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MacCunn, John (1846–1929), philosopher, was born at Greenock on 23 September 1846, the third son of John MacCunn, shipowner, and his wife, Mary, née Campbell. His schooling was at Greenock Academy. He proceeded to Glasgow University, where he studied under the professor of moral philosophy Edward Caird. In 1872 he went as a Snell exhibitioner to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was tutored by the moral philosopher T. H. Green. He was thus taught by the two chief exponents of the British neo-Hegelian school, whose influence on him, both personal and intellectual, was profound. After obtaining a first in literae humaniores in 1876, he spent four years in Oxford working as a private philosophy coach. In 1877 he married Florence Anne, daughter of the classical scholar and former Snell exhibitioner William Young Sellar. The marriage produced two sons and one daughter.

In 1881 MacCunn was appointed as the first professor of logic, mental and moral philosophy, and political economy at the new University College, Liverpool (which in 1903 became the University of Liverpool). The post subsequently became in 1884 the chair of philosophy and political economy, and in 1891 simply the chair of philosophy. His Liverpool colleagues included the fellow idealist philosopher and literary critic A. C. Bradley, the poet and literary scholar Walter Raleigh, the physicist Oliver Lodge, and the physiologist Charles Sherrington.

MacCunn's work was saturated with the social idealism that dominated philosophical thought at the turn of the century. His earliest and chief book was Ethics of Citizenship (1894), which aimed to defend an ideal of democratic society from the basis of pre-established ethical idealism. While it was not a work to shake theoretical foundations, what one reviewer dismissed as no more than ‘platitudinous commonplace about democracy’ (A. W. Small, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 3, no. 2, March 1895, 235), another welcomed as ‘delightfully clean-cut analysis’ of a ‘sane theory of democratic politics’ (W. A. Dunning, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 1, March 1895, 162 and 163).

MacCunn argued that, although not naturally equal in nature or talents, all men possessed equal spiritual worth, that is, worth of a species which distinguished them from animals or chattels. While this fact required that they be accorded the same civil rights, and also such equal political rights as were necessary to afford them a chance to realize their moral and practical worth, it involved no antagonism to inequality or difference per se. But while mere possession of civil and political equality brought with it no guarantee of minimum sustenance or employment, and while the politically free may still be poor and starving, the development of spiritual worth and grinding poverty were uneasy bedfellows. Political rights meant nothing to those whose lives were absorbed in the mere struggle for survival. Whatever forces operated in the direction of individualism they must not obscure the undeniable facts of fraternity which existed first in family and friendship but then spread out to neighbourhood, nation, and even race. Such facts, he argued, were rooted in more than just sentiment or pragmatic dependence; they stemmed from a recognition of common spiritual worth and shared membership of an organic social whole.

MacCunn described democratic society as founded on rights, but he rejected as dogmatic and mysterious any notion of natural rights. He adopted the mid-course of an idealist understanding of rights, as those advantageous conditions of well-being which were indispensable for the true development of the citizen, enjoyable by all members of the community, and which that same society collectively believed ought to be guaranteed and protected. With this notion of rights came a similarly ideal notion of the duties of citizens, for rights in themselves had no intrinsic worth; they merely provided the opportunity to participate in society, and their real value rose or fell with the use to which they were put. Against the possibility of a tyranical majority, he stressed both the need of any majority never to ignore honest criticism or opposition, and the need of every individual to take seriously his democratic duty, mindful of the great danger of reckless voting multiplied and prepared to stand up against majority opinion if his conscience so dictates.

MacCunn's next most important work was The Making of Character: Some Educational Aspects of Ethics (1900). Published in the Cambridge Series for Schools and Training Colleges as a manual for educationalists, the book enjoyed many years of success and was regularly reprinted up to the 1930s. Maintaining that the formation of sound moral character was the chief aim of education, he considered the various factors that contributed to the formation of moral character, looking first at congenital factors (such as heredity) and then at the variety of educational influences, such as environment, family, social institutions, political society, and religious organizations. Little attention was given to formal educational structures but MacCunn's idealism shaped for him a broader vision in which individual development was a lifelong process that occurred through the whole range of an individual's relations to their environment as a whole. The second half of the book considered the formation of individual judgement, which MacCunn described as a matter of having clearly grasped some moral ideal of self-control which, while its apotheosis lay in the philosophic detachment of Spinoza, might also be encouraged through a variety of more practical techniques. While full of sound general insight into the structure and development of the moral outlook, The Making of Character was light on contemporary educational or psychological theory and on concrete guidance for potential teachers.

Other significant publications by MacCunn included Six Radical Thinkers: Bentham, J. S. Mill, Cobden, Carlyle, Mazzini, T. H. Green (1907), Liverpool Addresses on the Ethics of Social Work (1911), and The Political Philosophy of Burke (1913). MacCunn retired from his Liverpool chair in 1910 and was given the title of emeritus professor in 1911. Honoured LLD (Glasgow, 1897) and LittD (Liverpool, 1913), he died at his home, Bencruach Lodge, near Tarbet, Loch Lomond, on 24 March 1929.

If the only noteworthy form of philosophy lies in breaking new ground then MacCunn's importance must be judged slight. But if the contribution of those who take ideas and apply them to concrete life is to be acknowledged then it would be hard to find a better example of the British idealist outlook that shaped an entire generation of philosophical teachers and students.

W. J. Mander


The Times (25 March 1929), 17 · Balliol College Register · W. J. Mander, British idealism: a history (2011) · parochial register, Greenock West · d. cert.


U. Lpool L.

Wealth at death  

£3582 1s. 8d.: confirmation, 29 June 1929, CCL