Amy is a summer 2020 student intern—this is a blog about her research, reading, and work.
I was first introduced to Iris Murdoch when I read “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” in my class on the history of analytic philosophy this past year. I was immediately enthralled by her ideas, and I’ve since managed to sneak the essay into several assignments for other philosophy classes. I love how the essay ends:
although [the humble person] is not by definition the good man, perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good.
This made me think that humility is a way of living that is tied up with a willingness to see things as they are; it is a stance of ‘unselfing’ that does not change what is perceived for the sake of one’s ego. ‘Unselfing’ is a curious term that could be misleading—it simply means being brought outside of yourself by something that captivates your attention, such as a beautiful, hovering kestrel. We can learn a lot when we turn our attention to see the world from another’s point of view, both in being attentive to a different perspective and in learning that there is life and being beyond our own self. Murdoch thinks that the practice of bringing our attention outside of ourselves will help us to act better and be better people. Living a moral life involves learning to see the world as it is and not according to egotistical desires.
I think I was originally attracted to Murdoch’s work because it resonated with me. She writes about a lo things that I value—things like goodness, humility, love, and having an orientation towards the world in which one does not assume to know everything. The more I read, the more interests I find we have in common, like religion, art, and literature.
When I learned that Murdoch wrote novels as well as philosophy, I was delightfully impressed. Creative expression is something I value, especially in words and music, and I love to incorporate creativity with philosophy when I can. The fact that Murdoch was an established writer and had published twenty-six (26!) novels in her lifetime is exciting and fascinating to me.
Eager to engage with another facet of her thinking after encountering “The Sovereignty of Good,” I found her first novel Under the Net in my school library and took it home to read over the Christmas break. I thoroughly enjoyed the book—the references to various figures and trends in philosophy made me smile, and her style of writing is unlike anything else I’ve read. (Granted, this impression might be partially due to the fact that it had been quite some time since I had completed a novel. I know I am not alone in finding that the rigor of academic study keeps me from reading for fun.)
I had the pleasurable occasion to tackle my second Murdoch novel with an online reading group hosted by Sasha Lawson-Frost through the Iris Murdoch Appreciation Society on Facebook. I joined in the discussions over several weeks in April and May as we read our way through The Message to the Planet. The group is comprised of a variety of people and experiences brought together by their interest in Murdoch’s thought and work. Many members have read all of her books and have spent lots of time with her ideas. Others, like myself, have read a small fraction of her novels and come with questions and a fresh perspective. Through being part of this group, I’ve learned that there are several trends and recurring themes to look out for in Murdoch’s work, such as having an unreliable narrator, the presence of animals and nature, and the quality of love in different relationships. I’ve also learned that we should not assume that Murdoch’s characters are expressing her philosophical ideas. Literature and philosophy are two different things—Murdoch has been very clear about this. (Just watch this interview with Bryan Magee, especially at 25:30).
That being said, I think that reading Murdoch’s novels has given me a deeper understanding of her philosophy because it seems like she is exploring or acting out her ideas through the characters in the novels. For instance, I have a better idea of what she means about the importance of vision and seeing others as they are because of the ways that Jake (in Under the Net) and Ludens (in The Message to the Planet) are blinded by their own desires and fantasies and easily misinterpret how others feel towards them. Their stories point to the importance of ‘unselfing’ to see the world as it is, and not according to our ‘fat relentless ego’, for the sake of acting well towards others.
I don’t think Murdoch would deny that her novels contain philosophy in some sense, but perhaps the difference is that literature does not do the same work as philosophy. (Refer back to the interview, at 2:12)
In any case, reading Murdoch’s academic and creative writing along with attending the online reading group has without a doubt deepened my understanding and appreciation of her work.
If you are interested in learning more, I would highly recommend reading her philosophy and/or one of her novels. There’s also a new podcast that is exploring her various works (available here or on other podcast providers), or you could join the Iris Murdoch Appreciation Society and join in with the next online book club. (They’ve read The Unicorn, The Message to the Planet, and they are currently working through The Philosopher’s Pupil. I imagine they’ll be reading more as lockdown continues.)
I think both Murdoch’s philosophy and novels can challenge us to rethink the ways we live our lives. Her philosophy does so explicitly, as the aim of philosophy is clarification. But her novels bring her ideas to life through imagined, particular situations and characters—it gives readers an idea of how philosophy might be involved in one’s life. This might not make for everyone’s favourite kind of novel, but personally I’ve found it to be engaging, enlightening, and quite enjoyable. (I think philosophy is much more interesting than sailing ships!)
I might put in things about philosophy because I happen to know about philosophy. If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships; and in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.
(Back to the interview, around 28:08)