- Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays
This is a welcome volume. The many footnotes of praise for Iris Murdoch’s philosophical work were for many years not matched by actual discussion of it. This collection, long incubated and containing essays by many well-known figures with a continuing interest in Murdoch’s work, is one of several recent signs of this imbalance’s being righted. [End Page 142]
Anyone interested in Murdoch’s philosophical thinking—spilling over into ways it informs her novels—will find plenty to engage him here. A ninety-two page introduction by Justin Broackes gives us a carefully plotted historical context for appreciating Murdoch’s work, detailed summaries of her main philosophical writings, and also fertile, wide-ranging, and evidently long-pondered reflections on Murdoch’s philosophical themes as they developed and changed over time. A chapter from an unpublished book of Murdoch’s on Heidegger nicely brings out both her attraction to Heideggerian ‘Dasein’ as “by-pass[ing] not only the problem of how the subject reaches the object, but also the problem of how values become attached to facts,” and also her dislike of his “system-building” and his condescension to the “everyday.” A short “Personal Record” by John Bayley, Iris’s husband, is followed by two essays focusing on Murdoch’s novels, by Peter Conradi and Martha Nussbaum. The other chapters, as Broackes notes, focus mainly on the seminal Murdoch essays in The Sovereignty of Good (1970), “while looking more briefly before and after.”
Maria Antonaccio notes that “Murdoch did not retrieve Aristotle” for her moral philosophy, but derived her “primary inspiration from Plato.” The retrieval of Aristotle in the 1970s and later, partly inspired by Murdoch’s work, did indeed recover a number of absences from the moral philosophical scene of the 1950s and ’60s that Murdoch helped reveal, including an appreciation of virtue and the inner moral life, of the continuousness of moral activity, and of the importance of vision—attentiveness to moral reality. But Murdoch’s Platonic correctives to these omissions, along with others of her themes, were often very different from the emphasis of the neo-Aristotelians, mainly because the Good, and love as conceived under its aegis, did not inform their outlook as it did Murdoch’s. The essays in this volume vary in their appreciation of this important difference.
Nearly all the philosophical essays mention Murdoch’s example of M and D from “The Idea of Perfection,” and most dwell on it at some length. This striking example helps illuminate Murdoch’s central theme of the importance of moral vision—the moral centrality of coming to see, and of trying to see—more clearly. A theme in several essays is whether Murdoch’s focus on the “fat, relentless ego” as the source of moral blindness—in this case the source of M’s initial failure to see D as she really is—omits or even perhaps obscures the role of socially and culturally generated obstacles to moral vision. The contributors’ views on this differ. But while Murdoch barely considers the issue—though class consciousness is part of what initially blinds M to D—perhaps her work might be drawn on to show that the personal and the social and cultural obstacles to truer understanding are often interdependent (Lawrence Blum touches on this possibility).
Another question is whether Murdoch’s emphasis on vision itself risks limiting loving responsiveness. Loving and just attentiveness to another can involve various inflections of the body, gestures, touchings, holdings, listening—many ways of being present to someone other than seeing her, even in Murdoch’s extended sense. What might best acknowledge the reality of this person right now might for example be simply holding him. In her essay Martha Nussbaum writes, “But I think that there is something more to loving vision than just seeing. There is, for example, a willingness to permit oneself to be seen. There is also a willingness to stop seeing, to close one’s eyes before the loved one’s...