Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

Feb 14, 2020
Gavin House
1220 E 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
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This luncheon seminar for students and faculty examined essays by Dame Iris Murdoch on literature, philosophy, morality, virtue, and the concept good. The focus of discussion centered on why Murdoch thinks truth, understood as a clear vision of reality, is the fundamental goal of literature, philosophy, and virtue.

Iris Murdoch studied at Oxford and Cambridge (where she studied with Wittgenstein) and was close friends with the philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot. Murdoch was for many years a fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy.  In addition to two substantial books of philosophical essays, she also wrote twenty-six novels.  Her novel, The Sea, The Sea, won the Booker Prize in 1978. She died on February 8, 1999.


From Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, edited by Peter Conradi (Penguin, 1997):

  • “Literature and Philosophy” (required)
  • “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” (secondary)
  • “Vision and Choice in Morality” (secondary) 

Questions for Discussion

  • How does literature differ from philosophy according to Murdoch?  How can they work together?
  • Why does she think that both literature and philosophy are truth seeking enterprises? What is the importance of reality and vision in both?
  • What is the contrast between differences of choice and differences of vision in morality?
  • What is Murdoch’s complaint against what she calls “the current view” of moral philosophy, whose remote ancestors are Hume, Kant, and Mill?  Why does she want to resist the move to universalize in morality?
  • How should we think about the connection between art and morality?
  • What does Murdoch mean when she writes that “the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue”?
  • Murdoch thinks that seeing the world as it is is a necessary task because the authority of morality is the authority of truth.  Why does she afford reality such a central role in the moral life?  And how does this relate to the concept ‘good’ as she understands it?
  • What role does mystery and mysteriousness play in Murdoch’s conception of art and morals?

Dr. Frey also presented talks on "Flannery O'Connor and the Vision of Grace", at the University Club of Chicago on February 13, 2020, and "What Good is Happiness", with Dr. Jonathan Masur, on February 12, 2020, at the University of Chicago.