U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alasdair MacIntyre on Narrative, History, and the Unity of a Life

Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

Hamlet, dying, to Horatio
Hamlet Act V, scene ii

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In “Over Our Dead Bodies,” a recent essay published in Dissent Magazine, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen explores the genre of the intellectual obituary. Her insightful reflection on how intellectual life is narrated echoes some of the main concerns that Alasdair MacIntyre articulates in the fifteenth chapter of After Virtue. Writing in 1981, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre– an Aristotelian, a Marxist, and a converted Catholic– powerfully attacks both Enlightenment liberalism, and the postmodern response to the problems of the Enlightenment project. MacIntyre objects to the Enlightenment abstraction of man out of community and out of history. Although he dislikes the label “communitarian,” in most of his work MacIntyre embraces a communitarian critique of liberalism. In After Virtue, he also criticizes the rejection of meta-narratives and the fragmentation of the individual he views as the problematic postmodern response to the shortcomings of Enlightenment liberalism. In his fifteenth chapter, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and the Concept of a Tradition,” MacIntyre argues that man is “a story-telling animal.”1 All life is a unified narrative embedded in serval other narratives, he insists, using death, like Ratner-Rosenhagen, to understand how the story of a life is formed. However, while Ratner-Rosenhagen examines how the story of a life is formed after death, in the often awkward genre of the obituary, MacIntyre argues that because of the inevitable fact of death, every life is a story long before someone posthumously turns it into one. MacIntyre’s belief in life as an historical narrative embedded within myriad historical narratives should prompt historians to examine how we write about the past, not just whether to use narrative form, but what it means if stories are “lived before they are told,” and how to capture the embedded nature of one story within other stories.2

Ratner-Rosenhagen quotes atheist writer Jennifer Michael Hecht’s obituary for Christopher Hitchens, calling Hitchens lucky to receive an obituary that so closely captured his view of life.

If life were a play, I could understand why people feel worried that they will be called to leave early. . . . You wouldn’t want to miss the punch line of the joke, the turn at the end of the sonnet, or the finish line of the race. . . . Life, however, is not a play. Nor is this life a joke, or if it is, it is the kind without a punchline. Life rambles.”

In contrast, MacIntyre argues that life is indeed a play– each life, specifically, a play in genre of tragedy, because each life ends in death. MacIntyre associates the idea that life rambles with the postmodern fracturing of society and of the individual, which he finds destructive to the concept of virtue.Virtue, writes MacIntyre, requires a “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end.”3 “The unity of a human life becomes invisible to us,” he explains, “when a sharp separation is made . . . between the individual and the roles that he or she plays.”4 In other words, postmodern society fragments human life: “work is divided from leisure, private life from public, the corporate from the personal . . . childhood and old age have been wrenched away from the rest of human life and made over into distinct realms.”5 The fractured individual then begins to speak of the virtues of a good banker, the virtues of a good student, or the virtues of a good artist, and the meaning of virtue devolves from the Aristotelian concept of excellence of character as a whole to mere skill or talent. To restore the Aristotelian concept of virtue, MacIntyre wants to restore the idea of life as a unified narrative.

To do this, MacIntyre must confront arguments– like Jennifer Michael Hecht’s– that the unity of life is a fiction imposed and invented after death, never lived as reality. For example, the philosopher of history Louis O. Mink believed that “life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story.”6 In Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (Nausea), Antoine Roquentin attempts to write a biography, but gives up when he realizes that it is a lie to present human life as a narrative. Against these arguments, MacIntyre insists that stories are “lived before they are told.” “Certainly we must agree,” he concedes “that it is only retrospectively that hopes can be characterized as unfulfilled or battles as decisive and so on.” “But,” argues MacIntyre “we so characterize them in life as much as in art.”7 “Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting upon events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguise nor decoration,” he declares.8

Pointing out the irony that Sartre used a novel to demonstrate the mendacity of story, MacIntyre claims that only through narrative does anything become intelligible. He provides two amusing examples. First: “I am standing waiting for the bus,” writes MacIntyre, “and the young man standing next to me suddenly says: ‘The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histroionicus.‘” Although the sentence itself is intelligible, the fact of uttering it is absurd, unless, suggests MacIntyre, it is in the context of a story.

“We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: ‘Do you know the Latin name of the common wild duck?’ Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. ‘But what shall I say?’ ‘Oh, anything at all.’ Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact. In each case the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.”9

Second, MacIntyre uses the example of a recipe to argue that actions require not only narrative but also context to become intelligible. “In the recipes of a cookery book,” he explains, “actions are individuated the way that some analytical philosophers have supposed to be possible of all actions.” The instructions to break eggs, add flour, or mix in a bowl, however, are intelligible only if put in a sequence that tells the “story” of how to make a cake. In addition to a narrative sequence, the actions prescribed in a cook book also require a context to make any sense. “If in the middle of a lecture on Kant’s ethics I suddenly broke six eggs into a bowl and added flour and sugar, proceeding all the while with my Kantian exegesis, I have not, simply in virtue of the fact that I was following a sequence . . . performed an intelligible action,” MacIntyre argues.10

With this funny image, MacIntyre moves to the importance of context in the unified narrative of a human life. In the Enlightenment framework of the abstract individual, as well as in a postmodern “age of fracture,” MacIntyre believes, human life is often striped from its context, or else contexts become meaningless, playful, ironic, and interchangeable.

In Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers describes the context in which MacIntyre wrote After Virtue. A hostility to meta-narratives and a fracturing of individual and social life characterized the 1980s, Rodgers argues. He describes the postmodern aesthetic as “indifferent to consistency and continuity,” and quotes the critic Terry Eagleton on the 1980s avant-garde: “history was scattered . . . adjacency eclipsed sequentiality.”11 Rodgers also discusses postmodern architecture, in which the architect mines the past for different styles, rips them from their context, and rearranges them out of sequence or tradition, out of history.

Against the spirit of his time, therefore, MacIntyre insists on the unity of human life and the importance of understanding each life as embedded in several contexts. “The narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of narratives,” he argues, adding that “the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity.”12 “I am born with a past,” MacIntyre affirms, “and to try to cut myself from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”13 Some of these interlocking, embedded narratives constitute a “setting,” which MacIntyre defines as an “institution,” “practice,” or “milieu of some other human kind.” “A setting has a history,” he writes, “a history in which the histories of individual agents not only are, but have be, situated.” “Without the setting and its change through time,” warns MacIntyre, “the history of the individual agent and his changes though time will be unintelligible.”14

Historians should consider how they tell the story of a human life, human lives, an idea, or an institution as embedded narratives in other histories. In The Young Derrida, published in 2011, Edward Baring writes the story of Jacques Derrida’s youth as a narrative embedded in the history of French philosophy and the institutional history of the École Normale Supérieure. A MacIntyrian history, or obituary, of Christopher Hitchens would narrate the critic’s life alongside the history of the Royal Navy, the institutional history of Oxford, specifically Balliol College, the history of the Labour Party, the history of socialism, of journalism, of religion and of atheism, perhaps the history of alcohol abuse and tobacco use, and the institutional history of marriage and of divorce. How would the way historians think about and write about the past change if we considered all of life as a series of embedded narratives, lived before they are told and retold? What works, aside from Baring’s The Young Derrida, do this?

MacIntyre, of course, aims to influence not only how historians write history, but also how individuals live lives of virtue. Just as Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen ends her piece by urging intellectuals to consider what they would want written over their dead bodies, MacIntyre’s chapter urges readers to consider how they are writing the narrative of their lives. MacInytre also calls for a recognition of the other lives, the histories, and the traditions in which our stories are embedded. “We are never more and sometimes less than co-authors of our own narrative,” he writes.15 In this spirit, Ratner-Rosenhagen identifies deceased thinkers of the past as “my interlocutors, my prods, my disturbers of the peace, and my sources of consolation.” “As literary critic Wayne Booth (d. 2005) put it,” she explains, “our books and our imagined relationship with their authors are the ‘company we keep.’” Both MacIntyre and Ratner-Rosenhagen prompt us to consider not only how we write history, but also how our own lives and intellectual development is embedded in the lives of others. Recognizing this, we might live out our tragedies with grace and virtue.
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1Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 216.

2MacIntyre, 212.

3MacIntyre, 204.

4Ibid.

5Ibid.

6Louis O. Mink, quoted in MacIntyre, 212.

7Ibid.

8MacIntyre, 211.

9MacIntyre, 210.

10MacIntyre, 209.

11Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Harvard University Press, 2011), 230.

12MacIntyre, 218, 221.

13MacIntyre, 221.

14MacIntyre, 206-207.

15MacIntyre, 213.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this is great. i haven’t read MacIntyre at all. a question, then, for him as much as you: i accept with no problem at all that we humans narrate our own lives, that we live through narratives, that we imagine our lives to have a certain consistency, wholeness, telos. and maybe this illusion of wholeness is good for a certain kind of moral life. sure.

    but why should we historians reproduce for our subjects in *our* writing the imagined narrative wholeness that they may well have required to live? of course we need to be sensitive to the self-conceptions of our subjects, including the stories they tell about themselves–but that’s surely something historians do already as a matter of course? but then there is another step, which is precisely to embed those narratives in larger ones that do not always re-enforce, but perhaps profoundly challenge them.

    and the Baring book on Derrida–I’ve only read the first half of it, so i’m not in a good position to speak about wholeness–seems to me to be methodologically unremarkable as intellectual biography goes (it is very remarkable in other ways–really excellent). it doesn’t posit wholeness, but as you say it does reconstruct contextual meaning, which is institutional as well as intellectual or conceptual. the young derrida appears located in a field, with a set of problems, resources, limits…just like any other historical subject.

    but perhaps i’m not getting the force of *narrative* here?

  2. …but why should we historians reproduce for our subjects in *our* writing the imagined narrative wholeness that they may well have required to live?

    Via Fea, George Marsden replies to David Hollinger’s latest

    http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2014/janfeb/whose-pluralism.html

    Politics is not a suitable place for serious discussions or debates about anything, let alone religion. But the public academy can provide just such a forum. It should be a model for dealing with issues of diversity, including religiously based diversity, in public life. For instance, a secularist such as Hollinger strongly holds a number of beliefs about human rationality and moral principles. The public academy provides the best place where there might be debate about whether non-theistic assumptions provide adequate grounds for such views or whether some sort of theism might provide better grounds. Those issues are not going to be easily settled, of course, but universities are the best places where such civil discussions should continue to take place and be encouraged.

    Hollinger and his ilk are more precisely defined as “materialists,” who of course abolish not just religion but metaphysics, therefore anything beyond the material is “woo,” and strictly out of order in any intellectual discussion.

    Which leaves only values along the lines of Hollinger’s as permissible grounds for inquiry.

    I struggle with the very concept of a “Christian” historian, but OTOH, when do we talk about anything beyond the materialistic, the useful, the “fair”? It always seems to be exiled to some other place, for some other day.

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