Friday, April 6, 2012

Iris Murdoch and the inner life

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Iris Murdoch and the inner life
Date: 8 June 2007 13:18

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 3 June, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'Iris Murdoch and the Inner Life'.

While I found this account of Iris Murdoch's philosophical views interesting to read, there is a problem from the outset that you have set yourself the task of reporting on Iris Murdoch's views, deriving information from an interview (Brian Magee 1978) and an appreciative reading of her novels. This has the consequence of raising far more questions than it answers.

Although you list 'Sovereignty of Good' and 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals' in your bibliography, there is little evidence here that you have tried to engage with Iris Murdoch's arguments, or even attempted the task of philosophical exposition.

It is one thing to 'hold a view', e.g. that a novelist interested in philosophy should avoid 'including philosophical theories or ideas', or that our everyday use of language is 'saturated with value', but there is a fundamental difference between merely holding a view and maintaining a philosophical stance.

To take these two examples, the first view is merely a decision made by an artist which defines how the artist approaches his/ her work. Another author might find a way to include philosophical theories and ideas; Iris Murdoch would not have an 'argument' with that author. All she can say is, 'I work differently.' Whereas, in the second case, it is a thesis in moral philosophy that everyday language is 'saturated with value' (when the metaphor of 'saturation' has been suitably unpacked), which can be defended or attacked by philosophical argument. But you give little more than a hint at what Murdoch's arguments might be.

In 'Sovereignty of Good' Murdoch develops a subtle and powerful case in favour of a Platonic, or quasi-Platonic view of moral values, by contrast with the Existential approach, which she saw exemplified not only in continental philosophy but in much of analytic moral philosophy. What is this case and how convincing is it? That is something a reader would be interested to know. How does Murdoch's version of moral realism compare or contrast with other kinds of moral realism, for example, Kantian ethics? Is Murdoch, in fact, a Platonist, or is there a crucial point at which her philosophy falls short of embracing a fully-fledged Platonic 'theory of ideas'?

You report that Murdoch 'developed here ideas in opposition' to Wittgenstein, but, once again, the reader is given very little information about how her arguments clash with Wittgenstein's later philosophy. As it happens, I find this claim rather implausible. Wittgenstein himself deplored the influence that his philosophy had had on those who half-understood his arguments and applied them in a way that he would never have done. So was Murdoch reacting to Wittgenstein, or only to inaccurate reports of what Wittgenstein was doing? It is significant that the first published statement of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, the 'Philosophical Investigations', only appeared in 1953, although mimeographed notes which Wittgenstein had produced for his Cambridge students were in circulation before then. Did Murdoch see these notes, or was she relying merely on heresay and articles by philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein?

You mention, Tillich, Weil, Moore. Again (sorry to keep repeating myself) the reader has no way to judge how Murdoch's philosophy relates to these authors. Any one of these comparisons would make an essay in itself.

The upshot is that I would like to see more argument. There is no question of distilling all of Murdoch's philosophy, so the question comes down to selecting an aspect of her work which you find particularly significant, e.g. as relating to the aesthetics of literature, or the nature of ethics.

All the best,

Geoffrey