Epistemological crises, dramatic narrative and the philosophy of science / Alasdair MacIntyre. – The Monist, 1977

Another one to file under ‘perhaps not systems thinking, but I believe it should be here’ – such a strong alignment with deep systems thinking, this is about meaning-making and is an illustration using an epistemological crisis  as a way to explore meaning-making…


Good review which I have edited down below (removing references to Rorty and Pirsig): http://pirsigaffliction.blogspot.com/2006/05/epistemological-crises-and-dramatic.html

“Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science,” is an excellent little thing and contains the basic anti-theoretical insights he carries in books like After Virtue and Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?. (MacIntyre has said that this essay was a turning point for him from his earlier work to the writing of After Virtue.) The basic idea is that the idea of tradition has been woefully lacking in our accounts of rationality.

MacIntyre begins his essay by thinking about what it means to be in an “epistemological crisis”. He does so in a very down to earth, real life manner, like when “someone who has believed that he was highly valued by his employers and colleagues is suddenly fired” or when “someone falls out of love and needs to know how he or she can possibly be so mistaken in the other.” (241) These are real problems that most of us have faced, or can at least imagine being in similar circumstances. What we think about people is based on how they behave, but sometimes our entire outlook on them changes and all their behavioral cues become transmogrified–and worse, sometimes we cease to be certain about how to take their behavior at all. What we “took to be evidence pointing unambiguously in some one direction now turns out to have been equally susceptible of rival interpretations.”

This produces a frightful situation in which we lose our hold on reality. For “my ability to understand what you are doing and my ability to act intelligibly (both to myself and to others) are one and the same ability.” (242) If we begin to lose our hold on others, we begin to lose our hold on ourselves. Recurring to the example of Hamlet as an exemplar of epistemological crisis, MacIntyre says perceptively that “to be unable to render oneself intelligible is to risk being taken to be mad–is, if carried far enough, to be mad. And madness or death may always be the outcomes that prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis, for an epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships.” (243)

The wisdom that MacIntyre is pulling out of the example of such an individual in distress has the same implications for disciplines or paradigms of thought in distress. “When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them.”

The most important reason for such narratives is that without them we would be taken over by the kind of radical, paralyzing skepticism that Descartes (and every epistemological skeptic after) pretends to have. MacIntyre points out that even Descartes, having formally eschewed narrative for formal deduction from self-evident premises, constructs narratives to couch his process in the Meditations. The epistemological consequences are large. MacIntyre says that an epistemological crisis, even after being abated, can induce two conclusions: 1) that our understanding of a situation, the schemata or paradigms we use to interpret, even the ones we just adopted to end the crisis, “may themselves, in turn, come to be put in question at any time” (244) and 2) “because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility and rationality may always themselves be put in question … we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of ‘a best account so far’ are will themselves change in what are, at present, unpredictable ways.”

MacIntyre, here, doesn’t pull out the point most explicitly, but the point is an important one… how do we know we are getting any better, that we aren’t just swinging unhooked from reality in a limitless abyss with no touchstone?

What is terrifying is that we, “we” being made up of our paradigms of thinking, could be terribly and radically wrong about reality, and therefore terribly and radically wrong about who we really are. Death has always been terrifying, and death is exactly what’s on the table. On the cultural scale, if we keep pulling up floorboards on the deck of the U. S. S. Neurath, how can we identify the totally new ship we will someday be aboard as embodying the culture we now identify with? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t that count as the death of an entire culture? That is scary, to think that democracy and freedom could someday end, but what is even more pressing is the personal death we risk at the hands of global belief replacement. For if all the beliefs we now own are replaced by others, wouldn’t we no longer count as being us? If I had totally and utterly different beliefs than those that I hold now, how would I identify as that person? Would I recognize me as me? Wouldn’t, then, I be dead?

MacIntyre and Rorty recognize, as post-Cartesian epistemology does not, the importance of narrative for the ordering and stablizing of beliefs. Without narrative, something like global skepticism would indeed be frightening. However, part of who we are, both as a culture and as individuals, is because of the story we tell ourselves of how we got from our old, bad beliefs to our new, better beliefs… This gives us continuity, the continuity in being able to claim that I did all those dumb, stupid things when I was younger. It gives you a coherent self. Without the story, we wouldn’t be able to claim any of that.

MacIntyre suggests that the difference between Descartes’ Meditations and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that “Shakespeare invites us to reflect on the crisis of the self as a crisis in the tradition that has formed the self.” (248) Cultures are made up of traditions that create people and an epistemological crisis is a crisis of a particular tradition. A new, successful theory or paradigm or schema of science, art, religion, or philosophy does so because it “enables us to understand precisely why its predecessors have to be rejected or modified and also why, without and before its illumination, past theory could have remained credible. It introduces new standards of evaluating the past. It recasts the narrative that constitutes the continuous reconstruction” of the tradition of discourse. (249) MacIntyre is important for enabling us to to see that when a tradition is in a crisis, the successful resolution of that crisis extends the tradition. And it does so by its own tools. A tradition “is a conflict of interpretations of that tradition, a conflict which itself has a history susceptible of rival interpretations.” “A tradition then not only embodies the narrative of an argument, but is only to be recovered by an argumentative retelling of that narrative which will itself be in conflict with other argumentative retellings.” (250)

MacIntyre goes on to talk specifically about Kuhn, Lakatos, Popper and the philosophy of science, but I’d like to end by reflecting on MacIntyre’s links between epistemology and madness. MacIntyre remarks that “the categories of psychiatry and of epistemology must be to some extent interdefinable.” (252) MacIntyre in this essay has been using “epistemology” in a wide sense of “ways of knowing,” these schemata or theories or paradigms or canons of interpretation that generate on the other side what we call “knowledge”…. This is the idea of tradition-dependent, socially contextualized definitions of epistemology that have replaced the idea of Cartesian foundation-dependent, acontextual definitions.

JSTOR reference location – read up to six articles free with (?free?) membership: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27902497.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

pdf available at:

Epistemological crises, dramatic narrative and the philosophy of science / Alasdair McIntyre. – The Monist : an international quarterly journal of general philosophical inquiry / The Hegeler Institute {Hrsg.}. – 60(1977)4. – S. 453 – 472

Source: RiQuest | Document Viewer