“Innumerable Intentions and Charms”: On Gary Browning’s “Why Iris Murdoch Matters”

Kieran Setiya considers “Why Iris Murdoch Matters” by Gary Browning.

“Innumerable Intentions and Charms”: On Gary Browning’s “Why Iris Murdoch Matters”

Why Iris Murdoch Matters by Gary Browning. Bloomsbury Academic. 272 pages.

BEHIND THE DESK in my office is a portrait of the young Iris Murdoch painted by artist-philosopher Renée Bolinger in the style of Lucian Freud. Murdoch stares over my shoulder as I type, her boyish haircut bristling in oils, lips pursed, emphatic cheekbones gray-green-blue. I first encountered Murdoch as one of BBC Two’s “Men of Ideas,” interviewed by the irreplaceable Bryan Magee. You can watch the video on YouTube now, but I read a transcript in the volume that followed the series. I was 15 years old and I adored the book. It was my window to a world of urbane intellectualism, a symposium at which Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were virtual guests. The best conversation was Murdoch’s, on literature and philosophy.

Murdoch was a professional philosopher for 15 years before leaving her position at Oxford University to work on fiction full time. By the time her interview with Bryan Magee was broadcast, in 1978, she had written 19 novels, including The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize that same year. Her dialogue with Magee has become infamous among students of Murdoch for its sustained resistance to the blurring of lines between philosophy and literature. Philosophy “states and attempts to solve very difficult highly technical problems,” Murdoch begins, whereas “art is fun and for fun, it has innumerable intentions and charms.” She concludes: “I am reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one.”

Readers have been equally reluctant to take her at her word. It is almost irresistible to wonder how Murdoch’s philosophy shapes her fiction. In the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of Men of Ideas (1978), Magee shamelessly lists as “philosophical novels” not only Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), but Murdoch’s Under the Net (1954). There’s no denying that this wildly funny novel, with a narrator who romps across London, flirts with old girlfriends, and abducts a showbiz dog, includes philosophy. Two of its main characters are philosophers, one deliberate, one accidental. But in the interview, Murdoch deflects Magee’s suggestion:

I feel in myself such an absolute horror of putting theories or “philosophical ideas” as such into my novels. I might put in things about philosophy because I happen to know about philosophy. If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships.

There are philosophers in her novels, Murdoch gripes, because philosophers are people, too — the sort of people she happens to know. That doesn’t mean her novels “do philosophy,” any more than a novel about sailing would make a seaworthy boat.

And yet, in his new book, Why Iris Murdoch Matters, Gary Browning argues that “it is a mistake to separate [Murdoch’s] novels from her philosophy”: “She does not dismantle the borders, but takes them to be open and mutually accessible.” It is an apt time to take stock of Murdoch, who was born 100 years ago, in 1919. Are her novels worth reading? Is her philosophy relevant to us? And what is the relationship between the two? Browning’s answers to these persistent questions offer a fruitful way into Murdoch’s captivating, idiosyncratic world.

For those who like them, Murdoch’s novels can be addictive, a bit like Agatha Christie’s or Stephen King’s. They have a distinctive flavor and a distinctive verbal style, with its quirky dialogue and cascading adjectives. What happens in the novels? An awful lot. People misconceive each other and themselves. They fall in and out of love, talk about falling in and out of love, deceive, betray, reconcile, infatuate, and exalt. They play erotic musical chairs. They worry about God and, sometimes, the Holocaust. They forge intense relationships with paintings and use the vocabulary of Oxbridge-trained philosophers. Animals are lovingly described. There is an occasional flying saucer.

Murdoch is easy to parody. But she is well aware of it. One of her most ambitious books, The Black Prince (1973), features a novelist who is a caricature of her. According to the novelist’s friend Bradley Pearson, “Arnold Baffin wrote too much, too fast.” According to Baffin’s daughter Julian, he “lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea.” For Iris Murdoch’s detractors, that is where she lives, too.

As Browning explains, Murdoch had a very definite idea of what the novel should do. It should not be “crystalline,” as in Sartre’s philosophical allegories, or merely “journalistic,” but a deep exploration of human personality. “A novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in,” she insists, “and to combine form with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways is the highest art of prose.” Browning dutifully applies this criterion to Murdoch herself: her novels “are framed so as to present and testify to characters interacting freely so as to strain against the formal designs of their author.” But he doesn’t make a case for this, and perceptive critics have disagreed. In an overview of her work in the London Review of Books, James Wood complained that Murdoch’s “own fictional characters [are] as unfree as pampered convicts.” Even sympathetic readers, such as Martin Amis and Harold Bloom, tend to concede that, as a novelist, she is no better than she should be. Like Arnold Baffin, Murdoch wrote too quickly, and while her novels are very good, she never took the time to compose a masterpiece. I am not alone in thinking that her best novel was Under the Net; it was also her first.

But bickering over the merits of Murdoch’s novels is a distraction. The more interesting question is not how good they are, but how philosophical, and in what way. For Browning, “Murdoch’s novels lend themselves to showing phenomenologically what is involved in her moral philosophy.” In order to engage with that idea, we need first to recover Murdoch as a moral philosopher.

Murdoch’s most important philosophical book is The Sovereignty of Good, published in 1970. She went on to write three more: The Fire and the Sun (1977), about Plato’s attitude toward art in the Republic; the epic Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992); and an unpublished manuscript on Heidegger, dated 1993. Her position in professional philosophy is odd. She had a significant impact on some brilliant philosophers: Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Martha Nussbaum, and Charles Taylor. But she is not widely read. When it was published in 1998, the mammoth 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy had no entry for Iris Murdoch. Her work may be more visible now, but progress is slow. Browning’s accessible, wide-ranging book will help accelerate it.

Murdoch has three big ideas, of which the first is key. She is fundamentally opposed to a view of “moral psychology,” the activity of deliberation and choice, that she associates with both existentialism and the Oxford moral philosophy of her time. On this view, we first come to a neutral description of our circumstance, which leaves open what to do, and then choose freely among our options, expressing our character or moral principles. For Murdoch, description is never neutral. The moral task is to describe one’s circumstance correctly. Once you find the right description, choice is virtually automatic, though not on that account unfree. This process calls for “unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention […] a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self”; once fully achieved, “true vision occasions right conduct.” “If I attend properly,” Murdoch writes, “I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” Murdoch’s second idea is that the primary obstacle to attention is our natural egoism, the “fat relentless ego.” Her third idea is that the answer to egoism, the source of psychic energy that fuels our attention to reality, is love.

It is the first idea, that acting well is an automatic consequence of seeing things as they are, that is most radical and of most enduring interest. It is an idea you might expect of a novelist, attuned to how the reader’s affective response turns on the meticulous choice of words, that cascade of adjectives. Most Anglophone philosophers embrace a “fact-value distinction,” according to which it is one thing to know the plain facts of one’s circumstance, the effects and contexts of one’s actions, another to decide what one should do, and yet another to decide to do it. Murdoch collapses all three.

In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch illustrates her view with what has become one of the most cited narratives in moral philosophy. She imagines a mother, M, who disapproves of her son’s wife, D. She finds D “pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile.” But M makes moral progress. She “reflects deliberately about D, until gradually her vision of D alters. […] D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful.” The achievement lies entirely in finding the right descriptions, not in acting on them.

The example has been discussed by philosophers more than anything else Murdoch wrote. It is obsessively described and redescribed, one author finding it vague, obscure, schematic, and unconvincing, another rich, suggestive, elegant, fresh. Combining the philosopher’s affectation of precision and generality, as in the algebraic names of M and D, with an expansive realism about the texture of moral life, it reads like the microfiction of Lydia Davis. On the one hand, it celebrates the privacy of emotional life and the possibility of moral reflection without overt action. On the other hand, Murdoch presents the hard work of justly depicting those around us as a guarantee of acting well.

The idea of attention in Murdoch’s moral philosophy draws on the work of her near-contemporary Simone Weil. Murdoch’s other great influence is Plato. His impact is sufficiently pervasive that the index entry for Plato in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals simply reads “passim.” In particular, it is from Plato’s dialogues that Murdoch adapts her conception of love. Where Plato imagined a process of sublimation in which physical attraction morphs into a rarefied love for the Good itself, Murdoch’s eros never escapes its focus on the concrete particular human being. Still, love has a connection with being good: it drives us toward it. For Murdoch, love is the force that overcomes our egoism, that sustains our attention to others, so that we see them as they are and therefore treat them as we should.

It is hard to know what to do with the mash-up of Platonic metaphysics and armchair psychology in Murdoch’s theory of love. It has become a flashpoint for those, like Browning, who want to connect her philosophy with her life. Even if you have never read Murdoch, you may have read accounts of her polyamorous, pansexual love life, both before and after she married John Bayley, an English professor at Oxford University, in 1956; the marriage survived until her death in 1999. The young Iris Murdoch was portrayed by a sexy Kate Winslet in Richard Eyre’s 2001 film Iris, based on a memoir by Bayley. Peter J. Conradi’s authorized biography was published the same year; A. N. Wilson’s unauthorized volume two years later. These three works dish the dirt for a prurient audience. Adding to the intrigue is Murdoch’s earlier reputation as a saintly figure, who made those around her feel truly seen. The cover of the 2001 Routledge edition of The Sovereignty of Good shows a silhouette profile of a woman who looks suspiciously like Murdoch, sporting a scribbled halo.

It is understandable that admirers of Murdoch would be keen to reconcile her actions with her ideas. Browning takes the most direct approach, admitting that Murdoch’s “readiness to embrace loving relations may be questionable at times,” but claiming that it “testifies to her capacity to enact the love of which she writes in her theoretical and fictional writing.” But is the love that fueled Murdoch’s affairs, that destroyed some friendships and troubled others, really the love of which she writes in Sovereignty and elsewhere? I hope not. If it is, her defense of love as a path to virtue begins to look self-serving. Better to conclude that Murdoch was familiar with the difficulty of love and the distortions of egoism. She writes from bitter experience.

If not to how she lived, where should we turn for inspiration from Iris Murdoch? Going back to the novels, Browning hears echoes of her thinking throughout, in the plight of characters selfish and self-deceived, struggling with love and the reality of other people. He is not wrong, but his plot synopses do not bring much depth to the occasion. There is virtually no close reading or attention to language in his book, even though it is in finding the right descriptions that moral progress is meant to lie. The wider question is whether Murdoch’s novels are more susceptible to analysis in terms of her philosophy than novels by other realistic authors. I am not convinced that they are; nor am I convinced that we learn much about her philosophy from reading them.

Browning makes a stronger case for Murdoch as a political and historical thinker, drawing insightfully on the full range of her work, including the manuscript on Heidegger and her unpublished notebooks. Murdoch grappled with World War II and its aftermath, drifting from the Communist Party of Great Britain to a socialism skeptical of ideology to a more limited focus on human rights. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she supplements the personal morality of Sovereignty, built on attention and love, with a public morality of axioms and duties. As Browning argues: “Murdoch developed a multidimensional understanding of the times in which she lived.” The problem is that, unlike her moral philosophy, Murdoch’s political thinking is strikingly unoriginal; and the times in which she lived are now long gone.

So does Murdoch matter, after all? I think she does. She matters because her novels are fun and for fun; they have innumerable intentions and charms. For my younger self, they were a window to another world — a world of volatile passions, articulate introspection, and moral danger that was not my life. She also matters because her cardinal ideas have yet to be absorbed by moral philosophy and because they anticipate some of our most urgent social problems. One of the more recent philosophers to revisit M and D is Jason Stanley, who turns to Murdoch’s example in How Propaganda Works (2015). The ethics of the use of words is not just a personal matter but a political challenge. The ways in which language determines our field of choice warrant our severe attention. Equally timely in the age of Instagram and selfies is Murdoch’s image of the narcissistic ego as a threat to moral vision.

But to me, Murdoch matters most because she enlarged my sense of what philosophy could be. The most conspicuous false note in Murdoch’s interview with Bryan Magee is not her protest against the philosophical novel, but her assertion that “there is an ideal philosophical style which has a special unambiguous plainness and hardness about it, an austere unselfish candid style. A philosopher must try to explain exactly what he means and avoid rhetoric and idle decoration.” “Philosophical writing,” she insists, “is not self-expression,” yet Murdoch’s self is immediately present in her philosophical prose, which no honest reader could describe as unambiguous, austere, exact, or unrhetorical. If Murdoch does not blur the lines between literature and philosophy in her fiction, she does so in her essays, which energize and inspire as well as instruct.

In one of his best insights, Browning quotes a letter from Murdoch to Raymond Queneau: “Now and then I think let it go to hell anyway why not read philosophy just for the emotional kick.” As he observes, “Murdoch’s own philosophy can be read for its emotional kick.” She is the sole contemporary philosopher to whom I turn when I feel depressed or hopeless, in search of moral sustenance. A. N. Wilson mocks the rousing quality of Murdoch’s work in Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her (2003): “[As] well as being brilliant, her novels are also, surely, pretty good tosh? Ditto the ‘philosophy’ which isn’t really philosophy at all, just secular sermonising based on Plato and Simone Weil, etc.?” But we should not underestimate the difficulty or the value of composing a secular sermon that is not an intellectual fraud, one that counts as philosophy, too. The Sovereignty of Good is not an easy book, but the experience of reading it can be magical. One stares at the horizon of ethical uplift and abstract argument until it blurs in the waves of Murdoch’s prose.

That is why I have a painting of Iris Murdoch over my desk and why a friend read aloud a passage from The Sovereignty of Good when I got married:

Love is the general name of the quality of attachment and it is capable of infinite degradation and is the source of our greatest errors; but when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. […] Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun.


Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton University Press, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017), Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022), and a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!