Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography
By Émile Perreau-Saussine. Translated by Nathan J. Pinkoski.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 216 pages, $40.00.
Reviewed by Rev. Joseph Scolaro.
The idea of a celebrity philosopher can sound a bit oxymoronic. While actors and actresses, musicians, and even entrepreneurs and scientists can become publicly recognizable for their accomplishments and contributions to society, this is certainly not the case with philosophers. Especially today, as they become increasingly insulated in an ivory tower, these thinkers seem only to speak in ways and about topics that are largely divorced from the experience of the everyday man. If any philosopher should be considered for celebrity status, however, it would be Alasdair MacIntyre. Still writing and speaking at 93, his contribution to philosophy over the past seventy years is remarkable, above all in that it criticizes this exact idea that philosophy no longer relates to human experience. Offering a powerful critique of the modern world, MacIntyre revolutionized much of the philosophical conversation, especially regarding a revival of virtue ethics from the generally unpopular school of Aristotelian Thomism. And while his work can often be intimidating due to the expansive intellectual resources he brings to bear on any topic, many could benefit from his ideas, if only with the help of a good guide.
Émile Perreau-Saussine, in his recently translated Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography, presents himself as one such figure who can help initiate a novice philosopher into the MacIntyrean world. While the work was originally published in French in 2005, it nevertheless remains valuable nearly twenty years later in an Anglophone context, capturing the essential intellectual undercurrents which flow through MacIntyre’s thought, as well as presenting a critical evaluation of his contribution. MacIntyre admits to being hesitant to analyze his own writing; enter Perreau-Saussine to draw out the biographical developments which help not only explain MacIntyre’s ideas, but also the seeming contradictions which make his contributions so valuable today. Particularly in focusing on three areas—politics, philosophy, and theology—Perreau-Saussine artfully weaves together a story which, without becoming too bogged down in block-quotations and detailed expositions of particular works, captures the essence of MacIntyre’s thought.
A primary interpretive key Perreau-Saussine offers is the fact that MacIntyre’s own journey reflects the intellectual history of the twentieth century. In each of the three key areas, MacIntyre undergoes a fairly radical transformation which enables him to bring together seemingly contrary ideas into a synthesis which redraws the categories of our contemporary world. This is perhaps most true in his politics. Though MacIntyre in his younger years was a Marxist, Perreau-Saussine traces his evolution into what he terms an antiliberal conservative. Following a widespread disillusionment with Marxism in its Stalinistic implementation, MacIntyre was one among many who began to search for alternatives. He remained convinced that liberalism brought with it the dangers of individualism, alienation, and overly homogeneous nation-states; so, following from a Marxist critique, he navigated a third way. This required a balance between a liberalism which respected freedom in the true sense of pursuing the good, and a conservative communitarianism which recognizes the place of the individual in a broader context of both a tradition and a local community.
MacIntyre, however, studiously avoids speaking of politics directly, and Perreau-Saussine highlights his seeming inconsistency (as does Pierre Manent in his Foreword). MacIntyre is highly critical of liberalism, and yet so much of his work presumes a liberal context, particularly his ability to pursue his intellectual project in the United States. He therefore is limited in his ability to offer a positive model for politics beyond critical reflections of liberalism’s vices and praise of contrary virtues. Perreau-Saussine nevertheless helps capture the contribution of MacIntyre, as it lies exactly in this seemingly contradictory critique. MacIntyre avoids the either/or that can so often trap us, and offers general principles that can point to an alternative that in a way presumes and follows from liberalism, but also remains balanced by not overly exalting the individual.
The underlying principles of this political commentary are found then in MacIntyre’s philosophical analysis. Recognizing the failure of the Enlightenment project’s reliance on pure reason, the postmodern will to power, and Marxist economic determinism, MacIntyre found himself returning to Aristotle. In this premodern rationalism, there was a balance which allowed him to unite the communal element of ethics with an objective understanding of the true and the good. By looking at the human person as a creature of narrative, moving toward an end, he was able to capture the provisional nature of reasoning. Ethical reasoning, as well as reasoning in general, always takes place in the context of an ongoing search for the good and the true within the story of an individual and a community. Hence tradition holds a central role, as ongoing enquiries extend across time and communities, and it is only from within a tradition that an individual has the ability not only to engage with the bigger questions, but to engage constructively with other traditions on these questions.
Perreau-Saussine carefully delineates the development of these key MacIntyrean themes. In comparing and contrasting his thought with influences like Wittgenstein and Elizabeth Anscombe, among others, he is able to show the singular path MacIntyre takes. He also is not hesitant to point out the ways in which MacIntyre strays from the Aristotelianism he claims to be advancing. This helps highlight the novel contribution MacIntyre is offering. In light of contemporary challenges, MacIntyre draws on an Aristotle who has been developed through the very type of tradition he is proposing, above all in its Thomistic form.
This leads to theology, the final portion of the biography. As with politics, MacIntyre purposefully dodges theology. Despite this, Perreau-Saussine traces the underlying theological elements which pervade his works, particularly as they follow from his ultimate conversion to the Catholic faith from a Marxist/Barthian Christianity, and his shift to Aristotelian Thomism. MacIntyre finds in Catholicism that balancing of seeming contradictions which reflects his thought, bringing together faith and reason, natural law and tradition, a valuing of the individual but always within a community. Perreau-Suassine aptly summarizes this development: he proposes that MacIntyre undoes from 1950-2000 what had occurred from 1900-1950. During this time in France, the neo-Thomism and Action Française of the earlier period gave way to worker priests and Marxist Christianity. MacIntyre in many ways makes his way back to the conservative direction, though, as I do not doubt he would argue, stopping at a more centrist position.
Perreau-Saussine thus makes a valuable contribution for those looking to understand the context and nature of Alasdair MacIntyre’s thought. He strikes a balance by pulling together biographical details, intellectual influences, and a variety of publications to craft a portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers. His primary focus comes across as political, which is striking, as it counters MacIntyre’s avoidance of politics, though also seemingly apt, as it resonates with the fundamental and ongoing influence of Marxism. He does, however, capture those broader elements of MacIntyre’s thought which are so important for our times. As the modern world and liberal democracies, especially in the West, find themselves in crisis, MacIntyre offers a compelling diagnosis. Rather than exalting the individual, he urges us to rediscover the communal element of human nature. As opposed to the modern rootlessness that leaves so many lost, MacIntyre proposes that it is only when we place ourselves in relation to others, within communities as well as across time in a tradition, that we understand our own story and can truly advance in our knowledge of the good and the true. These themes are exactly what our world needs, and though they will never get MacIntyre trending on Twitter or Instagram, Perreau-Saussine’s book makes them accessible for those looking for something deeper and far more abiding.
Rev. Joseph Scolaro is a doctoral student in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
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