Dictionary of Irish Philosophers


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England, Ireland

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Murdoch, Iris (1919–99)

Murdoch, Iris (1919–99)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052468-114

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    Thoemmes Continuum
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Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on 15 July 1919 and died in Oxford on 8 February 1999. Her father, who had been a cavalry officer during World War II, went to work as a government clerk in London after the war, and as a consequence the family moved there shortly after Iris was born. She was educated at Badminton School, Bristol and at Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied classics, ancient history and philosophy. From 1938 to 1942 she worked at the Treasury as an assistant principal and subsequently (1944–6) with the United Nations relief organization, UNNRA. In 1947 she was awarded a studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. The following year she was elected a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford and remained there as a tutor until 1963 when she retired to devote herself to writing. She married fellow academic and critic John Bayley in 1956. Throughout most of her life Murdoch devoted her considerable energies to both literary and philosophical interests, publishing twenty-six novels and a number of philosophical works.

Her first publication was Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), which, though primarily an interpretive work, contains significant indicators of her future philosophical concerns. These concerns would include the nature of self-consciousness, subjectivity, love, contingency and the tension between the ‘inner life’ and the life of action. Her book on Sartre was soon followed by a sequence of novels, beginning with Under the Net (1954), which may be read as an imaginative treatment of some of the themes that came to light in her discussion of Sartre. The central character in Under the Net is called James (‘Jake’) Donaghue, but, as the character himself informs us ‘you needn’t bother about that, as I was in Dublin only twice’ (p. 23). He contrasts himself with his Irish companion, Finn, ‘who is always saying he will go back to Ireland to be in a country which really has religion, but he never goes’ (p. 24). What is made to matter is not Donaghue’s possible connections with Dublin or Ireland (or with any other historical place) but the unfolding of the discursive, self-conscious narrative that develops out of his rootless existence as he continually runs up against just the kinds of contingencies that he purports to hate (‘I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason’, p. 26).

Despite Jake Donaghue’s curt and apologetic dismissal of his Irish-seeming associations, Murdoch’s early departure from Ireland did not entirely remove the country from her own imaginative or emotional frame of reference. Her Irish historical novel The Red and the Green (1965), and the subsequent recurrence of Irish characters and settings in The Unicorn (1963) and The Time of the Angels (1966), reveal the persistence of her Irish background. The Red and the Green contains, like Under the Net, an important clue to Murdoch’s philosophical concerns. In this novel, a densely complex story of misunderstandings, failures of perception, and ultimate self-discovery set against the backdrop of the Easter Rising of 1916, she exploits one of the conventions of the traditional novel for ethical as much as for artistic reasons. The convention of multiple viewpoints enables her to dramatize what is for her a very important feature of personal and interpersonal life. A particular character, viewed through the eyes of others, may appear clownish, inept and thoughtless, but when the narrative shifts to his consciousness there may be revealed an inner life (or a suppressed past life) that is not detectible in current words and actions. One of the principal characters in The Red and the Green is presented in this way, and is subsequently revealed to be quite other than he appears to be. A particularly misunderstood and ‘misperceived’ character, he is found to have an incommunicable emotional life – to have, indeed, such an unutterable regard for his stepchildren that ‘no touch, no look, no gesture, no tone of voice could give expression to it’ (The Red and the Green, p. 148).

The insight expressed imaginatively through the ‘multiple viewpoints’ convention in the fictional work is developed into a subtle ethical position in Murdoch’s philosophical work. In The Sovereignty of the Good (1970), in the course of developing a passionate rebuttal of behaviourism, she argues that morality is more a matter of vision or attention than of public behaviour, that the most important struggles occur inwardly, at the level of thought and perception, rather than outwardly, at the level of action. These internal struggles may indeed never be apparent to an ‘objective’ or third-party observer. For Murdoch, the proper mark of the active moral agent is the ability to hold another individual – or indeed another reality - in ‘a just and loving gaze’ (The Sovereignty of Good, p. 34). Gazing or ‘seeing’ in this context has a moral significance, implying clear vision as a result of imaginative and moral effort. Clarity of vision also implies a determination to overcome the various forms of prejudice, selfdeception or self-centredness that may distort or cloud the proper perception of particular persons, places or things. Virtue and reality are so closely linked that the task of seeing or otherwise perceiving any particular thing is first and foremost a moral one. But a task it is in any case, the task of struggling to see the world as it is. The ever-present difficulty is not only to keep attention fixed on a real situation but also to prevent such attention ‘from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of selfpity, resentment, fantasy and despair’ (1970: 91). Much of Murdoch’s fiction is concerned with the ways in which the task of ‘really looking’ is distracted, misdirected and sometimes made to seem impossible in certain circumstances. Her fiction is also, at its most philosophical, concerned with demonstrating her conviction that the artist, especially the writer, is nothing if not a great informant or sage who ‘lends to the elusive particular a local habitation and a name’ (The Fire and the Sun, p. 86).

She returns to the themes of privacy, internal struggle and moral perception in her last substantial philosophical work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). Clearly impressed by the work of thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida, she nonetheless sets herself to defend many of the concepts and assumptions that ‘embarrass’ both thinkers. She defends experience and intuition but especially the ‘intense lively privacy’ of the internal mental lives of individuals. She finds that our whole busy moral and psychological lives abound in ‘private insoluble difficulties, mysterious half-understood mental configurations’ (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 280). While acknowledging the importance of the modern emphasis on the social, cultural, linguistic and environmental factors that shape our minds and personalities, she also wants to retain a sense of that private ‘thought-being’ that is so different from our lived outer life. An anti-modernist thinker who is fascinated by the arguments of the modernists and post-modernists, Murdoch sets herself to recover what has been lost to the encroachment of environmental and deterministic theorizing, specifically ‘our dense familiar inner stuff, private and personal, with a quality and a value of its own, something which we can scrutinize and control’ (p. 153). In her view, the ultimate effect of the different ‘environmentalisms’ of Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida is to remove personality, value and morality from the scheme of things. These thinkers, concerned as they are with structures or systems larger than the individual, present new determinisms, new and ever more elaborate pretexts for ‘giving up’, for getting rid of freedom, responsibility, remorse ‘and all sorts of personal individual unease’ (p. 190).


The Sovereignty of Good (1970).

The Fire and the Sun (1977).

Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (1984).

Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992).

Existentialists and Mystics , ed. Peter J. Conradi (1994).

Other Relevant Works

Under the Net (1954).

The Red and the Green (1965).

Further Reading

Antonaccio, Maria and William Schweiker (eds), Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness (Chicago, 1996).

Bayley, John, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1999).

Conradi, J., Iris Murdoch: A Life (2002).

Gerstenberger, Donna, Iris Murdoch (1975).