Jazz as an Example of MacIntyre’s Notion of Practice

Kind of Blue SessionsIn his work, After Virtue, MacIntyre provides a multifaceted definition of practice as well as a helpful discussion of a practice’s internal and external goods. As he explains, a practice is

any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity.[1]

Clearly, jazz qualifies as a complex, socially created, communal human activity. The excellent jazz improviser, for example, must achieve a high level of technical proficiency combined with the ability to employ her technical expertise in a way that allows her to develop her own musical identity. In order to accomplish this she must devote herself to years of practice and training, acquiring the requisite skills or “internal goods” of her craft, which includes familiarizing herself with the works of respected and exemplary jazz musicians. Internal goods, then, are intrinsic goods specific to a particular practice that are acquired through intentionally submitting and immersing oneself in the activities essential to that practice. As MacIntyre puts it, we acquire internal goods by “subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; […] and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies.”[2] In so doing, we acknowledge that practices with internal goods have standards of excellence that have been established over time by a community of practitioners. However, these standards, having been created by human agents, are open to transformation by present and future human agents employing their skills excellently to advance and enrich the practice and broader tradition. With respect to jazz, such intrinsic goods include: a highly developed ability to improvise, an excellent sense of rhythm and ability to perform complex, syncopated rhythms at any tempo and in multiple styles, and a thorough knowledge of and ability to imitate exemplary jazz players. Lastly, the internal goods of a practice are recognized and identified only by those who possess the requisite experience of and training in the practice at hand.

In contrast, the external goods of a practice are those goods, which, when acquired, become the property and possession of particular individuals and/or institutions.[3] External goods include: power, fame, prestige, and money. Although internal goods arise through competition with others desiring to excel at their particular practice, such goods serve to enrich the community of practitioners. Mark Banks describes this type of competition as “emulative competition.” Emulative competitors value and prioritize the achievement of internal goods and advancing a practice’s standards of excellence over the mere pursuit of external goods. In addition, emulative competitors view money and other external goods as requisite components that help to sustain the practice.[4] External goods, however, are often “objects of competition” whose goods accrue to the individual (or institution) rather than the community of practitioners. As Banks explains, unlike the emulative competitor, the market-focused competitor gives priority to external goods and “production largely takes place in order for these to be most effectively obtained.”[5] Lastly, as the name suggests, external goods are not intrinsic to a practice; they can be obtained through participation in many different practices and activities. Thus, they have no essential connection to any particular practice.

MacIntyre also stresses that practices must be distinguished from institutions. For example, jazz, medicine, and baseball are practices, whereas universities, hospitals, and baseball leagues are institutions. Unlike practices, institutions must be concerned with funding, status, hierarchies, prestige, and power. In short, institutions and external goods are mutually involved. According to MacIntyre, practices require institutional forms for their sustenance and development. Given this causal relationship, institutions likewise influence the internal goods of a practice, subjecting them to institutional goals and activities. Here we have the potential for corruption, since the internal goods of practice often conflict with the external goods and market-focused aims of the institution. As MacIntyre observes, “the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution.”[6] Here the importance of virtues comes to the fore. Not only are virtues such as humility, perseverance, justice, and courage required for a practitioner to excel, but also such virtues (as well as others) are needed to maintain the integrity of practices and to withstand the corrupting power of institutions.

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[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 187.

[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 191.

[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 190. Given what MacIntyre says about institutions (and ipso facto, corporations), it seems reasonable include institutions in this description.

[4] Mark Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,” Popular Music 31 (2012):  69–86, here, 72.

[5] Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,”72.

[6] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 194.