My rating: 91/100
See Book Notes for other books I have read. If you like my notes, go buy it!
High level overview: Iris Murdoch argues that contemporary philosophy has replaced love and virtue ethics with less effective concepts of freedom and authenticity that express themselves in self-assertion. The way to achieve this is to have objects of contemplation (art, the concept of God, nature, virtuous people, etc.) that can help us reframe our situation and give us a new kind of energy in a different direction than our common parasitic processing.
I heard of this book from John Vervaeke, who praised it highly stating if you read ten books in your life then this should be one of them. I was skeptical after the first chapter, which is very long, since Murdoch seemed overly philosophic and unnecessarily esoteric. But the last two chapters really delivered some good content.
- Knowledge is a function of the will. (Not an object of knowledge or insight, or part of the world)
- We ought to know what we are doing. (We should aim at total knowledge of our situation and it’s possibilities. Intention must be directed toward definite overt issues or else they are merely day-dream.)
- There is a void in present-day philosophy that can be mended by creating a moral philosophy connected with virtue, and the concept of love made central.
- Moral philosophy is undefended against an irresponsible kind of self-assertion that is often hand in hand with pseudo-scientific determinism. Thus, will takes the place of virtue.
- God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention; and suggest that moral philosophy retain a central concept which has all these characteristics.
- Consider how silly it sounds to “will” oneself out of jealousy. It is not possible. What is needed is instead are new objects of attention and a new kind of energy found by reframing the problem. This energy can be found by diverting ones attention to virtuous people, great art, nature, and the idea of goodness itself.
- The greatest art is ‘impersonal’ because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.
- Good art invigorates our best faculties and inspires love in the the highest part of the soul.
- Goodness is connected with the acceptance of real death and real chance and real transience.
- The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are.
Chapter 1 The Idea of Perfection
An unexamined life can be virtuous … love is a central concept in morals.
We would like to know what, as moral agents, we have got to do because of (1) logic, what we have got to do because of (2) human nature, and what we can (3) choose to do.
G.E. Moore – George Edward Moore – 1873-1958 – English; with Russell, L. Wittgenstein, and G. Frege was among the founders of analytic philosophy.
Goodness and beauty are not analogous but sharply contrasting ideas. Good must be through of, not as part of the world, but as a movable label affixed to the world. … it is the tool of every rational man. Goodness is not an object of insight or knowledge, it is a function of the will.
Sir Stuart Newton Hampshire – 1914-2004 – English antirationalist
The definiteness of any thought process depends upon ‘the possibility of [its] being recognized, scrutinized, and identified by observers from different points of view; this possibility is essential to any definite reality. My note: conspiracy theories do not pass this test.
palimpsest – something that has a new layer, aspect, or appearance that builds on its past and allows us to see or perceive parts of this past.
Hampshire says ‘all problems meet in intention’, he utters in relation to intention the only explicit ‘ought’ in his psychology. We ought to know what we are doing. We should aim at total knowledge of our situation and a clear conceptualization of all our possibilities. Thought and intention must be directed toward definite overt issues or else they are merely day-dream. … Mental life is, and logically must be, a shadow of life in public.
pg 16 Murdoch offers an example of Mother “M” hostile toward her daughter-in-law “D”. This example was referenced by John Vervaeke in his lecture series Awakening From the Meaning Crisis. To summarize, the mother is hostile toward her daughter-in-law and feels she is inferior for her son, but through self-criticism and reflection reframes the daughter-in-law not as vulgar and juvenile, but rather as spontaneous and delightfully youthful.
ex hypothesi – by hypothesis; according to the assumptions
bumptious – offensively self assertive
We do not simply, through being rational and knowing ordinary language ‘know’ the meaning of all necessary moral words. We may have to learn the meaning.
Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by.
Simone Weil – ‘will is obedience no resolution’
au fond – at bottom
Good is indefinable … because of the infinite difficult of the task of apprehending a magnetic but inexhaustible reality. Moore was in a way nearer the truth that he realized when he tried to say both that Good was there and that one could say nothing of what it essentially was.
We may sometimes decide to act abstractly by rule, to ignore vision and the compulsive energy derived from it; and we may find that as a result both energy and vision are unexpectedly given. To decide when to attempt such leaps is one of the most difficult of moral problems. But if we do leap ahead of what we know we still have to try to catch up. Will cannot run very far ahead of knowledge, and attention is our daily bread.
I have argued, in no position to coerce morality, there seems no reason why philosophers should not go on attempting to fill in a systematic explanatory background to our ordinary moral life. Hampshire said that ‘it is the constructive task of the philosophy of mind to provide a set of terms in which ultimate judgements of value can be very clearly stated.’
Chapter 2 On ‘God’ and ‘Good’
It seems that there is a void in present-day moral philosophy. … A working philosophical psychology is needed which can at least attempt to connect modern psychological terminology with a terminology concerned with virtue. … We need a moral philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely mentioned now by philosophers, can once again be made central.
I argue that existentialism is not the philosophy we need.
Moral philosophy, and indeed morals, are thus undefended against an irresponsible and undirected self-assertion which goes easily hand in hand with some brand of pseudo-scientific determinism. … Will takes the place of the complex of motives and also of the complex of virtues.
My thoughts: I think this paragraph above makes an extremely important point that requires further reflection and thought. I think perhaps a real-world example of this principle is the battle that often happens between corporations and the environmentalists. The corporations most often have the backing of science and industrial efficiency ( studies with math and charts!) to support their claims to continue their operations. They are not using virtue and love as a backing for their organization, and thus when a decision arises to dump toxic waste into the water stream – they find it most economical to dump it quietly than spend extra money to clean it up and dispose of it the hard way. It is not until they are forced by the government (through environmentalist activism) that they clean up their act. This is not a virtue-based company, it is not a love-based company.
The merits of linguistic analytical man are freedom (in the sense of detachment, rationality), responsibility, self-awareness, sincerity, and a lot of utilitarian common sense. There is of course no mention of sin, and no mention of love.
Freud … presents us with a realistic and detailed picture of the fallen man. … Freud takes a thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature.
Oxford philosophy has developed no serious theory of motivation. The agent’s freedom, indeed his moral quality, resides in his choices, and yet we are not told what prepares him for the choices.
What we really are seems much more like an obscure system of energy out of which choices and visible acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the system in between the moments of choice. PP If this is so, one of the main problems of moral philosophy might be formulated thus: are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?
Prayer is but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace … What is this attention like, and can those who are not religious believers still conceive of profiting by such an activity? … I shall suggest that God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention; and I shall go on to suggest that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics.
Consider the attempt to check being in love, and the need in such a case of another object to attend to. Where strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment, or jealousy are concerned, ‘pure will’ can usually achieve little. It is small use telling oneself ‘Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just.’ What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source. … Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing. … It is also a psychological fact, and one of importance to moral philosophy, that we can all receive moral help by focusing our attention upon things which are valuable: virtuous people, great art, perhaps (I will discuss this later) the idea of goodness itself.
It is a shortcoming of much contemporary moral philosophy that it eschews discussion of the separate virtues, preferring to proceed directly to some sovereign concept such as sincerity, or authenticity, or freedom, thereby imposing, it seems to me, an unexamined and empty idea of unity, and impoverishing our moral language in an important area. (my note: I think Murdoch is taking a stab at Sartre)
Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need on to an empty sky?
One might start from the assertion that morality, goodness, is a form of realism. The idea of a really good man living in a private dream world seems unacceptable. … The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy.
We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen that in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.
We can see beauty itself in a way in which we cannot see goodness itself. (Plato says this at Phaedrus 250E.) I can experience the transcendence of the beautiful, but (I think) not the transcendence of the good.
The greatest art is ‘impersonal’ because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.
I would suggest that the authority of the Good seems to us something necessary because the realism (ability to perceive reality) required for goodness is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self. The necessity of the good is then an aspect of the kind of necessity involved in any technique for exhibiting fact. … True vision occasions right conduct.
My note: I think suppression is not the right word here. The greatest forms of art reveal truth within ourselves that we have not yet fully perceived.
Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action. It is what lies behind and in between actions and prompts them that is important, and it is this area which should be purified. By the time the moment has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.
I have spoken of the real which is the proper object of love, and of knowledge which is freedom.
The idea of contemplation is hard to understand and maintain in a world increasingly without sacraments and ritual and in which philosophy has (in many respects rightly) destroyed the old substantial conception of the self. A sacrament provides an external place for an internal invisible act of the spirit.
Good, not will is transcendent.
What should be aimed at is goodness, and not freedom or right action, although right action, and freedom in the sense of humility, are the natural products of attention to the Good.
The Good has nothing to do with purpose, indeed it excludes the idea of purpose.
If one does not believe in a personal God there is no ‘problem’ of evil, but there is the almost insuperable difficulty of looking properly at evil and human suffering. It is very difficult to concentrate attention upon suffering and sin, in others or in oneself, without falsifying the picture in some way while making it bearable.
Morality has always been connected with religion and religion with mysticism. The disappearance of the middle term leaves morality in a situation which is certainly more difficult but essentially the same.
Chapter 3 The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts
The centre of this type of post-Kantian moral philosophy is the notion of the will as the creator of value. Values which were previously in some sense inscribed in the heavens and guaranteed by God collapse into the human will. There is no transcendent reality.
Religion normally emphasizes states of mind as well as actions, and regards states of mind as the genetic background of action: pureness of heart, meekness of spirit. Religion provides devices for the purification of states of mind.
Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue. PP Following a hint in Plato (Phaedrus 250) I shall start by speaking of what is perhaps the most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’, and that is what is popularly called beauty.
I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
A self directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees. ‘Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical.
Plato pointed out, beauty is the only spiritual things which we love by instinct.
A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy.
Art, I mean good art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.
However, human life is chancy and incomplete.
Or if there is any consolation it is the austere consolation of a beauty which teaches that nothing in life is of any value except the attempt to be virtuous. Masochism is the artist’s greatest and most subtle enemy. It is not easy to portray death, real death, not fake prettified death. … The great deaths of literature are few, but they show us with an exemplary clarity the way in which art invigorates us by identification of pointlessness and value. … All is vanity.
τέχνη – tekhne – craft; practice; making or doing, as contrasted with episteme or knowing.
The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair.
It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
‘Good is a transcendent reality’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
Plato’s image implies that complete unity is not seen until one has reached the summit, but moral advance carries with it intuitions of unity which are increasingly less misleading. As we deepen our notions of the virtues we introduce relationship and hierarchy. Courage, which seemed at first to be something on its own, a sort of specialized daring of the spirit, is now seen to be a particular operation of wisdom and love.
Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.
Plato … speaks of a descending as well as an ascending dialectic and he speaks of a return to the cave.
A serious scholar has great merits. But a serious scholar who is also a good man knows not only his subject but the proper place of his subject in the whole of his life.
The ordinary person does not, unless corrupted by philosophy, believe that he creates values by his choices. He thinks that some things really are better than others and that he is capable of getting is wrong.
Asking what Good is is not like asking what Truth is or what Courage is … if we try to define Good as X we have to add that we mean of course a good X.
A genuine mysteriousness attaches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects. The indefinability of Good is connected with the unsystematic and inexhaustible variety of the world and the pointlessness of virtue.
Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define good but we would not understand the definition.
I think there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people: an attention which is not just the planning of particular good actions but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt of virtue. This attempt, which is a turning of attention away from the particular, may be the things what helps most when difficulties seem insoluble, and especially when feelings of guilt keep attracting the gaze back towards the self. This is the true mysticism which is morality, a kind of undogmatic prayer which is real and important, though perhaps also difficult and easily corrupted.
Goodness is connected with the acceptance of real death and real chance and real transience and only against the background of this acceptance, which is psychologically so difficult, can we understand the full extent of what virtue is like.
Humility is a rare virtue and an unfashionable one which is often hard to discern.
The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are. He sees the pointlessness of virtue and its unique value and the endless extent of its demand.