Jean Iris Murdoch was a British philosopher and writer. Born on July 15, 1919 in Phibsborough, Ireland, she wrote prolifically on virtue and evil, morality, ethics, sexuality and the unconscious mind. The recurring themes in Iris Murdoch’s writings were the link between philosophy and psychology with a hint of humor.
In the late 1940s, when Murdoch joined University of Cambridge as a student of philosophy, she identified herself as a Platonist. She disagreed with logical positivism and sided with existentialism school of thought.
She was largely influenced by the writings of Simone Weil, and presented criticism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Murdoch attempted at making sense of leading a life of Goodness, as a pilgrimage between illusions to the reality of virtue.
Murdoch started her philosophical journey by publishing a critique of Jean-Paul Sartre, titled Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, thus initiating a lifelong study of existentialism, criticizing it for inadequately focusing on the Other, and emphasizing greatly on the heroic self. In a nutshell, Iris Murdoch remains a moral realist. She held the belief that some realities in life are there for us to recognize, and their truthfulness doesn’t depend on our perception of them. In her 1956 paper, titled Dreams and Self-Knowledge, she discusses how Goodness and morality should be perceived.
No existing ethicists have given importance to human beings as they actually are. On the contrary, they focused solely on how they should act, as per Murdoch. In her life, she struggled to propose a personal view of a human’s existing morality. Recently, ethical traditions have explained why a human does what he does, as opposed to the growth of a moral ‘character’, the ultimate source of a man’s morality. If existence of a moral character is to be believed, then it follows that this character becomes evident on the moment of our action, and this action is a result of a phenomenon which began long ago.
Murdoch was of the belief that all are virtues are fruits of a long chain of events leading to the point of exercising of that virtue. Thus for Murdoch, having a fixed purpose in life, as taught by Aristotle, is the surest way of attaining virtue.
Iris Murdoch wrote 26 intelligent novels characterized by their wit, astuteness and complexity. Based on plots where characters undergo multi-faceted changes with respect to their philosophical positions, they paint a true picture of lives of the middle-class of the twentieth century. Involving the comic, the grotesque, and the macabre, Murdoch’s novels intelligently tackle the Platonic vision of the Good, in which her characters show off varying degrees of morality and virtue.
In almost all her novels, Murdoch portrays how we humans believe that our actions are in our hands, and that we are free to exercise our choices, but the reality is different. In her view, all human beings succumb to the power of the unconscious mind, and various other social forces far beyond human control.
Iris Murdoch won the Booker Prize for her novel, The Sea, the Sea in 1978. She was also awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whitbread, among various others, for her penmanship. Listed as twelfth on Time’s Magazine’s list of the ‘50 greatest British writers since 1945’, Murdoch continues to influence the world with her words and ideas of virtue and moral goodness. She died on February 8, 1999 in Oxford.