The Self as Agent (Vol. I of ‘The Form of the Personal’)

A Summary by Michael Edwards

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Working Copy: 1966 reprint of 1957 first edition published by Faber. 232 pp, 10 Chapters + Index.
(An edition with a new introduction by Stanley M. Harrison was published by Humanities Press, U.S.A., 1991, and by Faber, 1995, œ8.99.)

Table of Contents
1. The Crisis of the Personal
2. Kant and the Romantics
3. The Rejection of Dualism
4. Agent and Subject
5. The Perception of the Other
6. Implications of Action
7. Causality and the Continuant
8. Reflective Activity
9. Modes of Reflection
10. The World as One Action

‘The Form of the Personal’ is Macmurray’s most mature and complete philosophical work. He was 62 years old when he first started delivering the lectures from which the published version derived. He was 70 when the second and final volume of the work was published. For a philosophical magnum opus it is quite refreshingly light in bulk; and its language is as accessible to the educated, intelligent layman as any such work could reasonably be expected to be. (Contrast, say, Kant on both scores — to say nothing of contemporary English-speaking philosophers.) That is not to say that it is dead easy throughout. It requires an unhurried, careful reading. It is probably a good idea to read his little book Interpreting the Universe (1933) as an introduction. The lectures from which the published work derived were the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Glasgow in the Spring of 1953 and of 1954. Macmurray was at that time Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh (from which post he retired in 1958).

Macmurray had a double criticism of traditional Western philosophy: that it viewed things from the theoretical standpoint, and that it was egocentric. In this first volume he is dealing mainly with the first criticism. To understand this criticism it is instructive to look back to the work of Descartes (1596-1650). I suspect that some critics of Descartes forget that he started out with what many of us would consider a laudable aim, namely, to deliver men from the bondage of having always to argue from authority (e.g. Is this compatible with what St. Augustine, St. Thomas taught?) to being able to trust in the authority of their own reason. In order to do this he felt that he had to find a starting point which was indubitable and then build on that. So he sat down and thought about things and subjected them to what might be thought to be a dubious procedure of doubting until he came to the conclusion that the thing he couldn’t doubt was that he was thinking. He was a thinking thing. He was a substance that thinks. ‘Cogito ergo sum’.

Now Macmurray himself spoke ‘of the necessity I am under to think thoroughly for myself’ and said that ‘it is surely part of the dedication to philosophy that one cannot accept any dogmatic doctrine’. So he did not have any quarrel with Descartes on that score. And Macmurray realised that one had ‘to stop and think’ in order to do philosophy. But while a person was in that position he had to a large extent to withdraw from contact with the world, life and action. Where Macmurray differed from Descartes was in not thinking that it was an unavoidable presupposition that one had to commence one’s philosophical analysis from the point of view of a person in this situation. If one did, one inevitably produced a series of dualisms which could not be bridged, e.g. mind and body. A lot has already been done by a person before he finds himself in the position of the thinker. One ought to start one’s intellectual, philosophical analysis from the standpoint of the self as agent, as one who acts in the world.

This first volume is mainly concerned with making and establishing this point. Macmurray first considers the Critical Philosophy of Kant and his relationship to his contemporary thinkers. He considered that Kant’s was the most coherent and adequate attempt to date to resolve the problems which were pressing upon the philosophy of his day. Nonetheless, Kant had produced a philosophy whose conclusion contradicted its major premiss. This premiss is the presupposition that reason is primarily theoretical. Kant, like Descartes, started with the ‘Cogito’, the ‘I think’. The conclusion is that reason is primarily practical. Macmurray, however, does not feel obliged to accept the presupposition of the Cogito and proceeds to hold up his insight against a number of traditional concerns of philosophy including the nature of Science. (A glance at the Contents page will give the reader some inkling of the ground covered.) He makes a convincing case for this ‘Copernican shift’ in the ‘centre of gravity of Western philosophy’. If his point is accepted then many traditional philosophical problems are not so much solved as dissolved; and a major industry would be threatened!