The Philosophy Of John Macmurray: An Introduction to its Distinctive Features

John Macmurray Fellowship Annual Conference Woodbrooke 2002
Friday 11 October at 5.15 p.m.

The Philosophy Of John Macmurray: An Introduction to its Distinctive Features

Our Committee, in its wisdom, thought that at past conferences we might have been too hard on newcomers in that the first session they were plunged into was one where a detailed paper was delivered by some expert on a clearly demarcated aspect of Macmurray’s thought or work. This was fine for Macmurray buffs. But those without a wide background knowledge of Macmurray might have found the paper interesting enough in itself but have been nonplussed as to its particular significance.

I, therefore, come before you at the start of this conference not as a charismatic proud workshop facilitator but as Dryasdust. Dryasdust, you may recall, was a character created by Sir Walter Scott but he was taken by C.. S.. Lewis as the type of the sort of person who was at the top of his list of people who helped. him most in his own reading. ‘He told you what the hard words meant.’ So, herewith my Bluffer’s Guide to John Macmurray.

What makes Macmurray distinctive? It seems to me that there are two features that are philosophically central. And a further two features which emerge when Macmurray is reflecting both as a philosopher and as a decent, well-educated chap.

The first philosophically central feature is what some philosophers call the primacy of the practical. This is not the view that it is better to go out into the world and do things rather than just sit down and think about them. It is the view that when you do sit down and think philosophically about things you had best start your philosophical analysis from the standpoint of’ a man when he is acting rather than (as Descartes and even Kant did) from the standpoint of a man when he is thinking. The ‘Cogito’ or ‘I think’ is replaced by the ‘I do’. This avoids generating certain dualistic puzzles which have bedevilled much Western philosophy such as How is the Self which is a ‘thinking thing’ connected to the Body which appears to be associated with it? How do I know the ‘externa1 world’ exists? How do I know that other people exist and that they have minds? This leads Macmurray on to say that the isolated thinking self does not exist except as an intellectuals abstraction and should not therefore be used as the basic explanatory unit. The ‘I’ is merely one term in-a
relation ‘You and I’ and it is this which is best taken as the basic explanatory unit. Macmurray frequently encapsulates his criticism of this aspect of Western philosophy by saying that it is Theoretical and Egocentric, that is it tries to make theory more basically explanatory than action; and it tries to make the isolated self basically explanatory rather than persons in relation.

The second philosophically central distinctive feature of Macmurray’s thought is his understanding of the scope of the concept Reason. In Macmurray’s thought the term reason can be applied to feelings as well as to thought. Both feelings and thoughts can be referred to a reality beyond ourselves and they both can be so referred either correctly or incorrectly. So they are both capable of being either rational or irrational. Now in the West we have commonly been willing to apply the rational/irrational distinction to thoughts, to intellect. Feelings, on the other hand, are generally seen as a wild anarchic bunch which will upset our rational procedures if we don’t bridle them and hold them in check. Plato’s image or the charioteer controlling plunging horses comes to mind. We see feelings as having to be controlled by reason (reason equated with intellect that is) rather than possessing a rationality of their own. The view we adopt on this matter could have a marked effect, for example, upon the way we bring up and educate children, the way we manage our own lives, the expectations we will have from merely intellectual political conferences, and so forth.

Nor we come to those two features of Macmurray’s thought which emerge when he is reflecting both as a philosopher and as a decent well-educated chap. (They are ones which I think will be of relevance to the themes of this conference.) The first is his perception of the motivational forces of human beings. He sees these as basically reducible to two: Love and Fear. Hate he sees as Love frustrated by Fear. (Incidentally, in general reading I’ve noted how people often comment on the structural similarities between Love and Hate. Macmurray’s analysis would explain this.) Now it is not a case of Love being equated with Good and Fear always being equated with Bad. Without Fear human life might or might not be poor, solitary, nasty and brutish. It would almost certainly be short! Indeed, Macmurrey sees Fear as being the motive of philosophy and science, neither of which he disapproved. However, Macmurray does think that Fear can play a disproportionate part in human life. And that religion, good and bad, is aimed at overcoming fear. When Jesus urges faith Macmurray understands him to be opposing it to Fear, not to a lack of intellectual assent to items in a credal list.

The final distinctive feature to which I wish to draw attention is Macmurray’s willingness
to apply the concept Maturity not only to biological organisms and persons but also to forms of human reflection such as science, art and religion. He thinks that our form of science is now mature. As a form of reflection that is. He is not saying that it’s work is complete or that its results are always being used in an emotionally mature way. For the latter to be possible we would need to have a mature religion for science to serve. And that we have not got.

Michael Edwards
Raynes Park
4 September 2002

Now this is a very bare framework. I have consciously resisted the temptation to spin more words for fear of obscuring the salient points I wanted to present, which were:

1. The substitution of the ‘I do’ for the ‘I think’ (or the ‘Self as Agent’ for the ‘Self as Thinker’). Macmurray described this as a Copernican shift in the centre of gravity of our philosophy.

2. The application of the concept Reason to feelings as well as to thoughts.

3. The basic human motives being Love and Fear.

4. The applications of the distinction mature/immature to forms of human reflection such as science, art and religion.

I wanted to leave ample time for questions and requests for expansions and clarifications.

I have with me some notes I have jotted down in anticipation of queries.

– We are constituted as Persons by the you-and-I relationship i.e. we couldn’t have become persons on our own. Once we are persons we are of course, free to withdraw into solitude. Whether this is a fruitful or healthy thing to do depends on our purpose in doing it.

– All forms of human reflection are grounded in experience obtainable in everyday human life including religion. In the case of religion the relevant field of human experience is the field of personal relationships.

Michael Edwards
Raynes Park
5 October 2002