John Macmurray: A Biography, by John E. Costello

Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2002, ISBN 0-86315-361-5, 445 pages, £20

John Macmurray, undoubtedly a thinker for the twenty-first century though not widely recognised as such, died in 1976. We have waited a long time for this impressive biography, which would have done credit to someone who knew Macmurray intimately. But Costello, who is a Jesuit, did not know him personally and had to rely a good deal on the recollection of friends, colleagues, ex-students and family, many of whom produced valuable correspondence and lecture notes, of which Costello made good use. The result is a highly illuminating account of Macmurray’s life and thought, enabling us to follow the development and maturing of his ideas, which came to fruition in a highly original philosophy of action, or, to use Macmurray’s description, a ‘philosophy of the personal’.

Macmurray came from a Scottish, Presbyterian background and went to Glasgow University, where he read Classics. His experience as a soldier in the first world war, followed by a career as writer and lecturer at the universities of Oxford, London and Edinburgh, provide the background for his intellectual journey. He himself tried to discourage would-be biographers, saying that anything of interest about him would be found in his writings rather than in what he regarded as a very ordinary life. But Costello manages to weave together a fascinating double story, in which Macmurray’s life and relationships provide the stimulus for the development of revolutionary new philosophical insights enabling him to articulate a genuinely rational basis for viewing personal being as the ultimate, all-inclusive reality of existence. I have tried, in this review article, both for my own benefit and to help newcomers to Macmurray’s thought, to draw out the main principles, outlined by Costello, which structure Macmurray’s remarkable personalist metaphysic.

Costello speaks of Macmurray as a post-modern thinker, who was aware of modern philosophy’s inability to unite contradictory elements in personal life, such as thought and action, individual and community, theory and practice, objective and subjective. Macmurray himself summed up the philosophical thesis underlying his vision of what personal life is about in a sentence, well-known to those familiar with his writings: All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship.

Macmurray was at Balliol College, Oxford, when war broke out and he immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Costello’s chapter on the war years is full of extracts from articles, poems and letters, particularly those exchanged with Betty, his fiancee, and Helen, his sister. He writes of getting to know and like the men who served under him in a way that would have been impossible at home in peacetime. Half-way through the war, he was commissioned and spent much time in the trenches, where death was a stark, ever-present fact. This experience helped him to formulate some of his deepest convictions about the nature of religion and its reality. Real religion, he writes, is not a matter of beliefs, which are derivative. Real religion lies in the depth of one’s being and is at one with being genuinely human. It is a development of personality itself. There is no split in life. All personal experience is open to a religious interpretation. It became part of Macmurray’s life-work to teach this as a basic truth of Christianity.

Costello quotes from published and unpublished materials from the war years, showing how Macmurray’s future mind set developed. Macmurray believed that the first and second world wars were the result of a deep sickness in the Western soul. While on leave he had the experience of preaching to congregations, who resented being told to prepare for the work of reconciliation after the war. He himself was eventually invalided out of the army. He won the Military Cross for solicitous leadership of his men and for bravery under fire. While finishing his philosophical studies at Oxford, he dedicated his life-work to exploring the means of achieving genuine justice and peace in a sick society. He was convinced that modern categories of thinking were responsible for many of society’s deepest problems and that there were massive contradictions to be healed in the European soul.

To eliminate war became, for Macmurray, the underlying purpose of all his philosophizing. By the end of the war, he had become deeply disenchanted with the institutions and leadership of his society. He refused to join a religious organisation as a protest against what seemed to him a spurious Christianity. He remained, however, a committed Christian and in later life joined the Quaker movement. Many of his contemporaries identified religion with the churches and gave up religion altogether. Macmurray did not, because he was able to identify Christianity with being human. Religion, he believed, was fundamental to human life and to create community was the essence of true religion. He believed the religious issue to be the most important of all issues and that Christianity needed to be rediscovered. He contributes to this quest in some of his books.

Macmurray’s whole life was a search for reality, guided by certain governing principles. One of these was a conviction about the unity of knowledge. Macmurray held that ‘Idealism’ failed to provide the terms for genuine unity of knowledge. Modern thinking had become largely dominated by a mechanical concept of unity arising out of the dominance of experimental physics. The alternative was to regard the science of living things and their biological relations as providing the normative way of achieving unity. But biological categories were also inadequate for understanding the human reality. Macmurray’s life-work had to do with taking these two inadequate conceptions of unity and incorporating them into a more inclusive conception that could do justice to the full reality of the personal. For Macmurray, the logical form of the personal governed his search for a fully rational view of the universe.

Macmurray’s vision of the interconnectedness of all things led him to recognise that the purest and fullest form of knowing depends on an aesthetic intuition and creative imagination.This relies as much on feeling as on intellect and observation. Feeling, he insists, is a form of knowing. A human being is not just a detached observer of reality from outside but a participant, who comes to knowledge only from within. This makes him, not a mere thinker, but an agent, who knows, not just by contemplating the world in detachment, but by acting in it.

Macmurray was aware of the significant differences at work in differing conceptions of unity. In each case, a different logic operates. The mechanical viewpoint, defined by mathematics requires a logic that is mainly formal. The organic conception involves the need for a dialectical logic, whose expression reached its greatest refinement in Hegel’s thought. Hegel had rejected the mechanical conception of mind, but had succumbed to an organic model of categorizing being. His move to dialectical logic was truer to life than formal logic, but he was still unable to represent human beings in their spiritual distinctiveness – i.e. in their constitution as persons through relationship with other persons.

Macmurray realized that these two models, the mechanical and the organic, had come effectively to rule European thinking and practices since the nineteenth century. They offered a view of individuals, institutions, religions and nations in a progressively unfolding universe, moving towards completion by way of competitive struggle and conflict. We are only potentially what we can and should become. On the organic model, human beings are not free agents except in the sense of being able to choose ‘Necessity’. Macmurray stands out amongst twentieth century philosophers as a thinker who understands better than almost all his contemporary professionals the need for a logic that does justice to what we are – responsible, moral and spiritual persons, a logic that is fundamentally open and teleological.

Costello shows how Macmurray finally arrived at a clear and reasonable logic enabling us to see persons as relational, interactive, individual-social beings, whose freedoms and determinisms function creatively, yet predictably, in ways that correspond to our experience. In the course of his battle to arrive at the needed unity of knowledge, Macmurray explored the major philosophical contributions of European thought and came to one of his most significant philosophical conclusions – that action, not thinking, is the primary and most inclusive domain of human reason in its expression. He was helped by Kant, who had already questioned the primacy of the theoretical, but had been unable to relate the theoretical and practical coherently.

Macmurray argues that action is conceptually prior to thinking, because theory arises from action and receives its verification in action. For the first time, says Costello, Europe has produced a philosopher who refuses to follow the Greeks in making contemplation conceptually more foundational than action. In Macmurray we have at last a thinker who presents a coherent view of how action relates to theory. We can move away from radical dualism and recognise mechanical and organic elements in behaviour as constitutive dimensions of free, intentional and deliberate acts.

By accepting the primacy of action, Macmurray initiated what he later called this ‘Third Revolution’ in scientific philosophy and social thinking. He had no illusions about the difficulty involved in working it out effectively. As early as 1925 he had abandoned the attempt to argue the truth of religion from a foundation of pure idealism. This led him to conclude, as he stated in a letter to a friend, that ‘..if the world is to be comprehended it must be in terms of personality’. He goes on to say that we can only know persons by acquaintance and,

‘until we can be acquainted with a particular person and say of him that his personality is the revelation of God’s personality…we can have no knowledge of God, and therefore no knowledge at all that is well grounded.’

In this same letter he speaks of the idea of God as empty and negative, apart from a recognition by faith of the divinity of the man Christ Jesus. But, he says, if the world is to be comprehended, this has to be in terms of personality and God becomes a necessary hypothesis. Faith, he says, is not a matter of the will to believe, but of the will to Be – to feel, to act and know. ‘My philosophy,’ he concludes ‘- apart from the revelation of God in Christ, which is my faith – would be frankly pessimistic and sceptical.’ (Costello, pp 138/9)

Macmurray was convinced that twentieth century philosophy needed to focus on the problem of personality. He used this term to mean a fuller mode of being than a merely material object or organism. He applied it to God only analogously, as being the best category we have available for exploring the meaning of God. He justified it by saying that immanence and self-transcendence are simultaneously operative, not only in God, but in any personal being. Immanence and transcendence do not exclude each other. They are reciprocal, just as the individual and the universal are reciprocal. It expresses the fundamental nature of personality. There are, he says, degrees of self-transcendence, or objectivity. Self-transcendence is easily recognised in the idea of responsibility, which goes with personal individuality. Personal being is both individual and social. We both transcend what is other and participate in it. It is part of the rationality and logic of personal being to be able to overcome the contradictions of opposites.

Costello helps us to understand Macmurray’s religious position by showing how he systematically builds up his case for belief in the reality and rationality of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. He is concerned to establish the objective truth of religion, meaning that it has to be seen to be grounded in reality. He places the existence of objectivity in religion within a spectrum of faith and reasonableness, along with all other human ways of knowing and acting. There is only one truth. Religion must include the truth of science, of morality and of art. It must unify these in a conception of personality.

Macmurray postulates Jesus as the incarnation of the divine, meaning that he regards Jesus as giving divinity a flesh and blood foothold in particularity. How should we know this if we met him? We should know him to be a revelation of God, says Macmurray, by his power to focus and unify in his own personality the variety of human effort and achievement to make life one, to make all mankind one family, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in our world. ‘Either Christ is the man whom the knowledge of God demands, or there is none.’ (Quoted from an article published in a student magazine, 1928; see Costello, p 146).

Costello’s analysis of Macmurray’s epistemology is very perceptive. Faith is central to it, and this applies to science as well as to religion. Science depends on faith in the intelligibility of the universe and on the power of the mind to overcome error. Macmurray understands faith as a practical attitude of the will that is needed in doing science as much as in embracing religion. Religious faith is not knowledge about doctrines but an attitude of trust in the goodness of God, and therefore in the goodness and meaningfullness of the world. Macmurray offers criteria for validating the reasonableness of this hypothesis. For example, it leads to the promotion of holiness and goodness in the human order. Macmurray regards Christianity at its best to be the faith of Jesus. In an important essay,entitled ‘Objectivity in Religion’ he develops the case for the ‘logic’ he finds at work in personal action. He follows up two avenues of thought. In the first place, personality provides the potential for achieving a unitary understanding of the impersonal within the fuller domain of the personal. Secondly, it provides a category in which the being of God can be appropriately addressed.

Costello calls Macmurray a religious philosopher, because he seeks to reconstruct the whole philosophical field from the standpoint, not of the mechanical or the organic, but of the personal. He is also a prophet, who sees the spirit of Christ as a force for the personalization of the world. To this extent, he sees Christianity itself as in need of ‘Christianizing’.

Already in the 1920s Macmurray was wrestling with the term ‘personality’ and all that he understood by it. It is, he held, essentially mysterious, free, imaginative, disciplined, creative, purposive and open to transformation. It is the form and substance of love in all human relationships; it is the integrating home of the impersonal within the personal and much more. It has to do with the specific vocation of Christianity in the world and with making the world more personal. Macmurray saw other religions as imperfect lights, groping after the truth as it is in Christ. He found the spirit of Christ to be what was unique in Christianity. Its effect was to impell human beings to seek openness in truth, freedom in action, equality in relationship and full community for all people. It represents a self-conscious intention towards universal community.

In the early thirties, about the time he was giving his BBC lectures, Macmurray began to use the term ‘rational’ to speak about religion, involving a deepening and widening of the application of ‘reason’ as a term to define what was unique in human existence, including everything in personal action that contributes to a true and appropriate relationship to God and the world. This came to be what Macmurray meant by the rationality of religion. He was expanding the term ‘objective’ to the full scope of the ‘real’, and refusing to let it be determined by mechanical and organic categories only. Macmurray’s aim was to extend the meaning of the ‘real’ and the ‘rational’ to include all the powers in the human person that allow us to relate as fully as possible to ‘the real’. For many years his essential work had been that of conceptualising the logical form of the personal. Now his self-imposed project was to persuade people that no civilization could survive, except one whose mechanical and organic structures had been put at the service of personal life, whose meaning and essence is friendship. To revert to the biological model, based largely on competition, war and violence would be wholly disastrous.

In an important chapter, entitled ‘Seeking the Logic of Friendship’, Costello shows how Macmurray restates deep Christian truths in simple human terms. In the gospels, Macmurray finds clues for the logic of personal action. In recognising that friendship and freedom are presented as necessary correlatives in personal relationships, he discovers a logic that seems to accomplish two apparently opposing goals at once: preserving and enhancing both individuality and relationship. When love is given over to the risks of freedom, and when freedom is given over to the risks of loving, both seem to defy their very natures and both flourish through a necessary interdependence. Love creates togetherness, and the exercise of freedom-in-love reveals and enhances individuality. This is the personal life, whose logic Macmurray spent a lifetime exploring. The gospels express it in the familiar words, ‘the one who would find his life must lose it’. As Macmurray puts it, the deepest immanence is achieved in the deepest act of freely given self-transcendence. By affirming action as the characteristic mode of unity that constitutes personality, Macmurray provided the rational foundation he considered necessary for philosophy in the post-modern period.

Macmurray’s working life was located in three main places. From the new year of 1923 until the summer of 1928 he was Fellow and Tutor at his old college, Balliol, where he worked hard at the philosophical ideas that were taking clearer shape in him with every passing day. In September, 1928, he moved to London University, to become Department Head of the Philosophical Faculty at University College. His last post before retirement was the Chair in Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, where he was from October,1944 to the summer of 1958.

Macmurray was saddened by the fact that his philosophical approach never gained wide recognition, but this is perhaps not surprising, since during his lifetime, philosophers were largely divided into antiquarians and linguistic analysts and he fitted neither category. However he was enormously popular as a lecturer and teacher and his classes at Edinburgh were the largest in the country. His Gifford Lectures brought to fullest articulation his philosophical reflections and contain both the origins and stages along the way of his intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey. They have never been out of print.

He regarded his efforts to conceive the logic and form of the personal, not as a finished product, but as a pioneering work. He always hoped for criticism, but usually rejected it when it came, because it always seemed to be based on misunderstanding. He never moved from his early vision of friendship as the true nature and goal of personal existence, a goal that ultimately needs to be fulfilled in the achievement of a world community living in positive personal relations in a world free from violence and war.

Some of us, who admire Macmurray and are grateful for the way he brings religion and philosophy together, think that the world is in even greater need of his message and philosophical outlook today than it was during his lifetime. Macmurray is an academic and a professional philosopher, whose style of writing, though lucid and perceptive, is not simple. But at its heart, his message is clear, always relevant to what Christianity is about, which, as he understood, is the need for human beings to discover the way of personal fulfilment through living in relationship with God and one another, in true community. Macmurray’s academic lectures are not for everyone, but some of his shorter and earlier writings, such as ‘Ye are My Friends’, could not provide a more effective comment on the teaching of Christ. All this is illuminated by Costello’s outstanding biography. I would, I confess, have appreciated the provision of a better index, and I was aware of one or two factual errors. For example, I do not think that Bishop Gore was ever Archbishop of Canterbury. But the biography as a whole is to be highly recommended as a valuable introduction to Macmurray’s life and thought and I sincerely hope it may encourage the next generation of philosophical students in our global society to give serious consideration to the possibility that a philosophy of the personal may provide the rational guidelines our world needs for building a world based on peace and friendship.


This review, by Joan Crewdson, first appeared in Appraisal Vol. 4 No. 2 October 2002, published by Dr. R. T. Allen, 20 Ulverscroft Road, Loughborough, Leics LE11 3PU.