You are here

John Macmurray

Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Edinburgh
1891 to 1976

John Macmurray, moral philosopher, was born in Maxwellton, near Dumfries, on 16 February 1891 to a Scottish Presbyterian family. When John was ten, his family moved to Aberdeen, where he attended Aberdeen Grammar School and Robert Gordon’s College. His strongest childhood influence was the religion he inherited from his parents. Even when he began to distance himself from the Presbyterianism of his upbringing during his first year at the University of Glasgow, having discovered what he believed to be a more biblical vision of God. This vision favored portrayals of God as personal and relational, having creating the world for fellowship and also actively participating in creation throughout history.

The young scholar earned an honours degree in Classics at the University of Glasgow in September 1913 and then was awarded a Snell Exhibition to attend Balliol College, Oxford. Despite opposition both at school and at university, he insisted on including science as an extra subject in a classical course. When the First World War broke out, Macmurray enlisted in October 1914, first with the Royal Army Medical Corps as an orderly. By the beginning of 1915, he was in France, at the Front. Later he served as a lieutenant with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was wounded, and received the Military Cross in 1918 for leadership and bravery. Early in 1917, he wrote “Trench Religion,” his first known piece of published writing, a short reflection on a soldier’s image of God in the midst of the violence and carnage at the front lines (in Cairns, ed., The Army and Religion, 1919).

While on leave from his military service, Macmurray was invited to preach, in uniform, at a church in London. Expecting a nationalistic pep-rally but receiving a passionate plea for reconciliation and forgiveness, the congregation resented his sermon and treated him harshly. This hurtful incident he took as Christianity’s rejection of him personally, and after the war he decided to renounce all organised religion but remained personally committed to the Christian faith which so profoundly shaped his life’s work.

Having been appointed to the John Locke Scholarship, Macmurray returned to Balliol College where he studied history and philosophy with A. D. Lindsay. Lindsay influenced Macmurray to consider his foundation in philosophy as a preparation for life and as a means of achieving peace and justice in society bereft of such principles. In 1916 he married Elizabeth Hyde Campbell (1891–1982), an artist from Banchory; they had no children. In 1919 Macmurray was awarded an M.A. with distinction.

His professional academic career began in 1919 with a lectureship in Philosophy at Manchester University, and in 1921 he accepted an invitation to become Professor of Philosophy at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. After only eighteen months in this position, he returned to his alma mater Balliol as Jowett Lecturer and Classical Tutor, a position he held from 1923 until the summer of 1928. In 1927 he contributed two chapters to Adventure: The Faith of Science and the Science of Faith, essays which argue that the experimental nature of scientific method betray the contingency rather than the certainty of science, and which draw the conclusion that science and religion should engage in a more sustained dialogue.

In September 1928 Macmurray was made Professor and Department Head of the Philosophical Faculty at University College, London, succeeding G. Dawes Hicks as Grote Professor of Mind and Logic. He caused a considerable stir with his January 1929 speech at the Liverpool Quadrennial of the Student Christian Movement, entitled ‘Ye Are My Friends’, drawing on Jesus’ characterisation of discipleship in John 15. This paper, later published by the Society of Friends, marked his recovery from his postwar despair and enabled him to resume his spiritual journey which led him eventually back to organised Christianity. This principle of Friendship became the key to his philosophy of the Personal.

He was invited in 1930 to give a series of lectures on ‘Reality and Freedom’ for the BBC, and delivered two separate radio lectures series between 1930 and 1932. The talks brought him widespread public recognition, which led to the publication of the lectures as Freedom in the Modern World (1932). His 1936 Deems Lectures provided the groundwork for The Boundaries of Science (1939), and in 1940 he was invited to contribute a chapter to an international symposium on Freedom where he repeated a conceptual distinction between Society, constituted by a common purpose, and Community, arising from the sharing of a common life, bringing to fruition ideas first sketched out in his Reason and Emotion (1935). In this light, Politics emerge as the concern of Society, whereas Religion is the stuff of Community. In December 1941, in four talks on the radio, he applied himself to the same problem seen from the point of view of the individual rather than the group, distinguishing between the Functional and the Personal. In 1949 he made a further contribution to this discussion of Freedom in his Chancellor Dunning Trust Lectures delivered at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and published as Conditions of Freedom, wherein he advocated the principle of reciprocal freedom.

Macmurray remained in London at University College until October 1944 when he finally returned to Scotland as Professor and Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in succession to A. E. Taylor (who had also preceded him at Manchester). He was awarded an LL.D. degree by Glasgow University in 1954. Macmurray retired from his teaching duties at Edinburgh in the summer of 1958, having influenced the lives and thought of successive generations of students.

Macmurray delivered several prestigious lecture series, beginning in 1949 with his series under the aegis of the Chancellor Dunning Trust. In 1960 he delivered the Forwood Lectures on the philosophy of religion (later published as Religion, Art and Science: A Study of the Reflective Activities in Man), and his 1965 Swarthmore Lectures were published as Search for Reality in Religion. Macmurray’s conception of philosophy and its affinity with Scottish intellectual traditions is most evident in the University of Glasgow’s 1952–1954 Gifford Lectures, which brought to fullest articulation his philosophical reflections and indicate the development of his intellectual and spiritual journey. These important lectures have never been out of print.

Macmurray’s training in the Scottish tradition at Glasgow instilled in him the belief that philosophy should address itself to the broader human situation and should be practised in a wider cultural context than simply that of professional academia. Macmurray insisted that his, and indeed all, philosophy was ‘in history’. Its concerns were ‘real’ and its function practical. By focusing on the practical, relational, ethical and religious nature of philosophy, the significance of his contribution to the discipline is unquestionable. Still, despite its popular impact and continuing relevance to the postmodern condition, his work often fails to receive the attention it deserves. After his retirement in 1958 Macmurray became a member of the Society of Friends, and he and his wife took up residence in the Quaker community at Jordans, Buckinghamshire. He died at his Edinburgh home on 21 June 1976. He was cremated, and his remains were interred at the Quaker burial-ground in Jordans.

Macmurray’s relational vision of human society now resonates with late twentieth-century communitarian trends in political and ethical thought. A John Macmurray Society was formed in Canada in 1971 and was later replaced by the International John Macmurray Association, and the UK-based John Macmurray Fellowship was established in 1993 to encourage interest in his life and engagement with his work. In 1996 Tony Blair wrote the introduction to The Personal World (ed. Conford), the first collection of his selected works, renewing a great deal of public attention.

The collection of John Macmurray’s papers is housed in the University of Edinburgh library. Macmurray’s works include Freedom in the Modern World (1932), The Philosophy of Communism (1933), Interpreting the Universe (1933), Reason and Emotion (1935), Creative Society: A Study of the Relation of Christianity to Communism (1935), The Structure of Religious Experience (1936), The Clue to History (1938), The Boundaries of Science: A Study in the Philosophy of Psychology (1939), A Challenge to the Churches: Religion and Democracy (1941), Constructive Democracy (1943) and Conditions of Freedom (1949). His Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, delivered in 1953–1954, were published as The Form of the Personal, vol. 1, The Self as Agent (1957) and vol. 2, Persons in Relation (1961), followed by Search for Reality in Religion (1965). The most authoritative biography to date is by John E. Costello, John Macmurray: A Biography (2002).

  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow