About J. Macnamara

John Macnamara (1929-1996)


John Macnamara was a professor of Psychology at McGill University from 1969 until 1996.  He was an open and generous man with a twinkle in his eye and a love of humour, music, and friendship. He was an active Catholic (at one time, a priest); yet his friendships encompassed all races, religions, and positions in society.  He was religious not just in his philosophy but in his deeds.  His house was frequently a sanctuary for people in need, from all around the world.

He was a major figure in the study of mind. Early in his career he contributed substantially to the practical and theoretical aspects of language learning, working on problems of bilingualism first in Ireland, then in Canada. Over time, his work became more theoretical, with his work in the 1970's being concerned with the innate mental capacities that made it possible for children to learn language and to think logically. Later he wrote on the theoretical bases of cognitive psychology which he examined in the light of recent developments in logic. His broad knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and linguistics was a major factor contributing to the depth of his contributions. He was a scholar rich in ideas, and persistent in the exploration of controversial ideas. His achievement was recognized by the Canadian Psychological Association which elected him a Fellow, and was more generally recognized when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

In all the best ways, John Macnamara had the style of a 19th century intellectual. He wrote about an extraordinary variety of topics, from the nature of free will to the demise of Freudian psychoanalysis to what formal logic has to say about the Holy Trinity. He did not shy away from disagreement, and was involved in productive and civil debate with scholars such as the philosopher Mario Bunge and the linguist Noam Chomsky. Finally, he is one of the very few philosophers who isn't a chore to read. He wrote with style and wit, and most of his work was directed to the educated public, not crafted only for a small group of fellow scholars.

Upon his untimely death in 1996, his colleagues and friends undertook to sponsor an annual memorial lecture. Given the breadth of his interests, it was decided that the lectures would embrace a wide range of topics. Since 1996 we have had annual lectures by eminent scholars in the fields of cognitive psychology, especially in the development of language and thought, but also in linguistics, palliative care, paleontology, and philosophy, many of whom had been students or close associates of Macnamara. The list of lecturers can be found at the end of this article.

In his writings, one finds Macnamara's conviction (unfashionable at the time at which he wrote) that the mind of the child is extraordinarily rich and complex. He began his 1982 book Names for Things by noting that psychologists typically ignored the complexity of language learning at the cost of not being able to explain it. He repeatedly argued that explaining the child's learning and understanding of language requires a psychology that includes notions such as intentionality, reference and truth. This means that psychology and philosophy are more related than many are willing to accept. It also means that a complete theory of the mind is unlikely to be found in fields such as biology and computer science, which ignore the problem of reference, which Macnamara considered to be the essential property of our mental life. Numerous relations between psychology and philosophy, especially the place of logic in psychology, were explored in his 1985 book A Border Dispute: The Place of Logic in Psychology, and in his 1994 book (edited with Gonzalo Reyes) The Logical Foundations of Cognition.

Macnamara was extremely committed to teaching. During the last several years of his life, he taught courses in the history of psychology and in contemporary psychological theory. Courses that under others might be seen as 'dry' came to life when he taught them. One of his students wrote, “There were many issues on which I disagreed with Professor Macnamara. However, by forcing me to think and argue about these issues, he helped me come to see what is my own truth in psychology and to begin thinking for myself”.

He was also an excellent graduate supervisor, encouraging his students to study a variety of topics, including language learning, the history of psychology, the “language” of vision, and the beliefs that academics in different disciplines held about free will.

Albert S. Bregman
Department of Psychology, McGill University
December, 2008