Iris Murdoch and the Death of Philosophy

Iris Murdoch and the Death of Philosophy February 10, 2015

See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I wrote in an earlier post that Modern and post-Modern philosophy is haunted by the impossibility of truth; this even means the impossibility of metaphysics.

No better example of this is Iris Murdoch, the great writer and philosopher.

As Alan Jacobs writes, introducing an excellent overview of her thought:

Murdoch is a Platonist, to a degree and with a purity almost unknown in modern thought: it is the Good that she seeks, the Idea or Form of the Good.

I love me a good Platonist. But was Iris Murdoch actually a Platonist? It turns out, no. Towards the end of Metaphysics, her late-life magnum opus of philosophy, she gives the game away:

Keats says that “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.” It must be truth . Simone Weil quotes Valery: “The proper, unique, and perpetual object of thought is that which does not exist.” Here we may make sense of the idea of loving good. “At its highest point, love is a determination to create the being which it has taken for its object.” Here indeed we come back to the Ontological Proof in its simpler version, a proof by perfection, by a certainty derived from love. The good artist, the true lover, the dedicated thinker, the unselfish moral agent solving his problem: they can create the object of love. The dog’s tooth, when sincerely venerated, glows with light.

In other words, as Jacobs writes:

Murdoch neatly escapes a recurrent dilemma of Platonism, which is to explain the mode of existence of the Good and of all the Forms, by denying that they have an existence at all independent of those who believe in them. The Good is not worshipped because it exists, but exists insofar as it is worshipped. It may, unlike God, be indispensable, but this indispensability is purely pragmatic and heuristic. We cannot live in the way we most want to live, or at least the way some of us want to live, without it. Murdoch’s Good is what the poet Wallace Stevens called a “supreme fiction”: a story, a metanarrative, by which we can direct our lives, and the origin of which is our own creative imagination. If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard has claimed, postmodernism may be defined in a phrase as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” then Iris Murdoch (like Stevens) is a modernist; that is to say, one whose incredulity is limited to metanarratives written by others.

Plato wrote esoterically on many topics, but if one thing is certain, it’s that he actually believed in the Idea and Form of the Good. His great pupil Aristotle certainly thought so. And we know from concurring historical evidence that his secret teaching only heightened this belief: the Form of the Good is an idea in the mind of God.

In the end, this is something Murdoch, the 20th century’s ur-Platonist, cannot bring herself to believe in. The Form of the Good does not exist objectively or independently of us. It’s just a nice story we tell ourselves.

This, in short, is the death of philosophy. The materialistic prejudice has infected everything. Even our Platonists are naturalists.

See page for author [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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