Alasdair MacIntyre on the very idea of the university

Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman, and Us,” British Journal of Educational Studies 57.4 (December 2009), 347-362.

The following are notes taken on MacIntyre’s essay. I’ve sought to make my notes intelligible and worth your time. MacIntyre’s essay is worth reading in its own right as it casts an unfavorable light on the modern research university.

Newman’s 3 Thesis (p. 1-7 notes*)

[*notes correspond to .pdf file numbers]

Thesis 1a.) A university ought to be a place where one acquires a ‘unity of understanding.’

Thesis 1b.) It follows that an educated mind is one that grasps the unity of things. The corollary: a deformed mind is that of a specialist.

Thesis 2.) ‘Theology,’ on Newman’s conception, is the name for the ‘unity of understanding.’

Thesis 3.) Justification for university’s existence: Economic growth (modern university’s) vs. internal goods (Newman’s). (‘Internal goods’ are those ends intrinsic to a practice. The internal good of design is making a well-built chair. On the concept of ‘internal goods,’ see his After Virtue.)

So, an educated mind will have facility with ecology, economics, literature, history, and anthropology, and so forth but to be fully educated it must gather all these under a greater whole. But doing that, for Newman, is the work of theology. (Or in Kant: the work of philosophy.)

External Critique of the Modern University (p. 8 note)

My first quibble: MacIntyre is making an external critique of what the contemporary research university cannot do. It cannot produce educated minds in Newman’s sense. But if it cannot do this (and I agree with you, M.), then in what sense does the critique have any impact apart from revealing the wide gap between what is the case and what ought to be the case?

Isn’t the ‘ought’ conclusion instead: We need to build new institutions that are designed with the aim of ‘educating minds’ in the ‘unity of understanding’?

An Educated Mind Pursues Unity of Understanding (p. 10 notes)

My God, isn’t MacIntyre actually a Hegelian? I’ve been thinking this all the while. Hegel: ‘Philosophy is its time raised to Conception.’ I.e., all parts must be brought underneath the Whole. Until this is complete, philosophy continues…

MacIntyre writes,

Moreover, as our enquiries proceed, we move towards unifying our various explanations, both those which lie wholly within one particular discipline and those which have a bearing on explanations in other disciplines. And this enables us to understand increasingly the place of this or that occurrence or state of affairs in the overall order of things. Yet our explanations are always imperfectly unified, just as they always remain in some respects incomplete, and so our enquiries never terminate, are never final. What they presuppose is twofold: first, that we are indeed directed towards a final, if unattainable end, that we do have a conception of what it would be to have achieved a kind of understanding that is perfected and completed –for it is only by contrast with this conception that we characterise our present explanations as partial, imperfect and incomplete – and secondly, and correspondingly, that the order of things, although indefinitely complex, has an intelligible unity that is gradually and increasingly disclosed by our enquiry and that will continue to be disclosed by those enquiries, no matter how far we carry them.

“has an intelligible unity”: Well, this is complicated, M. Kant would say that we ‘postulate’ that it has an intelligible unity. I.e., we must inquire AS IF the world were intelligible. Only on the postulate that the world can be so arranged would it make sense to get our inquiry under way.

Theology would make an ontological claim: there IS intelligible unity period. For my purposes, I’m not sure that it matters. At least I remain agnostic on whether intelligible unity is an epistemic or an ontological necessity.

Building a New University? Off to One Side! (p. 14 note)

MacIntyre writes,

If we are to take this line of argument further, we must do so in two directions, one of which involves us in rejecting an assumption of Newman’s, an assumption shared with most, if not quite all of his educated contemporaries. It is that the type of university education that he commends is suitable only for a small and privileged minority. Yet, if in fact in the contemporary world this kind of education is needed in order to know what one is doing, then everyone needs it and not only the makers of large-scale social and economic decisions. Indeed it is crucial for plain persons that they should have this type of education, so that they can begin to recognise when those who exercise power over their lives no longer know what they are doing. But the question of how such an education might be made widely available is yet another that I put on one side.

“Put to one side”: Are you kidding, M.? Put to one side? But this is THE question. Until now, you’ve only shown us i) what the modern university fails to do and ii) what a good university ought to be.

iii) How to make this education widely available sounds, you know, kinda relevant, don’t you think?

Final Thoughts (note appended to last page)

A delicate final point if I may, M. It’s one thing to salvage Newman from the wreckage and to say that he has a lot to teach us about what we’re doing poorly. It’s not a bad aim, I don’t think. It’s quite another, though, to illumine how Newman’s conception of a university could be realized. But that, I suppose, would require a ‘very different’ St. Benedict for our time…

Addendum on Building New Institutions

Consider strolling about at The Mycelium School and The University Project.

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