Reason, Tradition, and the Good
MacIntyre's Tradition-Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory
Jeffery L. Nicholas
In Reason, Tradition, and the Good, Jeffery L. Nicholas addresses the failure of reason in modernity to bring about a just society, a society in which people can attain fulfillment. Developing the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, Nicholas argues that we rely too heavily on a conception of rationality that is divorced from tradition and, therefore, incapable of judging ends. Without the ability to judge ends, we cannot engage in debate about the good life or the proper goods that we as individuals and as a society should pursue.
Nicholas claims that the project of enlightenment—defined as the promotion of autonomous reason—failed because it was based on a deformed notion of reason as mere rationality, and that a critical theory of society aimed at human emancipation must turn to substantive reason, a reason constituted by and constitutive of tradition. To find a reason capable of judging ends, Nicholas suggests, we must turn to Alasdair MacIntyre’s Thomistic-Aristotelianism. Substantive reason comprises thinking and acting on the set of standards and beliefs within a particular tradition. It is the impossibility of enlightenment rationality to evaluate ends and the possibility of substantive reason to evaluate ends that makes the one unsuitable and the other suitable for a critical theory of society. Nicholas’s compelling argument, written in accessible language, remains committed to the promise of reason to help individuals achieve a good and just society and a good life. This requires, however, a complete revolution in the way we approach social life.
Jeffery L. Nicholas is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College.
“Habermas moved beyond the limitations of earlier Frankfurt School theorists in order to preserve an account of reason as emancipatory. Nicholas uses a conception of reason as tradition-constituted to move beyond Habermas, while still preserving an account of reason as emancipatory. This is a book of the highest interest.” — Alasdair MacIntyre, University of Notre Dame
“Jeffery Nicholas has written an important and valuable book that invites its readers to discover the difficulties of late modern Western thought from the perspective of twentieth-century critical theory, and to consider a response to those difficulties drawn from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor.” — Christopher S. Lutz, Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
“Jeffery Nicholas’s book is an important and much needed contribution to the development of a critical theory of society. What may surprise some is that he does this not only by developing the work of the Frankfurt School theorists but also by bringing their analysis into a fruitful dialogue with the vital work of a scholar who is often thought of as their opponent: Alasdair MacIntyre. What results is a fascinating study that finds some common ground between MacIntyre and the Frankfurt School and shows the resources each give us for a renewal of critical thought.” — Peter McMylor, University of Manchester
“Jeffery L. Nicholas is interested in what he calls a substantive conception of reason that is tradition-based, non-formal, non-instrumental and capable of undoing modernity’s differentiation of scientific, moral and aesthetic spheres of rationality. . . . Nicholas’s elucidation and defense of his view comprises a critique of subjective reason that relies on Max Horkheimer’s work, a criticism of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative reason, and an explanation of substantive reason that looks to Alasdair MacIntyre.” — Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
“If you are looking for a ‘safe’ read, a book that will not force you to question your own presuppositions, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are looking to be challenged and entertained, I suggest you pick up a copy of this dangerous tome and be prepared to change the way you think about reason, philosophy, and the world.” — Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
“In this impressive and ambitious book Jeffery Nicholas argues that modernity is ‘infected’ by a conception of reason that has been stripped of its ability to raise ethical questions and to discuss important moral issues. . . . For Nicholas, the trouble is not simply that we refuse to examine the policies and positions of our own society or of other cultures. It is rather that even when we do engage in evaluation and critique, our critiques inevitably come up short.” — International Philosophical Quarterly