Exploring the epistemology of Alasdair MacIntyre

With the shift in modern individualism, MacIntyre’s complex theory of the priority of the social takes center stage.[1]This quiddity is also related to the postmodern phenomena of foundationalism being replaced by holism.  MacIntyre’s view of holism moves the debate beyond individual and communal assumptions related to a Hobbesian view.[2]  By changing the question from what can I know to what can we know, MacIntyre creates a holist epistemological hierarchy, but in order to avoid relativism, skepticism (Hume) and radical deconstructionism (Derrida) he must justify the bounds by which a tradition can moralize about itself. This, of course, is related to a person’s practice.[3] A practice is related to the way that MacIntyre constructs his theory of epistemology. Where Wittgenstein would communicate that words achieve their denotative function through the contextualization of the language game, MacIntyre would point out that traditions achieve their truth meaning within the context of social practice, which is a tradition. 

A tradition always begins with a historical event usually bound up in some sort of definitive text.[4] From here hermeneutical and socially constructed circumstances influence the application of the authoritative text. As time continues the tradition transforms because of the need for reformulation which addresses originally unperceived problems (generally this is reactionary).[5]  An example of a tradition overcoming “incommensurability” in the process of reformulation comes in Aquinas’ ability to integrate Aristotle and Augustine and create a more robust model than previously existed.[6]  This leads to tradition-constituted reason epistemology. But in order to achieve this tradition-constituted reason, a community’s epistemological framework must work through three stages.[7] It must emerge from the amalgamation of beliefs and institutions of a community which is located at a particular place in history. Second, it will be able to pass a systematic inquiry because of new alternative interpretations which call on the tradition to come up inventive alternative actions. Finally, to clarify the community must judge old beliefs false and accept the new beliefs.[8]

What does this mean? It means that one’s own quest for the truth in the present is a legitimate epistemological action, so long as the present action realizes that instead of a foundational epistemological starting point one gathers around the historical and traditional elements spread through time which may include a key text or more likely texts, taking into account that one’s present formulation is accounting for both internal and external objections to avoid the past false practices. 

The objections are the key for the claim of truth, because if one can gather both internal and external objections and withstand these objectors, then the claim has been validated. Moreover, as stated this must come about through diachronic justification rather than synchronic justification. While in synchronic justification, one justifies from one’s own standpoint over one’s rivals, the rivals can still find persistent problems on their own terms.[9] To overcome this requires diachronic justification, in which one is able to show that one’s current understanding in history shows how it solves the problematic elements of the predecessor who work on justifying and could not solve the problematic elements.[10] As Murphy has pointed out in lectures, this does not mean to revert back to an older philosophical model; rather it seems that this is adequate model for addressing metanarratives. Much thinking in the postmodern era is web-based not foundationalist based and a paradigmatic shift is centered on interlocking exchanges on the basis of experience and tradition-laden reasoning. 

It is important to the greater discussion to understand that in a foundationalist approach, such as seen in Hegel, rationality or reasoning is viewed as having a completion. Absolute knowledge is achievable. This is not the case with tradition-laden reasoning. It will never be possible to rule out other possibilities to a given set of thoughts or concepts. Traditions constructed within the present may, at some point in the future, be unable to grapple with new alternative challenges. This is an important aspect because it in many ways validates the response of postmodern thinking within the cultural context of a constant movement toward relativism, syncretism, or simply perspectivism where there is no connecting points to dialogue one tradition over another. Foundationalists have difficulty with the tangibility of a more accurate knowledge versus a final ends of know-ability but MacIntyre’s epistemological model works well with dealing with an extremely large number of perspectives. 

[1] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 2. 

[2] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 29.

[3] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 30.

[4] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, 103. 

[5] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, 105.

[6] Brewer, MacIntyre on Epistemology, 2. 

[7] Brewer, MacIntyre on Epistemology, 4.

[8] Brewer, MacIntyre on Epistemology, 4.

[9] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 124.

[10] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 124.