Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals 
by Iris Murdoch.
Chatto, 520 pp., £20, October 1992, 0 7011 3998 6
Show More
Show More

I was completely gripped by this astonishing monologue, but the next person to pick up my review copy said it looked like one long run-on sentence. What is it, besides a monologue? ‘How weird your categories are! It’s philosophy, if you like – but what does that mean it’s thinking, and it’s a programme of action.’ That’s Crimond, the high-flyer, in Iris Murdoch’s 1989 The Book of the Brotherhood, replying to a question about his projected book. His envious interlocutor Gerrard asks:

  ‘So it’s like a very long pamphlet?’

  ‘No. It’s not a long simplification. It’s about everything.’


  ‘Everything except Aristotle. I regard him as an unfortunate interlude, now happily over.’

By the end of The Book of the Brotherhood, Crimond has finished his overpowering work, financially supported by a club established by Gerrard and others, and Gerrard sets out to write his own book refuting Crimond – but not until after everyone believes, falsely, that it was Crimond who shot the story ’s saint.

We have come to expect novelists to layer books within books, but Iris Murdoch trumped them by publishing a novel about the conception of two murderously competing books about philosophy (‘if you like’) while she was writing her own book of philosophy. There is no mistaking the self-references. Aristotle is distinctly absent from Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Murdoch’s indexer strove valiantly to inject a little Aristotle, managing 13 entries. This feat was achieved by, for example, including a reference to the Aristotelian Society, a present-day London club for all-purpose philosophical discussion. Aside from using Aristotle as evidence that ‘the Greeks regarded slavery as a fate,’ Murdoch speaks of Aristotle exactly once. His account of tragedy ‘is superbly apt and lucid’. Indeed. Future studies of Murdoch’s fiction must begin with the Poetics and her reading of it.

But Plato! The excellent indexer, who gives full details for every other entry, was daunted and wrote only: ‘Plato, passim.’ Jung said that we are born Platonists or Aristotelians. It is remarkable that both Plato and Aristotle spoke to the same central topics, truth and virtue, and yet their conversations, compositions, lectures and improvisations are sufficiently different in style, instinct, content and moral force that they continue to mark a deep cleavage in Western philosophising. Jung may have meant that we start out as realists or nominalists and follow our assigned destinies. His maxim reaches far beyond that. We are either Plato’s friend or Aristotle’s friend. Murdoch brings her friends, Schopenhauer, Simone Weil, Anselm, Hume, Wittgenstein, Martin Buber, but above all Plato. Perhaps you will warm to her book only if most of her friends are your friends. This has little to do with philosophical doctrine. I happen to be an entrenched nominalist and don’t for a moment believe in Plato’s Ideas or even many of his ideas, but I read him avidly and can’t take much Aristotle. Most of Murdoch’s more-or-less contemporaries in Oxford were friends of Aristotle, and they hardly get a look in. The exception is the late A.J. Ayer, whose cameo appearance is just right. ‘I first read Ayer’s book’ – Language, Truth and Logic – ‘in 1940 when I began to study philosophy and was, together with many others, amazed and impressed by the wonderful clarity and simplicity.’ Fifty years later: ‘Ayer’s book, which may now seem to us as brilliant and ingenious, but also unsophisticated and dotty ...’ I do believe that Ayer would have loved that; and on rereading him a little, I can now see him, unexpectedly, as a friend of Plato’s. Certainly he did not enjoy the Oxford Aristotelians. Sorry for the gossip, but this is a gossipy monologue.

Beyond the gossip, a direct thesis underlies the wonderfully rich texture of Murdoch’s writing. People have two aims, truth and virtue. In Plato these are somehow one, in the powerful sense that the love of truth and the love of virtue are identical.

The contrast between states of illusion (selfish habits or egoistic fantasy) and honest clarified truthful serious thinking suggests a moral picture of the mind in a continuous engagement with an independent reality. ‘Truth’ is not just a collection of facts. Truthfulness, the search for truth, for a closer connection between thought and reality, demands and effects an exercise of virtues and a purification of desires ... Thought, goodness and reality are thus seen to be connected.

‘The intensity of Plato’s vision in this connection’ is something that she would like to return to her readers, and to our civilisation. That means she has to unwind, in our consciousness, a long series of historical events. Later philosophers tended to say that truth is correspondence – that is, a statement or belief is true if and only if it corresponds to the facts, to the world, to reality, to how things are – and ‘the truth’ is just a collection of facts. They denied that virtue corresponds to anything. So truth and virtue were sundered. Hume proposed a cardinal rule. He said that an ought never follows from an is; the facts, what is true, how the world is, never on their own entail what you ought to do, what is right, what is good. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was the limiting point in this process. Not only does an ought not follow from an is, but you can’t say ‘ought’. You can only say ‘is’. You can say what is the case; you should be silent about everything else. Yet Wittgenstein is not Murdoch’s ultimate villain, for she emphasises his insight that all his philosophy was the ethical, the unsaid. She takes that as an honourable conclusion, but pours withering scorn on those who, today, will go only half-way or, worse, temporise with truth and therefore (she thinks) with morals.

What Wittgenstein meant was in a way right: that is, it was right once truth and ethics had been separated, and after truth had been made correspondence to the facts. Nowadays there is a popular alternative. It started the moment Kant put down his pen, but for those more comfortable with plain writing in English, it began perhaps with William James deriding the ‘copy theory of truth’. This path has been increasingly followed of late; its most widely-read exposition is Richard Rorty’s pragmatism. The will to truth disappears, and is replaced by a desire for more or less satisfactory conversations, a conversation of mankind marked, from time to time, by the utterance of words that are both edifying and transformative. Many intellectuals don’t care for this vision and try to conserve what is left of other ways of proceeding. Murdoch is much more radical, arguably going to the root. Once truth had become banal correspondence to facts, the road through Hume, to Wittgenstein’s early terminus, was a natural one. There is nothing ethical to say.

Murdoch experiences a deep need to say the ethical. She urges us to return to some richer idea of truth, as what is outside us. It is not mere correspondence to facts, although that is important. Truth is not got by copying but by striving. We must return to Plato, and relearn that there is a categorical drive to seek out the truth, to burst out of a cave of shadows into bright light, an illumination that we are sure can be sought for. She does not want to drop all the ordinary values of truth. Telling the truth may serve any number of ends. It helps our companions and progeny, it makes people trust us; perhaps truth-telling is a necessary condition of the very possibility of communication. But Murdoch does not stop at these goals. It is the love of truth itself, she says, that inspired Plato, leading him to the idea of the Good. We must make truth more rather than less a matter of correspondence to the way the world is, and then we will reunite truth and morals.

Murdoch’s sheer Englishness (to which she wryly owns up from time to time) is a great asset. Lord knows this book is full of God and intimations of immortality, but she won’t allow herself to wander off into the abstract hyperspace of long non-denoting nouns. This is a very concrete book about experience. Her best arguments are not logical but phenomenological, based on an ability to describe. On her view, craving for truth is inculcated in the smallest matters, in telling the person who brings the milk how much you want tomorrow, in confessing that there is dry rot in the timber, or saying that daybreak by the Pic du Midi d’Ossau leaves you speechless.

When she encounters close reasoning she counters it not with confutation but with feeling. There is, for example, a very powerful discussion of an idea of the later Wittgenstein, an idea whose best single statement she quotes: ‘It is what human beings say that is true or false; and they agree in the language they use. This is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.’ In Wittgenstein we read intensely about what is essentially communal about language, and of how the very notions of truth and falsehood have sense only against a social background. That idea is tossed around a lot nowadays. Paradoxically, on this topic of the social aspect of language use, you would be best advised to place your trust in the solitaries like Wittgenstein who acted out desperate breaks with community, running away from people. At any rate Murdoch is with the solitary communalists, but at the same time she speaks out for the individual, the thought. Language, as she says, is continuously lived by persons, ‘fine shades of behaviour, imponderable evidence, looks, glances, gestures, tones whistling ... performing precise jobs in individual contexts. Thinking, communicating, must admit the individual, the moral, the aesthetic.’ That’s what language is to her, and she warms to passages in Wittgenstein that supplement his views on the social aspect of language: ‘with a free and apt use of metaphor, with swift intuitive imagination, Wittgenstein describes the experience of thinking.’

The experience that she most wishes to address is that least well discussed by most philosophical minds: the religious. It is of a piece, for her, with the striving for truth, virtue and love, with the quest for what is beyond us and yet perceivable. The strange religiosity of the book is always tinged with irony. She is well able to make fun of her deepest convictions. Turn again to The Book of the Brotherhood. The ineffectual priest ‘used the oldest argument in the book (sometimes called the Ontological Proof) which, in Father McAlister’s version, said that if with a pure passion you love God, then God exists, because he has to. After all, what your best self, your most truthful soul desires must be real, and not to worry too much about what it’s called.’ Attend, reader, to Murdoch’s accidental throwaway lines. ‘The oldest argument in the book’? Any work of reference will tell you that the ontological argument for the existence of God is not the oldest one in the book. Anselm of Canterbury invented it – long after Plato in the Laws, Aristotle and the subtle Avicenna had a family of arguments now called cosmological. But Murdoch meant what she said in the novel. She gives roots to her discussion of the ontological argument with some very strong pages on Plato. Earlier I quoted some characteristic sentences of hers about Plato, truth and ethics. I took them not from the main body of her book but from a late chapter on the ontological Proof (‘Proof’, like ‘God’, ever capitalised). That long chapter speaks much of the philosophers, and of theologians such as Barth, Buber and Tillich, but she does not betray it when she starts her next chapter on the ontological Proof with the words, ‘In continuing the argument I now want to turn away from Plato.’ Anselm’s idea of a most perfect being, greater than which nothing else can be conceived, is for Murdoch part of the Platonic quest for truth and value, a project that is self-vindicating.

She admits that there is a logic-chopping formulation of the ontological argument ‘(as if one could talk of God without reference to morality) and in this guise it has attracted some amused observers.’ Instead she is trying to make us experience the argument, even if we can’t experience that love of God which is Anselm’s starting-point. She embeds Anselm in Plato, and then weaves around the two a web of speakers. Some are commentators, Buber, Tillich or the logicians, but others, such as Wittgenstein, seem to her to resonate with the experience. She is creating the myth of the Proof. And what myth is that? I believe that she gave her most succinct expression of it to Father McAlister.

This long work is in no way a book of philosophical argument or conceptual analysis. She has a hard time with the quarrel, so vividly portrayed by Plato, between Poetry and Philosophy. She is, for Plato’s reasons, on the side of philosophy. Philosophy is constituted by the desire for true statements, well-argued. Whatever her own style, when it comes to taking sides, Murdoch is with the arguers and the analysts every time. When she reads that ‘a number of the most original and creative modern philosophers (including Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Derrida) have been discovering rhetoric and using its wiles against blundering one-eyed theoretical reason,’ she tartly retorts that she ‘would rather back analytic philosophy against rhetoric’. But her own way of thinking philosophically is not analytic. It is deeply rooted in philosophy’s past. It is what I shall call historicist.

There has been a good deal of misunderstanding, on the part of analytic philosophers, about historicist philosophising. It has been thought that one should either address philosophical problems in their own right, or else recount the history of philosophical ideas, which is not in itself philosophy. The analytical philosopher would study history only in order to pick the brains of a dead philosophers who had insights that we have lost. But mere are other uses of the past than those allowed by the bald dichotomy, problems-or-history. Murdoch is immured in that Continental practice whose amazing paradigm is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Philosophical ideas exist within an unfolding tradition. One can think, have the ideas, only by comprehending that tradition, becoming the tradition in one’s own mind, and rising out of it. One does not do the history of philosophy to pick dead men’s brains for their insights, but because our ideas get their initial and essential sense within a sequence of texts. This activity is akin to myth-making. The central ideas of philosophy become actors in myths, but with a twist. Since each successor of Hegel tells the myths in his own way, the next myth-maker must, Tristam Shandy-like, put earlier myth-makers and their stories of myths into new myths, for the stories told about philosophy become part of philosophy.

Murdoch’s account of metaphysics and morals is historicist, not because she gives a history of metaphysics and morals, and certainly not because she mentions some long dead writers. It is because the ideas that she addresses are given their content, are made incarnate, one might say, in a tradition recounted mythologically. She does that in large for metaphysics, and in fewer words but with no smaller ambition, in her treatment of the ontological Proof – which I’ve already called mythical.

There is something of this historicist conception in almost all the notable Continental philosophers that are still read. (To say that, I have to take Wittgenstein to have emigrated, which happens to be a plain fact, albeit an unfashionable one at present.) The numerous parallels to Murdoch’s writing are not in English. The book that struck me, casually, as most like this one, is by an old ‘friend’ of hers, about whom she once wrote a monograph, but who does not loom so large here: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. This resemblance made me curiously receptive to the quite improbable claim of her publishers that Murdoch can be read as an introduction to philosophy. What judicious teacher would place this farrago in the hands of a novice? None. But young people will discover it. The first philosophy book I ever read, marginalia on every page, was Being and Nothingness, not thanks to any teacher. Metaphysics is not a book for metropolitan wits, but some lonely kid up there in northern Alberta or wherever is going to read it next summer – and be in thrall to philosophy ever after. Not, of course, to be long enthralled by this way of doing philosophy, for first enthusiasms pall.

Sartre, Schopenhauer, Weil, Wittgenstein, these are friends. From within her own way of doing philosophy, Murdoch has a key opponent: Heidegger. This is not for any of the usual reasons that make many English readers dislike the man, but because his diagnosis of philosophy is the exact opposite of hers. The two disagree about Plato. Heidegger taught that Plato is the fount of error. He invented metaphysics and we’ve been going wrong ever since, until Heidegger himself brought metaphysics to an end. For Murdoch metaphysics is the beginning of wisdom, and, as her title says, a guide to morals.

Heidegger is thus her paramount rival for territory, and that territory is none other than Plato’s cave. To express the confrontation crudely, Heidegger construed Plato as excavating that cave and placing us in it, making us think of appearance and reality in that way. Murdoch takes Plato at his ironic word, as telling us of the many levels of our understanding, and of how we can gain more and more understanding. Despite what I said about her historicist philosophising, when it comes to Plato she becomes non-historical and English. Plato got it right. A historicist would have to think this thought in a grittily self-reflexive way, reading not only the past, but also how the past read the readings of earlier pasts. But no, Heidegger is just wrong about Plato. Here, almost uniquely in the book, Murdoch calls in an ally a few years younger than herself. She uses Stanley Rosen’s essay ‘Heidegger’s Interpretation of Plato’. (Rosen, who styles himself a ‘humanities educator’, studied in Chicago during the heydey of Leo Strauss.) Other critics might happily locate Heidegger’s misreading of Plato in Harold Bloom’s map of misreading; whatever other anxieties Heidegger may not have felt, he certainly felt the anxiety of influence. Rosen and Murdoch have no such tolerance for Heidegger. Heidegger’s writing is not to be seen as a self-reflexive event in the history of Western philosophy, one to be woven into Murdoch’s philosophising. For all his other insights – after Plato, Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer, Heidegger is mentioned more frequently than anyone else in the book – Heidegger’s master plan must be dropped, and Plato made whole again.

How? That’s less than satisfactory. Rosen, too, is deeply aroused by Plato on the quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry, and it is Rosen as Poet that Murdoch as Philosopher seems to invoke: ‘The spoken voice of the dialogues occurs always within the Cave (if not always in the language of the Cave). We may emerge from this cave at any instant that we hear the silent accompanying voice of Plato. In my opinion Heidegger goes wrong because he is not attentive to the silence of Plato.’ ‘The errors here attributed to Heidegger’ by Rosen, says Murdoch, ‘are shared by many other critics of Plato’ – critics who so often forget Socrates’s ironic mode.

Heidegger is a challenge, he is wrong, he is disliked, yet still he is respected. Derrida is loathed. She deeply opposes him because, she thinks, he actively disparages the craving for truth. She has adopted the irritating practice of referring to every distrusted Frenchman as a structuralist. ‘The origins of structuralism (post-structuralism, deconstruction, modernism, post-modernism) are to be found in anthropology (Lévi-Strauss) and in linguistics (Saussure), but (as it has affected the second half of the 20th century) the doctrine is mainly the property and the creation of Jacques Derrida.’ Such rhetorical guilt by association does not carry the day.

Why not do to Derrida what she does to Aristotle – namely, ignore him? Because she fears him, because she thinks that he is a bad influence on the young, who must have their eyes opened. He is brilliant, yes, ‘a literary man’, with the Poets, perhaps, but not a Philosopher. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was a permissible if mistaken terminus, with the ethical unsaid but deep, and with facts, how things are, available to be stated in all their finality. Murdoch sees Derrida as the terminus of an other branch of this line, the one where truth is no longer an aim, or something that we should strive for. He preaches not the end of philosophy but a denial of the strivings of humanity.

The book is a monologue, one that enchants with a clause that sets you day-dreaming, captivates with a stream of thought, empowers with reminiscences, and makes you walk out in a huff, though you then peek in the door again to see what’s happening. There are asides, whole pages of quotations, pauses, breaks, recollections, repetitions, insertions, postscripts. It knows very well what it is about. I am sure there is no level at which anyone will read this book, such that there is not another level of this book that will comment on that level. I say it is a monologue? She discusses soliloquy, and says, among other things, that she is not soliloquising. Her monologue is not that kind of speech act, but another. That is artful, for it makes it an act that enacts, in a live way, her denial of Derrida, who says that writing comes first. But it is a written monologue! Or is it? It’s not quite a voice in a cave. When I was first reading the book I saw it being spoken, perhaps on a school stage in some dank Northern town, ill-lit, by a solitary speaking from an old stool, holding, yes gripping, her audience, at any rate me. Yet slowly she made me feel that it is not the moorland winds that are moaning outside, but that we are near some leafy, sunlit place, the unvisited theatre at Dodona, say, from where we can hear, less the person who holds the stage, than the chatter of the prophetic birds in the nearby oak tree mentioned by Herodotus, the one replanted for us in sweet memoriam by French archaeologists.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences