Philosophy, Past and Present: John Macmurray and Our Future

Philosophy, Past and Present: John Macmurray and Our Future

Eleanor M. Godway (Central Connecticut State University, Britain, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 9
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2019010101
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John Macmurray's controversial thesis: “All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship” is unpacked by explaining and illustrating what he means by the “personal.” He sees philosophy as a cultural phenomenon which expresses and responds to its historical context, and in turn affects how people think and behave. The Subject as Thinker, which has dominated modern philosophy, has led us to value knowledge for its own sake and trust theory over practice, needs to be replaced by the self as agent. The logic of the personal, in which the positive (e.g. action, love) is constituted and sustained by its negative (e.g. thinking, fear) arises out of personal relationship (“I-and-you”). Facing the problematic personhood may enable us to find meaning in relations with others, and face the future with hope.
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All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship… (1995a, p. 15).

The second is more obscure, but I hope to elucidate it though this essay. It is indicated by the title he gave to the complete series of the Gifford Lectures: “The Form of the Personal”. He was concerned that we recognize the need for, and learn to reflect according to, what he calls the “logical form of the personal” in which the positive is constituted and sustained by the negative (1995a, p. 98). The first is related to the second in that action is the positive whereas thinking is negative, and he argues that we must replace the philosophical subject (the thinker) with the recognition of the self who acts in the real world. To act is to make a choice, do this, not that. He gives the example of a wood-carver who is consciously moving his knife this way, not that, as he proceeds with his work. His thinking is integrated into his actions: he is constantly aware of what he is doing (and what he is avoiding doing) as he proceeds (1995a, p. 88). But if he hits a serious snag and is not sure what to do next, he will put down his tools, and stop work altogether. As Macmurray puts it, he withdraws and reflects on what is going on. Only after he has come to some insight which helps him to solve his problem will he be ready to move into action again.

Philosophy for Macmurray is a species of reflection which has a particular role to play in the culture in which it arises. The implication is that while a society is functioning reasonably well, those who are drawn to philosophy do not tend to make waves, but function more as custodians, perhaps embellishers, of an accepted tradition. Such seems to have been the case in Europe throughout the Medieval era. Then the emergence of science and the concomitant crumbling of the authority of the Church posed serious problems. Descartes, caught up in the turmoil of the intellectual world, stopped to think, and the “subject as thinker” was born. It is generally accepted that Descartes was not able entirely to disentangle his reflections from the assumptions and thought-patterns of his education, but his efforts set in motion the rest of what has come to be called “modern philosophy.” Macmurray was convinced that Twentieth Century Europe was facing an analogous crisis, one more serious than that of the Seventeenth. Like the wood carver we need to stop what we are doing, take time to reflect, so as to be able to think afresh about our situation, do something different and avoid the catastrophes which we keep seeming to bring about. A new kind of philosophy is called for.4

While no-one today would argue for Cartesianism as such, there are a number of elements of seventeenth century metaphysics still around, albeit sometimes, as Macmurray puts it “unexpressed and half-conscious, implicit in [our] ways of behavior” (1936, p. 9). They have become taken-for-granted habits of thought. Indeed, Macmurray was convinced that any major intellectual breakthrough (or shift in thinking) will gradually make its way into the society at large, and in due course affect the way most people think. Thus, for him, metaphysics is not restricted to the consideration of an abstruse set of hypotheses – such as fell out of favor with analytic philosophers. Rather, we all function according to taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world makes sense, so there is an implicit metaphysics underlying everything we do, whether we think about it or not. In Descartes’ case, his implicit metaphysics was at odds with his explicitly formulated epistemology, and it is that epistemology which was taken up by succeeding thinkers.

The Cartesian dictum “I think therefore I am” is a riddle Descartes thought he had solved, but for Macmurray it is a non-starter. To think in a way not integrated with action is to stop interacting with reality, to withdraw into imagination. His rejoinder to Descartes: “cogito ergo non-sum” (1995a, p. 81). A mental note is a note I do not in fact make.5 If a philosophical system ends in solipsism, it has refuted itself, and by definition, the subject of the cogito is cut off from the real world. And really has anyone been convinced by Descartes’ reasoning? Doesn’t he leave us with more questions than answers? He believed he could establish certain knowledge through thought alone. There will be more to say about imagination later. Macmurray contends that

All thought presupposes knowledge. It is not possible to think about something you do not already know” (1996, p. 6)6 (author’s italics). This is primary knowledge which “is first and foremost that immediate experience of things which is prior to all expression and understanding” (1996, p. 7).

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