Stephen Mulhall on Culture

readers of [Alasdair] MacIntyre and (to a lesser extent) [Charles] Taylor do not, I hazard to suggest, encounter hiddenness, surprise and opacity in the way that readers of Dostoevsky do. The narratives in which both authors cast their accounts of Western culture inexorably tend towards a certain kind of smoothness and closure, as if every step in the narrative is entirely transparent to rational assessment, and that same assessment might unproblematically identify steps that will inexorably lead to the realization of our ideals. Both recognize the contingency of significant moments of cultural transition, but they do not register any sense that the advent of modernity introduced elements of individual and collective self-understanding that were both valuable and genuinely other to the religious traditions to which they were opposed. Either those elements contribute only to our decline (as in MacIntyre), or they constitute weaker inflections or variations of basically Christian self-understanding (as in Taylor). Even if one agrees that these critical transitions depended upon misunderstanding and misrecognition of Christianity, they show little sign of asking what those misrecognitions might tell them about unexplored or alien aspects of their own traditions. Likewise, their readers gain little sense of their secular others as presenting any serious resistance to their capacity to understand them; the conceptual resources of the secular age may be complex and sophisticated, but rarely if ever do they seem positively to push back against the conceptual resources of those who aim to narrate them. In short, there is a certain lack of what [Rowan] Williams would call self-interrogation. MacIntyre and Taylor both seem to think and write as if there is a specifically Christian narrative to be developed and evaluated, one which operates as a counter to secular master-narratives and hence operates on all fours with them. Whereas Williams’ Dostoevskyan picture is that there is not so much a specifically Christian narrative of culture or self, but rather a specifically Christian attitude to the narrativity of culture and self – an attitude which does not put its faith in one story amongst those between which cultures and individuals choose but rather in the continuation of the narrative processes through which such choices are made, contested, misunderstood, marred and remade. A distinctly Christian faith is in the unending availability of the possibility of narrative unfolding, not in the absolute rectitude of any particular unfolding of it. And even if in the end neither Taylor nor MacIntyre would want to deny that, then they need to find ways in which the forms of their writing might achieve a more thoroughgoing acknowledgement of the sheer riskiness of human dialogue in time and history.

from “Theology and Narrative: the Self, the Novel, the Bible,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol 69, no 1, (2011): 38-39.

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One thought on “Stephen Mulhall on culture

  1. Federico GL

    Thank you so much for having posted this excerpt! I am a graduate philosophy student who is completely fascinated by reading Cavell and Dostoevsky into each other, using their writings to question the division and difference between the philosophy and literature, and their possibility to become each other.

    For some reason, Williams’ book on Dostoevsky did not interest me when it came out. Now, however, I look forward to chancing upon it in my next search of a bookstore’s stock.

    I wish you continued goodness in your life and studies,
    Federico

    Reply

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