To perceive tragedy without the loss of hope: Donald MacKinnon’s moral realism
Bowyer, Andrew Derek
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Donald MacKinnon (1913-1994) is arguably one of the most influential Anglican theologians in the British context in the second half of the 20th century. His writings reveal a restive and unsystematic thinker, yet there is a good case to be made that a series of reoccurring questions – ‘obsessions’ might better suit MacKinnon’s temperament –appear throughout. These relate to the demands of moral realism, the tensions between the philosophical positions of realism and idealism generally, and the perennially disruptive presence of Christ, whose redemptive significance cannot be fully appreciated apart from a tragic ascription. The first chapter proposes a new lens through which MacKinnon’s project may be viewed. It will characterise his work as a form of ‘therapeutic’ philosophy that combines a call for intense interiority and moral realism in a way that sees these notions as mutually involved and reinforcing. As the chapter progresses the extent to which Kant lies behind much of MacKinnon’s therapeutic language of ‘purgation’ and ‘illumination’ will become clear. So too the fact that moral realism becomes, for MacKinnon, both the end of a certain therapeutic discipline and a commitment that shapes his engagement with philosophy and theology at every level. It characterises a ‘form of life’. MacKinnon never sets out a systematic defence of moral realism nor for his insistence that the tension between idealism and realism is at once a) something crucial for theologians to confront explicitly, b) a tension that necessarily exists and remains perennially unsolved, and c) results in the continued need for a language of metaphysics. Yet, these ideas occur again and again throughout his corpus. They emerge as philosophical inevitabilities from within the task of continued description and redescription of human experience in all its historical particularity. An examination of the key influences on MacKinnon follows in Chapter 2, and it is here we can detect one of the sources of MacKinnon’s restiveness as he seeks to imbibe insights from a confident moral apologic theology of the previous generation, while at the same time respecting the ways in which the analytical turn had highlighted the impossibility of such projects. The rest of the thesis is spent looking at various domains in which MacKinnon’s therapeutic moral realism comes to the fore. These include his understanding of Christ (Chapter 3), his convictions as to the indispensability of good literature for moral philosophy (Chapter 4) and his response to Wittgenstein as he sought to articulate his own distinctive moral and theological convictions (Chapter 5). The thesis concludes with words of affirmation and critique, having shown MacKinnon to represent a compelling voice in support of catholic humanism that remains provocative into the 21st century.