Sunday, 30 September 2012

Hegel and John Macmurray on Personhood and Society

There follows my review from the John Macmurray Newsletter 30, Autumn 2012, of Esther McIntosh's book John Macmurray's Religious Philosophy (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011). In my view Macmurray's thought contains some views deriving ultimately from Hegel, in particular the Form of the Personal, whilst other ideas are adopted from French phenomenology and the British idealist tradition. The review follows the structure of the book and addresses in turn: the nature of persons; child development; society and politics; and religion.

The John Macmurray Fellowship can be found here.

Esther McIntosh

John Macmurray’s Religious Philosophy: what it means to be a person. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011

This book is a comprehensive survey of John Macmurray’s philosophy and some of its social implications, though one whose own utopian agenda in my view would lead to a self-effacement of Western Christianity. Only some of this can be traced back to Macmurray.  It also has an up-to-date bibliography and interesting discussions of the slowly accumulating critical literature on Macmurray.

There are four parts, each divided into two chapters, and a conclusion. The first part is a critical account of Macmurray’s overarching philosophical theme of the nature of persons. The succeeding three parts analyse its implications for child development, politics, and religion respectively.  Each chapter contains an exposition of Macmurray’s ideas on a specific area, drawn from works written at different periods of his life, accompanied by discussions relating these to issues and debates of Macmurray’s era and our contemporary intellectual and practical situation.


There is a brief discussion at the outset of Macmurray’s influences. Here Esther McIntosh notes that: “it is possible to argue that Macmurray’s philosophy is rooted in British idealism, while going beyond it” (page 7). She notes later that: “Macmurray rarely offers any account of his influences, giving the impression that a greater extent of his work is independent of scholarly influences than is likely to be the case” (page 206). This endorses my own view (JMF Newsletter 24) with reference to the British Idealist Edward Caird, but I wonder if more might have been made of the relationship in the course of the book. For example, the discussions of Stoic theories of reason and passion which give rise to the theory of the primacy of agency in mental life in both Macmurray and Caird are not related to each other.

The Nature of Persons

Turning firstly to the most abstractly philosophical part of the book, the main philosophical assertions here are the primacy of action in mental life and the potential rationality of the emotions.  McIntosh regards Macmurray’s discovery of the “form of the personal” (a positive that contains its own negative) as needlessly formulaic, but thinks that she can “extract the underlying concepts from the form given to them”, which is a “holistic and relational account of the person” (page 9).  Her perception of the form of the personal as “contrived” (page 210) contrasts with Macmurray’s own view that the form is useful and perhaps necessary in detecting mechanical or organic misinterpretations of personal experience.  It may be that these currently carry less weight in social theory or practice, but the return of Darwinian ideas in evolutionary psychology, including in social theories of religion, [1] may indicate new or revived fields for its application. 

She draws comparisons between Macmurray’s rejection of mind-body dualism and various similar moves by philosophers in the analytic tradition, such as Stuart Hampshire and GEM Anscombe. I wonder though, if a comparison with the contemporary representative of Idealism, R G Collingwood, might not have been equally illuminating, for example on the concept of a philosophical form [2] which was not present in the linguistic philosophy or descriptive metaphysics then predominant in Oxford. The same might be said of Collingwood’s incorporation of historical content into the philosophical analysis of concepts. A similar case might be made for a comparison with Collingwood’s conservative contemporary Michael Oakshott. [3]

Child development

The second part begins by describing the child’s helplessness and dependence to illustrate the relational nature of the individual person. McIntosh relates this to Macmurray’s form of the personal, here and in the following chapter on growth to adulthood. She describes fear as a necessary stimulus in the parent producing actions in the parent through the love of the parent for the child.  In regard to another negative emotion, hate, she cites Macmurray’s likening of this to original sin. She uses the interplay of positive and negative emotions (hate, fear and love) again to illustrate the logical form of the personal.

She writes: “Although Macmurray’s form of the personal reflects analytic theory, his description of the carer-child relationship resembles Continental philosophy” (page 75) and cites Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber in support of this. However, behind these 20th century figures, albeit at a distance, we may discern the common tradition of German idealism that led also through its British interpreters and developers – Macmurray’s teachers - to some of the philosophical ideas found in Macmurray himself. Soon after, she refers to Macmurray’s “intriguing combination of Analytical and Continental philosophical styles” (page 94), but this 20th century contrast of method and geography is scarcely applicable to the earlier British Idealism from which Macmurray draws. 

There are some intriguing references in this second part to the reception of Macmurray’s ideas in psychological literature and to criticisms found therein, for example that of Hodgkin who thinks Macmurray underestimates authority and distance as aspects of the parent-child relationship. I would have enjoyed reading more about this.

Society and Politics

With growth to adulthood comes participation in society and hence McIntosh turns in the third part of her book to expound Macmurray’s views on society and politics. In Macmurray’s view, these are based on negative apperceptions, their positive correlate being the idea of community which is addressed in the culminating chapters on religion. The ongoing presence of the idea of philosophical form here is indicated in Macmurray’s comparison of the childhood love, aggression and submission with the communal, pragmatic and contemplative structures of adult life. These are identified again with the historical Hebrew, Roman and Greek contributions to modern Western society and literature, reappearing in Macmurray’s discussions of the spirit of Christianity, state sovereignty and legal sanctions in the theories of Hobbes and Rousseau and the ethics of Stoicism. Once again, McIntosh sees here an “enigmatic tripartism” (page 115), observing that “suspiciously neat trios (triads) of categorisation are a commonplace in Macmurray’s writings” (ibid).

A recurrent refrain in these discussions of society, as throughout the book, is the stress on equality.  We are informed for example that Macmurray’s declining interest in communism was the result of awareness of “realities of inequality in the Communist countries of the east” (page 5).  We are told that “In essence, the personal life is a life of freedom and equality” (page 99) and that “real freedom requires real equality” (page 135). Elsewhere though, McIntosh herself concedes that “economically diverse individuals do manage to relate on an equal basis” (page 135) and later she warns against “assuming we are all alike” (page 212). There seems to be a conflict here, resolution of which would perhaps require a greater recognition of cultural, historical and other differences between individuals and communities and the need for the sense of distance adverted to by Hodgkin as a precondition of respect. 

In his discussion of politics, Macmurray is constrained to find a place for the negative correlates of his preferred positive religious form of apperception. This leads to a consideration of justice, which Macmurray characterises as a lower limit of acceptable behaviour enforced by society on its members. In his accustomed terminology, it is a necessary, constitutive, negative moment of morality.

One characteristic aspect of McIntosh’s account of Macmurray’s politics is the extent to which she draws on Macmurray’s wartime pamphlets, particularly Challenge to the Churches (1941) and Constructive Democracy (1943) and next to that his pre-war trilogy on communism and Conditions of Freedom (1953). This confirms for me the extent to which the terms of our contemporary political discourse were set in the heat of battle and its immediate aftermath rather than in the cooler light of reflection that might now be attainable.


As in Hegel though, beyond the political sphere there is a sphere of voluntary endeavour through which we enter into the sphere of religion.

McIntosh queries why Macmurray “asserts that it is religion that maintains community and not culture in general” (page 142). Macmurray does endorse a social account of religion similar to that of Weber and Durkheim, at the expense of acknowledging the source of its social influence in its power to evoke the idea of transcendence. She finds a source of this in Macmurray’s response to Marx’s critique of the idealism of Hegel’s philosophy. This leads him to criticise Hegel for “a certain absorption in ideas” (page 152) under the sway of which practical activity is represented as “subordinate to mental activity” (ibid).

Macmurray objects to Marx that religion is in fact primarily practical and gives as an instance the Hebrew prophetic tradition. In Hegel himself though, the ideas of the Logic are embodied in practical experience as well as pure thought and Marx’s own account of practical activity includes an ideational component. The contrast is rather the absence of transcendence in Marx’s analysis and the consequent elevation of the political that Macmurray in a partisan spirit considers a failing more of the right. These are my thoughts, but McIntosh concurs to some extent in calling Macmurray’s argument “patronising and confusing” and accusing him of offering a “reductionist account of religion” (page 171). There could have been room here for an account of the theory of Christian transcendence in the theology of Macmurray’s colleague at Edinburgh, Thomas F Torrance.

The final chapter on religion addresses the historical development of Christianity more directly. McIntosh draws attention to Macmurray’s view in the Clue to History (1938) of a divergence between institutional Christianity and the original Christian intention of which he claims to be the interpreter. This she thinks, “seems to be somewhat contrived” (page 187). She notes again the this-worldly focus of his thought, saying that he “lacks an eschatology” (page 194) and “views Jesus basically as an exceptional figure” (page 195), another prophet or sage. 

Despite these critical notes though, she seems to endorse the substance of his thought and even seeks to move away from Christianity as a means of extending community in modern Britain. Thus she writes with apparent resignation that “perhaps during his era he [Macmurray] could still envisage Britain and even Europe as predominantly Christian” (page 196). I cannot but contrast the rejection here of “self-abasement” (page 183) with reference to domestic violence, with her view that Macmurray’s emphasis on Christianity is “a hindrance to extending community in view of the reality of religious pluralism” (page 208) and that “we would do well therefore, to do to others as they would be done by” (page 212). Of the same stamp is her gratuitous endorsement of a pro-diversity British lobby group (page 211). Put together, these views bear the risk of turning European Christianity into the religion of the political or ecclesiastical doormat.

At one point, McIntosh fruitfully cites Aristotle on friendship. [4]  Another Aristotelian idea that might play a mediating role here is that of man as a “rational animal”. There is a tension in Macmurray between the ideal of community that he finds first in the family, which whatever its full nature has unmistakeable biological roots, his rejection of the extension of the analogous biological idea of race into politics in his rejection of (ethnic) nationalism, combined with his wish to recapture something of the closeness of family life in the ideal of a universal religious community. In this last project, our rational nature is predestined for a final victory over our animal nature, not after death but in this world.

However, the origins and nature of this universalising project are not themselves either examined historically or subjected to more than marginal criticism, as they were by Macmurray’s fellow Scot John Anderson of Sydney. Nonetheless, there is food for thought here for any serious interpreter of Macmurray and the ambition of relating his literary inheritance to contemporary debates is sound.

[1] David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral. Chicago: UP, 2002.
[2] R G Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method. Oxford: UP, 1933, esp. Chapters 2 & 3.
[3] Michael Oakshott, Experience and its Modes. Cambridge UP, 1933.
[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.