- God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition
In recent years, philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, and Richard Rorty have stepped beyond their academic disciplines to intervene in wider public debates on current political and social issues. Alasdair MacIntyre is another example, though his focus is narrower: he aims to contribute to the renewal of Catholicism. Even more precisely, he has tried to draw academics and students, mainly at Catholic colleges and universities, to study and draw on the resources of the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition to create a philosophy and an academy that can nourish and sustain the faith by furnishing truths that can be brought to bear on cultural and political issues. Toward this end, he provides here a concise summary of the central ideas of Catholic thinkers from Augustine to some major encyclicals of John Paul II by way of most of the major thinkers, most notably Aquinas and John Cardinal Newman. At first blush, this seems to read as a reductive thumbnail doxography, stating claims in blunt fashion without the arguments and contexts that give them significance. But MacIntyre selects his themes pointedly, and his summaries are both lucid and enticing to further study. A bonus is the chapter on Islamic and Jewish thinkers who link ancient philosophy and the early Church with the later Latin West.
This “selective history is embedded in certain claims that may be debatable.” MacIntyre especially aims to influence Catholic higher education. He thinks it is consistent with and essential to Catholic teaching that all knowledge rests on and should be integrated with a unified understanding of human being in its relation with God. This standard is set against the secularist regime of specialized research with its fragmentation of disciplines and indifference to broad and fundamental questions. He asserts that it is the task of philosophy, particularly of Catholic philosophy, to reestablish the coherence of all knowledge and to put that integration at the core of undergraduate education, even at the expense of specialization for the teacher as well as the student.
If I were a philosopher, I might not eagerly embrace this demand. There is much metaphysical pathos, to use A.O. Lovejoy’s term, in this appeal to unity. But can it be delivered? I guess, for example, that all the parts of the economy must be interconnected somehow. But I doubt any individual or group of individuals (the Federal Reserve, say) can grasp that whole, even in rather crude outline. Whether all knowledge is connected must be shown, not claimed simply because we “need” it to be so. Perhaps every piece of knowledge presupposes that unity, but it doesn’t follow we can actually have any idea of it. And even if we could achieve it, what would we do with it? Is there an actual case where a specialized discipline awaits a delineation of the unity of knowledge before it can make progress in its field of activity? Is [End Page 428] there a case where a discipline got something wrong it would have gotten right if we had this integrated totality?
Nor would I be eager to take on the task of integrating all intellectual activity in a modern university, especially on the premise that its understanding of truth must be Thomistic and its theology Augustinian (178). It seems unlikely my colleagues would grant me the presumed intellectual authority, and I’m not even certain I would know what exactly I had accomplished if I succeeded. I don’t really think such a curriculum existed in the past, despite imagined schemes like the training of the philosopher-rulers in Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s outline of the liberal arts in De ordine. If so, we are being asked to imagine something we have no idea of. The history of Newman’s “Catholic University of Ireland” is not encouraging, nor is it clear that he would have succeeded had more Catholics been knowledgeable about their intellectual tradition. Even MacIntyre seems to be left saying just...