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Macmurray and Consciousness

Jeanne Warren on a philosopher of personality.

I have to confess to spending the last twenty years mystified by what philosophers mean by consciousness. There seems to be a mismatch between my categories of thought and theirs. Mary Midgley’s recent article (‘Souls, Minds, Bodies & Planets’ in Philosophy Now Issue 47) has thrown some light on the matter. She says that “some thirty years back, scientists suddenly rediscovered consciousness”, after it became clear that a Machine without a Ghost did not adequately represent us.

‘Consciousness’ has one perfectly straightforward and well understood meaning, which is what we are when we are not unconscious, i.e. anaesthetized or knocked out. This is an organic definition and applies equally to animals. But this definition is clearly unable to bear the weight (for example a series of six evening lectures which I once sat through in Oxford) which is placed on the word by contemporary thinkers. It seems to me that they are (unconsciously?) trying to get to grips with what it is about us that is super-organic, what makes us persons. Thus, consciousness is a term used to talk about what it is that distinguishes us from other animals.

Colin McGinn, quoted by Mary Midgley, goes back and forth across the boundary of the two meanings. When he says “The problem is how any collection of cells ... could generate a conscious being” he could just as well be talking about any animal, about the mystery of life, which is indeed hard to explain. But he then uses the word ‘mind’, which tends to move us on to homo sapiens, although not necessarily. (Do animals have minds?) The fog of confusion has been thickened rather than dispersed. Mary Midgley rightly says that we should re-state the problem. She, at least, is clear that she is talking specifically about us humans, whom she rightly terms ‘persons’.

At this point, I would like to bring in the thinker I have found to be the most helpful, namely John Macmurray. Macmurray, who began writing in the 1930’s, made a point of distinguishing between the ‘organic’ and the ‘personal’. He rejected mind-body dualism, which he said was, among other problems, completely unable to make sense of the organic world. Was ‘life’ mind or was it matter? Instead, he distinguished three aspects of the reality which we know, namely matter, life and personality (the last understood to mean a universal characteristic, not a particular individual). Sometimes he uses the terms ‘the material’, ‘the organic’ and ‘the personal’ for the three aspects. He emphasizes that these are not three separate ‘things’ which can be mixed and matched, but aspects of wholes which we encounter. Some of the things we encounter lack both life and personality and we call them objects. Others are alive and we call them organisms (both animals and plants). We ourselves have all three aspects and are properly called persons, not bodies and minds, or bodies and souls. (By the by, this classification works even if it should turn out that chimpanzees or dolphins are also persons. The point is not that they aren’t, but that we are.)

Macmurray thinks that the defining characteristic of persons is ‘reason’, which he however defines in a new way, as “the capacity to behave consciously in terms of the nature of what is not ourselves.” (Reason and Emotion, Faber, 1935, p.19) Here he means to contrast us with the other animals, and he implies that their behaviour is unconscious. Clearly he does not mean unconscious in the medical sense (when we don’t behave at all), but in the sense of “knowing what we are doing”. Elsewhere Macmurray calls this kind of behaviour ‘action’ and says that organisms behave, but only persons can act.

Having mapped out clearly a realm, the personal, which is not the organic, Macmurray feels little need to home in on the concept of ‘consciousness’, and in fact he only uses it occasionally, as in the above quotation, when it seems natural to do so. He spends the majority of his immense philosophical effort in exploring the realm of the personal, which includes all that we do, especially history, art, religion, politics and education.

Macmurray’s decision to take action, rather than thought, as his philosophical starting point facilitated and indeed was probably essential to his approach. It was a radical step which few have followed, perhaps some Existentialists but none with his range of systematic thinking. Consciousness, as an adjunct to action (conscious action) makes sense and gives consciousness a concrete meaning which accords with our actual experience. We know what it is like occasionally to do things without consciousness, when we are distracted or overwhelmed with strong emotion. I remember when my baby daughter suddenly screamed and I later found the tea towel, which I had been using in the kitchen, beside her cot. I had no memory of the transition and certainly would normally have dropped it down in the kitchen.

To concentrate on ‘consciousness’ as the issue strikes me as being like a carpenter arguing about the definition of a plane. It stops him from getting on with his task. The task of philosophy is to help us reflect truthfully on the whole of our life. If the majority of life is kept in abeyance by philosophers, they are not doing their job. Macmurray welcomed the insights of psychology (a new science in his day) and was particularly insistent on the central importance of emotion as well as intellect – feeling being even more crucial than thinking in determining action. He said that it was a scandal that we educated the intellect but left the matter of emotional development to chance. But this is another subject!

© Jeanne Warren 2004

Jeanne Warren is a founder-member of the John Macmurray Fellowship, which aims to make Macmurray’s work better known. She lives in Oxfordshire.

John Macmurray

John Macmurray was born in Scotland in 1891 and educated there and at Balliol College, Oxford. After service in World War I he pursued a career in philosophy at Balliol, University College London (where he was A.J. Ayer’s predecessor) and Edinburgh. In the 1950’s he gave Gifford Lectures at Glasgow. He wrote many books, from Interpreting the Universe (1933) to Religion, Art and Science (1961). He was known as a BBC broadcaster on philosophy before World War II but post-war he faded from public view. He died in 1976. Recently a biography has appeared, John Macmurray by John Costello (Floris Books, 2002).


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