Discovering John Macmurray

Discovering John Macmurray, by Philip Hunt

This is a short introduction to John Macmurray, for the sake of those who have come newly to him. As you will see, it is mainly descriptive rather than analytic. There is a reason for this. Macmurray himself maintained that a writer’s works should be allowed to “speak for themselves.” Though the bulk of this paper is descriptive, some analysis is unavoidable. I have tried my best to make it intelligible; but if you get stuck, I hope you will be intrigued enough with the reality of the issues to get hold of Macmurray’s books and let them speak for themselves, as he recommended.

I shall begin by calling on two witnesses who can testify to Macmurray’s value as a philosopher, both in general and also in relation to their particular needs. The first is the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He was introduced to Macmurray as an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1970’s, by a mature student, an Australian Anglican priest who had himself been inspired to read ‘The Clue to History’ at ecclesiastical college in Melbourne in the 1950’s, and found it “mind-blowing stuff.” In his foreword to the Macmurray anthology published in 1996 Blair says:

“John Macmurray is not one of the twentieth century’s most famous philosophers. This is surprising. Actually his work is more accessible, better written, and above all far more relevant than most of what I and many others studied as hallowed texts at university. I also find him immensely modern… in the sense that he confronted what will be the critical political question of the twenty-first century: the relationship between individual and society.”

Our second witness is Dame Cicely Saunders, O.M., founder of the Hospice movement. She wrote in 1993:

“I was very interested to hear that there has been a hope to reawaken an interest in the thoughts of John Macmurray… The first I heard of him was in a debate on euthanasia in which I had said something about the essential person, even in the last stages of illness or consciousness, and was asked by a member of the audience what I meant by a person. I did my best at the time but was very glad to be told by Edward Carpenter who was chairing the meeting that I should read John Macmurray’s ‘Persons in Relation’. I acquired that and several other books and have gone back to them on many occasions… Hospice is certainly about persons in relation and I think it is very interesting that one of the early versions of the word ‘hospitium’ meant not only the place where host and guest met but also the relationship between the two…”

These accounts have two features in common. First, neither the Prime Minister nor Dame Cicely was taught Macmurray. Instead, both “caught” him from a third party: the Prime Minister from Peter Thomson, the Australian, and Dame Cicely from Edward Carpenter, the Dean of Westminster. Secondly, both witnesses have used Macmurray in their daily lives: they are both primarily doers, not thinkers. His value to them has been to underpin and direct their actions. Could it be that the difference between those who acclaim Macmurray and those who ignore him lies in the different conception of the uses to which philosophy can be put? Traditionally, philosophers put thinking ahead of acting. We think first, they say, in order to act aright. An Open University booklet some years ago was asking itself the question, “What is the purpose of Philosophy?” and came up with the answer that it was to teach the young to argue; relegating Philosophy to a second-division role, a discipline subordinate to Rhetoric. Macmurray on the other hand has postulated the primacy of action over thinking. Action comes first: we stop to think.

The early years: 1891 – 1914.

Now to the story of Macmurray’s life. He was born in 1891, into a deeply religious family. Its earliest component was Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism. But his parents moved away from the strict Calvinist tradition. They were “seekers” in the seventeenth-century sense, influenced by the Evangelical movement, ending up as Plymouth Brethren. However, they remained true to their Calvinist roots, not so much in doctrine as in what Emil Brunner has called “personal correspondence”: God’s personal encounter with Mankind. They also had in full measure the old Scottish faith in and reverence for learning. When John was ten years old, his father moved the family to Aberdeen where such learning was to be found.

The scene now seemed to be set for John’s academic progression along traditional Scottish lines: a thorough grounding in the classics at grammar school, followed by a classical degree at university and then a scholarship to Oxford for a final degree in “Greats”. Macmurray followed this tradition almost to the letter, but with a difference. Despite opposition both at school and at university, he insisted on including science as an extra subject in a classical course. In his later philosophy, he maintained that “modern experimental science is characteristically Christian in its own sphere… it is the intellectual life of faith.” In due course he went up to Oxford in 1913, to be tutored by A D Lindsay. One year later the Great War broke out. Macmurray enlisted as a Medical Orderly in October 1914. By the beginning of 1915, he was in France, at the Front.

Early cultural influences.

The strongest influence on Macmurray during those early years was the religion he had inherited from his parents. Quite early on, in his first year at Glasgow University, he had parted company with the sterner parts of Presbyterian doctrine, thus freeing himself, as he says, “from the hopeless and deadly struggle to obey the moral law, in order to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The God he found was the God of the Bible: a worker God, who created the world and who has continued with creation throughout history.

He also got to know the culture of Greece, both at Glasgow and at Oxford, where he encountered Plato for the first time. The Greek background is in complete contrast to the Hebrew. The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt. They dated their nationhood from “the day you came out of Egypt, when the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand.” The Greeks were not slaves but conquerors. They made slavery part of their policy of conquest, and the permanent basis of their economic system. The Hebrews had a covenant with their God: their task was to work together with Him in establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. They looked forward to the future, not back to the past. The Greeks placed their golden age firmly in the past: Hesiod in the 7th century divided the history of the world into five ages of successive deterioration. The Hebrews believed that, at bottom, change was their ally. The Greeks were certain that any change was change for the worse, not better. Their thinkers were bothered by change. They preferred a world in which things stayed the same. One early philosopher, Crasylus, was so upset by the notion that he gave up speaking and would only wag his finger. Plato’s solution was to posit two worlds: the changeless world above the firmament, housing all the perfect forms of everything, and our world below, the world of coming-into-being and of passing-away; the world of contingency, of “belief” and not “certainty”. Reigning over the world above was the Greek concept of Deity: perfect, eternal, changeless, above history.

Through sheer intellectual brilliance Greek philosophers dominated European thinking for two millennia. Whitehead wrote in 1929, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” The Greek notion of an eternal and changeless deity dominated the early notion of Christendom and is still to be found in strength in the hymnals. Macmurray, however, kept his head and his independence of thought. He wrote in 1972, “I had become suspicious of the influence of Greek philosophy upon the formulation of Christian doctrine from the earliest times… In my own search for a satisfactory philosophy I found myself critical of the foundations of Greek philosophy… and was reaching for a new philosophical form that would not exclude a belief in God by making religion a matter of unjustifiable assertion.” It is the God of the Hebrews, not of the Greeks, who inspired his philosophy.

The War years.

Like the rest of his generation, Macmurray went into the War as a young man “in a blaze of idealism, to save little Belgium and put an end to war. We discovered, stage by stage, what childish nonsense all this idealism was.” The first thing to go was his vague pacifism. Less than three months after he landed in France, he was writing to his Oxford tutor, A D Lindsay, to say that he realised that he was not doing his best for his country in the position he was in, and to ask him to recommend him for a commission in a fighting regiment. Next to receive a knock was his faith in Socialism as a practical creed. In that same letter, he described his disappointment in the working man. “All these men whom I know and thoroughly like are quite incapable of passing judgment on any subject not entirely within the range of their own experience…” By the end of the War, he and his comrades at the Front had lost all faith in the society they had been fighting to preserve. They believed that their leaders were either rascals or blind leaders of the blind.

There were positive developments as well. He lost all fear of death: it had become just an incident in life. Hatred of the Germans as “the enemy” had gone: it had never been “real”. The two sides understood each other, even though they could not communicate directly. Both had been dumped into the same spurious and obscene life of trench warfare. Both had discovered that the only way of surviving these conditions was to ritualise warfare: to go through the motions of aggression with the least possible damage to either side. Macmurray recounts the story of the Saxon soldier, who one night slipped over to the British trench and dropped a card reading (in English) “Watch out! The Prussians take over tomorrow.” One wonders which side that soldier was on: perhaps on the side of humanity in general.

The most painful episode of the War, and one which had a decisive influence on his life, occurred not at the Front but at home in Britain, when he was on leave. He was invited to preach, in uniform, at a North London church: almost certainly the church which the Macmurray family had attended prewar. The congregation had been hoping for, and expecting, a morale-booster. What they got was very different: a passionate plea for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. It did not go down well. Afterwards no one would speak to him or shake his hand. He was “despised, rejected.” Consequently he was led to renounce, “as a personal Christian protest against a spurious Christianity”, all organised religion. He decided that when the war was over, he would not remain or become a member of any organised church on the grounds that they had all reverted to tribalism. From then on, he operated as a kind of Christian freelance, putting his pen and his charismatic powers of address at the disposal of people who saw Christianity in the same light as he did.

One of the first tasks he set himself was to “read the Gospels as though I had discovered them for the first time.” The results surprised him. In particular, he found in John xv that Jesus had made Friendship, not Service, the hallmark of discipleship. This he decided to use as the theme for his keynote address in January 1929 to the Liverpool Quadrennial of the Student Christian Movement. Entitled ‘Ye Are My Friends’, it caused a considerable stir. The Secretary-General of the SCM said of it, “Macmurray’s address had a curiously testing effect on the audience. Running through students and senior friends alike I found three reactions: either a surface acceptance of what seemed obvious, or a genuine fear of such revolutionary ideas on friendship, or an intense enjoyment of a masterly plea for love as the whole Christian way, the spring of all Christian action.” It was later published by the Society of Friends as a pamphlet which is still in print. ‘Ye Are My Friends’ marked his recovery from the despair of 1917 and enabled him to resume his spiritual journey which led him eventually into the Society of Friends. It also gave him, in “Friendship”, the key to his philosophy of the Personal.

Macmurray’s academic career.

It is time now to pick up the threads of his academic career. Macmurray took his degree in 1919, while still in uniform. After short stints at Manchester University and in South Africa he was elected to a fellowship at Balliol in 1922. He made his mark very soon. In 1927 he contributed two chapters to Adventure: the Faith of Science and the Science of Faith: a book which Macmurray said had had “a good reception… and has puzzled a lot of people in the right way.” It deserved more attention than it got. In one of the chapters, he had anticipated by almost ten years the findings of Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery, notably the “Falsification Theory” which established Popper’s reputation over here in Britain. Macmurray showed in 1927 that science deals exclusively with contingency and not with certainty, that scientific method necessarily involves experiment, and that it could, and in his view should, be applied to religion as well. All this time, his mind was turning increasingly towards the philosophy of the Personal. In 1928, he was offered and accepted the Grote Chair of Mind and Logic at University College London. In November of that year, he gave his inaugural lecture. The title, “The Unity of Modern Problems”, gives a good idea of what he had in mind. The “Modern” World, he claimed, dates from the Renaissance and the Reformation, with the recognition of the supreme value of the individual Person. And here we embark on the analysis I promised at the beginning of this paper.

If you aim at Certainty, as the Greeks did, what you will get is timeless truths: pure form, or structure. For example: at the Studium Generale, the forerunner of Oxford University, a subject for debate was “whether more than one angel can occupy one space at the same time.” Obviously this is not a problem of physics: it is “out of time”. The answer will depend on the definition of “angel”. Macmurray insisted that his philosophy was “in history”; its problems were “real”; its function practical. All his findings had to be capable of being put to the test, of experiment via the scientific method. That meant that all his knowledge was contingent, i.e. open to doubt. Descartes, with his method of Universal Doubt, had led the way. It had proved hugely successful: the modern physical sciences really took off from that time. The weakness of Descartes’ philosophy, though, was that it gave primacy to thought over action, as did Greek philosophy. He also created a two-substance world: of “Mind” and “Matter”. He was uncertain how they could interact, except that his mental models were able in some way to share the same form, or structure, as the material world. Macmurray calls this the Mechanical “Schema”. It is essentially mathematical.

But the Self is not only substance: it is also organism. It can be described both anatomically and physiologically. This calls for a second, Organic, Schema, describing how parts cooperate in the functioning of a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Thirdly: an organism requires an environment, something other than itself. And at that point, another factor emerges. Animals are obliged to adapt to their environment; if they don’t, they die. Humankind is not: it has the power to modify its environment or to create a new one. By taking thought, we may not be able to add a cubit to our stature, but we can create machines which do it for us, in effect. We have therefore to accept the need of a third Schema to cater for that super-organism, the human being. Hence, concludes Macmurray, “The unity of modern problems is the problem of discovering… a new schema of the Self which shall transcend both the mechanical and the organic schema; and which will enable us to construct… a civilization whose mechanical and organic structures will be at the service of a personal life, whose meaning and essence is friendship.”

He now thought the time was ripe for him to embark on his first book: he meant it to concern the Person, and to approach the problem from the formal, or logical, angle — that of the Schema. But he did not succeed. He encountered snags which it took him twenty years to overcome. Even then, he regarded The Form of the Personal, his Gifford Lectures of 1953-4, as “no more than a preliminary and tentative reconnaissance,” hoping that it might “indicate a promising direction for advance.” Note, though, that “Friendship” finds its place as the summit and essence of his philosophy.

At this point, in 1930, he was invited to give a series of twelve talks for the Adult Education programme of the BBC, on “Reality and Freedom.” Philosophy was a new venture for the BBC. The talks were an immediate success, producing what the Director of Talks described as “a miniature renaissance among thousands of listeners.” It led to a strong demand for them in book form. So instead of writing his first book on the logical “form” of the Personal, he turned to its “phenomenology”: to cognate subjects, starting with ‘Freedom in the Modern World’. It was the first of a number of books, seven in all by 1939, which he wrote on a wide variety of philosophical topics. In 1940 he was invited to contribute a chapter to an international symposium on Freedom where he repeated a conceptual distinction between “Society” and “Community” first sketched out in his ‘Reason and Emotion’ (1935): Society, constituted by a common purpose; Community, arising from the sharing of a common life. Politics, he said, was the stuff of the former; Religion, of the latter.

In December 1941, in four talks on the radio, Macmurray applied his mind to the same problem seen from the point of view of individual human persons. He discerned two distinct but related aspects to their life: the Functional, covering the realm of work, where people are related hierarchically, where inequality rules, and where discipline, order, duty and obedience hold sway; and the Personal, where human beings are of infinite value, and where differences of race, sex, class or function are irrelevant. These two aspects are both essential; there is tension between them: we must find a means of reconciliation. He enunciated the principle, “The functional life is for the personal life: the personal life is through the functional life.” In 1947 he made a further contribution to the debate on Freedom, in his’Conditions of Freedom’. There, he advocated the principle of reciprocal freedom. “We of the West, who have grown so far and grown so powerful, often at the expense of the rest of mankind, have now to learn that Freedom is not our private possession… One thing we need, which is very difficult to achieve: the ability to see ourselves as only part of a society which is universal; and, in our freedom, as the trustees of a possession which belongs of right to all men. We can preserve our freedom only by sharing it.”

In an appendix, I have listed a number of quotations from Macmurray’s work which give a good idea of the range and depth of his thinking. And here, I must draw this paper to a close. But since it is concerned with Macmurray as a man, it is right to include a brief description of just how these adult education sessions were broadcast. The demand for adult education was apparently insatiable. The problem was how to organise listening among people who did not own, and could not afford, the powerful wireless sets which were needed for proper reception. Hence, “Listening-in” had to be organised collectively. So Listening Groups were formed: at the height of the movement, there were more than 1200 groups in being, with an average of 12 to 20 listeners apiece. The City of Hereford, for example, persuaded the Great and the Good of that city personally to lead one group each for one evening a week, on the following rota: Mondays: the President of the Chamber of Commerce; Tuesdays: the Headmistress of Hereford Training College; Wednesdays: the Headmaster of Hereford High School; Thursdays: the Town Clerk; Fridays (Macmurray’s day): the Director of Education.

Not all Listening Groups in the country were so well appointed or well organised as Hereford. In October 1931 The Listener gave a description of a rural group, in a remote village in Warwickshire, in the heart of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden. “The village has one hundred and forty-seven inhabitants, of whom thirty-seven are children, aged four to fourteen years, who are taught by the village schoolmistress with the help of a pupil teacher — no easy task in education. The meeting was held in the village schoolroom, lit for this occasion by a lamp borrowed from a neighbouring house; and twenty-nine of the village folk, of all ages from seven to seventy, came to hear the first talk by Professor John Macmurray on ‘Education and Leisure’. Quietly they listened to his deep thoughts, clothed in simple words; and the discussion which followed showed (as so often in BBC groups) that the experience of everyday life supplements and confirms the meditations of the learned.”



1. The Reality of Religion. “To think of Religion as illusory and pointless has always seemed to me as preposterous as it would be to say the same thing of Music.”(SRR p.2).

2. Human Nature as inherently social. “There are few things that I desire to do… which do not depend upon the active cooperation of others… I need you in order to be myself.” (PR, passim). “We become persons in community in virtue of our relations to others. Human life is inherently a common life.” (CF p. 37)

3. Community and Society compared. “Associations of Human beings are of various types, resting on different principles (of which) two are so radically distinct that confusion has dangerous consequences. There is one type constituted by a common purpose; there is another which consists in the sharing of a common life. It is essential to distinguish these; and I propose to use the terms “society” and “community” for this purpose.” (CF p. 35)

4. Politics and Religion. “The proper relation of religion and politics is the unsolved problem of our civilisation. Our tendency is to keep the two in different compartments… This way of dodging the difficulty has had disastrous consequences. What is sought is the clue to their harmonious integration. If the functional life is for the personal life it is also true and important that the personal life is only possible through the functional life.” (“Persons and Functions” series, Talk III, December 1941.)… “The final issue we shall have to face will be concerned with the economics of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (SRR p. 79)

5. Relation between thinking and action. “Reality in human life is action… The real world is the world defined by action, in action. Ideas are the eyes of action”… “Idealism consists finally in the divorce between love and hunger, through which love becomes an ideal and hunger is left to control and determine action.” (CS pp. 151, 152)

6. Information compared with knowledge. “Knowledge is always personal, always somebody’s; but information is just anybody’s… Science is not the personal knowledge of this scientist or that; it is information out of which you and I can pick or choose what we want for our purposes… This concentration on the object, characteristic of the ‘information’ attitude, is often called objectivity. It is really only impersonality.” (RE pp. 150, 151)

7. Scientific Method. “The Scientific attitude and method is an effort to amend beliefs by accepting them as a basis for experiment. We might say… that the scientist experiments with his knowledge not in order to prove it true, but in the hope of proving it faulty.” (Adventure (1927) p. 35)

8. Reason. “Reason is the capacity to behave consciously in terms of the nature of what is not ourselves… in terms of the nature of the object; that is to say, to behave objectively.” (RE p. 19)

KEY: CF Conditions of Freedom: CS Creative Society: PR Persons in Relation: RE Reason & Emotion: SA Self as Agent: SRR Search for Reality in Religion.

Philip Hunt, September, 1988