Meditations on pure reflections

Transformations of Mind
June 8, 2001

Michael McGhee's brave, gripping and illuminating book does not fall neatly into any of the categories by means of which contemporary analytic philosophy tends to characterise its own practice. McGhee addresses a number of issues in ethics, the philosophy of religion and aesthetics, but his book is not best understood as a contribution to those philosophical sub-disciplines. His primary aim is to question the basic assumptions that inform the work typically done in those fields, including assumptions about the way each field relates to the others (in particular, the assumption that the issues with which he is concerned fall into separable fields of philosophy), and thereby to transform our prevailing conception of philosophy itself - of what it is and what it might become.

Accepting the idea of philosophy as a matter of rational reflection on the assumptions that govern our practices and forms of life, McGhee reminds us that philosophical reflection is itself a practice that is informed by its own assumptions. It is practised by individuals, whose ability to subject assumptions to rational evaluation is conditioned by their conception of what gives rational force to some assumptions and not to others, and of how such conceptions might be evaluated. This conceptual horizon determines not only what we think does or should rationally motivate us, but also what we take to be the conceivable rational alternatives to our present motivational set. But of course, this horizon is itself conditioned - by an individual's culture, character and life. And if philosophy's business is to reflect on our conditionedness, then it should not avoid reflecting on this aspect of its own conditionedness.

McGhee thinks of such receptivity as a species of meditation, from which alone authentic reflection can grow. He suggests that when it is as attentive as it should be to any uneasiness we, or others we encounter, might manifest over the motivational horizon we inhabit, it can open up the possibility of alternative conceptions of that horizon. In other words, ways of attaining a perspective on it that are indissociable from a desire to go beyond it, and hence from the realisation that any given state of our sensibility is capable of such self-overcoming, but also of overcoming its desire to do so.

McGhee here arrives at a perfectionist conception of the self that he finds in Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and traces back to Plato, and that is worked out in different ways in the writings of Iris Murdoch, Charles Taylor and Stanley Cavell. He joins them in seeing this conception as privileging the imagination, as capable of acknowledging the contribution that works of art (and philosophical reflection on such works) might make to our understanding of ethics, moral philosophy and philosophy itself. He shares their interest in seeing such perfectionism as essentially post-Christian - a transforming inheritance of that religious tradition. But he goes further than any of them in elaborating the degree to which such perfectionism can be seen to resonate with a controversial reading of certain themes in Buddhist thought and practice.

McGhee's chapters interweave detailed discussions of Plato's and Kant's conceptions of art, reason and moral exemplarity with extended readings of Matthew Arnold and Wordsworth, analyses of Buddhist doctrines and vivid autobiographical excursions. The book's unexpected articulations reflect McGhee's sense that ethics and aesthetics (as well as religion or spirituality) name dimensions rather than departments of philosophy; its capacity to imply more than it can express embodies the moral he draws for reflection from the Kantian idea of an "aesthetic idea". Most fundamentally, however, to follow its incessant circling around a few central preoccupations, making new connections and revising key claims, sometimes losing confidence in its insights but more often seeing new reaches of illumination yet to be explored, is at once to track the experience of anyone attempting to make sense of their life, and to absorb the individual sensibility of its author.

McGhee's book does not so much say as show that philosophising is always situated, conditioned by the individual consciousness of its practitioners and ultimately bases its claim to our attention on the attractiveness of the conceptual horizon that it, and its creator, embody. The demands it makes on its readers are unusual, and unusually disconcerting - but they bring a sense of human significance into a subject that too often lacks it.

Stephen Mulhall is fellow and tutor in philosophy, New College, Oxford.

Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice

Author - Michael McGhee
ISBN - 0 521 77169 2 and 77753 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £16.95
Pages - 286

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