Forthcoming in Iris Murdoch, Philosopher

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Forthcoming in Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, edited by Justin Broackes (Oxford, 2008)

Iris Murdoch and Existentialism

It is not unusual for even the very greatest polemics to proceed through some unfairness toward what they attack, indeed to draw strength from the very distortions which they impose upon their targets. In the same way that a good caricature of a person’s face enables us to see something that we feel was genuinely there to be seen all along, a conviction that persists in the face of, and may indeed be sustained by, our ongoing sense of the discrepancy between the picture and the reality. Some such distortion may be necessary in order to point to or make visible a feature that is perfectly present, but is obscured by the mass of other details. In the case of ideas and systems of thought there is an additional reason for a positive concern with distortion, and that is that we do not encounter ideas in a social or intellectual void. Rather, they come to us through their admirers, detractors, followers and opponents. The social and intellectual reception and dissemination of Plato, or Marx, or the Bible are now and forever part of the meaning of those texts, and this remains true however demonstrable it may be that their reception involves a large distortion of what is actually there in those texts. To concern oneself with them must also be to concern oneself with what both their advocates and opponents have made of them, and in this or that context this image may be of greater social and intellectual importance than the question of strictly ‘correct’ readings.

And of course for no contemporary school of philosophy has the social and cultural milieu of its reception been more important to its identity as a trend of thought than in the case of Existentialism, particularly in its French, Sartrean form. Today, of course, it has been a fact of intellectual life within the Academy for over 30 years that Existentialism has no friends, and is probably even more fully dead on the Continent these days than it ever was within the Anglo-Saxon establishment. And even when figures like Nietzsche or Heidegger are given respectful philosophical attention today, it seems a requirement of such attention that we first be told that this interest is sharply divorced from any association with Existentialism as such. (I can’t speak for the situation in Europe, but in the USA anyway a peculiar feature of the institutional oblivion of Existentialism within professional philosophy is that this has not made any difference to its hold on the imagination of youth during that same 30 years. For some, such a fact will only serve to confirm it oblivion.) Iris Murdoch encountered Sartre’s Existentialism at the height of its cultural fashion and influence, and as one of its first and most important expositors in English, she played a crucial role in bringing these ideas out of the realm of posture and fashion and into the realm of serious thought. And much of her later thought involved a self-conscious distancing of herself from these beginnings, culminating in the sustained criticism of Existentialism contained in The Sovereignty of Good.

I hope it will be understood as a form of praise if I characterize Iris Murdoch’s book The Sovereignty of Good as a polemic. It is a passionate rejection of an entire climate of opinion and a deep-seated conception of the practice of philosophy in general and of moral philosophy in particular. But what is rejected there is more than a particular way of conducting a certain form of scholarly business, or a particular conception of the subject-matter. Rather, in Sovereignty she is rejecting a conception of ourselves which can be found in movies, popular songs, and forms of romantic life as much as in works of philosophy. It exists as a style and an attitude much more than simply a theory. What is Murdoch’s target here, then?

It is an idea of the person which emphasizes his status as an agent, one who deliberates, chooses, and acts. It is a picture that emphasizes sincerity and purity of motive, but which also, curiously, has no real place for the ‘inner life’, in that the meaning and moral importance of what we do is restricted to the overt, publicly observable act. It denies the existence of genuine objective value but endows the person with the super-human ability to invest features of the world with value, by the simple exertion of his arbitrary and unconstrained will.

This presents us with a familiar image of ‘Existentialist Man’, and no one will have a livelier appreciation than Murdoch herself of how much caricature is involved in this picture. In her hands the caricature is hardly born of a superficial acquaintance with the texts in question.1 Rather, in Sovereignty and elsewhere the caricature has a positive philosophical point, and a complex one. For she wants to examine living ideas in their actual social and intellectual setting, and to look at how such ideas function in the life and culture of actual human beings. For this purpose the caricature itself is a genuine datum, of just as serious a claim on our philosophical attention as the actual texts of Concluding Unscientific Postscript or Being and Nothingness. At the time she wrote Sovereignty (roughly 1964-1970) ‘existentialism’ still survived as a cultural phenomenon, a style of life and literature, and a political stance. Her concern here is not exclusively, or even centrally, with a doctrine existing in books. And if the caricature itself has had its attractions for otherwise thoughtful people, then it will be worth the philosopher’s trouble to investigate and criticize the sources of that attraction.

A further reason for choosing this simplified and exaggerated figure as her target is that she is interested in how certain ideas with an Existentialist pedigree combine with a conception of moral discourse from a very different tradition of philosophy -- British analytic empiricism -- to produce an unstable but still pervasive model for moral thinking that is not only mistaken, but which functions to make it difficult to so much as imagine an alternative to it.2 Even for those who disagree with her conclusions, or even resist the entire drift of her thought, the great reason for gratitude to The Sovereignty of Good and related essays (esp. ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’ (1956)) is their resoluteness about breaking the grip of such restrictions on our thinking, and expanding the field of the philosophically imaginable. But at the same time, I want to argue that, in addition to the polemical point there is in Murdoch’s very broad-brush approach to the traditions of thought she characterizes as ‘Existentialist’, especially in their social setting, the distortions she imposes on this thought ill-serve the presentation of her own thinking, and indeed may prevent the deeper reception of what is most worth attending to in Murdoch’s own thought.

A familiar story we are told about Murdoch’s intellectual development is that, while she was one of the first and best interpreters of (Sartrean) Existentialism in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, she soon came to see through its political and intellectual barrenness, finding her way to a deeper engagement with the more contemplative ideals of Plato and Simone Weil (among others).3 The encounter with Sartre was a youthful indiscretion, or an adventure we can admire and even learn from, but a decidedly wrong turn nonetheless. I think this story is wrong about Existentialism and misleading about the direction and content of Murdoch’s thinking. To the contrary, I would argue that we reach a better appreciation of many of the distinctive features of her thought about action, vision, and the ideals of life by seeing them as responses to and creative elaborations of characteristic Existentialist ideas. This is not a matter of either denying her originality or of simply dragging a philosopher back to her sources. Instead, I want to suggest that the broad cultural repudiation of Existentialism since the ‘seventies, dismissing it for its faddishness and doing so on the basis of no more than a faddish acquaintance with its texts, stands between us and a deeper understanding of Murdoch’s own thought. Downplaying this inheritance prevents us from appreciating just what kind of philosophical work is being done by the characteristically Murdochian emphasis on such themes as the sheer pervasiveness of morality in life, the rejection of the atomistic picture of actions as particulars, the metaphor of vision itself and the idea of struggle in connection with seeing clearly, the centrality of emotion and attention, and the neglect of these cognitive attitudes in contemporary moral philosophy, the emergence from the drag of solipsism and egoism, and the moral activity of thinking itself.

Naturally any such reading as I am proposing will have to deal with the various more or less explicit statements of repudiation in the text of Murdoch’s work. The essay ‘Of ‘God’ and ‘Good’‘ (part 2 of The Sovereignty of Good) opens with the announcement “I shall argue that existentialism is not, and cannot by tinkering be made, the philosophy we need.” (46) What Murdoch herself does with Existentialism can certainly not be described as ‘tinkering’, and of course nor can it be seen as anything like adoption. What she plainly does is criticize it, searchingly and severely, but at the same time as she represses the words of Existentialist philosophers themselves, along with her own debt to them, and substitutes a very different creation in their place. As mentioned earlier, Murdoch’s target in both Sovereignty and the early essay ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’ (1956) is something of an amalgamation, and not restricted to Existentialism per se. For she is interested in an image of the moral situation of the person which settles at the intersection of several currents of thought, three currents in particular:

“The very powerful image with which we are here presented is behaviourist, existentialist, and utilitarian in a sense which unites these three conceptions. It is behaviorist in its connection of the meaning and being of action with the publicly observable, it is existentialist in its elimination of the substantial self and its emphasis on the solitary omnipotent will, and it is utilitarian in its assumption that morality is and can only be concerned with public acts.” (pp. 8-9)4

In part, the justification for this amalgamation lies in the legitimate interest in the reception of Existentialism within a certain familiar intellectual milieu, one which combines these diverse streams of thought. And this same interest may in part justify the relative neglect in Sovereignty of citation from any of the actual texts associated with Existentialism. For certain purposes our philosophical interest may well be in something ‘existentialist-sounding’ rather than anything actually defended by Sartre, Kierkegaard or others. But there are obvious dangers in this ‘assimilating’ approach nonetheless. For of course, to take one example, the existentialists themselves are anything but behaviorist, either in their understanding of consciousness or their conception of the meaning of human action, nor could any of them be understood as utilitarians, even in the very restricted sense given by Murdoch above. The danger here is not really one of misrepresentation of these thinkers, since it is reasonable to hope that no one would actually be misled so as to ascribe such positions to Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or Heidegger, but rather that we fail to see that in criticizing this or that element of this combined image, Murdoch is resourcefully deploying several of the defining insights of certain Existentialists themselves. Or so I hope to show.

Let me give more detail to the picture Murdoch is opposing. In ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, the distillation of this combined image is referred to as the “choice and argument” model of moral discourse (‘Vision’. p. 81)5
“On this view, the moral life of the individual is a series of overt choices which take place in a series of specifiable situations.” (‘Vision’, p. 77)
These overt choices are where all the moral action takes place. Some action or other is required of us, and we need to know which way to go. We weigh up the relevant facts as best we can, but since no set of mere facts can themselves entail a moral or otherwise evaluative conclusion, the aftermath of this weighing procedure can only be an exercise of pure, unconstrained Freedom. For all the facts together leave the question of value wide open. Goodness itself, being openly and unapologetically evaluative, cannot be an object of knowledge or contemplation on this view, since it is not to be found anywhere among the facts. So although deliberation concerns itself exclusively with the facts, and deliberation is undertaken only in order to determine one’s choice, the choice itself must ultimately hang free of this deliberation. This may seem puzzling for the agent, and it should seem so. For if deliberation still leaves the question raised as open as before, why should anyone bother with deliberating about the question in the first place? This picture makes deliberation seem pointless for the agent. But this conclusion is thought to be the only way both to avoid a troublesome metaphysics of value, and to secure the complete freedom and responsibility of the moral agent. In criticizing this picture of the situation of choice, Murdoch makes one of her best deflating characterizations of the general ‘choice and argument’ model:

“On this view one might say that morality is assimilated to a visit to a shop. I enter the shop in a condition of totally responsible freedom, I objectively estimate the features of the goods, and I choose.” (‘Vision’, p. 8)

So, the moral consumer picks and chooses among possible acts or values, unconstrained by anything in ‘the facts’ themselves, and the moral import or meaning of this transaction is exhausted by the question of what ends up in the shopping cart, the cashier at the check-out counter having no concern with whatever ‘private goings-on’ may have preceded this selection. As Murdoch goes on to say, “Both as act and reason, shopping is public. Will does not bear upon reason, so the ‘inner life’ is not to be thought of as a moral sphere.” (‘Vision’, p. 8)

In this way the ‘choice and argument’ model simultaneously inflates the human will to super-human proportions, while also leaving the inner life entirely out of the moral equation. And the role of thinking in guiding or influencing choice becomes quite mysterious since on this view there is no possibility of a cognitive or contemplative relation to good and bad, those words having been stripped of any descriptive or factual meaning (which is all that proper thinking has to work on). And this in turn means that at the moment of selection the choosing will is isolated from the world, including whatever of the flesh and blood person belongs to the world, for the world is the world of the facts, and we’ve already seen how the will defines itself by its independence from them.

At this point, Murdoch asks, “If we are so strangely separate from the world at moments of choice are we really choosing at all, are we right indeed to identify ourselves with this giddy empty will?” (‘Sovereignty, p. 36). And indeed, the difficulties in seeing ourselves in this disorienting picture of our freedom can lead to a skepticism about the coherence of the idea of any freedom at all. We oscillate then between the idea of an arbitrary unhinged will and an idea of complete determinism or fatalism. It is at this point that Murdoch introduces her substitution of a contrary ideal, the ideal of attention.

“Do we really have to choose between an image of total freedom and an image of total determinism? Can we not give a more balanced and illuminating account of the matter? I suggest we can if we simply introduce into the picture the idea of attention, or looking, of which I was speaking above. I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort.” (pp. 36-7)

The contrary ideal is presented as rejecting the identification of morality with the realm of action, and insistence on other moral values which the ‘choice and argument’ model threatens not simply to downplay, but to make altogether “non-expressible” (p. 2). The metaphor of vision which she goes on to develop in her celebrated example of the woman’s change of view about her daughter-in-law is intended to give substance to this more ‘contemplative’ ‘vision-oriented’ ideal, specifically with respect to the idea that the Good itself can be pictured not as a matter of one’s simple choosing, but as the object of genuine apprehension of something real outside oneself. Contrary to the tradition she is attacking, value and the good are in truth genuine qualities we seek contact with, and not simply the reification of our otherwise unconstrained recommendations, prescriptions or expressions of mere feeling. (Throughout Sovereignty, the Prescriptivism of Richard Hare and the Emotivism of A. J. Ayer and others are the central objects of her attack, which she assimilates to the common element of non-naturalism in Kant and Existentialism.) Hence the apprehension of value as something real can be seen not in the awarding of the empty predicate ‘good’ to some course of action, but rather in the sustained attention to the more descriptive but still evaluative qualities we perceive under the heading of such terms as ‘the spiteful remark’, ‘the sweet disposition’, and ‘the prim and the prissy’. The picture of attention is also meant to displace a familiar atomistic picture of moral change itself, as if it were something made possible by isolated acts of instantaneous conscious choice. For attention, by contrast, is in its very nature answerable to something outside oneself, and the action of attention does not produce its results instantly or by fiat, but is rather part of the arduous, progressive, piecemeal business of moral growth. In sum, Murdoch’s metaphor of vision is presented as a correction to the exclusive concentration in moral thought on action and agency, particularly as this agency is depicted in Existentialism, in favor of the ideas of vision, attention, and progressive focusing on the Real outside oneself.

Let’s first briefly take up a few separate points of Murdoch’s criticism of this picture, considered as a critique of Existentialism. First, it would be difficult to make a case for seeing any of the major Existentialists as wedded to the fact/value distinction that is the cornerstone of the argument above which establishes the ‘choice and argument’ model. Instead, it is a classic (or notorious) Existentialist thesis, in thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre that the facts we apprehend and which serve as premises in our arguments exist for us as colored by our concerns; that it is the individual’s defining and inescapable orientation in the world, and the values which are given expression in that orientation, which makes facts as such available to him. Even more than most philosophical currents, Existentialism arises a reactive movement of thought (a stance embodied in the familiar Existentialist figure of rebellion), and the common ground of its diverse figures is much more apparent in what they oppose than in any positive theses they may defend. And in this regard one could hardly identify a more central unifying theme than their various rejections of any positivist idea of ‘fact’ which defines it in opposition to the ‘evaluative’. So while it is certainly possible, for instance, to criticize Nietzsche on the idea of knowledge as will-to-power, or Kierkegaard on the task of becoming subjective, or Heidegger on the worldhood of the world announcing itself through Dasein’s structure of care, it is not possible to see these central ideas of theirs as anything but rejections of the fact/value distinction as it functions in Murdoch’s reconstruction of the ‘choice and argument’ model. And as mentioned before, no one could reasonably accuse these writers, of all people, of restricting moral attention to single, overt, and public actions, and leaving out of account the moral importance of the ‘inner life’, including emotional life and habits of attention.

(Indeed, I would argue that it is from within a broadly Existentialist framework that we can break the hold of another opposition which Murdoch seeks to overcome: seeing any ‘serious’ or ‘cognitive’ moral change in the person as grounded exclusively in a change of belief, with the rest of mental life confined to mere sensations, and thus lacking any understanding of the moral difference made by such things as changes in attitude, feeling, attention, or habits of thought. -- But more on that in a moment.)

What about the picture of the will, especially in its Sartrean presentation, doesn’t that take us back to the ‘choice and argument’ model, the free but anxious moral consumer? And doesn’t this represent both a wildly unrealistic picture of the powers of the will, as well as but a different version of the same restriction of moral attention to actions, even though here the relevant action is not restricted to what is publicly observable?

It will reward us to tread a bit carefully here. In particular I want to consider this question (of the Sartrean will) in connection with Murdoch’s extended example from Sovereignty of the mother-in-law’s change of vision, which is introduced as a corrective to the ‘choice and argument’ model and the Sartrean Existentialist’s apotheosis of the empty will. Murdoch carefully sets up the case so that there need be no difference at all in overt behavior, with the mother-in-law M behaving beautifully toward D throughout, both before and after her change of view. In addition, the example is devised so that there need be no change in the daughter-in-law’s behavior either; hence the case is constructed so that it is, in a perfectly straightforward sense, the same facts about D that are being responded to both before and after M’s change of vision. At first, ---

“M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but while not exactly common yet certainly unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement. D is inclined to be pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile.” (p. 17)


“D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful, and so on. And as I say, ex hypothesi, M’s outward behaviour, beautiful from the start, in no way alters.” (p. 18)

This sort of change is in its own way simple and familiar. Such transformations can be momentous, but they need not be; indeed in a given case such a change of attitude can be the sort of thing that passes unnoticed by the very people involved, and it has certainly passed beneath the notice of most moral philosophers. We would have reason to be grateful to Murdoch if she had done nothing more than force this characteristic moral phenomenon on our attention. Let me note just two things about it right away. First, in carefully setting up the case so as to involve no overt change in the behavior of either party, Murdoch not only focuses our attention on the ‘inner’ events of M.’s change of view, but also shows that the change in question is of the sort that Wittgenstein describes as a ‘change of aspect’.6 A central part of the intrigue of the examples of the duck-rabbit or the ‘fallen’ triangle is that the viewer is aware at one and the same time that nothing has changed in the configuration of lines, and yet that everything has changed in their physiognomy, in what they immediately convey to him. That is, the duck-rabbit is importantly not a visual illusion. The experience of it is not like that of, say, a line appearing to move when we know it is stationary, or a straight line appearing to bend when seen against a certain background. These are illusions, even though the person doesn’t have to be taken in by them to experience them. In contrast to this, when the figure seen as a duck switches to being seen as a rabbit there is no illusion that what one is looking at has altered in any way, not even an illusion one fails to be taken in by.7 In Murdoch’s case, M. is continuously aware that nothing has altered in D.’s behavior. Instead she is now seeing the very same behavior under a different aspect. M is not under any illusion that anything in D herself has altered, nor must she see either her previous view or her current one as deceptive in any way. When she saw her under the aspect of the noisy and juvenile she was seeing something real too; though her vision of her was certainly limited and constricted in various ways.

The second thing I want to point out here is that although the example is introduced to develop Murdoch’s counter-ideal of vision and attention, as against the emphasis on the self as agent (p. 3), when we look closer we see that the metaphor of vision is not in any simple opposition to the idea of action, but in fact contains it. Indeed it is the morally difficult activity of imagination that Murdoch uses the metaphor of vision to draw our attention to, not a matter of passive receptivity, but rather the endless effort to see clearly (pp. 36-7). In describing the change in how M sees her daughter-in-law, Murdoch insists that “M has in the interim been active, she has been doing something ...” (p. 19, her emphases). So, contrary to the impression we might have received before, the metaphor of vision is not intended as competitor to the picture of the self as agent, but is rather in the service of rejecting a particular impoverished picture of agency itself, in favor of a deeper one.8

I would argue further that, not only is the metaphor of vision itself the development of a richer, as well as more realistic, picture of agency, but that the resources being developed here are themselves characteristically Existentialist ones. This will seem strange, since if there is one thing Murdoch is consistent in her rejection of it is the “giddy empty will” (p. 36), the “footloose, solitary, substanceless will” (p. 16) that is supposed to be the fulcrum on which the entire Existentialist drama turns. In particular, it is the isolation of the will or the choosing self that she finds to be the common error of both Existentialism and Logical Empiricism.
“Immense care is taken to picture the will as isolated. It is isolated from belief, from reason, from feeling, and is yet the essential center of the self. It is separated from belief so that the authority of reason, which manufactures belief, may be entire and so that responsibility for action may be entire as well.” (p. 8)

But what exactly is the force of the idea of ‘isolation’ here? We have already seen that the isolation of the choosing, valuing will from the world of fact and argument is foreign to the Existentialist picture of the place of value in the world. And as far as arbitrariness goes, even Sartre himself is frequently at pains to deny that the will as he pictures it is unconstrained or removed from its situatedness in the world. In the long course of Being and Nothingness he surely does say a number of provocative and unqualified things about freedom, but he also says “Thus we do not intend here to speak of anything arbitrary or capricious. [...] This does not mean that I am free to get up or to sit down, to, enter or to go out, to flee or to face danger -- if one means by freedom here a pure capricious, unlawful, gratuitous, and incomprehensible contingency.” (p. 584)9

At the same time it cannot be denied that there is something absolute in Sartre’s conception of freedom or, as I would rather put it, in the aspect of freedom that interests him. (And, I hope to show, this aspect is also what Murdoch is exploring in the example of M and her daughter-in-law.) For our purposes here, this aspect of freedom can perhaps best be indicated by means of a set of slogans familiar from the literature of Existentialism. So for instance, we are told that the person is always engaged in some situation or other (or rather an interlocking set of situations); that the person does not exist and then somehow come to acquire a situation, but is always already to be found within one. And to be in a situation is for the person to orient himself (or herself) in one way or another toward it, whether in resolve to change, resignation, satisfaction or resentment. And complementary to the slogan that there is no alternative to being in some situation or other, toward which one orients oneself one way or another, is the insistence that there is always more than one possible, defensible form for this orientation to take. The fate of situatedness as such is not escapable, but at the same time the situation does not itself dictate one’s orientation to it. Hence the complementary thought could be phrased in the slogan: Every situation has its possibilities; there are different possibilities of response within any situation..

From this vantage, we can begin to make out a Sartrean conception of freedom as both finite and unbounded. It is finite in the ordinary sense that anyone’s freedom is limited in various ways, that we exist with capacities and in situations that are only partially of our own choosing. And at the same time it is unbounded in the sense that there is always room for a variety of possible ways that the person may orient himself toward these capacities and situations, these very finitudes. The ‘facticities’ which make up my situation may be said to be ‘given’, but there is always the question of what the person make of them, and that is his or her own business. Consider the analogy with one’s bodily posture. One is always in some position or other, whether standing, sitting down, leaning against, or whatever. And insofar as the person is free to move, and hence has other positions open to him, the fact of his being in this one posture rather than another may be said to represent a choice on his part, if only the default choice to leave well enough alone. Further, any particular posture, such as sitting, will itself be something that will necessarily manifest itself in some particular way or other, hence not simply ‘sitting down’ simpliciter, but sitting in some manner, whether as perched on the chair, or slouching into it, or otherwise sitting in it in some way or other. Hence the body cannot avoid being in some posture or other, and there will always more than one possibility here, and within any such general posture there will be more than one way or orienting oneself towards it. And along both these dimensions, the position of the body expresses something of the person, whether the person’s will, or his desire, his concern or lack of concern, his care or carelessness.

And if one’s situation includes a daughter-in-law, then one will be oriented toward her in one way or another, and since there will not be only one possible way of relating to her, and no single description exhausts who this person is, the very particular ways in which one sees and relates to her will also be expressions of oneself that one is answerable for. The mother-in-law will necessarily ‘take in’ this new presence in her life in certain terms and not in others, and will respond to the qualities she sees in her with certain attitudes and not others. These attitudes toward D. do no befall her any more than do the particularities of her physical posture. Just as the person’s physical stance expresses his orientation in space and directedness toward the objects that confront him, so the person’s attitudes represent his orientation toward the persons and situations which concern him. At no point does the person find that there is only one possible posture open to him, only one way of physically orienting himself to the spatial world. That would be to annul the very concept of adopting some posture. It is true that a person who is paralyzed or tied fast to a chair does not choose the position his body is in; that field of possibilities may be said to be closed to him, and for that very reason his being either laid out or propped up is not any posture of his at all. In a similar way, it only makes sense to speak of a person’s attitude toward something insofar as it is understood that this represents a particular assessment of one sort or another, an assessment that might have gone differently and which might yet go differently upon subsequent reflection. Any attitude is partial with respect to the richness and complexity of what experience presents us with, and this partiality is something the person is answerable for. An attitude that did not position itself with respect to other conceivable ones would not be an attitude at all. It is for these reasons that the words ‘posture’ and ‘attitude’ can be synonymous in certain contexts because they both denote dimensions of assessment to which the person is necessarily subject, one way or another, insofar as he is a thinking and acting being at all. And a person’s particular posture or attitude counts as an expression of the person because in both cases the particular orientation he adopts is partial with respect to the total field of possibilities, and hence is something which persists subject to the person’s reasons and commitments, and other attitudes.

What I meant earlier by the ‘absolute’ aspect of freedom in Sartre and other Existentialists can perhaps be brought into focus by this comparison. When he says that my physical posture always represents a choice of mine, he is not claiming absurdly that there are no limits to how I can move my body or that there are not dramatic differences between people in what they can accomplish physically. I cannot simply pick and choose any position or movement I might wish for myself. But at the same time, within my quite limited powers, at any given moment there are an infinity of movements and positions open to me, and my adoption of the particular one of them that is mine at the moment represents a choice of mine. It might have been otherwise, in countless possible ways, and the fact that it is this way with me rather than otherwise is something that expresses my reasons, concerns and commitments, as well as my sense of what is not worth bothering with (which I am also responsible for). This is not an idea that is beyond philosophical criticism (or philosophical defense, for that matter), but it is an idea of a different logical order from the claim that the scope of the will is absolute in the sense that nothing is beyond its power.10

The analogous idea with respect to the attitudes is, again, not the absurd claim that no attitude toward the situation is closed to me, or that all particular attitudes are on a par with respect to their reasonableness, or that one can simply pick and choose whatever attitude one would most ‘like’. Rather, the idea is that any particular attitude toward a person or situation is partial with respect to other possible ones, and hence represents a selection from this totality. This is clear enough even when Sartre indulges in provocative claims like “I cannot be crippled without choosing myself as crippled” (p. 432), which he immediately glosses by saying “This means that I choose the way in which I constitute my disability (as “unbearable”, “humiliating”, “to be hidden”, “to be revealed to all”, “an object of pride”, “the justification for my failures”, etc.).” Hence he is distinguishing what he means by ‘choosing’ here from either the bizarre thought that the person somehow chooses to be crippled, or the idea that just any arbitrary response to this facticity will make sense or be available to the person. Rather the thought is that even a drastic constraint like this one necessarily provides room for more than one possible orientation from the person, and that as with posture, even within one particular attitude there will be more than one way of adopting it and inhabiting it (that is, his pride or his humiliation will itself take particular forms). This scope for the person’s own commitment is an aspect of the rationality of attitudes, not a denial of it. For even what we refer to as the ‘rational compulsion’ toward a particular attitude is not like the physical compulsion of being dropped from the roof, since the former critically involves the person’s endorsement of the compelling reasons demanding his assent.

Murdoch presents the example of the mother-in-law to illustrate what she takes to be not only missing but suppressed in the ‘choice and argument’ model or moral discourse. Earlier I drew attention to the relation between the change in view she undergoes and the idea of ‘aspect switching’ in order to underscore that it is part of Murdoch’s point in this example that the mother-in-law is described as responding to the same qualities in her daughter-in-law when she goes from seeing her as ‘undignified’ to seeing her as ‘spontaneous’ etc. The example is carefully constructed to illustrate something quite different from the case where such a change of view is prompted by realizing some previously unknown fact that makes all the difference, or when one realizes that one simply misinterpreted the situation altogether. For the mother-in-law was not under some illusion when she saw this young woman as somewhat vulgar or juvenile, not if the word ‘illusion’ is understood to mean that those qualities were not, after all, there to be seen in her behavior. Her failure, as Murdoch describes it, was a failure of vision and attention and imagination. What is wrong in her previous apprehension of this person is not that she sees something that isn’t there, but that she fails to realize that her view of these very qualities is partial, incomplete, and hence potentially unfair, and kept in place by her own limited imagination and sympathies. What she comes to see, and what makes her change possible, is that there is more than one possible response to these very qualities, and that it is her business, a matter of the engagement of her own capacities, what her orientation to those qualities is to be. This is not a complete description of the conditions of moral progress, and in other cases the change in question may require the repudiation of one’s initial view of the other person, as not being merely partial but as being wrong or distorted. But the acknowledgement of this capacity is a requirement of any such progress. What the construction of Murdoch’s example enables us to see, I take it, is that a certain kind of moral progress does not require that one’s previous view is seen as mistaken or false to the facts, but rather that it is a partial view of those facts, and that one can pass beyond it into a view that is deeper or more encompassing, from which perspective one’s earlier view is seen not so much false as irrelevant or unworthy.

To put this point in more explicitly Existentialist terms, the more fundamental error the mother-in-law corrects in herself is that of seeing the attributes of her daughter-in-law as facticities, to see her as ‘pert and familiar, brusque and juvenile’ in the same way that Sartre’s inkwell is round, solid, and black (p. 102). Before she can so much as undertake the activity of thought which Murdoch describes, and ultimately see (something like) those very same qualities as now “not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous [...]” she must affirm a kind of responsibility for her attitudes, to see them as her own in the sense of seeing them as the expression of her orientation to her daughter-in-law, and seeing the question of her orientation to her as up to her and not simply dictated by the facts of the situation. Her original perception of her as vulgar and juvenile is something she is not the passive victim of, not something that simply befalls her like a rash, but rather something that it is her business either to continue with, to affirm or to revoke. What she encounters, and what makes her change of vision possible, is the defining Existentialist insight that the person always has a ‘say’ in how he orients himself toward the situation that confronts him, that this is not decided for him, although in the playing out of the situation it will inevitably be decided one way or another.

In this way the very metaphor of vision which Murdoch begins by opposing to the exclusive attention to freedom and action in the tradition she is attacking is in fact a metaphor of the very dimension of action that Existentialists like Sartre and Kierkegaard are fairly obsessive in insisting on. Neither for them nor for Murdoch is the sort of change undergone by the mother-in-law ‘an arbitrary leap of the giddy isolated will’. Nor is it an ‘empty self’ which makes this movement of thought, but rather a fully situated self using all the resources at its disposal, and which is refusing to reify or take for granted the given attitudes with which it approaches the situation.

We could call this self ‘empty’ only in the following sense: when it confronts such a situation calling for thought, the ideal it holds itself to is that any core belief or other attitude is sustained in the self only by the continued endorsement of the self. (This is the sense of Sartre’s slogan “There is no inertia in consciousness” (p. 61).) Nothing survives for free, any part of the self may at some point have to hold itself open to the test provided by its encounters with the world, including of course the world of others. This self is ‘empty’ only in the sense that Neurath’s ship is empty, composed of nothing that might not somehow need to be replaced, but which nonetheless manages to keep afloat and complete its journey. The mother-in-law’s self is not one which is empty or rudderless, but one which does not objectify its own experiences and attitudes and project them as fixed properties of the people it encounters. Seen in these terms, this effort just is the struggle against what Murdoch describes as the “fat, relentless ego” (p. 52): this ego is fat because in its self-satisfaction it stores up and accumulates its impressions, prejudices, and habits of thought and rather than risk finding them inadequate compared to the actual multiplicity of life, instead spreads this accumulated life-material upon experience, upon others, until this accumulation of its own personal history and culture is all that can fall within its range of vision.

We need a place for the role of freedom here to do justice to the sense of struggle that Murdoch rightly emphasizes in the story of the work of attention, and coming to a new appreciation of something or someone. (p. 22) And, I would argue, we have to make sense of the ‘activity’ involved here in order to make sense of those confrontations between different selves, when one person needs or demands a new response from someone else with whose regard they are entwined, as in the need for forgiveness, or remorse, or a change of heart. Such changes cannot be accomplished magically or arbitrarily, but at the same time they are among the things that can be asked of us on occasion, and when that happens we are being asked to do something. The concept of ‘attention’ which Murdoch offers us in this context is rich and multivalent in ways that make it especially appropriate here, for to attend to some matter also means to assume responsibility for it, to take charge of it (as when I attend to the inadequacy of my response to what I did). And when its object is a particular person, ‘attending’ also means to accompany, to be present to, or to serve. It is this same density of meaning in the idea of attention that the Existentialist draws in aligning the concepts of consciousness as attention, which in turn means that consciousness is to be understood within the categories of care, concern, and responsibility.

I’ll conclude with one final look at the place of choice within Existentialism. Murdoch is rightly suspicious of any picture of the moral life that concentrates on isolated dramatic moments of decision, especially when this is at the cost of attention to the background that makes such instants moments of decision at all. (That would be like what Wittgenstein describes as trying to “make out what the word ‘checkmate’ meant by close observation of the last move of some game of chess.” Philosophical Investigations, § 316.) And in Sovereignty she says:
“The existentialist picture of choice whether it be surrealist or rational, seems unrealistic, over-optimistic, romantic, because it ignores what appears at least to be a sort of continuous background with a life of its own; and it is surely in the tissue of that life that the secrets of good and evil are to be found.” (p. 54)
“If we ignore the prior work of attention and notice only the emptiness of the moment of choice we are likely to identify freedom with the outward movement since there is nothing else to identify it with. But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices.” (p. 37)
While agreeing wholeheartedly with her positive point here, I would still disagree with her choice of targets. For it is because of what I referred to earlier as the ‘unbounded’ aspect of human freedom, the fact that the person always orients himself one way or another toward both his capacities and obstacles, that the Existentialist sees an element of choice in all the continuities and discontinuities of a person’s gestures, postures, and attitudes, as well as in their explicit decisions. In this we can see Murdoch’s insistence on the sheer pervasiveness of the moral dimension in human life, in the “fabric of being” that makes up the background of any explicit decisions we make, and the gradual, piecemeal change that makes up what may be genuinely momentous in the soul’s progress.

And it is this very dimension of life, and its implications for the situation of choice, that Kierkegaard, for instance, is developing in a classic statement of a characteristic Existentialist ethos, one which I think Murdoch’s own formulations help us to hear better, and thus to see how much the same are the illusions concerning agency which their writings seek to undo. I can’t do better than conclude with this passage, without commentary, since Kierkegaard’s very language here picks up so many of the themes that Murdoch is at pains to stress, thus highlighting the concerns of both of them, and showing how much is lost by divorcing Murdoch’s thought from its Existentialist heritage.11

“For an instant it may seem as if the things between which a choice is to be made lie outside of the chooser, that he stands in no relationship to it, that he can preserve a state of indifference over against it. This is the instant of deliberation, but this, like the Platonic instant, has no existence, least of all in the abstract sense in which you would hold it fast, and the longer one stares at it the less it exists. That which has to be chosen stands in the deepest relationship to the chooser, and when it is a question of a choice involving a life problem the individual must naturally be living in the meantime, and hence, it comes about that the longer he postpones the choice the easier it is for him to alter its character notwithstanding that he is constantly deliberating and deliberating and believes that thereby he is holding the alternatives distinctly apart. [...] One sees then, that the inner drift of the personality leaves no time for thought experiments, that it constantly hastens onward and in one way or another posits this alternative or that, making the choice more difficult the next instant because what has thus been posited must be revoked. Think of the captain on his ship at the instant when it has to come about. He will perhaps be able to say, “I can either do this or that”; but in case he is not a pretty poor navigator he will be aware at the same time that the ship is all the while making its usual headway, and that therefore it is only an instant when it is indifferent whether be does this or that. So it is with a man. If he forgets to take account of the headway, there comes at last an instant when there no longer is any question of an either/or, not because he has chosen but because he has neglected to choose, which is equivalent to saying, because others have chosen for him, because he has lost his self.

For to think that for an instant one can keep one’s personality a blank, or that strictly speaking one can break off and bring to a halt the course of the personal life, is a delusion. The personality is already interested in the choice before one chooses, and when the choice is postponed the personality chooses unconsciously, or the choice is made by obscure powers within it.”

Kierkegaard, Either/Or, vol. 11, ‘Equilibrium Between the Aesthetical and the Ethical in the Composition of the Personality’, pp. 167-8 (translated by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1959)
Richard Moran

Dept. of Philosophy

Emerson Hall

Harvard University

Cambridge, MA 02138


1 Among other accomplishments, Murdoch is the author of the first book length study of Sartre in English: Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, originally published in 1953, now Viking Penguin, 1987).

2 On p. 2 of Sovereignty Murdoch speaks of “a kind of Newspeak which makes certain values non-expressible.”

3 See, for instance, Peter Conradi’s introduction to his edition of Murdoch’s essays Existentialists and Mystics, (Penguin, 1998), where he says that, “for reasons already touched upon, it was felt necessary fully to document Murdoch’s growing scepticism and hostility towards existentialism.” (xxviii), and “It is hard to escape the conclusion that by the late 1970s Iris Murdoch had helped to render existentialisrn out of date.”.

4 The Sovereignty of Good, (Routledge, 1970). Except where indicated otherwise, all quotations from Murdoch are from this book.

5 Citations from Murdoch’s essays are from the collection Existentialists and Mystics, edited by Peter Conradi (Penguin, 1998).

6 Philosophical Investigations, Part Two. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Basil Blackwell, 1953).

7 The distinction I have in mind can perhaps best be brought out by considering a single case that may exhibit both phenomena, visual illusion and ‘aspect change’. So, for instance, the outline drawing of box whose three-dimensional projection allows for seeing it with one of its corners advancing toward the viewer and the other receding, or the other way around. There is visual illusion in the appearance of three-dimensionality, in the experience of advancing and receding (which is not to say that the viewer fails to recognize it as a visual illusion). But when the viewer switches from seeing one facet of it as advancing to seeing it as receding, there is change of aspect but no (additional) visual illusion, for the experience is not as if the array of lines actually changed, not even an illusion one is aware of as such. The visual experience is of the array of lines remaining unchanged throughout the change of aspect.

8 See p. 22 for further emphasis on forms of agency which are left out of the picture she opposes: “The analysis pictures M as defined ‘from the outside in’: M’s individuality lies in her will, understood as her ‘movements’. The analysis makes no sense of M as continually active, as making progress, or of her inner acts as belonging to her or forming part of a continuous fabric of being: it is precisely critical of metaphors such as ‘fabric of being’. Yet can we do without such metaphors here? Further, is not the metaphor of vision almost irresistibly suggested to anyone who, without philosophical prejudice, wishes to describe the situation?”

9 All citations from Sartre are from Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, (Philosophical Library, New York, 1956).

10 Cf. Being and Nothingness, p. 677: “Although I have at my disposal an infinity of ways of assuming my being-for-others, I am not able not to assume it. We find here again that condemnation to freedom which we defined above as facticity. [...] Whether in fury, hate, pride, shame, disheartened refusal or joyous demand, it is necessary for me to choose to be what I am.”

11 This paper was originally delivered at the conference, Iris Murdoch, Philosopher’ held at Brown University, in April 2001. I am grateful to comments from those present at the conference, in particular Carla Bagnoli, Justin Broackes, and Martha Nussbaum.

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