I stumbled upon Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) by chance, while doing research for a professor’s manuscript. I’m stunned, and I need to write about it. If you have yet to familiarize yourself with her, allow me to brief you:
Prolific Irish novelist and philosopher, student of Ludvig Wittgenstein, part-time Communist (she wasn’t allowed to come study in the US because of it: our loss), brilliant-as-all-stardust Iris Murdoch has contributed to philosophy in countless ways.
Her philosophical pursuit of preserving the importance of human goodness has resulted in important and intelligent criticism (not necessarily rejection) of the philosophies of dignitaries like Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and so on.
Her thoughts on the importance of individual action pervade every theme (morality, art, love, politics, sex, imagination, spirituality, etc) she entertains, be it philosophically or fictionally.
I want to focus for a moment (stay with me) on her discussion of structuralism in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, in which she rejects Derrida’s explanation of language as an apriori system to which we are subjected. She does not think, as Derrida does, that language is something to succumb to—something that uses us, instead of us using it—and wants readers to realize that words are a creative medium through which they can (and should) attain and create meaning. She aims to convince us that we are to a great extent active agents within language.
Why do I care about this, or why should you? Because Murdoch makes me feel good about having a dumb blog, and because she confirms that language is not reserved for the few. According to Derrida, as Murdoch reiterates, language is a postulated totality that transcends effective individual usages, and that our use of language is an “unconscious subjection to system,” unless you are a scientist, artist, or philosopher. (193) Bummer, not many people are those things, unless you take Murdoch’s perspective and see that everyone is those things in different ways. What makes artists or scientists original, according to Derrida, is their “conscious play” with language, which for whatever reason cannot be within everyone’s reach?
Murdoch argues that this is plain wrong. The essential task of language is to enhance communication in the service of truth, and everyone is fighting for understanding, expression, control—every human being is involved in this fight for truth. (216) Just because I don’t use a paintbrush with skill or study the cosmos does not mean that I am not actively engaging with language. This post, for example, is (however unimportant relative to studying the cosmos) a creation of language, and it is valuable in that it allows me to carry forward language’s ultimate goal. And arguably, who’s to say that cultivating characteristics that enhance my life and my community isn’t as important as learning about the moon or painting a watercolor?
There’s much more I can spew out about this, but I suggest you read her work directly—it’s illuminating and, at times, quite funny. I cannot wait to delve into her fiction.
Photo credit to American Society of Authors and Writers