Iris Murdoch’s philosophy: what use is it to higher education today?

In the week of Murdoch’s centenary, Miles Leeson reflects on what lessons the academic turned philosopher could have for university leaders 

July 19, 2019
Irish Murdoch

If this question had been asked 10, or even five, years ago the answer from most professional philosophers would have been one of swift dismissal; that Iris Murdoch was “outmoded”, “regressive”, or simply not worth reading. This view partly stems from her leaving active teaching at the end of the 1960s to dedicate herself to fiction writing, and publishing perhaps her most important (and accessible) collection of philosophical papers, The Sovereignty of Good in 1970.

Certainly, there was more work to come, including her lengthy Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals that developed out of her 1982 Gifford lectures but was published to rather mixed reviews in 1992; a book on Heidegger remains unpublished. During her time teaching at the University of Oxford she was a central part of the philosophy scene but was always going against the grain, railing against the worst excesses of linguistic analysis, taking Platonic forms seriously, and engaging with the work of Simone Weil.

So what changed? Arguably her philosophy is now more popular than it has ever been. She is no longer seen as an outlier but tied to key movements happening in moral philosophy. Two recent symposia dedicated to her work in Oxford (where it has never been seriously considered before) and engagement across the world were highlighted this week in her centenary conference at St Anne’s College.

Her works on the concept of morality are universal and not restricted to her own time; given the current political crises and changes in how we perceive ourselves, our relationships, and our engagement with equality and gender issues, there has never been a better time for university leaders to consider her work.

Like the other women philosophers of her generation – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley – Murdoch rejected the idea that morality is something that one chooses to guide one’s values. No, she says, we must recognise that there are truths that do exist; we must recognise the reality of the moral life. She goes further than her compatriots by insisting that we return to Plato, to the idea that goodness, justice, beauty and so on are real constituents of existence, and that we need to reconsider metaphysics to form a coherent moral life; in effect to form a moral psychology.

We need, she said, “a theology that can continue without God”, meaning the concept of a personal saviour.

If all this sounds rather complicated it needn’t be. It can, in effect, be reduced to a handful of key concepts that she brings together most sharply in The Sovereignty of Good. Firstly, that the chief enemy of living the good life is “the fat, relentless ego”, that we need to move outside of ourselves, that we constantly need to try and shift our attention towards “the other”, and that in so doing we become more fully aware, more fully human.

I would hope that most people reading this would nod and agree; there is nothing here that requires a commitment to any form of dogmatism – all of these ideas are fairly universal. What Murdoch is trying to do for us in her work, and it does become rather more complex in her later writing, is shift us from thinking about “choice” in morality, to “vision”.

She argues that once we have the correct vision (although this is extremely hard to perfect), there is no longer a choice to be made as we will see the right response automatically. So, we look carefully, we attend to people and their situations, and in so doing we come to know the moral realm and we act rightly. This consideration of others is a model that could well serve higher education leaders as they answer challenges to vice-chancellor pay packages, traverse choppy employment negotiations or seek ways to bring in to their academic folds the sceptics within their communities.

In her philosophy she notes how we must continually strive to be “good for nothing”; that in a world loosed from dogmatic structures of religion, with no apparent reward in the afterlife, we must not expect anything in return for our action. Conversely, and a crucial lesson to bear in mind for universities, she argues that the action of evil has a greater tendency to spread out as communication networks, and links between peoples, become more apparent and tightly-knit. Our relationships are not static.

Meanwhile, the perception of selfhood in the 21st century, one that today’s students are confronting and universities struggle to support, is one that Murdoch foresaw in both her fiction and philosophy.

Again we turn to her argument that we continually need to give attention to the other, especially amid the messiness and contingency of the world, or we run the risk of acting in a destructive manner; and creating false images of each other.

Clearly this has implications for the equality of the genders and how we perceive each other. With the expansion of sexual identities and the removal of gender binaries Murdoch’s fiction is a pioneering space where these ideas were being discussed and played with many years before legislation and cultural awareness caught up with her.

Miles Leeson is director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester.

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