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The fragmentation and compartmentalisation of knowledge according to Alasdair MacIntyre

The fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" of knowledge according to Alasdair MacIntyre

Author: José Manuel Giménez Amaya. group of research Ciencia, Razón y Fe (CRYF), University of Navarra.
Published in: M. Pérez de Laborda (ed.), Sapienza e libertà. Studi in onore del Prof. Lluís Clavell. Roma: EDUSC; 2012, pp. 193-202.
Date of publication: 2012

To Professor Lluís Clavell with gratitude for his fruitful university teaching

The modern world was (is) a culture of theories and not of histories
[MacIntyre, A., in Borradori, G., Conversaciones filosóficas. El nuevo pensamiento americano, publishing house rule , Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia 1996, p. 203].

Aladair MacIntyre is one of the best-known moral philosophers of recent decades. His analysis and critique of modernity and liberalism are very famous, and have led to a reflection in which, with a penetrating vision, he has been able to acutely reveal the roots of this crisis* (1). The clear message that remains for us from this author is that we live the reality that surrounds us, the social life in which we are immersed, our human and professional training , at final, we live ourselves, in a profoundly fragmented world. For him, all this is having a decisive impact on the training received at university.

In these brief considerations, we would like to go deeper into the concepts of fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" developed by MacIntyre, and also to point out some considerations on how the effort to eradicate this fragmentation in the field of knowledge necessarily leads to the multidisciplinarity, to the search for integration between particular and sapiential disciplines: these last aspects are nuclear to develop a true university training .

The concept of fragmentation has always been present in our author throughout his project After Virtue*(2). However, it is especially in recent years that his insistence on this lack of unity in the human being who lives a "compartmentalised" existence has been more systematic. This idea of "compartmentalisation" was developed by MacIntyre in a well-known lecture which he gave at the University of Notre Dame, in the State of Indiana (United States), on 13 October 2000, and which he significantly entitled "A Culture of Choices and Compartmentalization"* (3).

It seems pertinent to us to associate his words with university life because the British philosopher links the destructuring of training professor in the university with the fragmentation of a life that develops as if in watertight compartments. Dramatically, he points out, one is often unable to detect such a profound existential incoherence, except in the vital results perceived in thought and moral action. As can be seen, at this point our author seems to bring together in a suggestive way the idea of "unity" conveyed in his project After Virtue and in its sapiential continuation, according to the most recent reflections he has passed on to us.

This "compartmentalisation" illustrated by MacIntyre*(4) is much more complex than it seems. In fact, his appearance in the intellectual discussion has been criticised and praised in recent years in a discussion of interest*(5). But first of all, let us first present a complicated text by our Anglo-Saxon philosopher where he explains this new notion that he has introduced into his own idiolect.

"This means that their attitudes change with their social roles and they seem to be unaware of it. I regard this as a mild example of a peculiarly modern phenomenon which I will call "compartmentalisation".

Compartmentalisation' goes beyond the difference in institutional roles and Structures that characterises each social order, and which occurs in such a way that each social sphere and activity has its particular governance guided by its specific norms with relative independence from other spheres. In each particular sphere, these rules dictate which class considerations are to be taken into account in decision-making and which are to be excluded (....).

This relative autonomy of each demarcated sphere of activity is reinforced by the Degree in which, in contemporary advanced societies, the individuals one encounters in each particular sphere are often not the same as those one encounters in a different one. When one encounters an individual only within a particular sphere, in some role that is homologous to one's own role in that particular sphere, one's responses are increasingly only to the "individual in that or that role", rather than to the individual who is at the time occupying that particular role. So that individuals who are moving between different spheres of activity, exchanging one role for another and one standard for practical reasoning for another, become, at an important Degree , dissolved in the different roles, playing one in family life, a different one at work, and yet a third as a member of the sports club or a fourth as a military reservist. Within each role, these individuals conform to the requirements imposed on the role in that sphere, and have no means at their disposal which would make them capable, with others, of stepping back from those roles and those requirements, and scrutinising themselves and the structure of their society from an external point of view with a practical effect" * (6).


According to MacIntyre, the study of the phenomenon of "compartmentalisation" is also fruitful in the discussion and analysis of university life, for at least two reasons. Firstly, because it tells us in itself of a lack of unity. What is "compartmentalised" lacks points of union and shared visions; which, when applied to knowledge and to the university training almost necessarily leads to the fragmentation of knowledge. In this sense, and from a theoretical point of view, it also leads to sterility in the attempt to solve highly complex problems, which require the unity of the sciences. It is clear that seen from this angle, this term reflects a clear characteristic of today's society and university.

But it is also interesting to consider a second reason. The creation of separate strata is lethal to the very recognition of the problem of fragmentation in the knowledge in which the individual or the Structures we consider in our analysis find themselves. Dialogue between different parts of knowledge becomes impossible.

And don't these two motifs remind us of the approach of project After Virtue as described by the Anglo-Saxon author? Don't they also speak to us of the status in which university life finds itself, as MacIntyre himself has so well diagnosed?

Let us return again to MacIntyre's lecture in 2000. And let us turn especially to the transcript of the dialogue that took place between different people in the audience and the British thinker*(7). There are several aspects of it that can be of use to us financial aid to show how MacIntyre's acute diagnosis can be effective in proposing a solution to the university problem posed in the context of today's liberal society. To a large extent, one of the most serious drawbacks resulting from the fragmentation of knowledge is that, curiously enough, the ability to reflect in depth*(8) is being lost. We are losing, at final, the ability to realise that there is a problem.

In one of the questions MacIntyre was asked after the lecture, a high school professor from teaching average asked him to talk a little more about the difficulty of correcting students' opinions that we consider wrong. Our philosopher articulates a response that gives quite a few clues to the topic we are considering. I reproduce his words verbatim, which can be found in several transcripts on the Internet.

"(...) one of the great defects of our culture is not only that we have compartmentalisation; we don't have institutions, social areas, where people can withdraw to reflect, to think about the whole, the totality.

I had some experience of this when I was young, teaching in England for the Workers' Educational Association, which was an organisation that ran late afternoon classes for adults, usually from the working class class , and classes where people over a period of twelve weeks all studied philosophical texts together; something one normally does in university classes. But these people had no formal background from Education. This is England, in the early 1950s. People had left high school at the age of 14-16. And these were the ones who were (now) teaching themselves how to think in their everyday lives through reading Plato or Hobbes or whoever. It was enormously rewarding. And it became a forum, that is, a place where there could be a lot of discussion among the students themselves, and with me, and where it was possible to withdraw to reflect.

Now I think that at various times in the past there has been a great multitude of institutions like that (...) "* (9)

At another point in the colloquium that followed the lecture, someone in the audience asked Professor MacIntyre about how to teach, with an integrative vision of reality, that presents a coherent approach of the world, something that can challenge our life in its totality, both for teachers and students. The Anglo-Saxon philosopher's answer also deserves to be transcribed in the context we are analysing.

"I think the (thing) to do - and I don't have any recipe for how to do it - (...) is to understand others in the way they ask questions. In other words, one of the things that we believe I think is - and it's a theological belief - that there is no one who asks questions that ultimately written request are not answered in divine revelation. And what we don't financial aid at all is to go to people and say "You haven't realised it, but you are asking questions for which divine revelation has answers". What is really influential is to be at the side of the people, helping them to formulate the questions themselves in an appropriate way (...).

Now, in the classes, we are provided with an opportunity to do that. And, of course, what we just said (applies) right now with respect to the students' answers; students often feel distressed or annoyed when you try to raise these questions, because (these) questions go beyond what the lecture outlines say; and it's not clear that having answers for these questions will lead to getting a better grade on the exams. But that is what we need to do. And we need to find ways to do this in our social lives as well.

What I mean is, let's do what the Marxists did; the "classical" Marxists did not invent the movement of the class workers. Nor did they invent the trade union organisations. Nor did they invent the political parties of the working class people. What they did was to go to where the class workers were and helped them to formulate their questions. And the founders of the Christian trade unions in Europe saw this happening and said to themselves: "This is what we have to do too". And this is what happened in Italy, in France and elsewhere between 1880 and 1890. And this is what we should be looking at now "* (10).

As can be seen, our author's diagnosis is clear. Everything seems to indicate that we need to find a lost unity; lost in the course of centuries of development of thought. One way we propose to suggest here to move forward in this very fundamental task of helping others to formulate the right questions is to develop what has been called the interdisciplinary work . This is a task about which much has been said; about which rivers of ink have been written; and about which, unfortunately, we do not see too many practical results of substantial substance in university life today. Or, at least, not very often.

Before discussing the multidisciplinarity in a little more depth, let us mention two preliminary aspects that seem to us to be of importance in order to focus the topic, and to see the difficulty of venturing down this path. Firstly, it should be pointed out that this task requires time and calm, at a time when - as MacIntyre has been telling us - the temporal regulation of the university training is essentially driven by speed and pragmatism. The message is clear: it is necessary to achieve skills in the shortest possible time, enabling students to achieve the greatest capacity for practical results in their professional performance.

Secondly, the true multidisciplinarity is far removed from the modern mentality, because its basic approach requires overcoming the fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" of knowledge, and therefore learning new things that can be integrated in a globalising way into the particular knowledge that may have been acquired over time. This means that a given "specialist" who wants to be interdisciplinary must somehow adapt his "specialising" impulse - at least in a theoretical sense, intellectually modulating the paths of his research- with a view to ensuring that his more specific knowledge is harmoniously inserted into more "sapiential" approaches. In final, it is a matter of incorporating other disciplines that provide a deeper and more global sense to the whole of the specific intellectual task being carried out.

People who take the path of multidisciplinarity must learn to reflect on and deal with subjects outside their own specialization program. The latter requires, according to the British philosopher's idiolect, the implementation of very necessary aspects for the reconstruction of moral life as well: concrete practices*(11), anchored in narrative models that are inserted in traditions of study and analysis that favour this vision of exchange and improvement, so connatural to true interdisciplinary programs of study . In the history of sapiential thought, the examples of what we have just said are very clear, although not excessively numerous*(12).

In interdisciplinary dialogue, or rather in the difficulties for its implementation in society in general and in the university training in particular, what happened in contemporary moral debates, which MacIntyre called closed debates, is what we have seen happening. Thus, criticisms of past positions are often based on misunderstandings about the very meaning of the concepts in question and the scope of the thesis defended. In addition, many of the issues that require this subject of study and deliberation carry a good deal of ideological baggage*(13).

Let us take a concrete example that may help to illustrate this multidisciplinarity of which we have been speaking. We refer to the one that exists between the experimental sciences and the Philosophy, discipline sapiential of extraordinary importance in the higher teaching , as MacIntyre has reminded us*(14).

Undoubtedly, the best multidisciplinarity is the one that is embodied in the same person, in such a way that it unites in itself the experimental scientific and the philosophical knowledge . It is instructive to remember that Aristotle, one of the undisputed summits of the Philosophy, is also one of the summits of biology, and not only of its theoretical part, since he dissected with mastery more than three hundred different species of animals. The two knowledge do not contradict each other, but complement each other in the deepening of knowledge and in the way in which the questions that are truly decisive for knowledge and action*(15)are adequately addressed.

Let us recapitulate a little. We have seen that MacIntyre has diagnosed a problem in the university training that has its roots in the development of thought in recent centuries. Then we have indicated that the very diagnosis of the difficulty gives us a possible solution: to avoid the fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" of knowledge. Finally, we have pointed to multidisciplinarity as a possible element of great therapeutic value that could help our purpose to provide more concrete solutions. Let us continue to move forward along this line opened up by interdisciplinarity.

One author who has been insisting on this aspect in recent years has been Professor Lluís Clavell. In a 1992 article in which he deals precisely with the subjects we have been studying in our work he said at the beginning of it: "In my opinion, we find ourselves in an exciting curve of history, which demands from the university students a positive and attractive cultural proposal , which is appropriate to the needs of this time and which breaks some academic moulds inherited from modernity "* (16).

For Lluís Clavell*(17), MacIntyre illustrates very luminously in his project After Virtue how one of the most pressing problems today in the university environment is the lack of interconnection between the sciences; the increasingly pressing specialization of recent times has left a bitter aftertaste in the absence of synthesis and integrative understanding.

And Professor Clavell continued "(...) The result is that students are offered, even before university, a mosaic of fragmentary visions of reality - mostly from the world of science and not from those of Humanities- which do not make it possible for the person, who is a unitary whole, to orient himself in order to realise and perfect himself. In this way, the synthesis, in those who in some way realise it, remains in most cases at the mercy of a subjective evaluation "* (18). Here, too, the multidisciplinarity is pointed to as an effective solution. A multidisciplinarity that must be seen from the perspective of the unity of the knowledge of the empirical sciences with Philosophy and theology*(19).

It is clear, therefore, that the multidisciplinarity is already being pointed out as an aspect to be taken into account in the heart of university activity in order to recompose the effects produced by the fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" of knowledge*(20). An interesting way of looking at multidisciplinarity is to try to develop a sapiential way of thinking in the specific subject of study and analysis. This is what Luis Romera points out as an important point to increase a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our own knowledge*(21). This author proposes that this goal be developed on three levels: in the academic disciplines, in the anthropological-philosophical sphere, and on the theological plane: "(...), sapiential thought differs from scientific reason in that, instead of being sectorial, it aims at a growing integral vision. This develops progressively on the three levels we have indicated, as greater horizons are reached and a more radical or resolutive dimension of the real is penetrated" * (22).

His proposal suggests that, in discipline, it is necessary not to limit oneself to a methodical reason, without neglecting rigour in one's own methodology: "the interdisciplinary discussion (is useful) within the university, because (it) forces one to confront oneself and one's own discipline, to reconsider one's own ideas and perhaps to feel the stimulus to broaden one's horizons of study. All of this financial aid to rigorously elaborate one's own intellectual understandings in the scientific field in which the specialist moves, without neglecting the protocols of research or ignoring the consolidated results in science itself. Ultimately, the difference between an academy and a university lies in the fact that the former limits itself to teaching with skill and efficiency what others have elaborated, while the university institution teaches what has been thought out in it "* (23).

In final, we have seen in this work that MacIntyre's own diagnosis is not sterile, since it provides us with important keys to advance solutions. And as an example of all that we have been saying, we have seen that the very idea of fragmentation and "compartmentalisation" of knowledge, which was seen as one of the nuclear defects of the university training , naturally calls for the recovery of the integration of the former, something that is nowadays recognised in the multidisciplinarity.


  1. Cf. Giménez Amaya, J. M., "Un documento nuclear en los debates morales de nuestro tiempo", Cuadernos de Bioética, 22 (2011), pp. 13-23.

  2. Cfr. Giménez Amaya, J. M., Sánchez-Migallón, S., Diagnóstico de la Universidad en Alasdair MacIntyre. Genesis and development of an anthropological project . EUNSA, Pamplona 2011. See especially chapters I (pp. 15-129) and II (pp. 131-178).

  3. Cf. MacIntyre, A., "A Culture of Choices and Compartmentalization", transcript of a public lecture given by the cited author on 13 October 2000 at Notre Dame University in the State of Indiana in the United States, where the questions and answers that followed can also be found at lecture. The language in the questions and answers is developed in a colloquial tone; hence, when it was necessary to translate it into Spanish we tried to make it as clear as possible (

  4. Cf. MacIntyre, A., "Social structures and their threats to moral agency", Philosophy, 74 (1999), pp. 311-329.

  5. Cf. Breen, K., 'The state, compartmentalization and the turn to local community: a critique of the political thought of Alasdair MacIntyre', The European Legacy, 10 (2005), pp. 485-501; Cottingham, J., 'Integrity and fragmentation', Journal of Applied Philosophy, 27 (2010), pp. 2-14.

  6. MacIntyre, A., "Social structures and...", pp. 321-322. The translation is ours.


  8. On the importance of the unity of knowledge as an antidote to the aforementioned fragmentation, the following publications can also be consulted: Cfr. Jaspers, K., Rossmann, K., Die Idee der Universität, Springer, Heidelberg-Berlin 1961; Martínez, R., "Unità e diversità nelle scienze. Radici e prospective di un dibattito" in Unità e autonomia del sapere. Il dibattito del XIII secolo, R. Martínez (ed.), Armando Editore, Roma 1994, pp. 7-19; Guardini, R., Tre scritti sull'università, Morcelliana, Brescia 1999; Clavell, L., "La metadisciplinarità. Scienza, filosofia e teologia", in Unità del sapere e del fare. Una soluzione transdiciplinare, E. Marini (ed.), Quaderni dell'IPE, Napoli 2001, pp. 43-54; and "Fede, ragione, scienze, professioni. Per l'unità dei saperi", Studi Cattolici, N. 586 (2009), pp. 820-827; Tanzella-Nitti, G., "Unità del sapere", in Dizionario interdisciplinare di Scienza e Fede, G. Tanzella-Nitti, A. Strumia (eds.), Urbaniana University Press and Città Nuova Editrice, Roma 2002, pp. 1410-1431. 1410-1431; and "Università", in Dizionario interdisciplinare di Scienza e Fede, G. Tanzella-Nitti, A. Strumia (eds.), Urbaniana University Press and Città Nuova Editrice, Roma 2002, pp. 1432-1449.

  9. MacIntyre, A., "A Culture of...".

  10. Ibid.

  11.  "A internship is, according to MacIntyre's particular expression, a socially established, cooperative human activity by which goods inherent in it are realised. A internship involves external goods, such as prestige in the eyes of others, rank in society, or money. All these external goods are always the property of an individual. Goods internal to a internship, however, are those that are identified and recognised when participating in the internship in question. They are produced as result of competing in excellence, and their achievement is a good in which the whole community involved in the internship". Giménez Amaya, J. M., Sánchez-Migallón, S., Diagnóstico de la..., p. 93.

  12. Cf. Murillo, J. I., "Antropología" in Diccionario de Teología, C. Izquierdo, J. Burggraf and F. M. Arocena (eds.), EUNSA, Pamplona 2006, pp. 29-49.

  13. Cf. Giménez-Amaya, J. M., Murillo, J. I., "Mente y cerebro en la neurociencia contemporánea. Una aproximación a su estudio interdisciplinar", Scripta Theologica, 39 (2007), pp. 629-634.

  14. An example of how the absence of interdisciplinarity has lethal effects is masterfully described by MacIntyre in the following words: "In the natural sciences, the politics of enforced exclusion - quiet, informal, typically unstated politics, unknown and unnoticed except to sociologists of science - have provided the basis for a fruitful research to continue. The success of the natural sciences has conferred prestige on technology as such, and outside the natural sciences the agreement on technology has been allowed to replace the agreement on substantive issues. In both the Humanities and the social sciences, what can be reduced to techniques and procedures and results derived from technique and the procedure, has enjoyed its own class of rank, and in those areas, such as analytical Philosophy , linguistics and Economics, where there are undoubtedly fruitful uses of technique, such uses have often been accompanied by a simulation of technique in areas where it has in fact no application. Thus a central place has been given to the values of both genuine skill technique and its simulacra". MacIntyre, A., Tres versiones rivales de la ética, Rialp, Madrid 1991, pp. 277-278.

  15.  Ibid., p. 631.

  16.  Clavell, L., "Ética y unidad del saber (Reflexiones para una acción cultural universitaria)", Scripta Theologica, 24 (1992), p. 595.

  17. Ibid., p. 600.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Lluís Clavell also says: "Particular knowledge can only be well integrated if they are harmonised and seen from above, from the two totality of knowledge, which are theology and Philosophy. Only from there can one see what each partial method fails to consider and order the various sciences in the service of fully human progress" (Ibidem). And further on: "Perhaps an integral vision of man (...) in which the various forms of knowledge come together under the guidance of theological and philosophical knowledge can be a goal for (the university training ) in this time of cultural transition" (Ibid., p. 602). Cf. MacIntyre, A., God, Philosophy, Universities. A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland 2009.

  20. In this context, with regard to the magisterium of Benedict XVI, we also find it of great interest to consult some of the speeches he has given on certain aspects of university knowledge: Cfr. Benedict XVI, speech at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, 25 November 2005; "Faith, reason...; speech to the world of culture at the University of Pavia, Pavia, 22 April 2007; speech to the participants in the European meeting of university professors, Rome, 23 June 2007; speech at the University of La Sapienza, Rome, 17 January 2008; speech at meeting with the academic world, Prague, 27 September 2009; speech to the teachers and students of the Free University Maria Santissima Assunta (LUMSA), Rome, 12 November 2009; speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Rome, 28 October 2010. In the most recent of the above-mentioned speech it is stated, very significantly, the following: "(...) as the increasing achievements of the sciences increase our wonder at the complexity of nature, the need for an interdisciplinary approach linked to philosophical reflection is increasingly perceived".

  21. Romera, L., La actualidad del pensamiento cristiano, Universidad de Piura, Piura 2009, pp. 95-109.

  22. Ibid., pp. 95-96.

  23.  Ibid., p. 100. There are many publications to illustrate the last words of this quotation. By way of example, and in the context of our own academic life, the following can be consulted: Albareda y Herrera, J. M., Consideraciones sobre la research científica, C.S.I.C., Madrid 1951; Polo, L., "Universidad y sociedad", in Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y la Universidad, EUNSA, Pamplona 1993, pp. 187-196; Reinoso Suárez, F., speech on receiving the doctorate "Honoris Causa", University of Granada, Granada 1999; Llano, A., Discursos en la Universidad (1991-1996): 25 años de Chair, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona 2001; and Repensar la universidad: la universidad ante lo nuevo, EIUNSA, Madrid 2003; Clavell, L., "Razón y fe en la universidad:civil service examination o partnership?", Serie Sphaera del high school CEU de Humanities Ángel Ayala, 17 (2010), pp. 3-15; and "Verso un progetto educational e scientifico della Pontificia Università della Santa Croce", in Pontificia Università della Santa Croce. Dono e compito: 25 anni di attività, Silvana Editoriale, Milano 2010, pp. 108-115; Ocáriz, F., "Il ruolo della filosofia nel pensiero cristiano. Una prospettiva universitaria", in Pontificia Università della Santa Croce. Dono e compito: 25 anni di attività, Silvana Editoriale, Milano 2010, pp. 126-135.