By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Book Reviews

After Liberalism

What does Alasdair MacIntyre want?

Jennifer A. Frey

THR illustration; Alasdair MacIntyre by Sean O’Connor, Shutterstock background.

There are different ways to conceive of the task of writing the biography of a prominent philosopher. The most familiar is to approach its subject with the goal of showing how these works sprang forth from this person. One example of this method is Ray Monk’s justly famous 1990 biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius. Such a project situates the philosophical works against the backdrop not just of time and place but of the private affairs and the inner life—the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or political world—of its subject.

Émile Perreau-Saussine’s “intellectual biography” of Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929) is something different. He has little concern for MacIntyre’s private life (although we do learn in a short footnote that he had three wives and four children), and not much for his public life, either, beyond some explorations of the various institutions and projects he involved himself in back in his activist years. Perreau-Saussine, a scholar of political philosophy and ideas at Cambridge University who died tragically young in 2010, does not present what Pierre Manent in his foreword calls “the story of a soul.” I would argue that it is not truly a biography but an account of how MacIntyre has struggled, over the course of his long (and ongoing) career, to articulate an antiliberal philosophy that avoids the pitfalls of either communism or fascism, while taking the former’s concern with justice and the latter’s concern with nobility into his account of a virtue ethics that he sees as indispensable to collective human flourishing. According to MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelian interpretation, most fully formulated in After Virtue, there can be no true justice or true nobility apart from virtue and character formation, and there can be no character formation outside the community—its practices, traditions, customs, and laws.

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