20 October 2022By Camille BrauneBlog

BSH Fund Fellow 2023 - Camille Braune

I am very honoured to have been awarded the Barbara Stevens Heusel Research Fund for Early-Career Scholars. I am currently in my second year of a PhD thesis at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University, under the joint supervision of Prof. Sandra Laugier and Prof. Isabelle Alfandary, which is titled ‘For a new ethics of attention to language. From the work of the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)’.

From analytic philosophers’ thoughts on ethical propositions to care ethics, through to the profound questioning of moral philosophy and ordinary language philosophy found particularly in Stanley Cavell’s and Cora Diamond’s works as well as those by John L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, attention is a concept that is constantly used in discussions about ethics, language or human life. The challenge of my thesis is to reveal the essential input to the development of this concept by Iris Murdoch. Murdoch did not hesitate to question the dominant moral theory of her time, to raise her voice and be heard, to write novels that contributed to reshaping gender, sexuality and power relations, and who reshuffled the cards of contemporary British fiction, whose work redefined the relationship between literature, philosophy and ethics; it is thanks to her quest to put the concrete historical individual – and real life – at the core of moral philosophy that the concepts of attention and love have regenerated the analytic moral philosophy of her time, bringing about a new contemporary ordinary ethics, on which we are working at the Sorbonne Institute of Legal and Philosophical Sciences in Paris.

From her early writings, Murdoch expressed her disagreement with contemporary moral philosophy, in particular, but not exclusively, that from the Oxfordian analytic tradition. Sartre’s first British critic, she was first interested both as novelist and philosopher in his theory of the Other’s gaze, but she quickly rejected his approach to ethics as being locked up in the consciousness, the lonely ego, and developed her own ethics regarding the Other. She intended to reconfigure a metaphysical approach to ethics, which she redefined as a movement of the mind which finds its resources in a particular vision. Moral differences are conceptual differences, in the sense that they reveal differences in our ways of seeing things, in the type of concepts that organise our life. This representation of ethics enabled Murdoch to promote the idea that moral reflection unfolds within language, which means taking seriously the possibility that any word may give expression to a moral idea.

In Murdoch’s argument, which joins together conceptual approaches in ethics and moral perfectionism, the process by which we are put back in touch with conceptual resources requires an inner transformation. Language becomes the expression of a deepening awareness of our reality, but is also what enables the transformation of our relationship with things and individuals – some words being better able than others to express this inner rebuilding’s movement of external reality. Morality as Murdoch saw it aims attention at people’s ordinary manners, their differences, and the moral expressions that engage us. Murdoch insists that we must be careful of what we say, and what we want to say. Moral perfectionism then is an impetus towards an outside of oneself. She insists on continual activity by the individual, which cannot be reduced to a row of public acts (or choices) but covers the whole continuous weaving of existence.

Murdoch’s awareness of the concepts of love and attention began in the early 1950s, when she encountered Simone Weil’s philosophy – whose writings unveiled to her the meaning of Plato. One idea was to become the guiding principle in Murdochian ethics: that the human soul comes to know reality through love. It is precisely the lack of love – love being seen by Murdoch as a virtue of attention to others – that is dramatised, in a tragicomic literary style, in Murdoch’s novels, and which is deplored as such. Murdoch endeavoured to put the question of goodness, along with its properties of perfection and necessity into her novels: her characters are always subject to a moral conversion. The utmost virtue of good is clear-headedness, no longer turned towards oneself, but towards others, an awareness as an attention virtue. Where Murdoch is ground-breaking is when she establishes this transcendence as ordinary and the ordinary as transcendent. Everyday life is filled with moral significance. She manages to create a profoundly realistic and ordinary metaphysics, breaking with the post-war schema that stated nothing could transcend modern man. Thus, Murdoch gives a spiritual meaning to her novels, which, through the ordeals endured by the characters, highlight the inner face-to-face work between self-obsession and meditation of the real, between will and attention.

Murdoch succeeded in defining literature as the best expression of the human voice. The reading of literary works invites us to a profound transformation of both the ethical subject and object : ethics is not only about discernment, reality and moral validity, but it is the return of (ordinary) attention, at the level of ordinary human life and language. Ethics is transformed by confrontation with literature. Murdoch’s modernity puts her at the core of the contemporary debate about whether language has the ability to carry the weight of particular values. This perspective invites a reshaping of the relationship between ethics and literature, with literature defining a new form of attention to ordinary human life, as an authentic experience which transforms the nature of moral thought.

My research is part of the continuity, renewal and improvement of Franco-British studies on Iris Murdoch to date, in a common literary, philosophical, and ethical movement. My thesis intends to propound a new ethics of attention to language as a singular moral project, which Murdoch intuited in her first writings. This new ethics can only arise in a cross-disciplinary movement that brings together philosophy, literature and ethics. My investigation is intended to be field-based, consisting of study stays in the various sites associated with Murdoch research (thus, the Barbara Stevens Heusel grant will allow me to visit Kingston University’s Iris Murdoch Archive), but also aims to be collective, in close collaboration with researchers who are working, and have worked, to promote the interest of research into Murdoch, to translate her texts, and to carry on the promotion of her philosophical thinking.

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