Into the Mystic: John McMurtry, 1939-2021 | Jeff Noonan

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Into the Mystic: John McMurtry, 1939-2021

John McMurtry

New Year’s Day dawned dreary. Covid cases continued to spike. I knew that the winter term would begin once again on-line. I worried that I would not be able to hide my absolute lack of enthusiasm for another 12 weeks of sitting in front of my computer pretending to teach from my students.

And then things go worse.

At about one o’clock, as I was working on a lecture, an email notification popped up. John McMurtry, path-breaking Canadian philosopher, my doctoral dissertation supervisor, and critical interlocutor and friend for 25 years had died.

The news was deflating but not unexpected. In one of those strange coincidences that seem to surround death I had reached out to him on the day of the solstice to wish him season’s greetings and to send him a paper I had just finished. The strange thing is that I did not want to write the paper, but felt some push to do so. I wrote it very quickly, at the behest of Chinese organizers who invited me to submit a proposal for a conference on political economy. The time frame was very short and I initially thought about ignoring the invitation. But something gnawed at me. I wrote the proposal and then the full paper in only 2 weeks. The paper put McMurtry’s idea of “life-capital” to work in a re-reading of the core principles of Marxist political economy. I sent him the paper on the solstice. In his response, he told me that the bladder cancer from which he had been suffering off and on for a few years had returned, and that he knew that his time on the planet was drawing to a close. Philosophical to the end, he did not lament his fate but told me that he was at peace with death, knowing that he had given everything he had to life.

There could be no clearer illustration of what Socrates meant when he said that philosophy is a preparation for death. He did not mean that adopting this or that set of principles dispels the fear of death; he meant that a properly cultivated philosophical disposition enables one to live the right way, so that when the end comes, one can face it knowing that one has lived every moment as fully as possible and struggled to do the right thing as much as beings of limited intellect and contradictory passions can do.

John instilled that philosophical disposition in me. It was his greatest strength as a supervisor. Never be lazy, he would urge, spell out the argument, don’t skip steps, be rigorous, and above all, don’t simply repeat things that have already been said. “Say it fresh or don’t say it,” he once told me. I have tried to follow that advice in every sentence I have written since.

John was, as the name of the column he used to write for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives newsletter The Monitor stated), an iconoclast. He was not always easy to work with and he could be a trenchant (but not dogmatic) critic of others’ work (including my own). But he did not cultivate disagreement for its own sake: if someone thought that his arguments were inadequate or failed, he wanted to know what, in particular, the problems were. He also wanted to see a more comprehensive alternative articulated. His commitment to the “unforced force of the better argument” (Habermas) led to many broken chains of communication with other philosophers. Ideally, one would hope that all philosophers would be committed to debate until an agreement acceptable to both sides was reached. That was often not the case. I was included on many an email chain where the opposite would happen: under persistent questioning from John people would, like Socrates’ dialogue partners, just walk away rather than continue the discussion.

For the past 25 years the cause of the aporia was always the same: the inability or unwillingness of philosophers from other traditions to demonstrate how their positions answered the key problems of philosophy in ways that were as comprehensive and practically efficacious as the “life-value-onto-axiology” John spent the last quarter of his career developing. From my sometimes observer and sometimes participant perspective, I felt that sometimes John might have interpreted acceptable conditions of agreement in too-fine-grained terms. Consequently, opportunities for overlapping consensus, to borrow a term from Rawls, were missed. However, in the main I would see people hunker down in their traditional position rather than open themselves to the possibility that McMutry had found a genuinely new set of concepts– implicit in, but not systematically developed by, Eastern and Western philosophical traditions.

John often attributed this reticence to careerism and gate-keeping, but I think the answer lies deeper, in the path-dependencies that emerge after years and decades of work. Few and far between are Saul on the road to Damascus epiphanies: people tend to stick with the ideas they have worked on over the course of their career, not because it provides a pay cheque, but because their whole self has been invested in them. Philosophers thus regularly miss opportunities for real philosophical growth, but perhaps that tells us that philosophers are human beings too and cannot always follow the ideas where they lead.

McMurtry’s ideas led from analytic Marxism towards what G.A. Cohen, his supervisor at the University of London (before Cohen moved to Oxford) “some of the most exhilarating philosophy I have ever read.” Though exhilarating, the orienting idea of his new departure is in fact as old as recorded human thought and as easy as breathing to understand: all value in the universe depends upon the existence of sentient life. All coherent scientific, philosophical and political thought must begin from the principle that life-support is the foundation of every other good. Every other good, in turn, is an instrumental condition of healthy living or an expressed and enjoyed capacity of living things. Unlike the dominant trends in analytic and continental philosophy at the time he began to chart this course, McMurtry maintained that values were not subjective dispositions or cultural constructs but fundamental elements of the lived world (hence the ten cent term “onto-axiology”– values grounded in being). Subjective dispositions and cultural systems had to be judged in terms of the degree to which they enable the health and development of living beings (and not just humans– life-value philosophy is resolutely anti-anthropocentric). Life-value thinking thus opened the way to a coherent synthesis of scientific, philosophical, and political understanding, if people would drop their one-sided commitments and re-think their arguments in life-value terms.

Few were willing to do so explicitly (although, if one looks at work from the last twenty years, it is remarkable the extent to which the problems of need-satisfaction, global health, environmentally coherent public policy, and life as a foundational value appear). McMurtry claimed no credit for this global turn, and I think that positions like Sen’s or Nussbaum’s were cases of reaching similar places by different roads). What McMurtry did that no one else did was to articulate a systematic, universal foundation for positions like Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to social justice or Doyal’s and Gough’s theory of human needs. His achievement was not nearly as overtly influential as it should have been in academic philosophy.

I think this lack of explicit influence bothered John, but I also believed him when he said, repeatedly, that what matters is that the ideas circulate, not personal recognition. One has the right to the work, not to the fruits, he would say, paraphrasing Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. I learned that passage from John, and I have meditated on it many nights when petty professional jealousies stir in my mind and heart.

Just do the work as well as you can do. Then do it better again the next day. Nothing else matters.

Central to John’s later philosophy was the idea that each person is part of a greater whole of life. He derived this position from Indian philosophy on the one hand (the ultimate identity of consciousness and being in a boundless oneness beyond ego and its attachments) and Marx’s idea that the “individual is the social being” on the other. We both emerge from and depend upon social connections to each other and to the earth. If we meditate on that fact it becomes clear that the value of our lives is not exhausted in our ego-centric attachment to our own existence, but is in truth realized in the contributions that we make to the universal social subject. This universal subject has no natural life and death and is not bounded by the finitude of individual consciousness. When we identify our good with the good of that boundless social subject we can die secure in the knowledge that our ego dissipates but we live on in the future of the life-whole that our contributions helped sustain.

Having satisfied himself that there was nothing more for him to give, he passed peacefully into the ego-less universality of earth and memory.

When I learned of John’s death I did not feel so much sad as philosophically alone; the possibility of further conversation about life-value philosophy seemed over. But the dialogue can continue because the ideas still exist, and that is just how John would want it to be.

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