Existentialists and Mystics

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EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS: WRITINGS ON PHILOSOPHY AND LITERATURE is a welcome collection of Dame Iris Murdoch’s philosophical works. She was, after all, trained in philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, knew Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean- Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, and taught philosophy and aesthetics for fifteen years before establishing herself as a novelist. Her novels, even the lightest, deal with questions of aesthetics and, more importantly, with the age-old concerns of good, the good, and goodness.

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Despite the title of this collection and her academic history, neither existentialism nor mysticism has taken root in Murdoch’s personal philosophic outlook. What dominates is Plato’s influence, though it is Plato seasoned by modern British philosophers. She does not subscribe to the contemporary view, perhaps first seen in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, that metaphysics is dead. On the other hand, she appears to believe that the primary function of contemporary philosophy is to footnote, update, or embellish Platonism.

For this reason, philosophers teaching in the contemporary academies of learning will probably not find much that is original, new, or striking in this collection. Even so, the book is an interesting one for at least two reasons. First, since its earliest selections date from the 1950’s and its latest from the mid-1980’s, it shows how Murdoch consistently avoids ties to either existentialism or structuralism. Indeed, her philosophic position becomes more based in aesthetics and literature as the decades pass. The early essays seem preoccupied with the relationship between the word and thought. Second, this is an interesting foreshadowing of French structuralism as it would emerge in the late-1960’s. Significantly though, Murdoch never fails to assert the power of the word to signify. This places her squarely in the camp of E. M. Forster rather than that of Jacques Derrida, who asserts the ultimate and necessary failure of language. It is logical that Murdoch ultimately rejects existentialism and structuralism for essentially the same reason: their essential negativity.

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