Impressions of the Philosophy of Iris Murdoch
Overview
These notes record my impressions of the Philosophy of Iris Murdoch, having read of it no more than enough to form the most speculative opinions.
Murdoch was educated in British Private schools and at Oxford University, on the home turf of the most extreme analytic philosophy, but was in some ways, perhaps, better in tune with the existentialist philosophy of continental Europe. In some measure she helped to bridge between these two diverse philosophical cultures.
In her response to the irrelevance of linguistic analysis in moral philosophy she took her lead not from existentialism, but from the metaphysical moral absolutism of Plato.
It is her own insistance (under the influence of Donald McKinnon) that moral philosophy should be conspicous in "the life lead" which makes it proper to ask of her moral philosophy: "how is this conspicuous in her life and work?".
Analytic versus Existential Philosophies
Murdoch was educated in British Private schools and at Oxford University, on the home turf of the most extreme analytic philosophy, but was in some ways, perhaps, better in tune with the existentialist philosophy of continental Europe. In some measure she helped to bridge between these two diverse philosophical cultures.
Its probably worth mentioning that Iris Murdoch was educated at Oxford University at a time (mid twentieth century) when Oxford was passing through a period of ascendency in analytic philosophy, when philosophers such as Ayer, Ryle, Austin, Strawson and others were prominent. She was an undergraduate at the outbreak of the second world war and this may have made it easier for her to survive in Oxford with views which were well out of line with the prevailing norms.

One way in which Iris broke the mould was by taking exitentialism more seriously than was then usual in Oxford. Thus her earlest published work was a short book on the philosopher Jean Paul Satre, who might also be though to have provided a model for life-enterprise as a philosopher-novelist.
Though taking Satre more seriously than most English philosophers at that time, she was by no means a disciple, finding his novels weak and his philosophy unsatisfactory. She was however, at one with the conception of philosophy (particularly moral philosophy) as a something one should expect to impact life as it lead, rather than being the more sterile analytic persuit envisaged perhaps by linguistic philosophy.
Platonism
In her response to the irrelevance of linguistic analysis in moral philosophy she took her lead not from existentialism, but from the metaphysical moral absolutism of Plato.
In seeking a philosophy fit to live by, in which moral philosophy and the concept of "the good" would be central, Murdoch turned not to existentialism, but to Plato. Despite believing that love should be of some special relevance in moral philosophy, Iris was to be a rationalist rather than a romantic.

I have to say this seemed odd to me, since, what little I know of Plato shows him in his socrates trying to roll back the Greek language from having abstracted away from "virtue" as a role specific notion of excellence to some less specific and perhaps more moral excellence. My other problem with Plato, as a source of practical insight into moral questions is that he believes we already have this innate knowledge which comes with our soul. You seek enlightenment on what is good, and the response is, at least theoretically, that you already know the answer and you just have to dig around inside to discover it. In the socratic dialogues of course you do get a bit of help, its not so easy to believe that the ideas really are coming from anyone other than socrates.
Anyway, I had a lot of difficulty trying to get some grasp of how Murdoch's philosophical views on morality translate in to real life moral prescriptions or moral appreciations. This was a problem not just in reading her philosophy, but also in reading Conradi's biography, and a few of her novels. Did her life or her novels exemplify or illustrate any plausible moral principles, and if so what are they?

Eventually I came to a theory about this. I can't say I believe it, and really I shouldn't mention it, I should go back and read up more of Murdoch's philosophy again and again until I come up with a more plausible account. But I think I've probably had enough, so this is where I was left.
Moral Perfection in her Life and Work
It is her own insistance (under the influence of Donald McKinnon) that moral philosophy should be conspicous in "the life lead" which makes it proper to ask of her moral philosophy: "how is this conspicuous in her life and work?".
To make sense of Murdoch's moral philosophy and how this manifests itself in the life lead it seems to me that we have to understand her conception of the connection between art and "the good". The key is to confuse (for this is what it seems to me) excellence in art with moral excellence. When we add to this the idea that truthfulness is the hallmark of artistic excellence we will naturally conclude that, Iris was, in her own sense of morality, morally good to the extent that she is a good artist, and that to the extent that her art is a truthful depiction of reality.

Thus, if we read a Murdoch novel, and are puzzled that it conveys no vivid sense of the authors conception of the good, even though the writing of these novels was central to her life and good the supreme concept in the most important philosophical domain of ethics, we are expecting too much. For the artistic excellence is in the truthfulness with which a certain kind of life is depicted (which happens to be in important respects the kind of life which Murdoch herself lead), and the truthfulness is the way in which the moral concepts appear in the artistic life.
Now for me truthfulness might possibly suffice for artistic merit (though I should be inclined to insist on some measure of penetration), but it does not suffice for any moral merit. I think a penetrating and truthful account might be given, of some aspect of reality, which is motivated by thoroughly evil purposes, and which is made all the more pernicious morally for having been commissioned with genius.

In the particular case of Iris, the life depicted appears debased by the abuse of intimacy. In Murdoch's own life, relationships entered into wholeheartedly nevertheless seem as if field research for her career as a philosophical novelist. The novels, while containing convincing portraits of relationships, loose credibility on the larger scale as the relationships are transformed. Her tendency to slip into "sillyness" (in her own word) possibly reflects an inability to take emotional egagment as seriously as do those of use who enter into them with greater caution, in less profusion.

There is some element of merit in the idea that one can and perhaps should, if one must break off an apparently permanent relationship, do so with good grace. It is enough that a break in continuity of living arrangements should happen, one need not also give off treating each other with consideration and love. There are some nice moral points which we might read into these civilised partings, if only we could sustain a conviction in the sincerity of these profusely testified emotions.

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