'A Resolute Reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals', Evgenia Mylonaki and Megan Laverty
1. Intellectual Biography of the Project
a) How we came to meet and begin the project.
We met at a previous Iris Murdoch conference. We both had papers at the conference in 2019. We discovered that we share a mutual love of Murdoch as a philosopher and that there was some kinship and affinity in the themes of our papers, and so we came up with the proposal to read something by Murdoch that is challenging to read on your own. Thus, we set out to read Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals together. We read the book from beginning to end, tackling a chapter at a time, meeting roughly every other week or once a month, depending on what other commitments we had. We're able to do this because it was the time of COVID and everything was on Zoom then.
b) What happened as the project progressed?
Slowly, as we were reading, we came to appreciate that there was a line of argument that unified the text that other Murdoch scholars and moral philosophers had failed to recognise. Indeed, as our reading of the text took shape, we became indignant that Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals had been overlooked by those prominent moral philosophers who acknowledged the influence of Murdoch’s moral philosophy on their thought. The Murdoch scholars who took the book seriously tended to interpret it as a rather difficult reworking of the ideas of the Sovereignty of Good (Broackes, 2018), or as an atypical book whose peculiar style drives its content (Antonaccio, 2018), or as a literary, subliminal experience of philosophical thought (Hämäläinen & Dooley, 2019; Strawson, 1992).
Contrary to these other readings, we became convinced that there is nothing extraordinary about Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals other than its stunning ambition. In keeping with all good philosophy, it poses a serious philosophical problem, outlines how this philosophical problem has been dealt with in the past, and then proposes a new and improved way to deal with it. Before explaining what this problem is, we think it is worthwhile noting some features of the book that may have contributed to its reception.
c) What accounts for the reception of Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals?
In it, we find an accomplished professional philosopher, namely Iris Murdoch, who is doing philosophy to be read not just by her colleagues, but by ordinary individuals, understood as everyday metaphysicians. While philosophically serious yet popular books are a common phenomenon today, it was unprecedented when Murdoch published Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals in the early 1990s.
Murdoch’s commitment to a general audience for the book is reflected in its title – Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals – and one of its organising questions:
The problem about philosophy, and about life, is how to relate large impressive illuminating general conceptions to the mundane (‘messing about’) details of ordinary personal private existence. But can we still use these great images, can they go on helping us? How do the generalizations of philosophers connect with what I am doing in my day-to-day and moment-to-moment pilgrimage, how can metaphysics be a guide to morals? (MGM, 146)
If we read the book using this question as a lens, then Murdoch’s preoccupation with the history of philosophy starts to make sense. What has been seen as her careless readings of Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein and Kant begin to look original, thoughtful, and sustained – definitely more than the 'ramblings of an old lady'. We came to see that Murdoch’s foray into the history of philosophy is an intrinsic part of the point of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.
Another defining commitment of the book is the Platonic thought that individuals are pilgrims. Murdoch thinks of each one of us as defined by our relation to the good: we are either moving towards it or away from it. There is no neutral place from which to stand. Thus, Murdoch views ordinary readers as everyday metaphysicians who can turn to the history of philosophy to be guided toward the good. This effort on the part of individual allows the history of metaphysics to serve, quite literally, as a guidebook for readers. On our reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch views the history of philosophy as something important for us ordinary metaphysicians to read because it can move us toward the good. It does this by engaging us in reflections on metaphysical pictures – those 'impressive illuminating general conceptions' that philosophers have traditionally offered.
2. Our resolute reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals: The question or philosophical problem as identified by Murdoch.
As the months progressed into years, we began to think that we needed to share our resolute reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals in the form of conference presentations. Not only did we want to share our resolute reading, but we wanted to test it.
a) The Religious Tradition in Philosophy.
We argued that central to Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is Murdoch’s thesis that, within the history of philosophy, there is a religious tradition of philosophers committed to protecting what is deep and essential about human life, namely that value exists as having an absolute character. As Murdoch reads them, the philosophers who belong to this tradition – Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein, but also Schopenhauer and Hegel – seek to preserve or protect the necessity and absolute authority of the moral demand. This irreducible absolute is referred to by Murdoch as 'the purity of value' (MGM, 50) or 'the absolute reality of a pure good' (MGM, 57). Convinced of the 'fundamental and ubiquitous reality' of morality or goodness – 'their real world is the moral world' – the philosophers in this tradition are inclined to enclose it within or locate it beyond or outside of a self-contained totality (MGM, 50). The thought is that if morality is not separated from contingency, then it becomes merely optional for us; it risks turning out to be 'epiphenomenal, superficial, just a matter of historically induced conventions or irrational emotions' (MGM, 54).
We read Murdoch as positioning herself within this tradition as a philosopher committed to the protection of absolute value. Contrary to the history of this tradition, she offers an alternative way to protect value without having to inoculate against contingency. To understand Murdoch’s alternative, it is necessary to understand the nature of contingency and why it presents such a threat to value. The first step in that understanding is to appreciate Murdoch’s foundational belief in our one-making intellect.
b) Our one-making intellect.
According to Murdoch, the intellect is one-making (MGM, 1). The mind is naturally inclined to make unities. She writes:
The urge to prove that where we intuit unity there really is unity is a deep emotional motive to philosophy, art, to thinking itself. Intellect is naturally one-making. … We fear plurality, diffusion, senseless accident, chaos, we want to transform what we cannot dominate or understand into something reassuring and familiar, into ordinary being, into history, art, religion, science. (MGM, 1-2).
To establish this truth, she considers, in the first part of the book, philosophy, art, religion and language as significant spheres of human activity that reveal the 'whole-making tendencies of the human mind' (MGM, 8). She thinks that it is this whole-making tendency of the intellect which makes the imagination a useful model for thought.
Murdoch acknowledges the contemporary demythologizing traditions — the debunking of our cherished unities — that characterise modernity. These include anti-Cartesianist behaviorism in epistemology, deterministic structuralism in the study of language, pseudo-scientistic psychoanalysis in the study of the psyche, and finally, the historical determinism of pseudo-scientific Marxism. In opposition to these traditions, Murdoch seeks to 'defend or re-examine the old idea of the self, the truth-seeking individual person, as a moral and spiritual center' (MGM, 265). Without it, she thinks, we may not understand how morality is cognitive (MGM, 265).
d) The Question of Truthfulness.
She also acknowledges that in the spheres of art, religion, language, and philosophy, our whole-making tendencies are vulnerable to falsifying a reality characterised mainly by mortality, contingency, and muddle. We are inclined to take refuge in and console ourselves with falsifying unities (MGM, 8). Thus, the question of truthfulness makes itself strongly felt: we need to resist the inclination to falsify reality in the very act of trying to understand it — that is, in the very act of practising the construction of these picturesque theories, these ‘limited wholes’. The question of truthfulness takes on an urgent moral character once we appreciate that the stakes of truthfulness are the stakes for a historical individual living a life. Murdoch argues that what is a question for philosophy, art, religion, and language is also a question for consciousness: how to make sense of a reality that is subject not merely to the blindness of chance and randomness but also to our attachments to others and the projects of our lives.
e) But what precisely is this contingency and how might it constitute a danger to moral value?
Murdoch talks of contingency in different places throughout Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals and, depending on the context, the concept takes on a different inflection. In one inflection, contingency is in the objects of this world. In Murdoch’s words: 'Anything that happens to exist, and could perhaps not exist, or about whose existence one might speculate as about empirical discoveries, or about which one could state ‘what it would be like’ if it existed'; or about 'a particular thing among other things'. In another inflection, contingency in our own human 'being' or 'condition'. In Murdoch’s own words: 'There is nothing that cannot be broken or taken from us. Ultimately, we are nothing. A reminder of our mortality, a recognition of contingency, must at least make us humble'. In this connection she also speaks of 'our mortality and our limitation, a reminder of contingency' of 'of our frailty, of death and of the vain suffering of the frustrated ego and the emptiness of so many of its worldly desires' and of 'chance and its horrors' Finally, on a third inflection, we find contingency in the trivial details of this world. In this connection, Murdoch speaks of the 'contingent ‘trivial’ detail (insects, leaves, shapes of screwed-up paper, looks and shadows of anything, expressions of faces)'; 'upon love and respect for the contingent details of the world'; and the 'humble extremely contingent scene in the kitchen, a burnt saucepan or massive broken crockery accident'.
Contingency in these inflections poses a threat to value because if the human individual were to relate to moral value as it relates to all the contingent particulars, then moral value would not be everywhere where the human is. In other words, morality would not adhere to the concept of the human because it would be possible for contingent particulars not to exist while the human still did. The everywhereness of value would automatically be at risk. The experience of death and annihilation of the human being magnifies the experience of being nothing and of value being nothing because, if the being of the human is defined as being in the presence of moral value, then the reality of death and annihilation – this inflection of contingency – to which the human being is subject, threatens the human being’s very being. The experience of meaninglessness, dramatised in senseless death, makes it seem as if most of the activities we find meaningful are conditional on the failure to recognise that death is the absolute condition of our being. Death, we might say, coming to the third inflection of contingency, may be seen as rendering any and all human life as no more than a trivial detail – no more important and no deeper than a burnt saucepan or broken crockery. Death, in this picture, puts us outside the human and outside moral value, but it also makes the human and moral value seem trivial and banal.
f) Tragedy and Literature.
The question of truthfulness which is created by our one-making intellect is perhaps best illustrated in the case of tragedy. Tragedy is an art form that seeks to transform the 'extreme horrors' and 'great sufferings' of 'real life' into limited wholes. Good tragedies are rare – perhaps impossible because the sheer formlessness of 'terrible human fates' is radically separate from the meaningful form and beauty of limited wholes. Art that is open to muddle, contingency and death requires that we confront a difficult reality. How to do this without consoling ourselves? Novels more so than literature present us with 'the best model' of this fact. Thus, one of Murdoch’s illustrations of this point is 'Henry James’s elaborate simile of the pagoda which he uses to describe Maggie Verver’s apprehension that all is not well' (MGM, 261). This simile represents Maggie’s moment of reckoning and the tremendousness of the way she risks herself and others by finally coming to terms with a reality that threatens to undermine, if not destroy, her intelligibility as a person, as a friend and as a wife.
According to Murdoch, this is a danger we are all subject to in being just the kinds of historical living beings we are. Our limited wholes — that is, our pictures of our lives with ourselves and others — may be confronted with something like Maggie’s large and elaborate pagoda. No limited whole of ours is safe, and so no life is safe from an encounter with a difficult reality. In the case of consciousness, the quest for truthfulness is shown to be essentially moral. The task of constructing limited wholes that will not falsify reality requires just the sort of courage and justice that Maggie demonstrates in her effort to resist more conventional and comforting stories about what happened to her — betrayal, for example — that would have allowed her to feel better in the face of her loss.
3. Our resolute reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals: Murdoch’s response
a) In her discussion of art, religion and philosophy but also consciousness, Murdoch attempts to show that the best attempts of answering the question of truthfulness in all these spheres are such that they create the experience of a 'limited whole' that 'proclaims its incompleteness and points away' (MGM, 88). It is this 'away' which expresses itself often in the experience of the void that the idea of the good is meant to preserve in Murdoch’s picture (see final chapter, esp. p.506). In the experience of the void, we stand on the verge of language, on the verge of understanding. We intuit something further, something as yet unknown, or as yet wordless.
b) In other words, Murdoch addresses the question of truthfulness by affecting what we call her 'Copernican Turn': Instead of struggling to separate value in a limited whole and then redistribute it back into the world of contingency, Murdoch locates value in contingency itself. According to Murdoch, contingency is humanity’s only medium of transcendence. The good is absolute and real, yet it is only available to us in consciousness. Whereas the religious moral philosophers see the self as the bearer and distributor of the metaphysically separate value into the reality of contingency, Murdoch lets in the contingency of the world into the essence of the bearer of value. She wants to recover a sense of the self – for which she uses the term consciousness or self-being or experience – which retains what is deep and essential about human life (the potential for goodness and badness) while being, not separate from the world of contingency, not a 'limited' whole, but itself contingent.
c) This is a transformed notion of the self as the moment-to-moment consciousness of the individual, with all of its images, feelings, and thoughts, with all its natural lostness and muddle. Murdoch argues that this moment-to-moment consciousness, which is the seat of contingency (we forget, we are distracted, we fantasise, we are broken by power, etc.), is also the true seat of morality (the flow of consciousness is none other than the ongoing placing of oneself between goodness and badness, between appearance and reality).
d) She thinks that the moment-to-moment consciousness is the true seat of morality because it is this consciousness alone which makes room for a notion of truth as correspondence (MGM, 195, 211). That is truthfulness as the aspiration to meet what is there and is, in an important and irreducible sense, other. Such a notion allows Murdoch to retain the true contingency of the world, for it allows her to retain a sense in which 'what we encounter remains free, ambiguous, endlessly contingent, and there', even as we are of course 'constantly conceptualising what confronts us, "making" it into meaning, into language' (MGM, 195).
e) Murdoch is well aware that this transformed notion of the self and truth risks being another limited whole. But this time, there is a difference. The whole that Murdoch makes is what we call, following her, a 'broken whole'. It is a whole which has 'an open texture' (MGM, 95 & 96). Murdoch draws upon the metaphor of a cracked object or broken circle to convey what is meant by this open texture: it is 'where the satisfying calming completeness of art [and religion] is internally contradicted by absolute contingency and humiliation'. She also enlists images of darkness, depth, and difficulty in describing the good to convey that she does not intend for it to serve as a limited whole.
f) Brokenness — understood as the internal contradiction between satisfying completeness and humiliating contingency — is found in exceptionally rare cases of good tragedy and the 'highest seriousness' of comedy (MGM, 92). The comic 'has a built-in factor of disunity, a return to the contingent, an appeal to human experience and common-sense' (MGM, 91); it is 'chaotic and concerned with accidental details and unreflective absurdities' and so lends itself to being used by artists to 'formulate and express the sense of ordinary life' (MGM, 92).
g) To be drawn towards the good is not to be drawn towards a limited whole that essentially exists ‘elsewhere’. Instead, it is to grasp what is there by creating images or wholes that are themselves broken; images that themselves acknowledge that any 'idea' of the good is going to be necessarily partial and incomplete. Broken wholes are incomplete and point away from themselves. They point away from the experience of loss and meaninglessness, into the darkness of that hour as what may, as yet, not be in the light, but as what may thus come to be. Here, in her most spiritual hour, Murdoch contemplates the true bearer of this sort of image-making: 'the energy of the bereaved person trying to survive in the best way, or of the mother thinking about her delinquent son' (MGM, 505). But also 'the energy of the attentive scholar or artist' (MGM, 505).
IV. Implications of our resolute reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
If we are right in our interpretation of Murdoch, then it involves a sea change, for the moral problem itself, for metaphysics, and for the standard reception of Murdoch’s work. We close with a few remarks about each.
a) The moral problem now falls squarely upon the shoulders of the individual. It is individuals – with the help of the philosopher – who must struggle to conceive of the reality they confront in a way that protects its inherently valuative character without falsifying its inexorable contingency.
b) Murdoch saves us from having to choose between a traditional metaphysical picture, on the one hand, or a demythologised, reductive totality on the other. Our characterisation of her moral philosophy makes room for an analysis of goodness as that which preserves truth by ensuring that 'the circle is always broken' (MGM, 88). Thus, Murdoch’s conception of goodness does not enclose us in another 'limited whole' that inadvertently insulates the intellect from contingency; rather, goodness is that which allows wholes to proclaim their incompleteness and point away; what is good in consciousness, art, philosophy, and religion is that which celebrates and meditates 'upon the defeat of the discursive intellect by the [contingent] world' (MGM, 88).
c) If our interpretation holds water, then a range of questions follow for Murdoch’s earlier thought. The concept of experience that Murdoch works with in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals represents a substantial shift from the concept of moral perception found in her earlier writings. Typically, Murdoch’s notion of moral perception has been taken in either of two ways: 1) either akin to the Aristotelian notion of phronesis – the ability to pay attention to the particular and to know occasion by occasion what one’s situation calls for, or 2) or akin to Weil’s notion of attention, which is taken as primitive (Cordner, 2016). In our reading of Murdoch, the concepts of phronesis and attention are merely two of the places in which experience is seen to be morally inflected – the moral work of experiencing is more multidimensional than is suggested by either account. Murdoch’s 'experience' refers to a spectrum ranging from sensitivity to moral salience and attention to particulars to the (morally inflected and artistically creative) image-making that is the condition of the possibility of all phenomenal awareness. It would seem that we need to reconsider Murdoch’s earlier writings, specifically The Sovereignty of Good, to discover whether this richer concept of experience can be found there too (in which case most of the existing interpretations of Murdoch’s thought must be seen to be misguided). If this richer concept of experience cannot be found in Murdoch’s earlier writings, then it may be the case that we have an 'early' and a 'late' Murdoch.
d) The concept of perfection plays a rather different role in our interpretation of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals than the one typically assigned to them in Murdoch’s early work. Typically, Murdoch’s perfectionism is conceived as having to do with the overcoming of such egoistic or selfish desires as envy, impatience, snobbery, and vanity (Cavell, 1990). In our interpretation, however, perfection is more than a matter of moral self-improvement, conventionally understood; becoming good is Murdoch’s unique way of introducing brokenness into the whole-making tendencies of the human mind.
e) Our reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals also raises questions for Platonism: In what sense Plato is a Platonic thinker? Not in the usual sense, is our answer (the usual sense in which the concept of the good is a limited whole lying 'elsewhere' and the concept of love signifies the orientation towards transcendence in this sense and thus away from the randomness and contingency of this world). Plato, and Murdoch along with him, we suggest, is a Platonist in Murdoch’s sense as has been developed in this paper: the sense in which the concept of the good is what breaks the limited wholes by introducing openness into our images and pointing away from them, and the concept of love signifies the orientation of transcendence in this sense and thus back onto the randomness and contingency of this world.
f) On our reading of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, however, Murdoch thinks that it is only in the context of the moral problem and the question of truthfulness – as these both figure contingency – that we come to understand the concept of love and the reasons why we are called to direct a just and loving gaze towards an individual reality. Perhaps, she realised, as a result of the reception of The Sovereignty of Good, that it was a mistake to begin with love. Beginning with love allowed other moral philosophers to absorb her thinking about the good into their understanding of what is morally necessary: we must love others (altruism) to overcome egoism. We suspect that while Murdoch herself talks this way in Sovereignty of Good, by the time she came to write Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she had realised that she needed to begin with the moral problem, in both the history of moral philosophy and in art, religion, and human consciousness, if she was to provide a context for a proper appreciation of her moral philosophy.