Alisdair MacIntyre argues that the vitality of the contemporary universities in which Catholic philosophy can be pursued and more deeply understood holds great importance for the educated Catholic laity as a whole. When the Catholic intellectual tradition flourishes within strong universities, the important insights of Catholic philosophy can be brought to bear upon the pressing cultural and political questions of our time. This is so in particular because, in MacIntyre’s view, the Catholic philosophical tradition is one “within which a Catholic allegiance is inseparable from recognition of philosophical enquiry as a secular and autonomous activity.”1
An examination of the three key terms in MacIntyre’s new book—God, Philosophy, Universities—brings this position into focus. He begins by showing that the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim devotion to a good, omnipotent, and loving God is philosophically problematic even while believers find through experiences shaped by their participation in their religious traditions that belief in this God is compelling. (MacIntyre uses the term “theism” to describe such belief.) Theists can therefore either shun philosophical questioning, or they [End Page 5] can maintain a strict separation between what they regard as the truth of philosophy and the truth of faith, or they can pursue the philosophical questions that inevitably emerge in an examination of human life while expecting that faith and reason will be reconciled within a single field of truth. This expectation depends on the confidence that “faith in God, that is, trust in his word, can include faith that, even when one is putting God to the question, one can be praising him by doing so and can expect to be sustained by him in that faith” (14). The theistically engaged pursuit of philosophical understanding requires a cultural institution in which such enquiry can be carried out, and the university was created for that purpose, emerging first in Islam, next in Byzantium, and finally in Western Europe.
The relationship between theism and philosophy in MacIntyre’s account is reciprocal. He argues that one of the great insights of St. Thomas Aquinas is that theology would reach a defective understanding of God if it attempted to develop such an understanding apart from an understanding of the world of finite created beings. But it is also the case that any area of secular knowledge that tries to understand the world and the human person apart from God will be incomplete. As MacIntyre makes clear throughout the book, the disagreement between atheists and theists is not only about whether God exists, but it is also a disagreement about what it means for something to be understood—to be intelligible—in the first place, since theism holds that the world is fully intelligible only when understood in relation to God.
A key question to ask at this point is why the secular and autonomous nature of philosophy plays such an important role in the emergence of the Catholic philosophical tradition in Macintyre’s argument. It would seem, strictly speaking, that this is not a logical necessity. But a core principle in Macintyre’s history of the development of the Catholic philosophical tradition is that the social and cultural settings in which key questions are posed and the possibilities of alternative responses that can be envisioned are an essential part of the ongoing philosophical conversation and must be considered in our efforts [End Page 6] to understand and participate in that conversation. The Islamic tradition (at certain periods, says MacIntyre) offered early examples of a cultural practice in which “not only Islamic thinkers but also Jews, Christians, and thinkers independent of all three religions, could participate” (58). This tradition also kept extant and philosophically alive some of the key texts of Greek philosophy while also producing Islamic and Jewish commentaries on those texts; and eventually by the early thirteenth century the Latin West was confronted by a rich set of divergent voices. “It was out of these disagreements and conflicts that the Catholic philosophical tradition came to be” (59).
But the question can be pressed again: why should a secular and autonomous cultural setting in which philosophical conflict can be pursued be essential to the development of the Catholic philosophical...