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Reason and Emotion: Scottish Philosopher John Macmurray on the Key to Wholeness and the Fundaments of a Fulfilling Life

Reason and Emotion: Scottish Philosopher John Macmurray on the Key to Wholeness and the Fundaments of a Fulfilling Life

We feel our way through life, then rationalize our actions, as if emotion were a shameful scar on the countenance of reason. And yet the more we learn about how the mind constructs the world, the more we see that our experience of reality is a function of our emotionally directed attention and “has something of the structure of love.” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum recognized this in her superb inquiry into the intelligence of emotion, observing that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”

A century before Nussbaum, the far-seeing Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (February 16, 1891–June 21, 1976) took up these questions in a series of BBC broadcasts and other lectures, gathered in his 1935 collection Reason and Emotion (public library).

John Macmurray by Howard Coster, 1933. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Macmurray writes:

We ourselves are events in history. Things do not merely happen to us, they happen through us.

They happen primarily through our emotional lives — the root of our motives beneath the topsoil of reason and rationalization. We suffer primarily because we are so insentient to our own emotions, so illiterate in reading ourselves.

Three decades before James Baldwin marveled at how “you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” Macmurray considers the universal resonance of our emotional confusion, which binds us to each other and makes our responsibility for our own lives a responsibility to our collective flourishing:

All of us, if we are really alive, are disturbed now in our emotions. We are faced by emotional problems that we do not know how to solve. They distract our minds, fill us with misgiving, and sometimes threaten to wreck our lives. That is the kind of experience to which we are committed. If anyone thinks they are peculiar to the difficulties of his own situation, let him… talk a little about them to other people. He will discover that he is not a solitary unfortunate. We shall make no headway with these questions unless we begin to see them, and keep on seeing them, not as our private difficulties but as the growing pains of a new world of human experience. Our individual tensions are simply the new thing growing through us into the life of mankind. When we see them steadily in this universal setting, then and then only will our private difficulties become really significant. We shall recognize them as the travail of a new birth for humanity, as the beginning of a new knowledge of ourselves and of God.

Art by the 16th-century Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

At the heart of this recognition, this reorientation to our own inner lives, lies what Macmurray calls “emotional reason” — a capacity through which we “develop an emotional life that is reasonable in itself, so that it moves us to forms of behaviour which are appropriate to reality.” The absence of this capacity contributes both to our alienation from life and to our susceptibility to dangerous delusion. Its development requires both a willingness to feel life deeply and what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt.” Macmurray writes:

The main difficulty that faces us in the development of a scientific knowledge of the world lies not in the outside world but in our own emotional life. It is the desire to retain beliefs to which we are emotionally attached for some reason or other. It is the tendency to make the wish father to the thought. .. If we are to be scientific in our thoughts… we must be ready to subordinate our wishes and desires to the nature of the world… Reason demands that our beliefs should conform to the nature of the world, not the nature of our hopes and ideals.

In consonance with Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s insightful insistence on the courage to disillusion yourself, Macmurray adds:

The strength of our opposition to the development of reason is measured by the strength of our dislike of being disillusioned. We should all admit, if it were put to us directly, that it is good to get rid of illusions, but in practice the process of disillusionment is painful and disheartening. We all confess to the desire to get at the truth, but in practice the desire for truth is the desire to be disillusioned. The real struggle centres in the emotional field, because reason is the impulse to overcome bias and prejudice in our own favour, and to allow our feelings and desires to be fashioned by things outside us, often by things over which we have no control. The effort to achieve this can rarely be pleasant or flattering to our self-esteem. Our natural tendency is to feel and to believe in the way that satisfies our impulses. We all like to feel that we are the central figure in the picture, and that our own fate ought to be different from that of everybody else. We feel that life should make an exception in our favour. The development of reason in us means overcoming all this. Our real nature as persons is to be reasonable and to extend and develop our capacity for reason. It is to acquire greater and greater capacity to act objectively and not in terms of our subjective constitution. That is reason, and it is what distinguishes us from the organic world, and makes us super-organic.

And yet reason, Macmurray argues, is “primarily an affair of emotion” — a paradoxical notion he unpacks with exquisite logical elegance:

All life is activity. Mere thinking is not living. Yet thinking, too, is an activity, even if it is an activity which is only real in its reference to activities which are practical. Now, every activity must have an adequate motive, and all motives are emotional. They belong to our feelings, not our thoughts.


It is extremely difficult to become aware of this great hinterland of our minds, and to bring our emotional life, and with it the motives which govern our behaviour, fully into consciousness.

This difficulty is precisely what makes us so maddeningly opaque to ourselves, and what makes emotional reason so urgent a necessity in understanding ourselves — something only possible, in a further paradox, when we step outside ourselves:

The real problem of the development of emotional reason is to shift the centre of feeling from the self to the world outside. We can only begin to grow up into rationality when we begin to see our own emotional life not as the centre of things but as part of the development of humanity.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In a sentiment evocative of E.E. Cummings’s wonderful meditation on the courage to feel for yourself, Macmurray adds:

There can be no hope of educating our emotions unless we are prepared to stop relying on other people’s for our judgements of value. We must learn to feel for ourselves even if we make mistakes.

An epoch before neuroscience uncovered how the life of the body gives rise to emotion and consciousness, Macmurray echoes Willa Cather’s insistence on the life of the senses as the key to creativity and vitality, and writes:

Our sense-life is central and fundamental to our human experience. The richness and fullness of our lives depends especially upon the richness and fullness, upon the delicacy and quality of our sense-life.


Living through the senses is living in love. When you love anything, you want to fill your consciousness with it. You want to affirm its existence. You feel that it is good and that it should be in the world and be what it is. You want other people to look at it and enjoy it too. You want to look at it again and again. You want to know it, to know it better and better, and you want other people to do the same. In fact, you are appreciating and enjoying it for itself, and that is all that you want. This kind of knowledge is primarily of the senses. It is not of the intellect. You don’t want merely to know about the object; often you don’t want to know about it at all. What you do want is to know it. Intellectual knowledge tells us about the world. it gives us knowledge about things, not knowledge of them. It does not reveal the world as it is. Only emotional knowledge can do that.

Emotional reason thus becomes the pathway to wholeness, to integration of the total personality — a radical achievement in a culture that continually fragments and fractures us:

The fundamental element in the development of the emotional life is the training of this capacity to live in the senses, to become more and more delicately and completely aware of the world around us, because it is a good half of the meaning of life to be so. It is training in sensitiveness… If we limit awareness so that it merely feeds the intellect with the material for thought, our actions will be intellectually determined. They will be mechanical, planned, thought-out. Our sensitiveness is being limited to a part of ourselves — the brain in particular — and, therefore, we will act only with part of ourselves, at least so far as our actions are consciously and rationally determined. If, on the other hand, we live in awareness, seeking the full development of our sensibility to the world, we shall soak ourselves in the life of the world around us; with the result that we shall act with the whole of ourselves.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

A generation after William James made the then-radical assertion that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” and an epoch before science began illuminating how our bodies and our minds conspire in emotional experience, Macmurray considers what the achievement of emotional reason requires:

We have to learn to live with the whole of our bodies, not only with our heads… The intellect itself cannot be a source of action… Such action can never be creative, because creativeness is a characteristic which belongs to personality in its wholeness, acting as a whole, and not to any of its parts acting separately.

This wakefulness to the sensorium of life, he argues, is not only the root of emotional reason but the root of creativity:

If we allow ourselves to be completely sensitive and completely absorbed in our awareness of the world around, we have a direct emotional experience of the real value in the world, and we respond to this by behaving in ways which carry the stamp of reason upon them in their appropriateness and grace and freedom. The creative energy of the world absorbs us into itself and acts through us. This, I suppose, is what people mean by “inspiration.”

And yet we can’t be selectively receptive to beauty and wonder — those rudiments of inspiration — without being receptive to the full spectrum of reality, with all its terrors and tribulations. Our existential predicament is that, governed by the reflex to spare ourselves pain, we blunt our sensitivity to life, thus impoverishing our creative vitality and our store of aliveness. Macmurray writes:

The reason why our emotional life is so undeveloped is that we habitually suppress a great deal of our sensitiveness and train our children from the earliest years to suppress much of their own. It might seem strange that we should cripple ourselves so heavily in this way… We are afraid of what would be revealed to us if we did not. In imagination we feel sure that it would be lovely to live with a full and rich awareness of the world. But in practice sensitiveness hurts. It is not possible to develop the capacity to see beauty without developing also the capacity to see ugliness, for they are the same capacity. The capacity for joy is also the capacity for pain. We soon find that any increase in our sensitiveness to what is lovely in the world increases also our capacity for being hurt. That is the dilemma in which life has placed us. We must choose between a life that is thin and narrow, uncreative and mechanical, with the assurance that even if it is not very exciting it will not be intolerably painful; and a life in which the increase in its fullness and creativeness brings a vast increase in delight, but also in pain and hurt.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

The development of emotional reason, Macmurray argues, is the development of our highest human nature and requires “keeping as fully alive to things as they are, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, as we possibly can.” It requires, above all, being unafraid to feel, for that is the fundament of aliveness. He writes:

The emotional life is not simply a part or an aspect of human life. It is not, as we so often think, subordinate, or subsidiary to the mind. It is the core and essence of human life. The intellect arises out of it, is rooted in it, draws its nourishment and sustenance from it, and is the subordinate partner in the human economy. This is because the intellect is essentially instrumental. Thinking is not living. At its worst it is a substitute for living; at its best a means of living better… The emotional life is our life, both as awareness of the world and as action in the world, so far as it is lived for its own sake. Its value lies in itself, not in anything beyond it which it is a means of achieving.


The education of the intellect to the exclusion of the education of the emotional life… will inevitably create an instrumental conception of life, in which all human activity will be valued as a means to an end, never for itself. When it is the persistent and universal tendency in any society to concentrate upon the intellect and its training, the result will be a society which amasses power, and with power the means to the good life, but which has no correspondingly developed capacity for living the good life for which it has amassed the means… We have immense power, and immense resources; we worship efficiency and success; and we do not know how to live finely. I should trace the condition of affairs almost wholly to our failure to educate our emotional life.

In the remainder of the thoroughly revelatory Reason and Emotion, Macmurray goes on to explore the role of art and religion in human life as “the expressions of reason working in the emotional life in search of reality,” the benedictions of friendship, and the fundaments of an emotional education that allows us to discover the true values in life for ourselves. Complement it with Dostoyevsky on the heart, the mind, and how we come to know truth and Bruce Lee’s unpublished writings on reason and emotion, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creativity.

Published June 29, 2023




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