Below is the introduction to an essay I’ve written about a Scottish mid-20th-century philosopher John Macmurray. Like my essay on Polanyi, this was partly a way for me to go through his work and set it down for myself. But the interest is through the lens of aspects of Macmurray’s philosophy that were prophetic for our times. This is brought out in the introduction which is reproduced below. The last couple of sections also outline the way in which our society is increasingly built on pyramids of lies. So you can also skim through the sections on Macmurray and just read the intro and the concluding two sections — which I’ll also extract at some stage and write up as their own essay.
I’d be grateful if you’re interested in having a look at the essay and if you email me on ngruen AT Lateral Economics, I’ll send you a link with commenting and suggesting permissions.
Truth and love must overcome lies and hatred: The contemporary relevance of John Macmurray
Sometimes the problems which life sets … men or to nations … have a philosophical side to them. That happens particularly when the driving forces of a nation or even of a whole civilization are spent.
John Macmurray, 1930.
On December 10, 1989, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel improvised a line at the end of his speech which, like Martin Luther King Jr’s improvised conclusion of his “I have a dream” speech, burned itself into popular consciousness far more effectively than his prepared remarks. “Truth and love must overcome lies and hatred.” Havel had become famous in the West as a dissident anatomising the system of official lies that drew everyone into complicity with them.
He insisted that Stalinist totalitarianism had been replaced by post-totalitarianism, which must be understood as a set of institutions rather than the dictatorship of one man. And he drew parallels between post-totalitarianism and Western consumerism. Today we all ponder the dramatic speed with which our own public lives are transitioning to new ‘post-truth’ realities. And, as we look around for their antecedents, we find them well beyond political campaigning. For instance, here are the opening paragraphs of a recently published report from the front published anonymously by a local council employee. The recognition may be recent, but it’s been decades getting here:
I spent 10 years of my life writing. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, the Sustainable Community Strategy, sub-regional infrastructure plans, funding bids, monitoring documents, the Council Plan and service plans. These documents describe the performance of local government and its partners.
I have a confession to make. Much of it was made up. It was fudged, spun, copied and pasted, cobbled together and attractively formatted. I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs, strategic lies, operational lies, cross-cutting lies. I wrote hundreds of pages of nonsense. Some of it was my own, but most of it was collated from my colleagues across the organisation and brought together into a single document. As a policy, partnerships and performance officer in local government, this was my speciality and my profession.
Why did I do it? I did this because it was my job.
Against this backdrop, this essay introduces some of the central aspects of the thought of a mid-20th-century Scottish philosopher. Though both inspire us with their extraordinary courage, Havel’s and Macmurray’s thought and life experience were very different. Nevertheless, John Macmurray’s central ethical vision aligns perfectly with Havel’s catchcry quoted above. Macmurray saw all human relations and human culture as a dialectical relation between love (through which we find our way to a truthful and productive relation with reality and with others), and fear (which leads ultimately to solipsisitic, and duplicitous self-absorption, and thus to atomised isolation).
There’s something dated about Macmurray’s writing — perhaps because his imagined audience would have included those with an upbringing such as his own devoutly Calvinist one. He can be too quick to moralise, as he was when describing economic depression as a failing of social morality. But through all this there’s a deeply admirable combination of simplicity, sincerity and seriousness in all his writing. More particularly, he offers a useful treatment of contemporary mid-20th-century issues which looks increasingly prophetic for our own times:
- Macmurray treats natural science as a paradigm of rationality while being keenly aware of its limitations as a source of all knowledge.
- Science’s central strength is its constant striving for fidelity to experience. This is part methodological (with experience being the ultimate authority trumping theory and authority) and part ethical (requiring us to embrace the teaching of experience, however disillusioning or discomforting.)
- But science is inadequate as a universal discourse. And its representation of nature as object obscures human agency (or freedom). This is true in the simple sense that science facilitates technology but provides little guidance on how to value or deploy it. It’s also true in a deeper sense that the problem science sets itself — to know more about the natural world — tends to presuppose a dualism between our own subjective mind ‘in here’ over and against objective reality ‘out there’. This offers an impoverished metaphysic for thinking about human selves in relation.
Macmurray proposes the centrality of communion across difference as the ground of all our experience and our humanity.
- From this he builds the case for radial humility as the starting point of ethical thought. On this basis he argues the centrality of faith — faith in embracing love over fear — as the basis of a good life and a good society.
- This alternative discourse is alive to the myriad opportunities for bad faith to infect our thought and conduct and for us to disguise it, from ourselves and others. In this way of seeing things, one of the chief ways bad faith manifests itself in the world is as a counterfeit of good faith.
These things bear on the human experience at a sufficiently deep level that diagnosis is just the first step of a never-ending labour of understanding and action. Thirty years after the publication of his book proposing that emotion was as important as intellect in constituting ‘reason’ — a position since rehabilitated in both philosophy and science — Macmurray wrote that while he wouldn’t change the burden of his analysis, it offered no immediate solution to the world’s problems. “Indeed, in the field which it cultivates, no quick and easy solutions are thinkable”. That having been said, I think Macmurray’s thought does lend some theoretical depth to many practical contemporary issues. To illustrate the claim, I’ll conclude the essay by outlining the way in which Macmurray’s thought helps articulate some ideas I’ve been pondering regarding evidence-based policy and practice.
The structure of the essay is as follows:
Doing the philosophical work of his generation: Some biographical background
Fear and death, love and life
Reason, science, emotion and the other
Engaging with the other: the real and unreal
Faith in action: the upside of generosity
Diversity and disadvantage