David Robjant

Iris Murdoch’s Everyday “Metaphysical Entities

I offer this paper as an exposition of Murdoch’s Platonic understanding of ‘ordinary language’, as developed in a series of articles and papers in the 1950’s. Language became then and remains now the fundamental subject matter of most Philosophy, so much so that our pictures and expectations of Philosophy itself have been altered. Murdoch’s views on this development are poorly understood, I believe, and under-consulted. For Murdoch is the bearer of one substantial tradition of metaphysics, and yet is at the same time prepared to enter that description of ordinary language that was and is believed to offer the dissolution of metaphysics. That she did not see things that way, and continued to speak of The Good, signals either that she had simply misunderstood, or that she has something rare and interesting to say about the relationship between ordinary language and metaphysics. In this paper I shall argue for the latter view.

I shall conduct my exposition as follows. I will (1) describe two very different pictures of ‘metaphysics’. I will then (2) indicate the ancient origin of and support for Murdoch’s peculiar picture. Finally I will (3) expand Murdoch’s picture of metaphysics to show how she applies it to ordinary language.

I. Two Understandings of 'Metaphysics'

One may think of 'metaphysics' as a distinct activity peculiar to philosophers, and therefore dealing with a subject matter, if it has one, quite distant from ordinary life and language. There is everyday life, and then there is 'metaphysics'. According to this understanding of what 'metaphysics' means, an acceptance that it is impossible to philosophically establish the existence of metaphysical entities appears to be an abandonment of metaphysics. For according to this supposed divorce between ordinary life and metaphysics, metaphysics must have support from the extraordinary activity of philosophers, if it is to have any support at all. By this account, any metaphysical entity not supported by philosophical argument has no support whatsoever. Such is one tradition about the meaning of 'metaphysics'.

Within that tradition, it is possible to interpret the following as the abandonment of metaphysical entities:

An argument against metaphysical entities... may come in a strong form which claims that all concepts of metaphysical entities are empty, or in a weak form which merely holds that the existence of such entities cannot be philosophically established... For myself, I accept the weak form of [this]... (For instance: there are no philosophical proofs of the existence of God, but it is not senseless to believe in God.). (Existentialists and Mystics (hereafter EM), 92-3 ).

However, there is another tradition which understands the meaning of 'metaphysics' in a very different way, and therefore suggests a very different reading of Murdoch here. That tradition is inspired by Plato.

According to this other tradition every entity is a metaphysical entity: the toe-nails I cut this morning, the thank-you letters I should have written, the emotion of love, the thoughts that go through my head as I write this - everything. Plato's metaphysics is a prime example of such an inclusive metaphysics. The world of Becoming may be held to be somehow less real than the world of the Forms, but the important point here is that the reality in which it participates is still the same metaphysical kind of reality that the Forms are thought to have. Objects in the world of becoming have their imperfect reality through participation in the Forms.

I maintain that Murdoch, like Plato, regards all everyday objects as metaphysical entities. This would include the colour red, the stone that I have kicked, and the pain in my toe. Such an inclusive understanding of 'metaphysics' would suggest a surprising reading of Murdoch’s above acceptance of a ‘weak’ argument against metaphysical entities. According to this new reading, the "metaphysical entities" spoken of by Murdoch cannot be "philosophically established" because they are that broad inclusive set of objects that ordinary language appears to be about. They would thus include not only God and other discredited objects, but also what an Empiricist might call 'facts'. No empiricist would think of 'facts' as "philosophically established", and on my suggested reading Murdoch has the same approach to her "metaphysical entities". In both cases, one only has to look.

Of course, what must be "philosophically established" is that peculiar picture of looking which leads Murdoch to believe in directly accessible metaphysical entities. To defend and further my account of Murdoch’s metaphysics, therefore, I now need to do the following. I need to show how and with what right her picture of immediate experience comes to include "metaphysical entities".

2. The Experience of Flux

In a short paper given to a 1951 symposium entitled Thinking and Language, conducted between Iris Murdoch, Gilbert Ryle, and A.C. Lloyd, Murdoch sets out to "attempt a description of thinking" [EM 33]. She appears to treat this attempt seriously as an exercise in looking, rather than as an exercise in philosophy. Indeed, so serious is Murdoch about getting to the pre-philosophical that she advocates "A more naively empirical approach" [EM 42], as if an empirical approach simpliciter would somehow corrupt the subject matter with sophisticated philosophy. This more naive approach suggests as its method:

a study, a developing and vindicating of our ordinary and familiar linguistic habits. (EM 42)

This may sound very familiar, but in Murdoch's hands this looking at ordinary language takes a rare and interesting shape. For from the start she takes this looking at language as an introspection into a "'content of consciousness'" [EM 33]. Reporting one finding of this introspection Murdoch declares that:

The thought is not the words (if any) but the words occurring in a certain way with, as it were, a certain force and colour. (EM 34)

In this passage we can already see that her "more naively empirical approach" is a curiously generous kind of empiricism, prepared to respect (or indulge) phenomena that are not only not public and not verifiable, but, moreover, not even clear or distinct. Her approach is 'empirical' in a very uncommon sense. It does consist in looking, and in accepting the given as found. However, the given that she finds is not at all like the given that philosophers more usually find. Murdoch discovers some thing fluid and unnameable, "as it were, a certain force and colour". In short, it seems that Murdoch's given is a flux.

3. Ontology and the Ordinary

We have seen how an uncommon kind of empiricism motivates Murdoch’s preparedness to admit the world of given sense to be flowing. This ‘naive’ approach is emphasised in Murdoch's objection to one (behaviourist) approach to meaning:

But surely it is important that the users of mental words would often indignantly deny that 'what they meant' was the overt and not the inner. The reaction to this should not be to denounce an illusion and suggest that the inner is nothing, or is at best shadowy and nameless. One should attempt a new description. (EM 38)

For Murdoch the experience of the inner that we mean is no less immediately accessible for remaining fluid and slippery. Her point of departure is a characterisation of immediate experience as flux: the inner given may be fluid and indefinite, but it is no different from the outer given in this:

Sometimes, since thoughts are queer phenomena, we may find it hard to offer a clear and unambiguous description - but this will be true in the same way of other kinds of queer phenomena with which we have to deal. Sometimes too we may be puzzled about how exactly to relate the event-character of a thought to its meaning-character in the description. But there is nothing here which points to the presence of a special sort of item which is sharply separate from other items of experience. The mental event, as an experience, is not connected with 'meaning' in a way which is different from that in which any other experience may be connected with meaning. (EM 50-1)

All manner of vague thoughts have being, she asserts, and exist no less for their descriptions not being subject to clear truth or correctness criteria. Again, one doesn't need philosophy in the search for inner objects any more than in the search for outer objects, one only has to look:

An ontological approach, which seeks for an identifiable inner stuff and either asserts or denies its existence, must be avoided. (EM 38)

An account of meaning is, for Murdoch, an area in which ontology will deceive.

Why does Murdoch think this? What is, after all, wrong with using arguments about what entities can or cannot exist to discuss meanings? One might, for example, think that there is some useful line to be drawn between ordinary language that reports, and ordinary language that does not. But Murdoch’s conception of immediate experience argues against drawing any such line. Here is the point which is at the heart of Murdoch’s supposedly naive approach to ordinary language.

For according to Murdoch’s Platonic conception of immediate experience as a flux rather than as a collection of data, the perceptual world contains no pre-linguistic entities for language to designate or report:

If we think of conceptualising rather as the activity of grasping, or reducing to order, our situations with the help of a language which is fundamentally metaphorical, this will operate against the world-language dualism which haunts us because we are afraid of the idealists. Seen from this point of view, thinking is not the using of symbols which designate absent objects, symbolising and sensing being strictly divided from each other. Thinking is not designating at all, but rather understanding, grasping, 'possessing'. (EM 41)

And what are we grasping? If not reportable facts, then what? Murdoch suggests that thought grasps the "order" which it has itself made out of a fluid "situation". Ordinary language is seen to be the means of understanding or grasping entities because it is itself the means by which they are created, wrested and grasped from some more fluid "'content of consciousness'".

What strange kind of entity is grasped here? These are not empirical facts. They do not impose themselves. They do not imprint themselves on our wax. We do not receive them through any relation with the physical world, within or without. There is, therefore, no proper description of such things but this: "metaphysical entities".

From such a point of departure, how and for what purposes would one argue about whether a stone exists, or whether my foot hit it? What indeed, could make the (metaphysical) existence of the stone an illusion? No sequence of experimental sense-data could be cited as relevant, there being, for Murdoch, no such data. The claim that the stone exists and makes your foot hurt when you kick it, would have to have quite a different status. Any supposed object, inner or outer, would have to be part of a picture of the world relating metaphysical entities which have their existence for that picture, and which (we hope) relates them in such a way as to make ordinary life workable. A claim that some inner or outer stuff doesn’t really exist, from this point of view, could only be supported either (i) as part of a pragmatic programme for making ordinary life more workable (which seems scarcely credible in the case of dismissing inner stuff), or (ii) as part of an objection to pictures and picture making on purely ontological grounds, viz. that these pictures are literally invented and do not report.

Recall Murdoch's "Metaphysical entities" which "cannot be philosophically established", but which "it is not senseless to believe in". We saw that, because of the peculiarly general application which the word 'metaphysics' can acquire under the influence of Plato, Murdoch can allow that all manner of things have metaphysical being without that being having been philosophically established. The being of such metaphysical particulars is literally pre-philosophical. It is apparently what is contained in and supports immediate experience and ordinary language. One might add that it is what infuses and supports ordinary life. The important point, here, is that this ordinary being is not at all the degree of being that issues from, or would satisfy, rigorous philosophical analysis. This is exactly the sense in which Plato’s world of becoming only a world of becoming.

From such a metaphysical tradition, Murdoch will be prepared to rest perfectly content with something less than perfect being as underlying the meaning of ordinary language. Entities like ‘thoughts’ and ‘the self' may or may not stand up to philosophical analysis, but they are there, and talk about them is meaningful, for all that:

What is observable is that we need and use the idea that thoughts are particular inner experiences. This is an idea which connects up with our notion of the privacy and the unity of our 'selves' or 'personalities'. There is here, if I may borrow a psychological term, an important and necessary 'illusion of immanence'; only to call it an 'illusion' risks giving the description an ontological flavour. It is rather a necessary regulative idea, about which it makes no sense to ask, is it true or false that it is so? It is for us as if our thoughts were inner events, and it is as if these events were describable either as verbal units or in metaphorical, analogical terms. (EM 38-9)

Meaning inner thoughts by our outer words is just what we happen to do in ordinary language. Strikingly, Murdoch argues here that even to ask whether or not this picture is perfectly all right as it is remains outside the scope of a description of meaning or language, and is instead part of an ontological quest for the perfectly real.

One might think that a description of language as it is could say something about whether private inner objects are what is meant by public words, but it now appears Murdoch would disagree, and for this reason: the pictured ‘illusions’ of both an inner and outer world of becoming are not dispensable parts of ordinary life and language, but their very essence, beyond which only indefinite flux lies. Our gripping pictures of the private inner are no less real in this than our pictures of the public outer. Our attachment to such pictures may be available for discussion, but not within a description of ordinary language. Murdoch’s contribution to the philosophy of language is to note this: that ordinary language is after all about the everyday pictured world, if it is about anything at all.


All quotations are from Articles and Papers collected in: Existentialists and Mystics, published by Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex, England 1999. Within this original Articles and Papers quoted are paginated as follows: Thinking and Language 33-42 (From a Symposium of that title between Iris Murdoch, Gilbert Ryle and A.C. Lloyd 1952). Nostalgia for the Particular 43-58 (read to Aristotelian Society 9.6.1952). Vision and Choice in Morality 76-98 (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society: Dreams and Self Knowledge, 30, 1956).

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David Robjant is interested in Plato as both an Ontologist and a Philosopher of Language, more specifically in the role played by Plato's understanding of the Eleatics (Parmenides and Zeno) in generating both these faces of Platonism. His general project is a defence of Plato, as in an M.Phil thesis concluding that the critical arguments of the Parmenides (e.g. the 'third man') challenge some wrong conceptions of the theory of forms, and not that theory itself ("Plato's 'late' argument for the theory of forms: a reading of the Parmenides, the Theaetetus and the Sophist", The University of Birmingham 1997). He is currently working in a bookshop in Bedford.

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