue, even though the relation between
MacIntyre™s earlier and later accounts of practices and traditions could be
further clari¬ed.
However, this form of authority, like the ¬rst we have considered, does
not appear to exclude “fundamental dissent.” At least on ¬rst glance, it
would seem to be provisional “ apprentices eventually become masters
themselves “ and moreover it is limited in scope, since it is located within
a particular relationship. This suggests a third form of authority, and read-
ing on we ¬nd that MacIntyre does assert the need for some authoritative
presence that can oversee the development of a tradition as a whole. The
functioning of this kind of authority was exempli¬ed by Peter Abelard™s
willing acceptance of the authority of the church after his condemnation as
a heretic: “it is also true that Abelard did challenge established authority, but
yet by his own obedient acceptance of established authority™s response he
did as much as anyone to clarify the relationship of dialectic to authority”
(Three Rival Versions, p. 89, emphasis in the original; MacIntyre goes on to
develop this interpretation of Abelard™s con¬‚icts with Bernard and others
on pp. 90“91). Furthermore, acceptance of this kind of authority is implicit
in the other two forms discussed above, since as we progress in inquiry
we come to realize that authoritative testimony will always be necessary to
intellectual progress:

So continuous authority receives its justi¬cation as indispensable to a con-
tinuing progress, the narrative of which we ¬rst learned how to recount
from that authority and the truth of which is con¬rmed by our own further
progress, including that progress made by means of dialectical enquiry.

The practice of speci¬cally Augustinian dialectic and the belief of the
Augustinian dialectician that this practice is a movement towards a truth
never as yet wholly grasped thus presupposes the guidance of authority.
Hence when the very same authority places restrictions upon dialectic en-
quiry, it would be unreasonable not to submit. Abelard™s submission, there-
fore, unlike Galileo™s was of a piece with his enquiries. The acknowledgment
of authority was already an essential element in those enquiries. (Three Rival
Versions, pp. 92“93; italics added)

So far as I can determine, MacIntyre does not consider this aspect of
the Augustinian conception of moral inquiry to have been superseded by
Aquinas™ synthesizing reformulation, and if this is indeed the case, we may
assume that he endorses this conception of authority. Yet it raises ques-
tions that go to the core of his account of rationality as tradition-guided
The ¬rst of these is implicit in the phrase emphasized above: what jus-
ti¬cation do we have for considering the authority granted to the canonical
texts of a tradition, the authority of a master in relation to an apprentice, and
a centralized authority that oversees an extended program of research and
discussion, to be different forms of one and the same authority? On the face
of it, not only is this claim not obvious, it is not even plausible. To take the
case of Abelard, it seems clear that Scripture, Roscelin, and the Pope stood
in three different relations to Abelard, and exercised three distinct kinds
of authority over him. How could it be otherwise? After all, authoritative
texts or lore must be mediated through the pedagogy of individual masters
or teachers; very few of those who participate in a tradition can have a per-
sonal relation with its central authority ¬gures, as they do with their own
teachers. Furthermore, within a complex tradition there are likely to be
many loci for authority, appealing to different rationales and functioning in
different ways. Certainly, medieval theologians distinguished the teaching
authority of a master, which depends on his personal competence, from the
teaching authority of a bishop, which attaches to his of¬ce. (On this point,
see Congar 1982 and Rist 1994, pp. 56“63.)
This observation brings us to a further point. It may be that MacIntyre
does not argue for his concept of authority because he considers that the
history of the period evidently vindicates it. Yet vindication is not evident.
MacIntyre™s sources for medieval history are fairly dated, and he does not
take account of a more recent considerable body of work on the interactions
between social and intellectual developments in this period. As a result,
he does not take account of the ways in which the location of authority,
Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre

its scope, and its proper limits were themselves contested in the medieval
period.21 Even when particular authorities were generally recognized, that
did not mean that speci¬c exercises of those forms of authority were gen-
erally recognized as legitimate. Given this, it is dif¬cult to see how any one
institution or individual, even the Pope, could have exercised the kind of
¬nal and unquestioned authority that MacIntyre seems to consider to be
The example of Abelard illustrates this point. On MacIntyre™s interpre-
tation of his story, Abelard willingly submits to the accusations of heresy
brought against him by Bernard of Clairvaux and accepts the judgment on
him implicit in that accusation: “It was clearly pride of will which Bernard
discerned in Abelard and which Abelard acknowledged by his submission
that he had discerned in himself” (Three Rival Versions, p. 91). But this is a
very quick “ and it must be said, a dubious “ summary of a complex story. (In
what follows, I rely on Clanchy 1997, pp. 288“325, and Marenbon 1997,
pp. 7“35.)
Abelard™s works were subject to ecclesiastical scrutiny twice, the ¬rst
time at the Council of Soissons in 1121, and then a second time at the
Council of Sens in 1140. The ¬rst of these investigations resulted from
accusations from Abelard™s fellow scholastics, while the second was due
largely (but not exclusively) to the initiative of Bernard of Clairvaux. Abelard
did indeed submit to the condemnation of Soissons, but it is not clear
why he did so. One of his contemporaries suggested that he did so out
of fear of a violent popular uprising, and given the fate of other accused
heretics at the time, that would not have been an unreasonable fear. His
biographer M. T. Clanchy suggests that he was also broken psychologically
by the experience, an interpretation which takes support from Abelard™s
own later claim that he was in despair and insane at the time (Clanchy 1997,
p. 305).
At any rate, Abelard™s experiences at Soissons did not keep him from


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