Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals Analysis

Iris Murdoch


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

A Wide-Ranging Philosophy

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Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, a volume of 520 pages, is a wide-ranging book that may strike some readers as disorganized or, at least, lacking in specific focus and interconnection of its parts. Its nineteen chapters deal with such disparate subjects as imagination, comedy and tragedy, morals and politics, morality and religion, will and duty, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, Ludwig Wittgenstein, René Descartes, and Immanuel Kant.

That the various chapters are not arranged in chronological order and seem at times discursive and unrelated to the whole stems from the fact that the volume consists of the Gifford Lectures that Murdoch delivered at Oxford University in 1982. The tone and style are sometimes those of a speaker rather than those of a writer, but this is not a disadvantage, nor is the nonchronological arrangement of the various chapters, most of which can be read in whatever order one prefers.

The unifying thread that pervades the book is Murdoch’s unswerving belief that morality is a continuing part of all human activity rather than a separate small segment of philosophy studied in ethics classes. It is a quality to which all humans are continually subjected. This philosophy permeated Murdoch’s novels from the beginning of her career and is central in most of her philosophical writing.

Good vs. God

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To Murdoch, a knowledge of Good, with a capital “G,” is inherent in all people. In contemporary technological society, the notion of a personal god is outmoded, as it was for such thinkers as Kant as early as the eighteenth century. Murdoch cited Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism as religions that function well and have a functional morality without belief in a personal god who presides over heaven and hell and who keeps people from sinning. In other words, Murdoch observed that religion in a scientific age, which has its roots in the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, is, for better or worse, rapidly becoming demythologized.

The danger she saw in such demythologizing is that humans, their behavior no longer molded by their belief in a personal god that can wreak vengeance on them if they stray from the principles of basic morality, may deviate noticeably from the concept of the self as moral. Murdoch, however, was not pessimistic because she believed that a sense of what is good and moral lurks within all people and that, in the long run, they will strive for Good.

Every chapter in the book is infused with the Platonic theory of innate ideas. Murdoch molds Plato’s allegory of the cave to her own purposes to show how humans, deceived into thinking that the shadows they see before them as they peer from their dank caves are reality, can gradually emerge from those caves into the sunlight of true understanding and goodness. She...

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Views on Deconstruction and Structuralism

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Perhaps the most strident of Murdoch’s Gifford Lectures, reflecting much that both she and her husband, John Oliver Bayley, the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, believed ardently is found in chapter 7, “Derrida and Structuralism.” In this passionately written chapter, Murdoch traces the origins of structuralism to its early bases in the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, two fields in which it is perhaps a more reasonable approach than it is in its applications to literary criticism.

Murdoch feared that structuralism, as appropriated by Jacques Derrida and his followers and set loose upon literary interpretation, would replace the writer-reader relationship upon which literature has depended through the ages with a dehumanized pseudo-scientific interpretation. Murdoch complained vigorously that Structuralist (deconstructionist) criticism does not see literature as a window opened upon an imagined world that is both like and unlike the “real” world, but that relates to it intimately. Literature instead is seen as a network of meanings esteemed for its liveliness, originality, and ability to disturb, and is judged in terms of a psychological-sociological analysis that also seeks out factors not consciously intended by the writer.

Throughout this essay, Murdoch objects to the disregard that critics like Derrida have for the history and the moral compass of literature, topics with which traditional critics long concerned themselves. She laments the ways in which structuralists and deconstructionists have reduced literature merely to language and language to trivial word play in which words relate not to the world but merely to other words. She chastises Saussure for having separated language from the people who use it and from its local settings, and she seems even more distressed by how the deconstructionists have divorced literature from the reader-writer relationship and from its historical backgrounds.

Although she does not say it in so many words, what Murdoch writes about the deconstructionists has to do with her entire concept of ego. These critics have worked toward creating an interpretive elite that is, in essence, a manifestation of their unbridled egos. In Murdoch’s eyes, a person must struggle to control the ego as in moving toward the achievement of moral goodness and rectitude.

The Demythologization of Religion

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Murdoch’s contention that religion as the world has long known it is being demythologized whether people want it to be or not is cogent in the light of what she has to say about structuralism and deconstruction. By implication, one might regard recent pseudo-scientific approaches to literary interpretation as attempts to establish new, secular religions whose high priests have names and faces (Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man) and faithful acolytes among beleaguered professors of literature and their graduate students.

Murdoch, who in her early years was attracted by Marxism, veered away from it because of its rejection of such concepts as moral responsibility, human transcendence, and religion. In the deconstructionists, she found a comparable philosophical posture, one that is anti-individual. Their denial of any reality outside language excludes the very morality that Murdoch was convinced is inherent in all things that affect human beings.

One of the more difficult chapters in this book, “The Ontological Proof,” is, for all its difficulty, central to an understanding of how Murdoch progresses from a concept of God to a concept of Good. She demonstrates quite convincingly that the old ontological proofs of apologists such as Saint Anselm are essentially reductive in their arguments that begin with the deduction that the conception of God as a supreme perfection cannot be conceived not to exist. Anselm goes on to assert that if people can conceive of God, they must acknowledge, a priori, that He exists. The sophistry of this argument does little to convince contemporary thinkers, most of them skeptics, whose convictions must be based on more than medieval syllogistic reasoning. In short, Murdoch suggests that Anselm, in the eleventh century, was preaching to the choir, which modern apologists for the existence of God cannot credibly do.

Science vs. Religion

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Murdoch found herself poised between two absolutes, that of conventional religion and that of the scientific revolution. She embraced parts of each while remaining steadfast in her beliefs that Goodness is the quality toward which humans must aspire and that morals transcend everything else in life. Without accepting a personal god, Murdoch demonstrated how humans can achieve high levels of morality through their own discovery of the attractiveness of Good as they broaden the bases of their own subjectivities.

A staunch devotee of Truth, with a capital “T,” Murdoch pursued it as she perceived it throughout Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Never dogmatic, she assesses deeply and dispassionately the broad spectrum of ideas with which she grapples in this book and with which she grappled throughout her career as both a novelist and a philosopher. Her readers in the philosophical community find her assessments thought-provoking, although modern critical theorists and people in conventional religious communities take umbrage at them.

Certainly her most passionate utterances in this, her most extensive philosophical treatise, are directed at those who would, in her view, distort Truth to their own purposes, notably the deconstructionists. What she writes about them has broad implications for her entire book: “The fundamental value which is lost, obscured, made not to be, by structuralist theory, is truth, language as truthful, where truthful’ means faithful to, engaging intelligently and responsibly with, a reality which is beyond us.”

Additional Reading

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Antonacchio, Maria. Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974. Following Twayne’s prescribed format, Baldanza writes about Murdoch’s novels and about the plays made from A Severed Head (1961; drama written collaboratively with J. B. Priestley, 1963) and The Italian Girl (1964; drama written collaboratively with James Saunders, pr. 1967). Although dated, this critical biography offers significant details about Murdoch’s life and writing before 1970.

Bayley, John. Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch. London: Duckworth, 1998.

Bayley, John....

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Antonacchio, Maria. Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974. Following Twayne’s prescribed format, Baldanza writes about Murdoch’s novels and about the plays made from A Severed Head (1961; drama written collaboratively with J. B. Priestley, 1963) and The Italian Girl (1964; drama written collaboratively with James Saunders, pr. 1967). Although dated, this critical biography offers significant details about Murdoch’s life and writing before 1970.


(The entire section is 624 words.)