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Murphy, Arthur Edward (1901–1962)


Arthur Edward Murphy, an American philosopher, was the creator of the phrase "objective relativism." Murphy was born in Ithaca, New York, and received his training in philosophy at the University of California (A.B. in 1923, Ph.D. in 1926). He taught successively at California, Chicago, Brown, Illinois, Cornell, Washington, and Texas; at the last four he was department chairman.

Murphy attracted attention at an early age with his article "Objective Relativism in Dewey and Whitehead" (1927). He argued that the writings of these two influential philosophers exhibited a convergence on a common doctrine, which reversed a tradition of treating "objects as primary, as substantives, and events as characters of objects." In contrast, for John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead "the event is substantive and objects are characters of events. Thus relatedness, in all its complexity and interconnections, is made basic for the objective world." Murphy, himself, supported this doctrine, which had a vogue for a time.

In 1930, however, Murphy attacked Whitehead's Process and Reality in his article "The Development of Whitehead's Philosophy." In later writings he repeatedly charged both Dewey and Whitehead, among other metaphysicians, with attempting to prove by speculative metaphysics what would better be offered as sheer speculation, to be tested in appropriate contexts. Commenting on Dewey, he wrote: "What Mr. Dewey says about cognition is true of it as he defines it and false of it as more ordinarily understood" ("Dewey's Epistemology and Metaphysics," in The Philosophy of John Dewey, edited by P. A. Schilpp, p. 210, Evanston and Chicago, 1939).

Throughout his career Murphy maintained an acquaintance with philosophers of varied opinions. As a graduate student on a traveling fellowship, he explored the philosophical currents of Europe in 19241925, when realism was at its height. During the 1930s his work as book editor of the Journal of Philosophy gave him occasion to examine and to pass judgment on the purpose and achievements of his generation and the previous one.

Murphy spent the year 19371938 in England, and from his remarks it is apparent that he was directly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein through reading the Blue Book, as well as indirectly through Wittgenstein's colleagues in England. He grew increasingly dissatisfied with speculative metaphysics, as may be seen in his contributions to the Dewey, G. E. Moore, and Whitehead volumes of the Library of Living Philosophers. His disillusionment with his own creation, objective relativism, is reported in "What Happened to Objective Relativism." Yet, to the end, it was his opinion that the speculative philosophers had opened roads to "a better understanding of the values that are basic to human life" than had most of the so-called analytic philosophers.

Murphy's strong convictions on the importance of philosophy in a liberal education led him to expend a great deal of time on the work of the Commission on Philosophy in American Education of the American Philosophical Association. His opinions on this subject are to be found in the chapters that he contributed to Philosophy in American Education (1945) and in his own essays.

Much of his work illustrates his expressed intent "to write philosophy with explicit reference to contemporary issues" (The Uses of Reason, p. 5). His early concern with epistemology and metaphysics changed to a dominating preoccupation with the uses of reason in ethical and social enterprises. His last twenty years were directed toward the working out of a systematic account of ethics. Sketches of this attempt appear in the chapter, "The Context of Moral Judgment," in The Uses of Reason, and in his essays. Murphy made good use of his powers of assimilation and criticism in examining the great moralists with a view to extracting and identifying points that must be taken account of in any subsequently defensible ethical theory. At his death, he left a long manuscript, The Theory of Practical Reason, which elaborates his Carus Lectures of 1955, originally known as "An Enquiry concerning Moral Understanding."

See also Dewey, John; Epistemology; Ethics, History of; Metaphysics; Moore, George Edward; Philosophy of Education, History of; Realism; Whitehead, Alfred North; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Murphy's The Uses of Reason was published by Macmillan in New York in 1943. He contributed Chs. 2, 3, and 10 to Philosophy in American Education (New York: Harper, 1945). Reason and the Common Good. Selected Essays of Arthur E. Murphy, edited by W. H. Hay and M. G. Singer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), includes a bibliography and the papers on objective relativism and Whitehead mentioned in this article. See also The Theory of Practical Reason, edited by A. I. Melden (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1965).

William H. Hay (1967)

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