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03 Feb

Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

Byran Magee discusses the areas in which philosophy and literature overlap with Iris Murdoch.

“Style and structure in philosophical writing are compared and contrasted with those in literature. The narrative abilities of Plato, Schopenhauer, and Kant are examined. Philosophy’s predilection for accepting only literature that supports its theories is discussed as a source of antagonism between the two disciplines.”

Many more of Magee’s interviews with contemporary philosophers are available here.

21 Aug

‘Archives and afterlife’ – The 7th Annual Iris Murdoch Conference, 12th-13th September

Celebrating ten years since the opening of the Iris Murdoch Archives and the inauguration of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, the Seventh International Conference on Iris Murdoch will showcase published and on-going research that has been informed by material in our archives.

Venue: John Galsworthy building, Penrhyn Road campus, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2EE

Price: £65-£150

Click here for more information and to book.

15 Jul

Happiness and Self

Happiness is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self.

Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good, (1968), chapter 22.

02 Jun

The (Moral) Persuasiveness of Narrative

For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision:
unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention.
It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’

For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us.[…] As [Jonathan] Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way
‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation…The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’
Murdoch the novelist would have approved.

From Godless yet good, a piece on secular ethics by Troy Jollimore in Aeon Magazine.

15 Jul

Seeking the Sun: Murdoch and the Good

Dame Iris Murdoch Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dame Iris Murdoch
Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Murdoch and Nietzsche start from with the same assumptions when considering morality. But interestingly, they end up in different places.

Iris Murdoch, in the essay The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts, gives her starting assumptions as follows (p. 76-7)

That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence, whenever and however we look at them, in spite of a very small number of apparent exceptions. […]

That human life has no external point or Telos is a view as difficult to argue as its opposite, and I shall simply assert it. I can see no evidence to suggest that human life is not something self-contained.

These principles are ones Nietzsche would agree with. Added to this the disagreement among those who consider the matter as to what principles morality is based on, lead Nietzsche to scepticism about the existence of morality (see the upcoming paper by Leiter which outlines Nietzsche’s position in full).

Murdoch takes another path. She agrees that modern attempts to analyse moral concepts without success, but argues that the failure is due to the abandonment of images and metaphors, which are “the fundamental forms of our awareness of our condition”. Though such philosophy does not arrive at a conclusion, it does contain concepts which lose substance when an attempt is made to remove the metaphorical aspects.
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28 Jun

No God but The Good

When the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch took up the old ontological argument that Anselm and Spinoza wrestled with, she came out not with Anselm’s God the Father, or Spinoza’s Nature, but, simply, Good. For her, “No existing thing could be what we have meant by God”; the God of religions is just a shadow of what beauty points us toward. (“Only an atheist can believe in what is unintended,” a novelist friend once told me.) What are we left with? “The unavoidable nature of morality,” Murdoch says. No matter how we try to avoid them, right and wrong pervade the universe. The Good exists, which is precisely why she believed that God does not.

Quote from 10 Proofs That Will Change How You Think About God, by in the Huffington Post. An excellent summary of ethical and religious beliefs of the only Irish philosopher mentioned (a more technical post on Murdoch’s position is here).

The whole piece is worth a read.

25 May

Theory about Theories

Marcus after the disaster reflects: ‘Would he go on working on his book? Perhaps it was a book which only a genius could write, and he was not a genius. It might be that what he wanted to say about love and about humanity was true but simply could not be expressed as a theory.’

What this suggests is not only that a truth may be uttered so that it is a lie, but that moral truth may be such as to evade any theoretical expression – perhaps with the consequence that all theoretical expression of it will be to some degree a lie. Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy: but they are philosophy which casts doubts on all philosophy including her own. […]

When I say that Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy, then, my claim has very little to do with the fact that her characters sometimes talk about Wittgenstein or quote Heidegger or Kant or go to dinner with Oxford philosophers, or that she makes philosophical jokes (‘There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent’).[…] What her novels systematically embody is a theory about theories, a theory which is to some degree against all theory – including itself. And if this does not entail that she had to be a novelist, it is at least clear that such a point of view could never have received adequate expression merely at the level of theory.

From Good for nothing by Alasdair MacIntyre in the LRB (£ to read full article).
A review of Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit by Elizabeth Dipple