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Good Will Hunting

EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS: Writings on Philosophy and Literature.\o7 By Iris Murdoch\f7 . \o7 Allen Lane / The Penguin Press: 546 pp., $39.95\f7

April 12, 1998|PETER MARIN | Peter Marin is the author of "Freedom and Its Discontents" (Steerforth Press)

I

Most American readers know Iris Murdoch as a novelist, but she is known elsewhere--mainly in England and Europe--as a philosopher as well, a moral philosopher to be precise. She taught philosophy at Oxford for many years, and she has published several books about philosophy, most notably "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals," a lengthy presentation of her ideas that was published in 1992 and based on a series of lectures she gave in 1982. Now Allen Lane / Penguin has issued "Existentialists and Mystics," a collection of 30 essays about literature and philosophy.

The first of the essays appeared in 1952; the final one was published in 1986. Taken together, they reveal a wide range of interests, but a single and almost obsessive concern runs through most of them and knits them together. Murdoch believes in the need for a revivification of the moral realm, which can only be accomplished by a renewal of attention to the Good: an eternal and guiding notion of moral rightness accessible through philosophy and art.

Murdoch is a self-avowed Platonist, a position that defines her relation to morality. She tells us explicitly that her ideas about the Good run directly back to Plato, who first attempted to define its nature, function and sovereignty over all other virtues. She makes it clear that she measures all other philosophers in relation to Plato and his notion of the Good, and she dismisses all those whose thought has put them at odds with Plato.

Plato believed that knowledge of the Good resided in the soul as a kind of recollection, a knowledge prior to all experience and perhaps left from past lives. Knowledge of the Good can be brought fully into consciousness only through contemplative thought: a willed seeking for the Good that illuminates all other virtues and meanings. Such seeking, in general, must be conducted in solitude, and it takes us into an inward world, a subjective world in which we encounter, surprisingly, objective essences and meanings: Ideas or Forms that Plato thought are more substantial, true, real and eternal than their pale representations or appearances in the ordinary world of experience. The Good is akin to the sun; its sovereignty in thought is absolute; to see it clearly, comprehend it fully and live according to its implicit dictates or demands is to escape the cave of human folly and error in which we are otherwise destined to live.

No doubt much of this sounds to our modern, skeptical and empirical ears like certain half-baked New Age doctrines held by their enthusiasts because of their prettiness. They are certainly out of philosophic fashion now, in a discipline dominated, at least in England and America, by analytic and language philosophers whose work reduces philosophy to an exercise in epistemology or logic. Plato's notions appear to such thinkers as a form of mysticism much closer to religion than to rigorous philosophy. But one must also remember that ideas such as these largely dominated European thought for more than 2,000 years and led directly to the work of Kant or Hegel, whose thought remains vitally alive for us today. Moreover, Plato's various attempts to describe the realm in which the Good can be found comprise the best description we have had of the experience of thinking: how it feels to think and where thought appears to take us. This benefit alone makes his vision of the Good--and Murdoch's restatement of it--of genuine relevance and interest. It is a vision that does, indeed, offer us the possibility of a revivification of the moral realm, but it also, I am afraid, calls Murdoch's method and her own thoughts into question; it proves her wanting as a philosopher, and I think for that reason it is worth looking at here.

II

One does, indeed, seem to enter in thought, in the act of thinking, a spacious realm that feels like a kind of landscape--Heidegger called it a "region"--as real as the external world. There is a dimensionality to it, a depth, that makes itself felt in physical terms as if one were, in the mind, with the mind, moving through space, passing from point to point, taking in, at different points, different vistas or views. Thought itself begins to feel aggressive, adventurous, like an act; from any particular point, you can choose to follow a seemingly infinite number of paths in different directions. Follow one out and you get to another point, where you can pause, and now you can retrace your steps or choose from a new set of infinite possibilities. The whole of it comprises a territory that seems boundless; no matter where you are, you are always at the dead center of a territory whose horizon always beckons and yet seems out of reach.

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