Thursday, 17 March 2011

Tracy Emin will save us

I think I'm right in saying that Iris Murdoch is the only Booker-prize-winning novelist to also write works of philosophy, and as you might expect, her philosophy is full of the themes of her novels. Her main work of philosophy is Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, where she argues that philosophers have tried to separate out questions of the way the world is from questions of how we should live in the world. You can't do that, says Murdoch, because as soon as we look at the world we judge it; we make decisions about whether it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, real or unreal. Our ethical decisions rely on our perception of what's going on in the world: there's no use giving food to someone who isn't hungry but is sad; there's no point dedicating your life to being Brian's disciple if he's not the Messiah but a very naughty boy.

For Murdoch, the hardest ethical task is simply to see the world as it is in itself, not as something that we can use, or something that we like, or something that threatens us, but really truly as it is, as something that is not ourselves. And so art is, for her, central to the two inseparable tasks of philosophy and ethics. Art teaches us how to look at the world, how to really see it. She quotes, approvingly, Rainer Maria Rilke's description of Cézanne, "that he did not paint 'I like it', he painted 'There it is.'"

Photo: Cézanne's Still Life with Curtain.

1 comment:

musehunter said...

This is interesting - have you seen the TED talk by Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives? ( Or perhaps you've actually read his stuff. He defines something called "moral humility" which is the ability to step outside of your beliefs about the world to look instead for truth, and to try to grasp why other people believe things which you would think are stupid. This has some parallel with Murdoch's "hardest ethical task" of moving away from what we can use, like, or threats. Anyway, thanks, interesting.