Iris Murdoch's Philosophical Methodology, 1950–1961: Philosophy on the Borders of Literature and Politics

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Jamieson, Lesley
philosophy , aesthetics , philosophy of mind , history of philosophy , philosophical methodology , moral psychology , metaphysics , the new left
In this dissertation I argue that Iris Murdoch’s 1950 to 1961 writings exemplify a distinctive philosophical methodology characterized by literary and metaphysical argumentative strategies, public audience, and practical (moral, political, and cultural) aims. Important features of this methodology are only visible when we read her early essays in their historical context, i.e., as responses to dominant philosophical outlooks like behaviourism and prescriptivism and to wider political and cultural trends that she identifies such as the decline of visionary socialist theory and the waning of interest in socialism in postwar Britain. I defend a periodization of her bibliography, treating her writings from the first decade of her career as a standalone period unified by a set of practical concerns rather than, e.g., a preliminary stage of an evolutionary narrative. Furthermore, rather than treating her distinctive use of metaphors, analogies, and other literary techniques as ancillary to her philosophical methods, I investigate how these techniques contribute to her overall argumentative strategy. After defending these decisions, I identify the methods and aims that recur throughout Murdoch’s writings on mind, aesthetics, morals, and politics. First, I argue that her writings pay naïve attention to familiar human practices to disclose the conceptual shortcomings of dominant philosophical outlooks, including behaviourism, Kantian aesthetics, existentialism, and prescriptivism. Second, I argue that she supplements these conceptual deprivations by introducing imagery that represents the metaphysical background and ideals of our practices as well as the barriers that make them difficult for us to achieve. Finally, I argue that Murdoch views these practices as mutable rather than as necessary features of human life and that she in fact worries about their continued health in postwar Britain. A unique vision of philosophy emerges from this analysis. I reveal its strengths by comparing it to Alice Crary’s argumentative strategies in Inside Ethics (2016) and thereby demonstrate that it provides us with an illuminating critical perspective from which to question how contemporary philosophers conceive of the audience and aims of metaphysics and public philosophy.
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