Iris Murdoch

Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy

“To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn.”1
—Iris Murdoch

Modern science, which had begun to grow during the Enlightenment, grew more rapidly during the 20th century. Some of our parents, born early in the century, grew up without cars. Some of us, born mid-century, cannot remember life without cars but lived our childhoods without television sets. By contrast, those of us born during the last decades of the century, cannot remember life without television sets or without computers.

The material changes connect with other changes: the anxieties of economic disruptions; the horrors of two world wars and many smaller wars; conflicts between political systems and religious traditions—all changes that, themselves, interrelate, encourage, and exacerbate one another.

These changes affect philosophy and philosophy affects these changes. British and American philosophy has embraced science. The Anglo-American tradition—called “analytic” philosophy—commends sensory verification of claims, rigorous logic, and clear expression. In the analytic theory of knowledge, empiricism has prevailed. On this view, in its extreme form, what cannot be known by the senses either cannot be known at all or, if known, tells us nothing about life and the world. Sentences purporting to describe the essence of reality or the essence of value are either unsupportable or literally meaningless. At best, religious or moral utterances are improbable; at worst, they are nonsense.

On the Continent of Europe, philosophy has turned to the knowing—or unknowing—subject rather than to the scientific procedures of knowing. In respect to morality, there is a sense in which the subject is construed as unknowing. Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre asserts, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, we are born into existence without an essence. Each individual creates his or her own essence with, and with only, his or her own choices.

This view may seem harmless enough, almost a truism; but Sartre’s conception of our self-creation must not be confused with the quintessentially American notion that the individual should have the political and social freedom to “Be all that you can be,” as the army recruitment slogan intones. The American notion of freedom combines a robust optimism about our potential with the implicit assumption that—from some source, in some language—there exists at least one valid standard whereby the fulfillment of that potential may be measured. This assumption, intrinsic to American optimism, Sartre rejects: The Sartrean notion of freedom denies that there is any standard for evaluating our choices. The honest, authentic person, in Sartre’s view, acknowledges that there is no God, thus no source of a standard, thus no standard. The inauthentic person will affect optimism; the authentic person will honestly anguish over choices that he must make in the dark. This existentialist view, that we do not have moral knowledge because there are no moral standards, in some degree coincides with the analytic view that moral utterances are improbable or nonsense.

Iris Murdoch seeks to preserve an objective, valid moral vision that, on the one hand, can survive the challenges both of analytic scientism and existentialist subjectivism, and, on the other hand, can address the world’s deep social problems. Murdoch was born in Dublin, 1919. Between 1938 and 1942, she studied Ancient History, Greek, Latin, and Philosophy at Oxford, England. She might have pursued further studies as a Renaissance art historian, if not for the war. As Peter Conradi puts it, “[T]he madnesses of Europe hurt Iris Murdoch into moral philosophy.”2 From 1944-46, she served as an administrative officer with the United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Association in Belgium and Austria. Working to find food and blankets for refugees and survivors of concentration camps, “[S]he witnessed a ‘total breakdown of human society’, that she was later to term ‘instructive’.”3 Conradi explains how two of her own close acquaintances were victims of Hitler. When Murdoch returned to England in 1947, she returned also to philosophy, now at Cambridge. She would, for the remainder of her healthy years, pursue an illustrious dual career in philosophy and literature. Although we will focus on her philosophy per se, the reader of her fiction will discern philosophical implications.4

Having matured during one of history’s worst wars; having herself introduced Sartre to the English-speaking world;5 having studied at two of citadels of analytic philosophy, Oxford and Cambridge, Iris Murdoch has the credentials to credibly reaffirm a belief that some of her contemporary philosophers had come to doubt: Human beings can become better, morally better. Murdoch is not sanguine about the prospect, for she does believe that, in some sense, humankind is fallen (though she is not herself a theist). Yet she believes also that we have moral resources.

Murdoch’s ethical theory is complex, studiously unsystematic; but its manifold dimensions circulate about a recurring metaphor: vision. The good life is the virtuous life; the virtuous life is the life that is dedicated to the attentive, loving gaze. Through imaginative, truthful attention to a range of objects outside ourselves—aspects of nature, works of art, other people, intellectual disciplines—we can transcend our former selves; we can achieve a fuller, happier life, a life freed from the grasping bonds of our natural egoism.

Murdoch uses this thought experiment.

A mother, whom I shall call M, feels hostility to her daughter-in-law, whom I shall call D. M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but while not exactly common yet certainly unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement. D is inclined to be pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile. M does not like D’s accent or the way D dresses. M feels that her son has married beneath him. Let us assume for purposes of the example that the mother, who is a very ‘correct’ person, behaves beautifully to the girl throughout, not allowing her real opinion to appear in any way. We might underline this aspect of the example by supposing that the young couple have emigrated or that D is now dead: the point being to ensure that whatever is in question as happening happens entirely in M’s mind.

[T]ime passes, and it could be that M settles down with a hardened sense of grievance and a fixed picture of D, imprisoned… by the cliché: my poor son has married a silly vulgar girl. However, the M of the example is an intelligent and well-intentioned person, capable of self-criticism, capable of giving careful and just attention to an object which confronts her. M tells herself: ‘I am old-fashioned and conventional. I may be prejudiced and narrow-minded. I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let me look again.’ Here I assume that M observes D or at least reflects deliberately about D, until gradually her vision of D alters. If we take D to be now absent or dead this can make it clear that the change is not in D’s behaviour but in M’s mind. D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful, and so on. And as I say, ex hypothesi, M’s outward behaviour, beautiful from the start, in no way alters.6

The story makes several points. First, much of the morally significant behavior is mental rather than physical; it consists more in M’s thinking than in her acting (when acting is understood as physical movement). Second, the behavior that is physical, the acting, is “beautiful” precisely because of M’s habits of thinking. Murdoch describes the woman’s thinking as “correct” or proper, and such thinking produces propriety in acting. Third, M judges herself in light of an implicit standard, a standard that Murdoch does not describe M as consciously citing or invoking. Goodness is present, but only elusively, like a source of light that illumines but is, itself, unseen. Fourth, in addition to this illuminating but elusive standard, M judges herself and D in light of various more specific standards as well, and these standards Murdoch does cause M to cite explicitly. For example, in her self-criticism, M invokes avoidance of snobbery, avoidance of prejudice, avoidance of conventionality, and avoidance of jealousy. These secondary standards are apparently easier to identify than that more general standard by the light of which the secondary standards are understood as virtues. For example, the more elusive Good helps M to invoke the less elusive principle that we should avoid jealousy.

Fifth, M changes herself. She changes herself by gradually changing her desires; and she changes her desires through deliberate acts of attention. In this case, a mother, who disdains her daughter-in-law and who desires to treat her disdainfully, changes the desire to do so by seeing the younger woman. We could say, ‘by seeing the younger woman differently’, but ‘differently’ would be redundant in Murdoch’s usual usage. ‘Seeing’, for Murdoch, is generally a normative verb; it refers to perception commendably. By contrast, Murdoch (sometimes) uses ‘looking’ neutrally. Given this usage, one could look without seeing but one could not see without looking. When one sees, one apprehends details that, otherwise, one would overlook. The truth is in the details.

The truth is in the details, and morality is in the truth. To the extent that we see others, we loosen the bonds of selfishness, whereby our own importance had been exaggerated. Moral activity follows readily from accurate perception. In Murdoch’s moral philosophy, the central, organizing metaphor is not movement, but vision. “I have used the word ‘attention’ which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.”7

Murdoch alludes frequently to the visual imagery of the myth of the cave. In that myth, Plato tells of people who have been imprisoned in a cave, forced to look only at the back wall. Visible images drift across the wall. Experiencing nothing else, the prisoners take the images for reality. Behind them, a fire burns, out of sight; between them and the fire, other individuals walk back and forth, carrying various objects. The prisoners do not know that the visible images are mere shadows cast by artifacts; nor that the source of the illumination is artificial and undependable. Only when a prisoner breaks his bonds and turns around, does he distinguish between shadows and their objects. Perhaps an escapee—an epistemic pilgrim—then proceeds to the mouth of the cave. He is at first blinded by the light of the real sun; gradually he adjusts to a higher level of perception. If the pilgrim returns to his comrades still in chains, he must now confront their incredulity upon being told that they apprehend but the lowest of three levels of reality.

This process of learning to see Murdoch likens to pilgrimage. Learning to see is a journey, daunting, unending. “We can change what we are, but not quickly or easily, there is such depth and density in what needs to be changed.”8 Murdoch must have been affected by her experience of war; yet a chastened optimism survives. Much like Plato, Murdoch believes that if we discern the good, we will pursue the good; if we do not pursue the good, we have failed to discern the good. Apprehension of goodness motivates the unending pilgrimage.

Perhaps “the madness of Europe” not only “hurt Murdoch into moral philosophy,” but hurt her as well into a deeply guarded, Platonic optimism. There must be a better way, she believes, a better way than existential or analytical normlessness, a way that can free us of our self-centeredness. The way is seeing: Seeing other people, as M sees D; seeing a discipline, as one sees a new language to learn (Murdoch was apparently studying Russian.);9 seeing visual art—the people or nature or abstractions that the art depicts; experiencing literature, seeing the people whom the literature depicts; seeing nature itself. Seeing.

I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.10 And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.11

What Murdoch describes as the accidental experience of the bird can as readily occur as the result of deliberation. We may decide to “[G]ive attention to nature to clear our minds of selfish care.”12 And so it is with attention to art, literature, a friend, or lover: We can change ourselves by choosing the objects of our attention.

There are hazards. Surreptitiously, we revert to selfishness if we pervert the purported object into a sort of mirror. In love of a human being, for example, we must beware of possessiveness and jealousy. Other examples come to mind. Though Murdoch does not exactly say so, she probably would agree that our profession, avocation, or discipline, which should nurture our humility, can deteriorate into a source of pride or conceit. Again to extrapolate beyond what she says, cannot many of us acknowledge—for our adolescence if not our maturity—some tendency to degrade appreciation of a hovering falcon into a fantasy about capturing or killing the falcon?

In literature, Murdoch formulates the challenge to avoid reversion to self as a distinction between imagination and fantasy: When we approach art with imagination, it enables us to reach beyond ourselves; when we approach it in fantasy, we misconstrue it so that in it we see only a reflection of ourselves. She believes that mediocre art exploits our temptation to fantasy. Murdoch seems to identify the pitfall here as involving dishonesty or simplification: Mediocre art is dishonest because simplistic; it tempts us to simplify the object of our presumed attention. It elicits more looking than seeing. Seeing, which promotes selflessness, will require detachment, lest the self who would see assimilates the object into the self.

It is important too that great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. This exercise of detachment is difficult and valuable whether the thing contemplated is a human being or the root of a tree or the vibration of a colour or a sound. Unsentimental contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen. Beauty is that which attracts this particular sort of unselfish attention. It is obvious here what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective, attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.13

Some philosophers, such as Kant, emphasize acting from duty, and doing so irrespective of desire. Indeed, the good will, according to Kant, often conflicts with desire. Suppose that, in some particular case, the will happens to accord with desire; then, if the self acts with the purpose of satisfying that desire, the moral goodness of the act is depleted, Kant thinks. By contrast, Murdoch integrates seeing, learning, desiring, willing, and acting. The good self, according to Murdoch, has become “unselfed,” so that the good will and desire tend to merge, actions that could be called “dutiful” in fact proceeding from the self with little or no conflict.

“We act rightly ‘when the time comes’ not out of strength of will but out of the quality of our usual attachments and with the kind of energy and discernment which we have available.”14

These attachments have come from the discipline of our mental life, whereby we have chosen what to see. “To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn.”15 Murdoch thus believes that the social and philosophical problems of our times may be addressed. We need not acquiesce to the more extreme forms of existentialism and analytic philosophy, which essentially demoralize philosophy, nor to a Kantian conception of human nature that bifurcates the moral life from the life of passion.

By life’s end, Iris Murdoch, had written twenty-six novels, a volume of poetry, and five plays, in addition to her works of philosophy. She had received various literary awards, including the prestigious Booker Prize for The Sea, the Sea.16 In 1987, she was named a Dame of the British Empire. Iris Murdoch died in 1999 of Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband of forty-two years, the Oxford literary critic John Bayley, wrote her biography,17 which became the basis for the movie, “Iris.” Dame Iris had once written,

A genuine mysteriousness attaches to the idea of goodness and the Good.… The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world .… [T]here is a special link between the concept of Good and the ideas of Death and Chance. (One might say that Chance is really a subdivision of Death.… ) A genuine sense of mortality enables us to see virtue as the only thing of worth; and it is impossible to limit and foresee the ways in which it will be required of us.… If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition. 18


  1. (Back to text) Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Penguin Books, 1992), 179.
  2. (Back to text) Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch, edited by Peter Conradi (Penguin Books, 1999), xix.
  3. (Back to text) Ibid.
  4. (Back to text) Thomas Duddy insightfully explicates some of Murdoch’s fiction in A History of Irish Thought (Routledge, 2002), 308-11.
  5. (Back to text) Iris Murdoch, Sartre, Romantic Realist (Bowes & Bowes, 1953; reissued by Penguin, with a new introduction by Murdoch, 1987).
  6. (Back to text) Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 1970), 16-7. The italics are Murdoch’s.
  7. (Back to text) Ibid., 33.
  8. (Back to text) Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 235.
  9. (Back to text) The Sovereignty of Good, 87.
  10. (Back to text) ‘Kestrel’ refers to a European falcon, about a foot long, that often hovers in the air by heading into a wind.
  11. (Back to text) Ibid., 82.
  12. (Back to text) Ibid.
  13. (Back to text) Ibid., 64.
  14. (Back to text) Ibid., 89.
  15. (Back to text) Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Penguin Books, 1992), 179.
  16. (Back to text) The Sea, the Sea (Penguin, 1978).
  17. (Back to text) Elegy for Iris (Picador, 1999).
  18. (Back to text) The Sovereignty of Good, 96.