Philosophy Iris Murdoch
Hannah Marije Altorf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0376


Iris Murdoch (b. 1919–d. 1999) was both a philosopher and a novelist. She is the author of five philosophical books and numerous articles as well as twenty-six novels. Her oeuvre has influenced debates in different fields: in ethics, philosophy and literature, literary studies, theology and religious studies, and feminism—among others. Murdoch is one of the most important critics of a moral philosophy that focuses on will and overt action and sharply distinguishes fact from value, represented in her work by Richard Hare and Stuart Hampstead. Moreover, her work still inspires in its imaginative attempts to develop a moral philosophy with a focus on the inner life, where love and vision are central concepts. Moral philosophy, for Murdoch, has to challenge the dominance of science and fill a vacuum left by the disappearance of religion. Murdoch was a prolific writer with a wide interest in thinkers and their work, as is clear from her biography. She was trained in the analytical tradition at Oxford, where she taught at St. Anne’s between 1948 and 1963. At the same time, she was reading the French existentialists, whose work she encountered when working with refugees for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) just after the Second World War. Her book on Jean-Paul Sartre is the first introduction to his work in the English language. Just before taking up the post in Oxford she had met Ludwig Wittgenstein and read his then mostly unpublished work in Cambridge. In the second half of the 1950s, she became a Platonist after reading Simone Weil, though she distanced herself from Plato’s denouncement of art. From Weil, Murdoch learned the notions of attention and “unselfing.” After her death, Murdoch’s work was temporarily overshadowed by an interest in her life, when her husband John Bayley published two memoirs on her decline from Alzheimer’s disease that were later made into a movie. In the most recent development, Murdoch’s work is studied as one of the recently named “wartime group”: Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Mary Midgley. These women were in Oxford around the same time, became friends, and all went on to make their name in philosophy.

Murdoch’s Oeuvre

Murdoch is the author of five works of philosophy, a considerable number of articles, twenty-six novels, a short story, several plays, an opera libretto, and poetry. She was, moreover, a prolific writer of letters and generous with her time for anyone desiring to interview her. As a consequence, her oeuvre is much more diverse than what is usual for academic philosophers. While this article focuses on her philosophical writing, it also introduces some of her novels and other writing in as far as they promise to bear on her philosophy.

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