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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 558-579



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Iris Murdoch: The Philosophic Fifties andThe Bell

Michael Levenson


We are better positioned than ever to take Iris Murdoch's philosophy seriously. She had the misfortune--or was it the luck?--to enter the philosophic world at a time when positions were clarifying, norms were settling, and methods were hardening. By temperament and accident, she found herself at odds with an establishment forming around her. As a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne's College in Oxford (from 1948 until 1963), she was closely attentive to the dominating figures of her time, but there is little evidence that those figures paid any regard to her response. What seemed inevitable in the 1950s, however, has now lost its authority. Murdoch, who had been a curiosity in Oxford--the lady philosopher, who wrote novels between tutorials--now turns out to be an important precursor of contemporary thought, especially contemporary moral thought. 1 The aim of this essay is to establish the integrity of Murdoch's early philosophy, to recover its drama and ambition, and to situate her 1958 novel, The Bell, within her emerging metaphysical perspective. The point is not to treat her fiction as a philosophic allegory, but instead to grasp the continuity between literature and philosophy at this decisive moment in her career. [End Page 558]

In her early writings Murdoch frequently makes reference to the "current view," by which she indicates certain newly entrenched and prevailing norms of thought. She found that something had crystallized in philosophy in the middle of the twentieth century, especially in Britain. A range of doctrines, attitudes, tones, and moods had converged, resolving into a comprehensive image of both human experience and the philosophic methods needed to study it. Again and again in those early years, she described the petrifications of an orthodoxy. Yet, it is striking that the diagnosis of philosophic failure was not offered from the outside. Murdoch knew that she inhabited the narrowing universe of professional philosophy: her colleagues, her students, and her radio audience all inhabited a world that she understood intimately. Trained in the methods of linguistic philosophy and inhabiting its capital in Oxford, she knew what the "current view" allowed one to see. "When I speak about modern philosophers and modern philosophy," she writes, "I shall be meaning that present-day version of our traditional empiricism which is known as linguistic analysis--and although a lot of what I have to say will be critical of recent developments in that tradition, the criticisms which I make will also come, I believe, out of that tradition" ("Metaphysics" 59).

The "tradition" is British empiricism as it took form in the eighteenth-century writings of David Hume, and the "present-day version" is the empiricism epitomized by the work of Gilbert Ryle. Appearing in 1949, at the dawn of Murdoch's career in philosophy, Ryle's The Concept of Mind had an immediate and extraordinary influence, and nowhere greater than in Oxford. The quick, bracing argument of the book was a refusal of the whole mental apparatus associated with Cartesianism: the self as a crowd of faculties and propensities, of ephemeral comings and goings within an unseen inner theater. Ryle holds that Descartes's division of experience into "mental" and "bodily" forms was a fiction, a systematically misleading ruse that we perpetrate upon ourselves. Now, through the methods of linguistic analysis, we can at last free ourselves from the "dogma of the ghost in the machine" (Ryle 27). A properly modern philosophy would discard the inner theater and establish itself on the secure basis of the visible world: the overt world of speech, gesture, and physical action.

Murdoch quickly appreciated the force of The Concept of Mind. Even at her most resistant, she would admit that "much of the criticism of [End Page 559] traditional metaphysics, which modern philosophy has made its task, must stand." There was no going back to Descartes. There could be no return to ghostly inner entities haunting the material body. But even if we recognize the...

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