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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 3150 words.)

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