Iris Murdoch DBE (15 July 1919 – 8 February 1999) was an Irish-born British author and philosopher, best known for her novels about political and social questions of good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2008, The Times named Murdoch among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59 Blessington Street, Dublin, Ireland, on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down, and her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer until Iris was born, was from a middle class, Church of Ireland (Anglican) family from Dublin. When Iris was very young, her parents moved to London, where her father worked in the Civil Service.
She was educated in progressive schools, first at the Froebel Demonstration School, and then as a boarder at the Badminton School in Bristol in 1932. She went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, and philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.
She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, having previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph study in English of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce 25 more novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995, when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms of which she at first attributed to writer's block. She died, aged 79, in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at the Oxford Crematorium. She had no children.
Her philosophical writings were influenced by Simone Weil (from whom she borrows the concept of 'attention'), and by Plato, under whose banner she claimed to fight. In re-animating Plato, she gives force to the reality of the Good, and to a sense of the moral life as a pilgrimage from illusion to reality. From this perspective, Murdoch's work offers perceptive criticism of Sartre and Wittgenstein ('early' and 'late'). Her most central parable concerns a mother-in-law 'M' who works to see her daughter-in-law 'D' "justly or lovingly" and to overcome an obscuring jealousy. The parable is partly meant to show (against Oxford contemporaries including R. M. Hare and Stuart Hampshire) the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. The parable also draws a connection between loving faith in an individual and seeing them aright. This is of significance for Murdoch's wider theory of knowledge, and for her conception of her craft as a novelist. It is the interest, for Murdoch, of St Anselm's remarks in the ontological argument, "I believe in order to understand".
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