‘What to do?’ / ‘How should I know?’

May 18, 2019

“The simplest expression that I can find for the thesis I have tried to maintain is this: All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship.” That’s a nice way to open a lecture on philosophy, isn’t it?

David Oelhoffen/Albert Camus, Far From Men

This is a twelve-part synopsis, uploaded in reverse chronological order, of a two-volume lecture given by John MacMurray in Glasgow for the Gifford Lecture Series in 1953. For a blog entry, it’s quite long, but still considerably shorter than the lecture. Where quotes are used, I have in some places taken the liberty of adding commas and dashes to sprawling sentences that the transcriptionist declined to punctuate. Unfortunately, italics have been lost in transcription.

MacMurray’s argument in this lecture builds on three main claims: (1) Knowledge arises only from action, i.e., reflection arises from a narrowing of attention to focus on the abstract aspect of practical know-how. (2) The Self is not primarily an observer (not cogito ergo sum) but rather fundamentally an agent, i.e., someone who does things. (3) The Self is fundamentally a person whose existence is by definition relational among persons, hence philosophy must not ask so much about “I” alone, but must always concern itself with “I and thou” in addressing the philosophical problem of our time, which he describes as the crisis of the personal.

In the course of these arguments, he adds, “the conception of a deity is the conception of a personal ground of all that we experience.” This brings us to the theme of the Gifford lecture series, which is Natural Theology, or the exploration of religious understanding through philosophy and reason rather than reliance on faith and scripture alone. Several of the authors listed in R.D. Laing’s autobiography as important intellectual influences have recorded lectures for the Gifford series, and this is what led me to John MacMurray’s talk.

MacMurray introduces the lecture with a charming condensation of the history of Western philosophy:

“Our western philosophy began with the breakdown of a way of life in ancient Greece which posed the question ‘What should we do?’ If it has found itself driven to dwell almost exclusively with the sister question ‘How can we know?’ it remains true that this question is incomplete in itself; and that the complete question in the end is ‘How can we know what we should do?’”

To explain in what sense the “crisis of the personal” is the central dilemma for philosophy of our time, he leaps forward to the mid-20th century, to talk about the political tension between expediency and freedom. He hints here at the difference between merely navigating the cul de sacs of liberalism and taking personal responsibility as a citizen in a community. Rather than limit himself to an internal critique of liberal democracies, he draws comparisons between fascism, liberalism and communism to show that in all three modern types of polity, we encounter what he calls the apotheosis of the state:

“The increasing appeal to authority itself reflects a growing inability or unwillingness to assume personal responsibility. … The major social revolutions of our time all wear this livery whether they are fascist or communist in type. The justification offered by the democracies for resistance to the death against both is the same that they rest upon, a philosophy which sacrifices the personal values, and so the personal freedom of men, to the exigencies of political and economic expediency.”

He warns against the loss of religious feeling that goes hand in hand with this worship of power for its own sake:

“The sense of personal dignity as well as of personal unworthiness will atrophy with the decline in habits of self-examination. … Success will tend to become the criterion of rightness and there will spread through society a temper which is extraverted, pragmatic and merely objective … the religious impulses of men will attach themselves to the persons who wield political power and will invest them with a personal authority over the life of the community and of its members.”

To lay the foundations of his argument, MacMurray takes us back to the time of another great crisis in Western philosophy, one that Kant tackled in ways that were to leave their imprint on all subsequent branches of philosophy. The question hinged on the nature of sense-perception – if knowledge is contingent on sensory input that can never be perfect, how can our beliefs about science, morality and art be judged ‘true’ or ‘false’?

For Kant’s German contemporaries in the Romantic school of thought, the answer was essentially intuitive – and the implication was that all that is good and true must satisfy the mind exactly the way a work of art achieves the distinction of ‘indifferent’ admiration and universal acclaim. The good must be beautiful, and the beautiful must be good.


The problem for philosophy that Kant and the Romantics faced was the new-fangled idea that the inquiring Self of philosophy was not a transcendental Substance (e.g., an immortal soul) but a living, breathing organism with a biochemical machine called a brain that apprehends its environment, decides how to exercise its freedom, and reflects on its lot in life. The Romantics adapted to this news from science by announcing the close affinity of morality, science and art, and in effect, ascribing the grasp of each of these forms of the Good to instinct.

“Kant however set himself a critical task and raised a prior question. ‘Is the organic form’ he asked in effect ‘and its subjective correlative the standpoint of aesthetic intuition adequate for the purpose?’ His answer was a negative one. He set limits to the use of the new form [warning that] the effort to push it beyond its proper boundaries can only result in drowning morality and religion on the one hand and true science on the other in a flood of illusion.”

In this, MacMurray sees “the prophetic analysis and condemnation of totalitarianism.” He argues that the notion that the Good can be machined like a factory farm underpins the moral failings of liberalism, communism and fascism alike. It is the notion that people are sheep, whose lot can best be improved by better organisation.

But MacMurray argues that for our time, Kant’s dualistic withdrawal from sense-perception and knowledge of the world outside our minds is untenable.

“We are committed to planning whether we will or not … So long as our most adequate concept is the organic concept our social planning can only issue in a totalitarian society. This is the reason why the emergent problem of contemporary philosophy is the form of the personal. This is why we must disregard Kant’s limitation, take the primacy of practical reason as our starting-point, and eliminate dualism.”

But before moving ahead into MacMurray’s answer to this challenge, in the next section of this synopsis I’ll spend a little more time on Kant and the philosophical problems of his time. MacMurray gives Kant’s work great weight in his arguments, and while I recognize bits and pieces of Kant’s legacy that have cropped up in my readings before, this is the first time I’ve ever read a digest of Kant’s philosophy. For now at any rate, I’ll take the fidelity of MacMurray’s description of Kant’s ideas on faith.

Unicorns and ‘the eternal present’

May 18, 2019

persian miniatures

In two chapters that lay the foundations of his own arguments, MacMurray carefully unpacks Kant’s critique of the Romantic tradition in German philosophy. To begin, he gives a brief account of what the early Romantics had achieved in Kant’s day, in bringing philosophy out of the mists of mind-body dualism and into a frame of reference that could regard the thinking self as an organic whole, or as MacMurray puts it, an organism. Although he sees Hegel’s teleology as the full flowering of this school of thought, and this is one that post-dates Kant’s Critical school of philosophy, he recognizes the roots of Hegelian philosophy in the work of Kant’s contemporaries, and his focus is on continuities here.

“Hamann maintained that reason is an illusory guide to knowledge: we can know reality only by means of faith. The ground for this judgement is that reason works by the law of contradiction and so uses the absence of contradiction as the guarantee of truth. Faith on the contrary reveals reality as a coincidentia oppositorum a tension of contradictory elements. The further the process of reason is carried, therefore, the farther we are from knowledge.”

It is in the recognition of this tension between opposites that MacMurray sees the Romantic tradition as opening the door to an organismic view of the life of the mind. But this view also, importantly, makes the imagination the productive force behind the act of knowing, which becomes an act of selectively and creatively synthesizing received impressions. It is a revolution in philosophy, reversing the roles Cartesian thought assigned to didactic/reductionist memory and creative digressions of fancy, respectively.

But it was a revolutionary insight with which Kant could not be satisfied. As MacMurray paraphrases Kant’s view: “The good however is what we ought to do whether we like it or not. The true is what we ought to believe however much it goes against our inclinations. If then all experience is shown to rest on the blind art of an imaginative synthesis the problem it sets philosophy is to distinguish science and morality from art; and indeed to distinguish also the mere play of fancy from art as a serious and deliberate activity of mature human beings.”

Jodie Whittaker and Viggo Mortensen, Good

In resisting the Romantic impulse to sanctify aesthetic intuition as the true judge of all things, Kant retreats into a new-fangled dualism, the knowable and the unknowable:

“Reality as it is in itself is unknowable. This is the famous doctrine of the Thing-in-itself of the noumenal world and it is Kant’s denial of knowledge.”

He will grant the Romantics that intuition has a certain immediacy to it and a way of drawing disparate elements together into a unitary perception, but he does not credit this instantaneous grasp of things with being less an imaginative exercise than, say, mathematics and reason are imaginary discourses in which one often comes across a hypothetical unicorn.

How can action be right or wrong in the absence of knowledge of the real? Kant’s answer is that we use rule-bound criteria to discriminate – in science, to discriminate between more and less accurate descriptions of how things happen to be, and in morality, to discriminate between more or less accurate descriptions of how things ought to be. MacMurray finds this resolution of the Romantic paradox ambiguous. In making this step, in invoking the categorical imperative, Kant retreats from the world-in-itself to live among concepts only.

But before leaving Kant behind, he draws our attention to an unresolved paradox within the Critiques, one he takes as a good starting point for a new answer to the problem of our time:

“It is only when we turn to consider our practical experience as agents and not our theoretical experience as thinkers that we discover the true character of reason. This is the final and quite revolutionary conclusion of the Critical philosophy. Reason is primarily practical.”

In Kant’s version of this practical realm, MacMurray brings forward another sort of dualism (although he would object to using that term so broadly), pointing out that there is tension between the freedom of morality and the determinism of natural law: 

“We can only know a determinate world; we can only act in an indeterminate world. Therefore if we really do act, if our freedom of will is not an illusion, the world in which we act must be unknowable.”

Hence Kant argues that the world of knowledge has only Beauty at its apex of understanding, whereas the perfect aim of morality and Right action is beyond our ken. Kant, at least, admitted of the necessity that we believe in freedom, even if to know ourselves and to be free are diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world. The Romantics, for all their love of freedom, accidentally gave rise to organismic determinism, by way of reifying the symmetries and tensions of the natural world.

MacMurray argues that by making the theoretical standpoint his jumping-off point, by giving primacy to the “cogito” or “I think” in setting out in his Critiques, Kant has disbarred himself from any serious treatment of religious experience:

“We may restate our criticism by saying therefore that any philosophy which takes the ‘I think’ as its first principle must remain formally a philosophy without a second person; a philosophy which is debarred from thinking the ‘You and I’. Now the form of religious experience involves the distinction between the first and second persons. The idea of ‘God’ is the idea of a universal ‘Thou’ to which all particular persons stand in personal relation. The question of the validity of religious belief is a question of the validity of this form. ”

Kant, instead, approaches God as an object of understanding, and as per the theological truism, concludes that no conceptualization is adequate to the task. This replaces personhood with thinghood, and robs the relation of “I” and “God” of its personal quality.

“We may then reformulate our criticism of the adequacy of the Critical philosophy by saying that it fails to do justice to and even to allow for the possibility of our knowledge of one another; … if I wish to use an existential language to mark the distinction I must identify my existence with action; and my thinking with non-existence. I must say not ‘Cogito ergo sum’ but ‘Cogito ergo non-sum’. … One might say that thought transcends existence. We might speak of an existence beyond space and time in an eternal present; or we might say more simply that in thinking the self stands ‘over against’ the world which it knows.”

This passage in the lecture resonates especially strongly with me. My brain has a bad habit of entertaining ‘unicorns’ and my rationalization for entertaining them is often to cite the primacy of the ‘eternal present’ – as if thinking about doing something and doing it were the same thing. This is an ‘over and against’ stance to the world outside imagination, which is to say the world outside my bedroom window, and the habitus in which I do my imaginings. What I like about MacMurray is his ability to smoothly talk me out of thinking in this unaccountable way.

“In thinking the mind alone is active. In acting the body indeed is active but also the mind. Action is not blind. … In actuality they are ideal limits of personal experience; and ‘acting’ is the positive while ‘thinking’ is the negative limit. … As an ideal limit of personal being, it is the concept of an unlimited rational being in which all the capacities of the Self are in full and unrestricted employment.”

This rings two bells for me. On the one hand, it makes me want to interrupt MacMurray briefly to propose a negative extension of the limits of personal experience beyond ‘thinking’ into ‘resting’ and even further than this, into ‘abjection’ or ‘suffering’, following Elaine Scarry’s axis of mental activity from creativity to pain, and inserting in between the world of dreams and unconscious processing of emotional experience. In fact, in a later chapter, he will get around to this point  himself. And on the other hand, it makes me want to pat MacMurray on the back, for articulating the secular case for the Protestant work ethic! Here already we are well on the way to squaring the circle when it comes to reconciling ‘duty’ with ‘happiness’ – in making the case that we are not our true Selves except when we are wholeheartedly at work.

The ground on which we act

May 18, 2019


MacMurray has thus far taken Kant’s reluctantly reached and unexplored conclusion, that practical reason is primary, as his starting point; and he has argued that the Self is more fully realized through action than through reflection, as action engages both mind and body, whereas theoretical musings engage only the mind. To clarify his notion of Self as Agent, MacMurray proposes a further means of distinguishing action from thought: “action is activity in terms of the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ [whereas] thought is activity in terms of the distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’.”

His way of resolving the mind-body dualism of the Cartesian era in philosophy and the dichotomy between theory and practice that has been Kant’s legacy is elegant:

“Since the Subject is the negative aspect of the Self [and] … since it is by its own activity that the Self withdraws from action into reflection, its subjecthood is its self-negation. Thus the unity of the Self is a unity of self-affirmation and self-negation.”

And this self-negation, this retreat into mental life, is not superfluous but necessary to personhood and meaningful action. “The Self is constituted by its capacity for self-negation” [emphasis mine]. Such, indeed, is the structure of moral struggle, from Plato to Solovyov, and to this form belongs the Freudian world of self-deception, as well. As to the paradox implied in thinking an untruth, MacMurray replies: “Thought cannot provide a criterion of truth but at most a criterion of the correctness of the process of thinking.” Thinking, then, is a special case of doing, an activity in which we had best be as careful and well-rehearsed as a child riding a bicycle.

And our ideas about thinking, he argues, are highly visual in their choice of metaphor and in their assumptions – like a viewer on a vista, we assume that as a thinking Subject we observe our Object without interfering with it. Hence the apparent dualism between Thought and Action. Imagine thought processes taking a tactile metaphor, and all this changes abruptly; the Heisenberg uncertainty principle comes quickly to mind.

“The core of tactual perception is the experience of resistance. Now resistance is not a sense-datum even if it may perhaps include as part of the experience what may be abstracted as such. It is essentially a practical experience. By this I mean that it presupposes that I am doing something that I am in action and that I am prevented from achieving my intention. … Moreover if we limit our experience to the mere experience of resistance alone then we must say that it reveals to us that the Other exists but not at all what it is. The Other appears simply as the negation of the Self, as that which limits its existence.”

He places this defining experience, resistance, at the very center of experience: “The resistance of the Other is not merely a negation of the act of the Self, it is necessary to the possibility of the act and so constitutive of it. For without a resistance no action is possible. To act at all is to act upon something. Consequently the Other is discovered in tactual perception both as the resistance to and the support of action.”

MacMurray makes a fascinating digression into the role of tactile intuition in the applied sciences: “The tactual perception of shape, size, weight, hardness, surface texture – all depend upon the varying of resistance from zero to a maximum, which is determined by the amount of energy which I can bring to bear. … The concepts connected directly with tactual discrimination are those which form the basic concepts for the physicist in his description of the material world—energy and momentum, inertia, direction and mass. It would seem therefore that physics is concerned with the translation of an apprehension of the world which is largely visual into terms of tactual experience.”

Then he dissects the bias imposed on a theory of knowledge that chooses the visual field as its metaphor for intellectual activity:

“The significance of this only appears when we consider visual perception from the standpoint of action.” Vision, he argues, is uniquely spatio-temporal: “It is anticipatory perception. It enables us to anticipate contact, that is to say, the resistance of the other; and the distance at which an object is seen is a measure of the time it will take to make contact with it; and so of the movement that must be made before the object can be acted upon. Visual perception is therefore symbolic.”

The Other has not yet arrived in being visually apprehended; its resistance will only register when it is within range of tactile experience.

In this way, the Subject/Object dualism, so natural to visual-style reflection and rumination, is only the distinction between imagining and imagined, whereas the Self/Other distinction, so intuitive to tactile experience, is the actual, motive distinction on which the passive Viewer waits, and according to which s/he decides upon a course of action: “In other words all visual experience is the formation of an image in the Self: it becomes perceptual by being correctly referred to a future tactual perception in which alone an Other-than-self is apprehended.”

This passage made me sit up straight. It is hard for me to watch a good film and not want to get caught up in the action somehow, to want to apprehend and give feedback, in spite of the strictly audiovisual, one-way nature of recorded media. Seen from this new angle, the illusion of immediacy and anticipation is more intuitive. It’s why some people talk back to the television in the living room. They feel the talking head on T.V. has invaded their home, by intruding on the emotional thermostat settings, and that this intruder needs to be called to account for it, in such a tone that you might otherwise expect a shoving-match to follow.

And why do we expect the television to listen when we talk back? This is mere childishness, and it is instinctive, MacMurray would say: “All human knowledge is necessarily anthropomorphic, for the simple reason that we are human beings.” Hence the animism of early childhood. Our notion of the Other is necessarily by way of reference to the Self. Or to quote Proust:

“… we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul … borne away with it, and perpetually struggling to transcend it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within.”

On the level of sense-perception, MacMurray continues, the visual field has an overwhelming power to influence our actions, and to engage our attention beyond the practical scope of our activity. Vision, he says, “is a mode of awareness which enormously increases the possibility of discrimination in the reaction to a stimulus. … Indeed the possibilities of visual discrimination far exceed the possibilities of muscular discrimination in behaviour. There is an overplus of refinement in visual discrimination beyond what is necessary for the guidance of the most sensitive reaction” – and this superabundance is what captivates our attention, when we are bumping our way through a crowded subway with our eyes trained on YouTube videos played on our phones.

Returning momentarily to the connection between MacMurray and R.D. Laing, I made a note of a parenthetical remark about clinical psychology that I liked, buried in a discussion of levels of consciousness. MacMurray enumerates here the lower strata of consciousness, starting just above the world of stimulus/response, which applies also to magnets and plants; in consciousness, by contrast, there is at least awareness of pleasure/pain, and a motive to act in response. The barest motive force, this pain/pleasure register that shapes everything more sophisticated than reflex action, he describes as “an awareness but not an awareness of anything; not of the stimulus nor of the reaction nor of the environment.”

“We seek the reason for an action. Thus in seeking to understand human behaviour the psychologist considers it from the organic point of view as reaction to stimulus. He is right in this since the abstraction from rationality is the principle which delimits his field of inquiry and human beings whatever more they may be are organisms. This means of course that psychology cannot give a complete account of human behaviour and if in particular cases the account is complete then the behaviour in question is abnormal; that is, it is actually, and not merely theoretically, dissociated from any rational determination.”

This conclusion is a refreshing one – having been immersed in psychological literature lately, it’s nice to see the limits of psychoanalysis described so definitely, and to be reminded that there is scope for action beyond the ken of the scientist whose language interprets all as stimulus/response. What differentiates action from behavioral stimulus/response, of course, is that act of self-negation, the act of reasoning one’s way, of retreating into merely intellectual activity, in order to act rightly upon the ground of resistance offered by the Other – to intend.


Time And Relative Dimension In Space

May 18, 2019


To understand the Self as Agent, MacMurray argues, we need a definition of action that accounts for the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’, and for the difference between mere movement and activity. He defines an act as “a unity of knowledge and movement,” referring to knowledge and movement as “dimensions of action.” But knowing, he has previously argued, is the negative aspect of doing. He clarifies here that the act of self-negation is internal to ‘doing’ and does not place knowledge as prior to action; rather, it makes of our knowledge a selective and continuously adapting field of attention by means of which to execute our action.

But in this unity of knowledge and movement, action encounters an age-old philosophical controversy, another dualism, in effect. This is the debate over free will and determinism. For knowledge is determinate, and free will is incompatible with what a scientist would call ‘perfect information’. In order to resolve the antinomy, MacMurray next takes us to the TARDIS for a journey into intellectual history, proposing “to follow the method employed by Sir Isaac Newton in determining the principles of motion”:

“If the agent moves he must move from ‘here-now’ to ‘there-then’ .. [whereas if] the movement is merely contemplated by a subject, we find we can eliminate the reference to time and say simply the agent moves from ‘here’ to ‘there’. This, however, describes a ‘possible’ moving only. If the moving is actual, the time factor must come in. Space would seem then to represent the possibility of movement rather than its actuality; and this is confirmed by the observation that in an actual movement the space factor is one-dimensional. The other dimensions of space represent merely paths that the movement did not take or possible paths that it might have taken. … From the point of view of the Subject therefore time is spatialized and is represented by a ‘line’ or ‘path’ or ‘track’.”

This angle on relativity treats the future as mere possibility and the past only as determinate, and reconciles free will with knowledge of the determinate, by confining knowledge of cause and effect to our understanding of the past, and assigning radical uncertainty to all our dealings with the future. Returning to the distinction between reflective thought and action, to situate their relative dimension in time and space, he goes on:

“We can only distinguish space from time by saying that in space all the elements are simultaneous; not as in time successive; and simultaneity is itself a determination of time. This indicates that time is logically prior to space; … the distance of an object from the present position of an agent is a representation of the time that must elapse before he can come into contact with it; and this time is relative to the velocity of his movement.”

So for MacMurray, the proper formulation of our vehicle for navigating the world of possibility might be, instead, Space And Relative Dimension In Time.

But as he continues, MacMurray’s argument temporarily runs aground on a paradox he does not intend to resolve until he arrives at Volume II of this lecture, namely, the impossibility of knowing right action from wrong:

“The question which underlies any philosophical inquiry into action is ‘How can I do what is right?’ It is not ‘How can we know what it is right to do?’ … The belief that we can only do what is right by first knowing what it is right to do and then doing this [..] presupposes in ourselves two capacities to neither of which we can lay claim—theoretical infallibility and practical omnipotence. … [Even if] I know absolutely before I act what I ought to do [..] Circumstances over which I have no control may intervene and I discover in the event that what I have done is not what I set out to do. … This [..] is indeed one way of exhibiting what Kant called the incomprehensibility of freedom and of deducing from it as he did the primacy of practical reason.”

But MacMurray clarifies that this paradox only arises because of the abstraction he has used to arrive thus far, starting with the Self as a solitary particle in space, which is how he derived his theory of space-time, knowledge and motion:

“We postulated a solitary self in time and space: but we found that time and space are nothing in themselves; and when we took them as mere forms they resolved themselves into the forms of action and of reflection, respectively. … The scientific analogue of this is the relativity of motion. No movement in space can be determined and therefore no position in space except by reference to a fixed point independently determined.”

In other words, without a reference point, without the Other to provide resistance, to be the ground on which we act, the Agent has no scope for making choices – in empty space-time, all actions are identical, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to choose from. And without choice, action is merely aimless movement. And MacMurray argues that even if this particle were transferred from deep space to Mars, if the Self existed in total isolation from other Agents in this material environment, the resistance offered by the material world would still not avail him or her of a ground for action.

“This merely elaborates the general principle that Self and Other are correlative. If the Other is conceived in purely material terms then the Self must be similarly conceived. If then we make the Self an organism … We shall have to conceive it as an organic environment as Nature itself adapted to provide the means of life … If then we grant the agent an organic environment something more than movement becomes possible and this something more we call behaviour. Nature will provide stimuli to which he can respond. But action is still impossible. For at most the knowledge of Nature will reveal a plurality of possible activities, some easier, some more difficult, some pleasurable and some painful. But this still provides no ground of discrimination. At most the agent could ‘follow the line of least resistance’ and this excludes the determination of an objective.”

But where does the line of least resistance lead, alone in Paradise? To knowledge of mortality, necessarily. All organisms must die. What, then, can determine a course of action, for the Self as solitary creature? Nothing, he replies. All is futile, for an organism capable of reflecting on its own behavior. Hence, the necessity of positing a plurality of persons in the field of action:

“The possibility of action depends upon the Other being also agent and so upon a plurality of agents in one field of action. The resistance to the Self through which the Self can exist as agent must be the resistance of another self. The distinction between right and wrong depends upon a clash of wills.”

Action, as MacMurray means it, involves a choice between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – in contradistinction with knowledge, which involves discriminating between ‘true’ and ‘false’. The remainder, lying outside these bounds, is mere organic behavior or stimulus/response.

bad wolf