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Brief Lives

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)

Gary Browning tells us why Iris Murdoch stands out as a twentieth century thinker.

Iris Murdoch matters for many reasons. She was an outstanding intellectual figure of the twentieth century, whose work makes sense of modernity and the history of her times. She set out an original philosophy which offered a new perspective on morals and metaphysics. She also wrote imaginative, interesting and fun novels. What makes her compelling is that her fiction and philosophy do not stand apart as discrete achievements: her novels deal imaginatively with themes and issues that characterise her philosophy, and her philosophy explains how art is to be understood.

Both her novels and her philosophy drew upon her own lived experience and reflect back upon it. Murdoch was a woman of diverse interests and skills, but she put them together to engage with the major questions and issues of her age. She was acutely aware of the processes of secularisation that were taking place in the second half of the twentieth century. The old dogmas of religion, a priori reasoning in metaphysics, and absolutist moral principles and political ideologies, were receding. Humanity was turning towards relying upon natural science and its technological applications, and emphasising the freedom of individuals. Murdoch recognised that the freedom and scientific tenor of the modern age could not be abandoned, but against the current of her age, she aimed to revive the metaphysical spirit of Platonism and Plato’s call for reaching and acting in the light of a transcendent notion of the Good.

Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch by Darren McAndrew 2020

Early Years

Iris Murdoch was born in North Dublin in 1919. Her family moved to London soon after her birth, though she remained conscious of her family’s Irish roots. She was a much loved only child, who attended Frobel School in London before going on to a private school, Badminton, in Bristol, which embraced progressive politics. Murdoch flourished at the school before herself progressing to Somerville College in Oxford in 1938, where she studied Mods and Greats, which combined Classics, Ancient History, and Philosophy.

As an undergraduate Murdoch formed many deep long-lasting friendships, including with fellow students of Philosophy Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Elizabeth Anscombe. There were many romantic attachments too; notably a relationship with the brother of the historian E. P. Thompson, the poetic and heroic Frank Thompson, who was to die tragically in a misguided Special Operations Executive mission in Bulgaria during the Second World War. Her teachers also left their mark, notably the charismatic integrity and moral seriousness of the philosopher Donald Mackinnon and the intensity of the classicist Eduard Frankel. Messy, exciting, and multiple relations with friends and lovers are a feature of her novels, and they inform her moral thought. In her moral philosophy she looks to cultivate loving relations with others, against the tide of conventional philosophical trends, which were towards the dry analysis of concepts.

While at Oxford she also joined the Communist Party; and, imagining a fairer, socialist post-war world, took an active part in student politics. After graduating in 1942, she worked at the Treasury, and in 1944 joined the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), for whom she worked in Belgium and Austria, where she witnessed at first hand the disruption caused by WWII and the desperate plight of refugees; fleeing appalling conditions and political oppression. She remained sensitive to the human costs of political repression throughout her work, in both her philosophy and her fiction. Her novels often highlight the lives of refugees: survivors are shown as living under the shadow of the Holocaust, and powerful portraits of migrants lend colour and variety to her cast of characters.

From her university days onwards she maintains a journal and writes a stream of letters. These provide a remarkable ongoing record of her varied relationships and her politics. Her journals also show her interest in a wide variety of forms of philosophy, including phenomenology, Hegel, analytic philosophy, and contemporary existentialism.

From 1947-1948 she studied Philosophy in Cambridge, initially under the guidance of the broadcaster C.E.M. Joad, but subsequently under John Wisdom. Ludwig Wittgenstein was neither teaching nor an actual presence in Cambridge, but his influence was marked on those whom Murdoch befriended. She became a Fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, in Philosophy in 1948, and over the next fifteen years developed her thinking there. She reached out beyond Oxford and the Anglo-American analytic scene by publishing on continental philosophy and setting out a form of moral philosophy that appealed to a wider audience than did most philosophers of the time.

In her letters and journals she attested to an awareness of her own moral frailty. Before marrying John Bayley, an Oxford literary academic, in 1956, she had a number of torrid affairs: notably with Michael Oakeshott, the conservative political philosopher; Franz Steiner, the anthropologist and poet; and Elias Canetti, the provocative novelist and social theorist. But marriage provided her with security and stability.

Sartre, Existentialism and the Novel

Murdoch’s book on the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), was the first study of Sartre’s philosophy in English, and a landmark publication. It remains a valuable resource.

She is at once sympathetic to and critical of Sartre. She had been reading his work closely over preceding years, and discusses him at length in her journals and letters, notably in her correspondence with the French experimental novelist Raymond Queneau. On the one hand she is attracted to Sartre. Unlike those dreaming along the spires of Oxford, he does philosophy with a kick to it. She observes how Sartre stays close to lived experience, and in doing so shows a novelist’s sensibility. She’s impressed by his revealing review of states of consciousness in Being and Nothingness (1943), but is critical of his narrow focus on the self and his tendency to ignore the impact of philosophy on the social and political world. In essays of the 1950s, Murdoch is also critical of existentialist novels, which are not very open to the interplay of characters and follow too closely the trajectory of a single guiding mind. She herself published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, and would publish a further twenty five novels at regular intervals over the ensuing forty five years. The main protagonist in Under the Net, Jake Donoghue, bears a resemblance to an existentialist hero, but his egoistic flaws highlight the shortcomings of an existentialist perspective.

In essays throughout the 1950s and 60s, Murdoch reflected upon the roles of art, morals, and politics in the wider economy of experience. In ‘A House of Theory’ (1958), she observed the post-war decline in ideology, and, given the more general obsolescence of social and religious intellectual commitment, she urged that socialism still be promoted by a review of possible utopian futures. In ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ (1959) she reframed Kant’s idea of the sublime to capture how the intricacies of characters interacting with one another can yield a sublime expression of lived experience. Her most famous essay on literature is ‘Against Dryness’ (1961), in which she critiqued novels that either provide journalistic accounts of conventions or are merely fictional representations of their authors’ viewpoints. She reimagined the novel as allowing for the development of free characters. (These essays are all available in Existentialists and Mystics, edited by Murdoch, 1997.)

The Sovereignty of Good

In the 1950s and 1960s Murdoch also continued working on moral philosophy, alongside publishing essays on thought, language, and the self. Her horizon was broadened by lecturing at the Royal College of Art in London from 1963-1967.

In 1970 The Sovereignty of Good brought together three of her essays on moral philosophy, ‘The Idea of Perfection’; ‘On “God” and “Good”’; and ‘The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts’. The book sets her work apart from that of other contemporary Continental and Anglo-American thinkers. She opposes what she takes to be shallow behaviourist accounts of the self, while also opposing theories of ethics from Kant to Sartre which privilege the role of choice exercised by autonomous individuals, but do not take care to integrate or even examine social situations and the perspectives of others.

Rather than assuming a neutral state of affairs to which morality is to be added, Murdoch reminds us of the myriad of ways in which we perceive and value our experiences, and hence derive our morality. Morality depends upon the values that lie, perhaps hidden, in our detailed understanding of things, rather than in theories and values we simply develop in our heads and bring to what’s going on in our lives.

For Murdoch most of the significant work in each person’s moral thinking is done by the way we imagine and describe the lives in which we are involved. In the essay ‘The Idea of Perfection’ she gives the famous example of a mother who takes against her daughter-in-law. The girl appears brusque and without refinement, and hence unsuitable for her beloved son. But instead of fixing upon this judgment, Murdoch imagines the mother lovingly revisiting her conception of her daughter-in-law in an effort to see her more justly. Instead of taking the daughter-in- law to be vulgar, she sees her as refreshingly simple; not undignified, but spontaneous. So Murdoch imagines the mother as capable of understanding her daughter-in-law differently from her immediate impression. This capacity to rethink and to move away from our prejudices is central in Murdoch’s consideration of the moral significance of paying attention to other people and situations.

Most notably within her essay ‘On “God” and “Good”’, Murdoch maintains that morality might be seen in terms of realising the Good – a transcendent standard of perfection in the style of Plato. Murdoch believes that in the modern world old ideas connected with a personal and supernatural God can no longer be sustained; but she imagines that a notion of the Good could still provide a paradigm of morality that might encourage people to look away from mere moral subjectivism to the possibility of objective goodness.

Later Writing

Murdoch continued to develop her philosophical thinking following The Sovereignty of Good, while publishing a series of novels that tend to show the difficulties of attending to others and acting morally. Perhaps her most celebrated novel is The Sea, The Sea (1978), which is presented as a journal of a renowned but egotistic theatre director, Charles Arrowby, who manifestly fails in his professed aim of becoming good. His focus upon his own assumed virtue obscures the pressing needs of others. It is an object lesson in the vice of inattentiveness.

In The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977) Murdoch elaborated upon her reading of Plato, counterposing her own sense of the truthfulness of art to Plato’s hostility to the arts [see Issue 138, Ed]. Yet she rereads Plato as being an artist himself, by drawing attention to his use of imagery.

In 1982 Murdoch delivered the Gifford Lectures, then developed them into her last major philosophical work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1993). Here she elaborates on the processes of demythologisation or disenchantment that characterise the modern world, while defending a form of metaphysics that is compatible with science and empirical observation. While noting the messiness of experience, she looks to aspects of experience that point to underlying forms of order and unity which can underpin morals. In so doing, she draws upon many authors from differing ethical traditions, such as Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Plato, Buber and Weil. In her later years she also prepared a ‘Manuscript on Heidegger’, which reads Martin Heidegger in the light of Wittgenstein, as providing a paradigm of metaphysics in a post-metaphysical age. She decided against this manuscript’s publication, but it is thoughtful and scholarly. It is due to be published in the next few years.

Life & Philosophy in Retrospect

Murdoch gave up her Fellowship at St Anne’s College in 1963 and retired from teaching at the RCA in 1967. But she remained highly active, writing novels, plays, poetry, and significant philosophical works until the mid-1990s. In her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma (1995) the main protagonist, Benet, is struggling to read Heidegger, just as Murdoch herself had worked hard on Heidegger before giving up on publishing her study of his work.

Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1997, and John Bayley’s memoir, Iris, is devoted to conveying how she and he contended with the disease before her death in 1999. The film Iris, which was directed by Richard Eyre in 1997, provides a moving portrait of her final years, while, for the most part, not engaging with her literary and philosophical work.

Murdoch is a thinker who resists classification, working within and beyond the analytic tradition. Her determination to cross boundaries and to draw upon multiple interests and forms of expertise marks out her originality. Her philosophy relates to her skills as a novelist in that she develops and relates her philosophical perspective to lived experience in ways familiar to the novelist. Her imaginative example of the mother who shows moral development by reflecting upon her prejudices is expressly recognised by Murdoch herself as drawing upon a literary sensibility. Moreover, her novels show (if only through a glass darkly) her identification of the moral failings of inattentiveness and egoistic self-absorption.

Iris Murdoch explored many philosophical traditions, engaging critically with contemporary analytic and continental philosophy, while drawing upon historic philosophers who were being ignored or misperceived in her time. She also strikes an individual note in aiming to make her philosophy relevant to how one might live one’s life.

© Prof. Gary Browning 2020

Gary Browning is Professor of Political Thought at Oxford Brookes University, and the author of books on Murdoch, Collingwood, Hegel, Lyotard, the history of political thought, critical political economy, global theory, and Bob Dylan.

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