Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

In Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, Iris Murdoch claimed that "[a]rt is far and away the most educational thing we have..." Here she is discussing this notion, among many others, with the philosopher Bryan Magee.

Part One:

Watch on YouTube.

Part Two:

Watch on YouTube.

Go to flame0430's channel on YouTube for Parts 3-5.

You can also read an interview with Murdoch in the Paris Review. Here's an excerpt:


Should the novelist also be a moralist and teacher?


Moralist, yes. Teacher suggests something rather more didactic in tone. A novelist is bound to express values, and I think he should be conscious of the fact that he is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist. Novelists differ, of course, in the extent to which they set out to reflect on morals and to put that reflection into their work. I certainly do reflect and put this reflection into my works, whether or not with success. The question is how to do it. If you can’t do it well, you had better not do it at all. If you have strong moral feelings, you may be in difficulties with your characters because you may want them to be less emphatic than you are yourself. In answer to your question, I think a novelist should be wary of being a teacher in a didactic sense, but should be conscious of himself as a moralist.

I would also recommend giving the movie Iris a viewing, which stars both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the philosophical author at different stages of her life.


  1. says

    “and in our own time, Bertrand Russell …”

    Provoked quite the tinge of envy, that.

    Also, the music, the couch, the set background … Monty Python’s parodies parodied by the parodied.

    To the point, his premise that philosophers can be bad writers and it has no effect on their strength as a philosopher. Yet a philosopher’s medium is language (propositional). How could one possibly be a bad writer without it becoming a barrier to one’s philosophical efficacy?

    • Chris Mullen says

      Gary- I think the point is that some philosophers are more artfully skilled with how they present their ideas while others suffer from an inability to render their propositions poetically. Here the idea is that just because the aesthetic quality of the presentation is lacking, the substance of the argument need not suffer. One can have a solid argument even if one does not have the talent to render that argument beautifully.

      Of course, i would argue that the presentation of an idea is just as important as the idea itself and that a poorly rendered concept makes that concept more difficult to digest on the part of the recipient. On the other hand, one can have an ear of poetic presentation only to lose the point of the argument in purple prose and baroque stylization. The skill is learning how to be both aesthetically pleasing and concise, something the more memorable authors and philosophers seem to have.

      • says

        If you had not written the second paragraph, that would have been my reply to the first. My objection is to the idea that the form of the argument is immune to the vagaries of its structure.

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