Always a Woman!


Iris Murdoch

From Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

From the mid-twentieth century on Murdoch argued that modern philosophy, both in its analytic and French existentialist guises, is overly concerned with action and choice, operating with a naïve conception of the will and the idea of a liberal freely choosing agent, producing a picture of morality which is narrow and biased and ultimately unhelpful in relation to the complexities of our moral lives. She wants to replace this thin understanding of the moral agent with a richer idea of a moral person with an inner life and morally significant movements of consciousness.

In the past decades, Murdoch’s work has been appropriated by woman philosophers who have found her emphases concerning moral philosophy and personhood more illuminating than those of her action-centered contemporaries. Lovibond cites Megan Laverty who has put forward Murdoch’s work as a “feminist intervention in the masculine bias that has historically dominated romantic thinking” (p. 3). Indeed, as Lovibond points out, the dubious hero of modern moral philosophy and literature, criticized by Murdoch — “free independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave” — is certainly male, and “her examples of genuine virtue, too, often seem calculated to reproach philosophy for its habitual neglect of women’s experience” (p. 3).

But the particular interest in the inner life seems, for Murdoch herself, to have little to do with gendered sensitivities. She is certainly not a philosopher of womanliness, or a specifically feminist philosopher. In Lovibond’s view she wants, essentially, to be above such things. In an interview, cited by Lovibond, she states that,

I think I want to write about things on the whole where it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, in which case you’d better be male, because a male represents ordinary human beings, unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, whereas a woman is always a woman! (p. 5)

Murdoch’s appeal here to a gender neutral (male) outlook may be found deeply disturbing for contemporary feminist sensibilities. Yet, there are plenty of passages in writings and interviews where she takes a thoroughly uncompromised and sharp posture in favor of gender equality. She has, furthermore, made way for a perspective on ethics which many woman philosophers have found deeply needed in twentieth-century ethics, including love, attention and self-forgetfulness in the ethical repertoire. But Lovibond is not convinced. She reasons the other way around: it is precisely by articulating an ethical perspective which elevates some of the virtues of traditional femininity that Murdoch becomes problematic from a feminist point of view. A main source of the problem here, as Lovibond perceives it, is the influence of Simone Weil, and her concept of “attention”, with all that goes with it:

Murdoch is heedful of Weil’s teaching in ethics, religion and politics alike . . . but her most self-conscious borrowings are centred on the themes of attention andobedience. For Weil the concept of attention has a general epistemological significance not limited to ethics: active enquiry, strenuous attempts at problem solving, are in her view over-rated, serving only to ‘clear the ground’; they are low grade phenomena tainted by the ‘heat of the chase’, the egoistic wish not to have wasted our labour. By contrast there is a kind of attention which is bound up not with the will but with our consent to receive illumination or insight. (p. 29)

The good person, according to this picture, must above all have humility; she must learn to stand back and wait. She must let things happen, and attend to them, receive, rather than rush in and do things. “Unselfing” is a key word. This emphasis was fresh and unusual in Murdoch’s context of mid- and late-twentieth century Anglo-American secular moral philosophy, but as Lovibond suggests, this kind of selfless attention, attendance, and suppression of the impulse to act are precisely what has traditionally been expected of women. It is a good description of the internalized feminine ideal which has made women more easily manageable in patriarchal societies.

Iris Murdoch, Gender and Philosophy, reviewed by Nora Hämäläinen, Notre Dame Philosophical Review