A Summary by Michael Edwards
Working Copy: 2nd (1956) reprint of 2nd (1936) edition published by Faber (1st ed 1933). 164pp, 7 Chapters + Index.
(An edition with a new introduction by A.R.C. Duncan was published by Humanities Press, U.S.A., 1996, £9.95.)
This is a remarkable little book. Although it can be seen as an early work when compared with Macmurray’s main philosophical work ‘The Form of the Personal’ (publication completed 1961) it should be remembered that he was 42 years old when it was first published. So it is the work-in-progress of a mature mind and by no means the work of an inexperienced brash young man (contrast A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic published three years later). It is a work in that branch of philosophy called Theory of Knowledge (Epistemology).
Chapter 1: The Universe in Immediate Experience
The book opens with a sobering first sentence: “The study of philosophy is apt to resolve itself into an experience of progressive disillusionment.” Macmurray considers that the common man’s commonsense view of philosophy has much to commend it, i.e. it is the search for wisdom rather than for a specific knowledge, and it is not dependent merely on logic. This makes philosophy significant and important, not a hobby of the intellectual who has not the courage to live. Every period of human history is the embodiment of a philosophical idea. How can we look for and express the philosophy embedded in the contemporary world? The subject of Immediate Experience is given a richer and more systematic analysis than I have found to be common in the outpourings of the Anglo-American philosophical establishment of the past 40 years. Some themes: “All thought presupposes knowledge…. Knowledge is that immediate experience of things which is prior to all expression and understanding.” “The infinite is the universe in immediate experience and philosophy is the attempt to express this through reflection.”
Chapter 2: Thought as Symbolic Interpretation
This gives a persuasive account of what thought is and how it arises. The deriving of correct conclusions from given premises involves following rules, but no rules can be given for putting two premises together in the first place. This depends on the spontaneity of the mind. The concept of a unity-pattern is introduced.
Chapter 3: Interpretation and Verification
This chapter gives a coherent account of the place of verification. One is tempted to feel that if Ayer had read and taken heed of Macmurray’s account before publishing Language, Truth and Logic he would have saved himself and the philosophical community at large a lot of trouble. Incidentally, Karl Popper is usually credited with pointing up the importance of ‘falsification’ (rather than ‘confirmation’) in the testing of scientific hypotheses. But p.76 would seem to indicate that Macmurray had got there first!
Chapter 4: Mathematical Thought and Mechanism
The unity-pattern for mathematical, mechanistic, scientific thought is elicited. “When thinking mathematically we have to represent objects as complexes of identical elements so that they may be manipulated in idea in accordance with the rule one plus one equals two.” Determinism is inevitable with such a unity-pattern. He concludes, “Science cannot offer us and should not be expected to offer us an interpretation of the universe.”
Chapter 5: Biological Thought and Organism
The unity-pattern which underlies organic thought is determined as “the concept of the organism as a whole, whose unity is maintained by the harmony of differences, and in which the differences are finally differences of function in a unitary process in which the potentiality of the beginning is realised in the end.” Macmurray points out that the apprehension of harmony in difference is essentially of an aesthetic character. He considers attempts to apply this unity-pattern to the universe as a whole only to reject them all. “The concrete point in our immediate experience of the world, at which the difficulty is brought into clear focus, is our experience of human personality.”
Chapter 6: Psychological Thought and Personality
Chapter 7: Logic and Life
In these chapters Macmurray points up the need for a unity-pattern to enable us to cope with the personal (“the central problem of contemporary philosophy”). He indicates the phenomena such a unity-pattern should be capable of representing. A dominant theme of the book is the primacy of the practical. Macmurray does not mean by this that philosophers should stop theorising in their stuffy studies and go out into the world performing useful practical actions instead. He realises that philosophy is an intellectual, theoretical activity but maintains that philosophical analysis should first be directed not at the self in reflection but at the self in action; not at the ‘I think’ (as in Descartes) but at the ‘I do’.
This ‘primacy of the practical’ is argued for in more detail in ‘The Form of the Personal’ (Gifford Lectures of 1953 and 1954, published in two volumes, The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation), in which Macmurray makes a pioneering attempt to establish a logical form appropriate to the task of thinking about the personal. The present volume is a good one to read as a preparation for studying ‘The Form of the Personal’.