Donald M. MacKinnon

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Donald Mackenzie MacKinnon FBA FRSE (27 August 1913 – 2 March 1994) was a Scottish philosopher and theologian.


He was born in Oban on 27 August 1913, the son of Donald M. MacKinnon, Procurator Fiscal and his wife, Grace Isabella Rhynd.[1]

He was educated at Cargilfield Preparatory School in Edinburgh then Winchester College in Hampshire. He then studied Divinity at New College, Oxford graduating MA in 1935. From 1940 he began tutoring at Oxford University becoming a lecturer in Philosophy in 1945. In 1947 he became Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen and in 1960 became the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge retiring in 1978.[2] MacKinnon delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1965 and 1966 on ‘The Problem of Metaphysics’. A revised version of the lectures was published under the same name in 1974.[3]

He was President of the Aristotelian Society 1976/77 and President for the Society for the Study of Theology 1981/82. In 1984 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were Thomas F. Torrance, J. MacIntosh, G, Donaldson, David Daiches, G. W. Anderson, Sir Thomas Broun Smith, Rev Ronnie Selby Wright and G. P. Henderson.[4]

He was a Scottish Episcopalian.[5]

He died in Aberdeen on 2 March 1994.


In 1939 he married Lois Dryer.


MacKinnon is noted for his contributions to philosophical theology. He is particularly noted for the depth of analysis he applied to intractable theological problems, not least the refusal to simplify difficult questions in order to produce tidy or conclusive answers. His insistence on truth over tidiness is evident in his method of thought, an approach which some have labelled ‘open-textured’.[6] The label derives from MacKinnon's use of literary, artistic, and political sources in his work - modes of enquiry which operate in contrast to the systematic and epistemologically narrow approach of some theology and philosophy.[7]

The intensity of MacKinnon's thought was matched by his lecturing style, which was marked by 'his dangerously strong charisma, his ability to terrify adversaries'.[8] Some former students admit to 'spending more time mimicking him than following his arguments about Kant or Hegel'.[9] At Aberdeen he was notorious among the students for talking to the ivy on the walls of King's College.[citation needed] Former students Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Rowan Williams expressed deep indebtedness and admiration for his input into their intellectual development.[10] His influential input into important and relatively widely read thinkers' work, such as Williams and Murdoch, would suggest that MacKinnon’s contribution to theology and philosophy is most strongly felt through the subsequent work of his students.[11] By contrast, MacKinnon did not publish extensively, and that which he did publish is largely in short essay form and out of print.

Realism and anti-realism[edit]

MacKinnon often used a broadly Kantian metaphysics to determine the limits of a person's knowledge of God.[12] Subsequently, there is a close relationship between God and ethics in MacKinnon’s work. But MacKinnon veers away from concluding that Kant collapsed God into ethics. Nor does he accept - the further conclusion that sometimes follows this - that Kant's epistemology precludes metaphysical realism, i.e. necessitates anti-realism, in ethics and theology.[13] In The Problem of Metaphysics (1974) MacKinnon develops a Kantian epistemology and comes close to an agnostic position on God, except for the proviso that ethical decision-making has the capacity to make agents aware of a kind of metaphysical realism. He goes on to argue that it is in keeping with a Kantian metaphysics to deduce God from this sense of awareness: 'Kant [is] in the end a theist....His God does not enter into the texture of his exposition....he lies altogether beyond the frontiers of intelligible referential and descriptive statement. [But] we are all the time thrust outside those frontiers, precipitated beyond them by a moral experience on whose formal unity, in the most diverse human situations, Kant insists.'[14] MacKinnon is, in this respect, against interpreters of Kant who consider his epistemology to have anti-realist conclusions. He is also quite specifically against the view that an anti-realist theology needs to be developed as renewed approach to Christian thought, e.g. the approach developed by Don Cupitt.[15]

Tragedy - construed as an ethical construct - plays an important part in the awareness of metaphysical realism. MacKinnon illustrates this with examples of tragedy from Shakespeare, Greek thought, and Jesus’ parables, and concludes that ‘[i]t is as if we are constrained in pondering the extremities of human life to acknowledge the transcendent as the only alternative to the kind of trivialisation which would empty of significance the sorts of [tragic] experience with which we have been concerned’.[16]

Selected works[edit]

A Study in Ethical Theory (1957)
The Resurrection: a dialogue (1966) with Geoffrey Lampe and William Purcell
‘Moral Objections’ in Objections to Christian Belief (1967)
Borderlands of Theology and other essays (1968)
The Stripping of the Altars (1969)
The Problem of Metaphysics (1974)
Explorations in Theology, Volume 5 (1979)
Themes in Theology: The Three-Fold Cord (1987)
Philosophy and the Burden of Theological Honesty (2011)

Works about MacKinnon[edit]

Christ, Ethics and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon (1989) Kenneth Surin, ed.
The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays presented to D.M. Mackinnon (1982) Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland, eds.
‘Theology through philosophically mediated life: Donald M MacKinnon and Nicholas Lash’ by Daniel Hardy, in The Modern Theologians (1997) David Ford, ed.


  1. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  2. ^ Biography at Royal Society of Edinburgh homepage
  3. ^ Gifford lectures page for Mackinnon, retrieved 6 December 2009
  4. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  5. ^ Independent obituary, retrieved 6 December 2009.
  6. ^ Daniel Hardy, 'Theology through philosophically mediated life' in David Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians (1997), p272.
  7. ^ Daniel Hardy, ‘Theology through philosophically mediated life' in David Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians (1997), p276.
  8. ^ Theo Hobson, Anarchy, Church and Utopia (2005), p14.
  9. ^ Rupert Shortt, Rowan's Rule (2008), p61.
  10. ^ Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A life (2002), p. 123; Alex Voorhoeve, 'The Grammar of Goodness', in Conversations on Ethics (2009), p. 92; Rupert Shortt, Rowan's Rule (2008), p. 63;
  11. ^ Fergus Kerr, editorial, New Blackfriars, May 2004.
  12. ^ see his The Problem of Metaphysics (1974), passim, and Themes in Theology (1987), part A.
  13. ^ see Don Cupitt, The Sea of Faith (1984), pp136-140, for an example of these sort of deductions.
  14. ^ Donald MacKinnon, The Problem of Metaphysics (1974), p57.
  15. ^ Donald MacKinnon, The Problem of Metaphysics (1974), p43-44.
  16. ^ Donald MacKinnon, The Problem of Metaphysics (1974), p145.

External links[edit]