Connection

Nora Hämäläinen

Current location

University of Pardubice, Pardubice

Interest (School teacher)

Iris Murdoch

Research

I first encountered Iris Murdoch’s work sometime around 2004 or 2005, while writing my Ph.D. on the role ethics and literature at the University of Helsinki. I had previously read the work of Martha Nussbaum on this topic and one of my teachers pointed me to the writings about literature of Wittgensteinian moral philosophers like Peter Winch, Cora Diamond, Raimond Gaita and Stanley Cavell. (At this point I recovered, from a pile of books on the way to recycling, a copy of Cora Diamond’s The Realistic Spirit which I had purchased and discarded as irrelevant or perhaps too difficult.) I do not remember exactly how Murdoch came into the picture. 

There were two older and more advanced doctoral students, Floora Ruokonen and Anu Kuusela, at the department who were working on Murdoch: they must have had a role in this encounter. In any case I did, over a short period of time, read the bulk of her philosophical work, along with some of her novels. 

A young single parent of a child of four, I was obsessed by questions of time management and the necessity of combining work and pleasure in the limited hours that were at my disposal. Thus, I was thrilled by the prospect of being able to read novels as a legitimate part of my doctoral work, and Murdoch seemed to fit the bill perfectly. There was however no instant love affair with her novels. While her philosophical work, difficult at first, quickly grew on me, her novels remained external to what I thought was important and interesting in her work: her adamant continuous work of the nature of morality and the roles of moral philosophy. 

My dissertation came in the end to be about how some philosophers of the late 20th century – Nussbaum, the Wittgensteinians and Murdoch alike – used narrative literature as a vehicle for rethinking what 20th-century moral philosophy had become. This work is available in the book Literature and Moral Theory, which was somewhat belatedly published by Bloomsbury in 2015. There is the chapter on Murdoch in that book, but the chapter gives a limited understanding of the role of Murdoch in the book as a whole. 

It seems to me that all my academic writings have inherited an orientation, more or less overt, from her: toward thinking about the complex, convoluted, idiosyncratic and yet communal and historically changing moral worlds of people in their everyday lives; towards thinking about the metaphors people live by and the conceptual resources and images available to them; towards the dialectic between individuality and collective renegotiation of values; towards the nature of moral experience; towards the interplay of morality and faith, spirituality, religion. 

My subsequent short book, titled Descriptive Ethics: What does Moral Philosophy Know about Morality is thoroughly Murdochian in this sense, although Murdoch is referenced only in passing. It is about the difficulty, in academic moral philosophy, of getting our lived moral world into view. Part of the difficulty, described in this latter book, is that philosopher often, when venturing into academic work, sever their ties to the various kinds of ordinary thinking and reading that they engage in at other hours. Philosophy is pursued as a technical or professional task, rather than a holistic intellectual endeavor. Of course, there are important exceptions to this: feminist philosophy being perhaps a case in point. But I think most aspiring and professional philosophers know the pressure of the trade. A kind of stupid, diligent technical smartness is professionally profitable, at least at the early steps of an academic career, while attention to the muddles of human life causes delays and generates texts that may be hard to publish. Faced with such dilemmas it can be useful to ask: what would Murdoch have done? She insisted on the muddles, and on also on the possibility to write clearly and explicitly about what is complex and elusive. In this, I think, she is exemplary.

Publications

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