Rhode Island, USA
Interest (School teacher)
How did you get into studying Murdoch originally, out of all the philosophers in the world?
Two things. I was lucky enough in my first week of undergrad moral philosophy to be taught by John McDowell, who gave me a reading list, actually two reading lists the length of your arm, one on fact and value, one on reason and desire; and they had five six seven items on each of them, I think, and there was Iris Murdoch in there. But at the time I didn't make an awful lot of sense of her, I have to admit. But years later when I started teaching at Brown, after a while it turned out we had a benefactor there who wanted to put on a conference, and wanted to fund us perhaps for doing something with a broader interest than some of the other things we had previously done; and he said, what about a conference on Iris Murdoch? And since I was the only person in the room at the time we were discussing it who had actually read any Iris Murdoch, I thought absolutely, I should come forward and offer myself. And I ended up learning a huge amount in order to run the conference and then finding that I had to learn many many times over that in order to, well, continue later what I was doing.
Which elements of Murdoch's philosophy do you keep coming back to? What's the focus of your interest?
In many ways what excites me is the breadth of her work; it also excites me that she is remaking philosophy. I mean right from the start she wanted to say 'we have a great tradition but, frankly, looking around, my elders and betters seem to be a bit of a disappointment, and my contemporaries seem a bit of a disappointment, and I really want to say, can't we do the whole thing better and more ambitiously?' - and I have to say I think she proved that we could do the whole thing better and more ambitiously, and, you know, she did it. It seems to me she changed the subject, and in many ways it's because she did so many things within the subject that she was able to change it in the ways that she did.
So you've done a bunch of stuff on Weil in Murdoch; you're a relative rarity in reading Weil in her own right in a kind of substantial way, bringing that in to Murdoch. How did you get into Weil?
Goodness. I'm the kind of person who doesn't like being given a potted version of somebody else's thoughts. I did--as an undergraduate I had to do--a certain amount of history of philosophy, but what really got me excited in working the history of philosophy was teaching Hume to undergraduates when I had just done the BPhil, and I was put on to teach this, but I had never been taught Hume by anybody before. Nobody had told me how I ought to read him, nobody had told me what I ought to think, and I had a wonderful time. I would spend four days of the week learning about Hume, I mean reading Hume, reading commentators on Hume; and then a fifth day of the week teaching Hume, three tutorials in the morning, three tutorials in the afternoon. And by the time I'd argued my way through all of that, I felt, well, I'm beginning to get better at that little section: time to start next week's work; and that repeated itself. So, you know, as I got to know in later philosophical life, I found I needed to get to know Plato and again I started reading Plato without finding anybody in particular who told me how to approach him. When it came to Simone Weil I just thought well, I'll read Simone Weil.
I didn't know where to start so I just thought, I'll go very slowly through what it is that she's written. My first introduction to Simone Weil was what Murdoch made me think of Simone Weil, but then I thought, get Gravity and Grace, get Waiting on God and I just sort of worked through them, then worked through a chunk of the Notebooks. Some of that I was doing actually in the Murdoch personal copies of them, with the two volume notebooks I actually - I'd read some of them independently but then I went to Kingston and I worked my way through the original Murdoch copies.
That sounds like a good time.
How would you say Murdoch's influenced you as a thinker, as a philosopher?
Some of the influence that comes from Murdoch I had undergone already through the work of John McDowell. John McDowell was one of my first teachers of philosophy and it was through the way he presented the possibility of a form of moral realism that I actually became much convinced by the position and the opportunities of that position. But then reading Murdoch was, well it seems to me every time I do it, a mind-expanding experience. She's very reflective on the nature of philosophical work; she places herself in relation to a huge tradition; I'm constantly impressed by the sense that she is pushing at the frontiers of the subject. She constantly makes me think that if you're trying to do philosophy properly, there’s not much point in trying to do only a little of it. She's a very exciting, ambitious person, and to attempt in any way to keep up with her is to be challenged to work very hard.
[laughing] Yes - Lucy Bolton also mentioned her work ethic, responding to that question - the Murdoch work ethic, absorbing everything -
Oh my goodness yes she worked hard. She worked extraordinarily hard, you know, there is a line in the letter from one of her tutors, when she applied to St Anne's for her job teaching philosophy and Latin. And she said - the letter is comparing Mary Midgley with Iris Murdoch, but it describes at a certain point Iris Murdoch as one who, at the time when she was unable to take up her scholarship to go to America, as a graduate student, she just sat down and worked at philosophy by herself. And the impression from the letters is she just decides, you know, I'll work on Kant for a few months, I'll work on Hegel for a few months; you know, she finds big things and she works steadily and hard at them.
You've mentioned John McDowell a couple of times - this is a question partly out of my own personal interest - to what extent do you think McDowell is a Murdochian?
OK - McDowell worked - though Murdoch covers a huge amount of philosophy there’s a lot of McDowells' philosophy that is outside the areas where she had any developed views. McDowell's stuff on Fregean philosophy of language has no real analogue in Murdoch, but his interest in Hegel for example, and a certain kind of ordinary realism that you can find in Hegel, actually answers very closely the understanding that Murdoch had of Hegel, and the fact that Murdoch was looking to Hegel for a good way to escape some of the mistakes found in other kinds of philosophy. I think it finds a response, it finds an echo in McDowell's searching for much of the same stuff. I don't think that all the time in the areas where they overlap--I'm in no position to say that McDowell thinks those things as a follower of Murdoch--but it does strike me--he himself has said--he was deeply, pervasively influenced by her. Yet I would say, so to speak, what he made of her isn’t something that just anybody could have made of her, it sees to me to be an extraordinary creative task. It also achieved something that many other people wouldn't have done: I think in many ways Murdoch, as she first presented her stuff, presents it in a way a lot of the analytic community didn’t know how to engage with, didn’t know how to use it. And when McDowell developed that stuff in new ways, he managed to present it in ways that were challenging and mind-stretching for people in the Oxford tradition and in related traditions, but without so to speak losing his audience which sometimes one might fear Murdoch ended up partly doing.
Do you have anything else you want on record? This, you know, this will be on a website where people who are navigating between the quartet members will go, ah, who should I talk to if I'm interested in this or that thing; is there anything you'd like to shout out to them about Murdoch?
I'd say, be prepared to take a bit of time over it. It took me a long time before she entirely made sense, I mean that is I was reading The Sovereignty of Good, and I was thinking, yeah I sort of understand; but I couldn't quite see all of the point of it, or where it was going, or exactly what in this paragraph constituted the crucial core of argument and what instead was a sort of ancillary point here or point there.
And I'd just say keep going at at! Because when I finally thought—and it happened over and over again—now I know what's going on here, I thought to myself, oh, could she have said it more easily? No. She said it quite directly, quite straightforwardly, and I thought to myself, why did I find it so hard to see?
Do you have any thoughts on why it's so hard to see?
The crude answer would be bad upbringing. If you're stuck with enough misconceptions then it's hard to see a clear-eyed perception as being the right thing. But I think that's a little too easy. To be honest, I believe that it will be useful for some people to have a commentary as a kind of guide, rephrasing, reworking of her thought; and that's why I've written the commentary I have done on The Sovereignty of Good. It took me ages. I mean day after day I would just read Murdoch and say to myself: what is going on here? Why exactly is she talking about Kafka's fight with the devil that ends up in bed? What's she got in mind? And then I'd go off and read Kafka, and I'd try to give an answer. And then I'd do the next paragraph and there'd be some more things there. You know, there are things where you can write down what it's doing and it wouldn’t have been obvious without the help of a guide, or a couple of days of research on your own.