However, when I began to read it I realised what a remarkable book it is. Far from being the stale rehearsal of familiar arguments that I initially took it to be, it is actually the breath of fresh air that I, and many others, have been hoping for many years would come to British philosophy. It is that rare thing: a work of philosophy that addresses a centrally important issue, and that could be and should be read by the general public.
The theme announced in its title - how metaphysics can provide a guide to morals - amounts to nothing less than that of how philosophy can provide a guide to life. Though the book is large and sprawling, its central argument can be stated briefly. It is that morality is an inescapable and irreducible part of being human, and that its necessity can be shown by appeal to the metaphysics of Plato, which provide us, in the Theory of Forms, with a picture (of 'the Good') that can adequately replace the traditional, but now largely abandoned, religious underpinnings of morality.
The task of philosophy is to seek ever fresh ways of stressing a very old truth: that the difference between good and evil is real, and that the duty of choosing the good is not one we can escape from. She quotes with approval Kant's dictum that with regard to the Moral Law we are not gentlemanly volunteers but conscripts. We are, whether we like it or not, placed in a world which presents us with unavoidable moral realities. If we are wise, we seek to understand as well as we can the nature of these moral imperatives.
Apart from the drama and universal interest of this central theme, another thing that saves the book from being the dreary introduction to philosophy I initially took it to be is its style. Where most contemporary philosophers affect a pseudo-scientific 'objective' tone of voice, Murdoch is unashamedly personal. When she discusses A J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, for example, she tells us that she first read it in 1940 and was 'amazed and impressed by its wonderful clarity and simplicity'. Similarly, when she gets on to Kierkegaard, she tells us when she first read him (1943) and slips into her discussion the notes she made back then on Fear and Trembling.
Connected with this confessional aspect of her style is the warm-hearted and generous spirit of the book. So much of contemporary philosophy is written in an alienatingly petty spirit: academic A shows that academic B has misunderstood great philosopher X and has, in any case, made a mistake in his original argument P. Murdoch will have none of this. One feels that every philosopher mentioned in her book is someone whose view she respects and from whom she has had something valuable to learn.
One feels this even when - as in the case of Derrida - one knows that she opposes almost everything he stands for. Derrida's rejection of Platonic metaphysics, his ironic stance towards morality and his avoidance of plain speaking make him the personification of everything that Murdoch sees as dangerously wrong in contemporary intellectual life. And yet she can still describe his works as 'brilliant difficult books full of learning and thinking and the ironic and playful light of a remarkable intelligence', and comment on 'his scholarship, his gorgeous prose, his large literary achievement'. The chapter she devotes to Derrida might serve, despite her antipathy to his method and his conclusions, as a good and surprisingly sympathetic introduction to his thought.
If Derrida is never far from these pages, contemporary British philosophy is conspicuous by its absence. Despite the fact that she has lived and worked in Oxford for most of her life, some of it as a philosophy tutor, there is almost no mention here of the work that has dominated Oxford philosophy in recent times. Though her theme is the relevance to morality (and therefore to life) of metaphysics, she never once mentions the arguments for and against an 'anti-realist' metaphysics that have occupied British analytical philosophers for the last two decades, nor does she mention the principal protagonists in that and other mainstream debates: Michael Dummett, Christopher Peacocke, Simon Blackburn, Crispin Wright and others. Does this mean she is out of touch, or - more worryingly from the point of view of philosophy in this country - that her sense of what is significant and relevant dismisses this entire discussion as of no interest?
For her the battle-lines are drawn on a much wider front: between the realist metaphysics of Plato and the corrosive scepticism of the tradition of thought that begins with Nietzsche and continues, via Heidegger, in the work of Derrida and the literary critics that have fallen under his influence. Like George Steiner (whose last book, Real Presences, she quotes with approval), Murdoch sees it as her task to rescue from the attack of Derrida's 'deconstruction' an essentially religious notion; in her case the actual, 'objective' existence of the Platonic Forms, particularly the Form of the Good. The notion that language can have a determinate meaning, Derrida maintains, presupposes a commitment to the 'metaphysics of presence'. Well then, says Murdoch (like Steiner before her), let us embrace this metaphysics]
A perfect summary of the view to which she is opposed is given by Heiddegger in his The World of Nietzsche. Nietzsche's famous pronouncement 'God is dead' means, according to Heidegger, that: 'Metaphysics, ie for Nietzsche Western Philosophy understood as Platonism, is at an end.' Murdoch's task is to rescue Platonism, while (reluctantly) accepting the death of God. She does this by substituting for God the Platonic Form of the Good. She has a chapter on the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, which, though at first sight tedious (like Schopenhauer, I am inclined to see in the Ontological Argument no more than a charming joke), is in fact fascinating. The Ontological Argument, she argues, is valid if it is understood as affirming the necessity of the concept of Good.
She seems to think this is defensible on purely logical grounds, though (thankfully) she is less interested in the technicalities of the argument than in its existential consequences, and quotes in agreement Simone Weil's remark that the Ontological Proof 'is mysterious because it doesn't address itself to intelligence, but to love'.
There is a paradox that I have always found intriguing about Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics that is, I think, mirrored in this book. Wittgenstein's work on mathematics, broadly speaking, is intelligible only to those who are almost certain to disagree with it. Similarly, I think, most people who inhabit the intellectual atmosphere in which this work lives - the atmosphere, for example, of Don Cupitt's 'Godless' theology, of the existentialist tradition in philosophy and of the adoption by Westerners of Eastern philosophers - are almost certain to take as axiomatic the alternative view to Murdoch's. For them, as for Heidegger, Plato died with God. If Dame Iris Murdoch manages to reverse this trend, it will be the philosophical achievement of the century. Even if she does not (and, cheer as we might, the odds are against it), she has written one of the most excitingly bold works of genuine philosophical reflection to have been published for a very long time.
Quotation from 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals':
Tragedy belongs to art, and only to great art. But perhaps even here one is suffering from an illusion. Are there works of art which are real tragedies, real instances of the form? Or is tragedy just an ideal conception, something we think we need, something we would like to exist? We feel: somewhere it must be justly recorded. Human life is full of such shadows, religion is full of them. Perhaps the concept works out as: quasi-tragic, having tragic aspects or moments, or a tragic atmosphere. The works we revere are more confused than we imagine, more indirect in making whatever point they make. Shakespeare's tragic plays contain comic and irrelevant matter. To try to define and isolate tragedy we might look at some examples of things in life about which we might want to exclaim, 'How tragic' or 'It's a tragedy.' And here we must keep in mind that anything which we describe is likely to be touched by art. Art work and value judgments are everywhere in human self-expression. Our evening story about the events of our day is a little evaluative work of art. How far do we want to press this idea? Is everything we reflect on or remember, everything we experience, aesthetically worked? . . . Let us take a real-life example. I read in some account of the matter that on one of the last days in Hitler's bunker at the end of the war, when Dr and Mrs Goebbels were hustling their children up to bed, about to poison them with cyanide, one of the children, jesting with one of the guards, whom she was fond of, said to him, Misch, Misch, du bist ein Fisch. This episode has a piercing touchingness composed partly of tragic irony. It touches us too as evidence of the innocent vitality of the human spirit under terrible conditions. And we picture children in that place. There is also the fact that someone remembered it. But this is not tragedy, it is a fragment of something far more awful, not just because it is 'real', but because it is different; it has no formal context, is not modified and solaced by any limited surround. The story could be told in different ways, but this touch of art does not make it tragic.
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