Two major contemporary philosophical currents are apparent in Iris Murdoch’s work, both in her novels and in her critical and philosophical writing. Early in her career, she met Jean-Paul Sartre; she wrote her first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), about him. At about the same time, she became engrossed in the philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Sartre, the leading existentialist, was obsessed by the futility of human existence as well as by the loneliness of it. His nihilism as well as that of writers Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett defined a main current in continental philosophical thought that profoundly affected Murdoch.
Wittgenstein, on the other hand, espoused the notion that the major lifelong quest of humans is to establish their “net,” his designation of the structure that helps people to define their existences. Wittgenstein’s was not as pessimistic a philosophy as that of the existentialists. Murdoch publicly denied that she was an existentialist.
Her own thinking was tempered by that of the ancient philosophers she had studied at Oxford University, most notably Plato. His theory of innate ideas postulates ideal abstract forms toward which humans strive. Her extensive reading in other such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer also helped to shape her philosophical thought, as did her early exposure to the plays of William Shakespeare and the writing of such Victorian novelists as Charles Dickens, Henry Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins.
Finally, Murdoch forsook conventional Christianity, finding in Zen Buddhism and Hinduism more appropriate religious approaches for her times. Never a shrill adversary of Christianity, Murdoch sought instead to redefine it for a technological age, something that its more conservative branches stand foursquare against.