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Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism

Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, And The Demise Of Naturalism

Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism. Review of Jason Blakely. Notre Dame University Press, 2016.


Jason Blakely’s Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism has as its topic the negative impact the natural sciences have had on both political theory and the social sciences. Its purpose is to give us a way out of this “scientism,” and its method is to use two of the most important political philosophers of the last 100 years, Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. Both “presented a new philosophical basis for social science theory in the face of reductive instrumental, technocratic, and pseudoscientific ways of thinking.”[1] His audience includes political theorists who are tired of hearing that their domain is the sloppy world of subjective values and that the domain of social scientists is that of cold, brute facts; social scientists who for too long have lived under the shadow of the “accomplishments of the natural sciences”[2]; and policymakers who persist with the assumption that policymaking can only be done by neutral experts.[3] His thesis is that Macintyre and Taylor point the way out from under the oppression of naturalism toward an interpretive, humanistic social science.

In chapter 1, Blakely briefly describes the history of naturalism. In its most basic form, naturalism is a movement within the academy and culture to replace a classical and medieval teleology with a mechanistic one and to “eliminate human properties from social explanation in favor of supposedly more scientific and impersonal factors.”[4] Naturalists also try to separate facts from values in their research of human beings, since the assumption is that the values of the researcher are subjective and the focus must be on the objectivity of the facts. Blakely shows how this has manifested itself in English-speaking philosophy departments, political science departments, and in organized forms of power of government and corporations.[5] To provide an example from the latter, in the twentieth century, elites who were inspired by naturalism introduced “accountability” to evaluate outputs, rather than the nineteenth century notion of “responsibility.” Outputs, benchmarks, examinations, and quantifiable performance reviews become the methods for evaluating political actors.[6] Why? Because they are ostensibly neutral, value-free, objective measurement tools.

Blakely then in chapter 2 situates Macintyre and Taylor in the context of the British New Left of the 1950s. Here the point is show the British New Left’s desire to break from naturalism in favor of a humanism in philosophy and the social sciences. However, while both thinkers come to share that desire, they break from the British New Left because of its adherence to Marxism, a system of thought and practice that is itself insufficiently antinaturalist and humanist. The British New Left clearly left an impression, since as Blakely shows in chapter 3, both Macintyre and Taylor spend the next part of their careers in a wholesale critique of naturalism. Both thinkers use the rigor of ordinary language philosophy as a weapon against naturalism, all for the sake of adopting a humanism. For example, naturalism-inspired political science limits its inquiry to external phenomena. Both thinkers see this as naïve. In order to really understand politics, the political scientist must come to understand the beliefs and meanings generated by political actors and institutions.

As an example, Macintyre takes on the behavioral revolution through a critique of the seminal work in democracy studies, Almond and Verba’s Civic Culture. His critique was fairly straightforward. Almond and Verba observe that British citizens take more “pride” in their government than do Italian citizens. Macintyre critiques this by noting that “pride” depends on a linguistic and historical context, such that “pride” means one thing for a Brit and quite another for an Italian. For behavioralism, this was a feature, not a bug. Behavioralists failed to understand that atoms are different from marriage practices because beliefs about atoms don’t affect the atoms, while an individual’s or culture’s beliefs about marriage certainly do. Macintyre concludes that a mechanistic, causal science of politics is confused. Instead, we need to recognize the “creative, purposive intentions and beliefs of human beings.”[7] We need a humanistic social science, not a mechanistic one.

Halfway through the book, a reader may be intrigued but also wonder what the purpose of dismantling naturalism is if there is no viable replacement. Blakely attempts to provide that replacement—again with the assist of Macintyre and Taylor—in chapters 4 through 6.

In Chapter 4, he argues that both Macintyre and Taylor provide an inspiration for a new social science. Both of them ground their vision of a new social science in a “purposive, intentionalistic, and creative view of the human agent.”[8] For Macintyre, that inspiration is found primarily in Aristotle’s “antinaturalist ontology.”[9] Specifically, Aristotle inspires Macintyre to reconceive human beings as having purposes and aims—a telos—that are always caught within a narrative and story. Human beings do not live an atomized existence but instead are always telling stories about the meaning of their own existence. Social scientists must come to understand human beliefs and actions not simply through survey research, but also by telling a story about these human beings. Every human being, institution, and society tells a story about itself—it’s the task of the social scientist to also tell those stories. Interpretrations of interpetations, as it were.

A Trump voter’s beliefs and actions cannot be understood completely through a 50-question phone survey. We only understand that Trump voter when we understand the narrative within which she exists. These narratives that the social scientist writes are always contingent and can never produce law-like generalizations. What counts for success then is not whether the social scientist can predict the future, but whether she can “tell the most complete, coherent, and convincing narratives.”[10] Unlike law-like generalizations, stories could have gone a different way had the protagonist made a different choice. An Aristotelian social scientist can breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps, now that the requirement to prove necessary causal connections is dismissed. The only requirement now, it seems, is to write a great story. Social scientists are more playwrights than physicists, more historians than statisticians.

Taylor is likewise committed to an antinaturalist, antifoundationalist ontology as the basis for a new social science, this time with the inspiration of Martin Heidegger’s “self-interpreted meaning.”[11] How do we explain human behavior? Taylor uses Heidegger’s concept of “moods” to argue that every human action (or inaction) is always “motivated by some emotional mode of perception.”[12] It is the perceptual mode of evaluation that really distinguishes human beings and is key to their self-interpretation. Each person evaluates her actions differently. One man will take “pride” in his infidelity, while another will feel “shame.” The same action produces two different self-interpretive evaluations, which stands in stark contrast to the action of a lizard or the movement of a star, neither of which are capable of self-interpretation. This divergence in self-interpretation means that naturalist and positivist attempts miss the elements of human behavior that are, after all, distinctly human. The upshot of both of these at times complicated analyses of Taylor’s and Macintyre’s work is that we need to rethink how we do social science and how we try to explain and understand human behavior in general. Social science must be interpretive and historical, not mechanistic and positivist. It must see the human being as creative, purposive, evaluative, and story-telling, not as a disembodied atom.

Chapter 5 continues the ambitious project by using Taylor and Macintyre to take on (not take down) the fact-value distinction and the ideal of value neutrality in the social sciences. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on Blakely’s account of Taylor, as Macintyre’s approach is quite similar. Taylor does not reject value neutrality outright but instead argues that values always play a role in social science explanations of human behavior. Why? Because social scientists always have a view of what is normal or rational human behavior.[13] For example, a man who thinks he is swatting flies when in fact he is not will have a different self-understanding than the outside social scientist. An outside explanation of that man’s behavior will require a value judgment about what is and is not rational or normal human behavior. Taylor suggests that social scientists do this all the time, even implicitly or without recognizing it.

More profoundly than the fly example, Taylor targets sociologist of religion Steve Bruce, who in the end uses a reductive social science explanation “to help fortify his advocacy of the marginalizaton of religious faith more generally within modern life.”[14] Bruce rejected an experience of the transcendent as a reasonable or legitimate explanation.  Bruce’s hope as a social scientist is for people to understand more and more that people join groups not for religious or transcendent reasons but because of the “need for group solidarity.”[15] As Taylor argues, Bruce creates a slope that slants in a particular direction, and structures a “field of possibilities” for understanding. In sum, social science is not value-free, and it is not innocuous. Social science accounts always assume a view of the human person, whether it’s Taylor’s “homo religiosus” or Bruce’s secular man. What’s the payoff here? If Taylor and Macintyre are right, social scientists need to at least admit that they bring values to bear on their explanations of human behavior. Indeed, perhaps most powerfully, naturalists who think they bring no values to bear on their research do so all the time—indeed, they are naturalist values that seek to lift up and justify the reign of supposedly value-free experts and bureaucrats.

Chapter 6 is where the book has been heading all along, the promise of the reunification of political theory and social science. A reader will want to know, what might it “look like to actually carry out an antinaturalist and interpretive research program?”[16] Blakely moves beyond Macintyre and Taylor to provide four principles of a new, “interpretive approach to social science research.”[17] First, “causality in the case of human actions is contingent” and not “necessary or mechanistic.” Beliefs and actions are the result of “creative, contingent reasoning processes and not impersonal, mechanistic triggers.”[18] Second, “the explanatory form appropriate to the social sciences is storytelling or narrative and not general causal laws.”[19] Social scientists must begin to occupy the space of history and literature, not natural science. Third, just because social science must be interpretive does not mean it is irrational, relativist, or somehow nonobjective.[20] The method of interpretive social science is comparing the worth of rival interpretations of political reality: which is more fruitful, coherent, compelling. Fourth and finally, an “antinaturalist social science should be thought of as normatively engaged and not absolutely value free.”[21] The fact/value wall has tumbled.  In sum, he argues, “an interpretive social science gives narrative explanations of contingent causality, employs a comparative form of objectivity, and promotes awareness of the subtle and complex role of values in social science research.”[22] Social science is always “ethically engaged.”[23]

Still, we are only on the level of principle. What does this look like in practice? Blakely naturally offers some examples from Taylor’s and Macintyre’s own work. He looks at Taylor’s explanation of nationalism. Taylor rejects the primordialist perspective that would explain nationalist movements on biological grounds. Instead, a better explanation is that “each human group has a unique and authentic way of life and self-expression.”[24] The Germans did not gather around anti-Semitism because of a primordial biological drive, but rather out of a sense of belonging and authentic way of life. Taylor here tries to give an account that is rooted in a narrative about particular, contingent nationalist movements, and eschews an attempt to expose “ahistorical causal mechanism” at work. Blakely shows how Taylor exemplifies each of the principles he lists as necessary for an interpretive social science.

What about for Macintyre? Blakely briefly looks at After Virtue, which among other things provides a sociological account for the crisis of late capitalism and modernity. The main problem for Macintyre is that we live in a culture of unresolved and irresolvable moral disagreements.  As an interpretive social scientist, he sets this within a larger historical narrative, one that begins in Enlightenment naturalism. According to these naturalists, reason and not custom would be able to resolve any disputes. Macintyre’s story is really the story of the failure of this project—the inability of reason to really settle our most contentious disputes in public life. Again, the purpose of employing Macintyre here is to show how he has already been an example of how to do interpretive social science.

Well, what to make of all this? First, a few points of commendation. Blakely writes in a clear, cogent, and straightforward manner. His chapters flow easily from one to the next, each building logically and conceptually upon one another. He also provides an historical and philosophical grounding for what many political philosophers have intuited but never could express in as systematic a manner. Political philosophers exist within a discipline that either does not understand them or thinks of them as engaged in a wholly different enterprise than their own. Blakely’s argument provides relief for political philosophers who do not always feel at home in their own discipline.

I also greatly appreciated Blakely’s effort to not just tear down the naturalism of the social sciences but to begin something new. Many of his critiques were familiar. After all, Aristotle and the American framers told us already that political science cannot be reduced to numbers. I am not quite sure what a Blakely political science department or research program would look like, but I admire how he did not just burn the place to the ground.

There are a few items I would like Blakely to expand on and clarify. First, what does his argument mean for political philosophers? Although political philosophers are included in his target audience, the book feels more directed to practicing social and political scientists, at least those who practice survey research, statistics, and the like. But do political philosophers take any guidance from this, other than congratulating themselves that they are not the only ones that traffic in “values”? Can we go on doing close examination of Lockean and Platonic texts, or does even that practice need to change?

Second, what role do the naturalism-inspired methodologies of statistics and survey research play in Blakely’s vision of interpretive social science? More than once, he mentions that his goal is not to eliminate these practices, but it is not clear what role they should play. Are these tools meant to take a back seat? For example, imagine we were to take Blakely’s vision into a study of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Presumably, this new mode would be historical, opting for narrative accounts of Trump voters in West Virginia, rather than brute survey research. Does the survey research still matter? Blakely would have done well to provide us a model of how interpretive and statistical methodologies could complement one another (perhaps none exists?). And certainly, as philosophers Macintyre and Taylor are not the candidates to provide such a complementary approach.

Third, Blakely may be taking political scientists into a world that will introduce significant disciplinary turmoil. He argues that political scientists need to move into historical and even literary modes. If this is so, political scientists need to be prepared to encounter significant resistance from their cousins in history and literature departments. Historians in particular have their own methodologies, and if political scientists attempt to use history to explain political reality, they will be expected to rise to the level of the rigors of historical methodology, or else they will be marginalized. In fact, what meaningful difference will there be anymore between political historians and political scientists? Perhaps there would be none.

All in all, Jason Blakely writes a well-researched, well-argued manifesto for a new social science. The power of the analysis is that this new social science need not be revolutionary, since Macintyre and Taylor have already paved the way. Will others follow? Will political science and the other social sciences follow? Only time will tell. I’d encourage social scientists and philosophers of all stripes to pick up this helpful volume.



[1] Jason Blakely, Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism: Reunifying Political Theory and Social Science (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press), 2-3.

[2] Blakely, 4.

[3] Blakely, 5.

[4] Blakely, 8.

[5] Blakely, 9.

[6] Blakely, 18.

[7] Blakely, 52.

[8] Blakely, 61.

[9] Blakely, 65.

[10] Blakeey, 66.

[11] Blakely, 68.

[12] Blakely, 69.

[13] Blakely, 79.

[14] Blakely, 83.

[15] Blakely, 83.

[16] Blakely, 94.

[17] Blakely, 95.

[18] Blakely, 95.

[19] Blakely, 96.

[20] Blakeey, 96.

[21] Blakely, 97.

[22] Blakely, 97.

[23] Blakely, 97.

[24] Blakely, 99.

Andrew KaufmannAndrew Kaufmann

Andrew Kaufmann

Andrew Kaufmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwest University in Washington. His main interests are in the history of political thought, with special concern for the political theory of Jacques Derrida.

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