John Jones

I’ve been basking in a warm glow from A.N. Wilson’s recent book about Iris Murdoch* – I mean its way of holding Plato and Kant not quite on a level with each other but far above everyone else except Hegel, about whom more later, in its account of her attention to the classical masters. This is a big merit, and a needful one because others, including her official biographer, have been at fault here. While spending a lot of time with Plato and Christian Platonism, as of course they should, they have allowed Kant to languish in the dusty rear.

Wilson takes us back to Iris’s undergraduate tutorials with Donald MacKinnon. There was a lot of Kant on the table. What sort of Kant I wish I knew. These tutorials, or some of them, were shared with someone who has become a distinguished philosopher, and I would go straight to her at this moment were it not that we have quarrelled and I flinch at the prospect of another fruity missive from an old friend.

Why does any of this matter? Beginning to say, to try to say, I ask you to join Iris and me, crossing Devon on a motorbike not long after the war. Empty roads, no crash-helmets. We were going too fast and indulging our childish habit of throwing high-sounding philosophical phrases at each other. (I think this was a hint taken from John Buchan’s autobiography, where he links stretches of countryside with metaphysical systems.) Iris said into my ear: ‘The teleological suspension of the ethical.’ I shouted over my shoulder: ‘The transcendental unity of apperception.’ And then we came off.

I had misjudged the tight bend before Bedford Bridge on the Tavistock-Plymouth road. Iris picked herself up at once. I was slower and was fussing around with the bike. And by the time I was sorted out, she had moved onto the bridge itself with her arms on the upper parapet, sleeves pushed up in that way of hers. We spent quite a minute looking up the little Walkham river into Dartmoor. Then she said: ‘Let’s do a class on Metaphor.’

The idea was to run a seminar together, primarily for graduates but with younger folk welcome. We talked about this for the next few months, mostly in Oxford pubs, and with a show of efficiency we divided what we wanted to be considered into six lumps to fit six weeks of an eight-week university term. That would give us a week in hand, or even two, if we found ourselves overrunning our theme-a-week timetable. Then, with a further gesture towards the practicalities of the thing, we accepted that our enterprise ought to appear on the lecture lists of several faculties. Surely it must, with its philosophical, literary, philological presumptions. But which faculties? Young and happy and a touch self-important, we decided it didn’t much matter. People who were interested would tell each other, would get to hear of it and come along.

But now we hit a snag. Out of the blue and what will seem very late in the day, Iris said it would help her compose her own thoughts if she could look at anything I had written so far. I told her there was nothing to look at, and after a bit of hesitation I added that there never would be.

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