Saturday, 28 July 2012

John Macmurray’s Early Milieu

This post reproduces Stephen Cowley's article in the John Macmurray Fellowship Newsletter 24 (2009). The article relates some central ideas of the personalist philosopher John Macmurray (1891-1976) to those of his British Idealist teachers in Glasgow (see photo above, from Kelvingrove Park) and Oxford. The Idealist movement flourished in Victorian and early 20th century Britain, seeking to develop ideas drawn from Kant and Hegel by way of a critique of contemporary empiricist and scientific thought on society and the nature of the mind.

The John Macmurray Fellowship website can be found here.

John Macmurray's early Milieu

John Macmurray’s writings call us to identify and reflect on the primacy of personal relations within experience.  However, the originality of the philosophical position from which he developed his ideas on the nature of persons has been overstated and the way in which these arose from earlier philosophical concepts has remained opaque to several commentators on his thought.  ARC Duncan for example, states that Macmurray “adhere[d] to no particular school”, [1] whilst others are inclined to attribute his thought to a peculiar sensitivity to personal relations.  This he may indeed have possessed, but it is not a sufficient explanation of his philosophy.

Macmurray deliberately set aside his learning to put his thoughts across in plain words to a popular audience. [2] The resultant lack of citations has served to make tracking down his philosophical antecedents a tricky business, as has the sale of his personal library and destruction of records noted by John Costello. [3] This is worth doing though, as a lack of understanding of how Macmurray approached philosophy prevents new work being done in the same vein, the reverse of what Macmurray himself wanted.

I wish to argue then, that many of Macmurray’s ideas can be found in germ in the writings of the leading Glasgow Idealist Edward Caird (1835-1908).  This on its own would not prove “influence”, for the possibilities of a common source or even co-incidental joint discovery would remain.  However, knowledge of Macmurray’s early milieu makes this improbable. 

Caird’s influence, coupled historically with that of Thomas Hill Green (1836-82) as the liberal wing of the Idealist movement, was vast.  Robert Wenley cites the Spectator on the high regard in which Caird was held: “His examination of the Kantian philosophy is one of the two or three original philosophical works that Great Britain has given to the world during the latter half of this century.” [4] The reference here is to The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1889, 2nd edition 1909).  His pupil and Macmurray’s tutor, AD Lindsay (1879-1952), echoed this in describing his teaching: “You knew that what he said must be ultimately right, however much the details might work out differently.” [5] Amongst many other sources that might be quoted to the same effect, I will add only Macmurray’s own passing reference to “Caird’s great work on the ‘Critical Philosophy of Kant’”, [6] one of two works named by him in his 1926 review of modern British philosophy, the other being Bernard Bosanquet’s The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), itself an application of Idealist concepts to political theory.

Macmurray studied philosophy firstly at Glasgow University, where he attended the class of Robert Latta (1865-1932) and most likely knew Henry Jones (1852-1922), [7] the Welsh protégé of Caird.  Latta’s book on Leibniz [8] contains a version of Caird’s ideas.  Jones described his students: “They knew the technical terms in common use, and had begun to find their way about in philosophical literature.  And above all, they had learned, or at least had been taught, to work for themselves, without looking to professorial prelections for every point of the law.” [9] As Macmurray won the class prize in Latta’s class in his second of four years study, we may suppose this description applies a fortiori to him and thus that Costello underestimates Glasgow’s formative influence on Macmurray.  In 1913 he went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy more deeply under AD Lindsay and alongside another idealist philosopher Charles Morris. 

In the light of this, it is reasonable to look closely at the work of Caird cited by Macmurray for shared ideas.  I find three such central ideas there: the “unity of experience”; the critical relation of philosophy and common sense; and a version of the “form of the personal” under the name “form of self-consciousness”.  I will expound Caird’s account of these to illustrate the similarities with Macmurray’s ideas.

The unity of experience

The first and most important of these common ideas is that of the unity of experience, for it quite fundamental to Macmurray’s approach to a range of subjects and the root of his opposition to “dualism”.  The basic idea is that distinctions within experience (mind and matter, state and society, work and leisure, for example) presuppose and can only arise within a prior sense of unity.  Caird writes: “The unity of all experience, of all objects with each other and with the mind that knows them, is, so to speak, the horizon within which all special objects are determined”. [10] This unity is thus present in the “ordinary experience” he seeks to understand and which equates to Macmurray’s “immediate experience” [11] as a starting point of reflection. 

Caird summarises the implications of this for philosophical method: “Hence the object of the critical philosopher must be, not to dismiss any of the elements of experience that he may find the pure expression of truth in what remains, but rather to correct an abstract and incomplete view of the world by taking account of the factors which that view neglects.” [12] This is Macmurray’s project too, expressed in the criteria of adequacy and coherence by which he evaluates constructive philosophy.

On philosophy and common sense

One aspect of this is the unity of knowledge, which is a reflection of experience other than when it limits itself by some particular purpose.  Caird summarised this to his students: “I have a number of principles in the mind which seem to carry with them necessity, - geometrical axioms, causality, substance and quality, etc.”  These examples are plainly derived from Kant, though they might as well be illustrated by any common sense axiom.  Caird continues though, that “to suppose that the mind has such ideas in it, primary and unconnected, would almost destroy the mind’s unity.” [13]

In this respect, Caird opposed the Scottish common sense philosophy to which Macmurray’s thought is sometimes misleadingly assimilated.  For example, he wrote that philosophy must “distinguish itself from the ordinary opinion or common sense of men by two marks: it must raise into clear consciousness what is latent in common sense, the laws and the principles that underlie our common experience and knowledge; and secondly, it must bring its thoughts together, and discover their mutual relation, instead of passing from the one to the other and forgetting each in turn.” [14] It is in the second of these marks that the contrast with common sense advocates such as Thomas Reid, GE Moore and JL Austin emerges.

The form of self-consciousness

Within experience as a whole, both Caird and Macmurray discern three forms.  The first two, the mechanical and organic they hold in common, whilst the “form of self-consciousness” found in Caird foreshadows Macmurray’s “form of the personal”. In his attempt to develop the form of self-consciousness, Caird approaches in places the formulation of Macmurray in terms of a positive that supersedes its negative limits.  He says for example:  “Asceticism, or a movement in which the ascetic idea is involved, may fairly be said to be the beginning of morality.  When, however, this negation is conceived absolutely, the positive reconstitution of the natural life in any form becomes impossible.” [15] And again: “A negative which does not spring from a positive, and does not contain the germ of a new positive, is an impossible abstraction.”  [16] This critique of Kant and Stoicism he develops based on a concept of the “self as active” which transforms, rather than merely observing or negating, its desires.   Readers of Macmurray’s The Self as Agent (1957) will observe the similarity.


In conclusion, those seeking to develop Macmurray’s ideas would be well advised to relate them to their background in the Idealist movement.  These are not the only influences or contexts that make sense of his ideas, [17] but they are certainly amongst those of fundamental significance.  In addition to the points argued above, such features of Macmurray’s thought as the critiques of Descartes and Kant were staple fare in Glasgow.  In this respect, behind the immediate personal influence of Latta, Jones and AD Lindsay lies the work of Edward Caird, whose ideas were put in more popular form in his lectures on The Evolution of Religion (1893).  A knowledge of Caird’s work adds strength in depth to our understanding of John Macmurray’s philosophical project.

[1] ARC Duncan: On the Nature of Persons (NY: Lang, 1990), p2.
[2] He describes this in the published radio talks Freedom in the Modern World. (London: Faber, 1932), pp16-17.
[3] John Costello: John Macmurray: A Biography, (Edinburgh: Floris, 2002), p99.
[4] Robert Wenley: ‘Some Lights on the British Idealist Movement in the Nineteenth Century’, in The American Journal of Theology (1901), pp445-6.
[5] AD Lindsay Letter to Muirhead, 31 Sept 1920, Glasgow UL MS Gen 1475/22.
[6] John Macmurray: ‘The Influence of British Philosophy During “Those Forty Years”’, in The British Weekly 81:2089, (11 Nov, 1926), pp164-5.
[7] He notes Jones’ influence in Scotland in the 1926 article, refers familiarly to “Harry Jones” and uses Jones’ phrase “as a practical creed” in correspondence (from Jones’ Idealism as a Practical Creed).
[8] Leibniz: the Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings (Oxford: Clarendon, 1898), particularly Latta’s long introductory essay.
[9] HJW Hetherington, Life and Letters of Sir Henry Jones (1924), p72.
[10] Caird, Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1889), vol I, pp294-5.
[11] For example, Macmurray’s Interpreting the Universe (London: Faber, 1933), p7.
[12] Caird, 1889, vol II, p641.
[13] GUL:  MS Gen 104/1.  p16.
[14] Caird, The Philosophy of Kant (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1877), p34.
[15] Caird, 1889, vol II  p203.
[16] Caird, 1889, vol II p214.
[17] Most notably, the influence of the French phenomenological tradition and the psychologies of William James and GF Stout are outside the scope of this article.  Macmurray’s exposure to both seems to have begun at Glasgow.