Existentialist Hero vs. Ordinary Language Man: Iris Murdoch Confronting Sartre and Wittgenstein
A quick summary of Iris Murdoch’s contributions to the discussion of morality would go like this: in the turbulent time after WWII, when Western moral philosophy became obsessed with the moment of ethical choice and the role of the will in deciding appropriate moral actions, Murdoch proposed a shift of focus to the moral agent’s inner efforts to curb the solipsist human ego, construct a just vision of a particular external reality, and cultivate a finer sensitivity to perceive the particularity of another (human) being in a non-violent and loving way. It is thus quite convenient, and fitting indeed, to identify Murdoch as a typical early member of the contemporary “virtue ethics” group, the character of which is the emphasis on virtuous personal character rather than laudable choices of action (often assessed abstractly), on understanding the particularity and complexity of lived human situations rather than upholding certain unchallengeable moral principles.
Such summary and labeling, although helpful in providing a quick sketch of Murdoch’s moral reflections, hardly touch the significance of her accomplishments in the post-war intellectual field, which lies not so much in the originality of her moral conclusions per se as in her overall evaluation of the foundations of the widely-held moral views in the western world shortly after the war. Put in another way, the significance of Murdoch’s moral reflections — together with that of the entire trend of virtue ethics, the background and cause of its increasing influence today — could be properly understood only if we are aware of Murdoch’s critique of the foundational thoughts of the popular moral views. To be able to get there, we have to go in depth, in detail, and across the wide range of intellectual/artistic fields of her writing.
One manageable way to untangle Murdoch’s moral critique is to divide it into three layers. On the first layer, Murdoch confronts head-on with Sartre and Wittgenstein. By pointing out what has gone wrong in the moral assumptions of these two influential figures in the Continental and Anglophone philosophical circles at the time, Murdoch diagnoses the post-war Western moral field as based on solipsist and conventional understandings of human life. They fail to pay sufficient tribute to the particularity of other (human) beings. The most effective means to rectify moral understandings, however, lies not in developing a more satisfying philosophical system, but in the practice of a certain type of literature. On the second layer, Murdoch proceeds to critique the Liberal tradition behind the post-war moral assumptions, summed up as existentialist-utilitarian-behaviourist in nature. The Liberal tradition, influenced greatly by Kant, holds an all too facile view on freedom and on human moral life, which results in the restriction of moral issues to the narrow field of the will and choice/action. Murdoch in its stead proposes a more complex model of moral improvement, one that is based on the platonic concepts of inner vision and love/Eros. On the deepest layer, Murdoch goes further to critique the long-held meta-ethical stance of humanism — that “man is the measure of all things” that culminates in existentialist hubris. In this last stage, the later Murdoch veers more and more to mysticism, emphasizing the mystic guide of the Good.
We will now follow Iris Murdoch’s trajectory of critique, layer by layer. The whole task needs two essays to complete. In the present essay, we will focus on the first and initiative layer, on Murdoch’s confrontation with Sartre’s and Wittgenstein’s thought. Her critique of the two prominent figures in the post-war intellectual circle triggers her entire endeavors to develop a better picture of people’s moral life.
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Murdoch was once a fan of Sartre’s. As a spirited young woman, in 1945, she could barely hold her excitement when she attended one of Sartre’s lectures to get his autograph. Yet by the time her first book came out (in 1953), Murdoch already displayed outright discontent with Sartre’s thought. Such discontent later grew into a harsh critique of the whole trend of post-war existentialist philosophy, which Murdoch regarded as fundamentally solipsistic, and liable to induce a moral collapse as grim as the concentration camps.
During her philosophical training at Cambridge (1947–48), Murdoch met Wittgenstein. She then drew immense inspiration from this legendary figure among the post-war Oxbridge philosophical circle, especially from his later ordinary language philosophy. Murdoch considered this to be a preferable alternative to existentialism in its moral assumptions. However, she still found the branch of the moral tradition manifested in Wittgenstein regrettable, for it focused too narrowly on public rules and shared conventions, therefore missed out on a richer field of human life and left no room for a transcendental idea of goodness. Murdoch’s first two books express most explicitly her reflections on these two philosophers. Both books — although one roughly classified as a philosophical treatise, the other as a novel — are peculiarly ambiguous in nature. They shuttle across the fields of philosophy, literary criticism, and literature without scruples.
In Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (Murdoch’s first book, also the first book discussing Sartre’s work in English), Murdoch enters her official critique of Sartre by way of discussing Nausea. Shortly after introducing the novel’s main plot and ideas, she asks her reader to reflect upon an unexpected question of literary appreciation: “What kind of novel is Nausea?” Murdoch’s own answer is:
“It seems more like a poem or an incantation than a novel. We find its hero interesting, but we do not find him particularly touching. Sartre says in L’Être et le Néant that pure introspection does not reveal character. Roquentin [protagonist of Nausea] is depicted as so lacking in the normal vanities and interests of a human being as to be rather colourless. Even his sufferings do not move us, for he himself is not their dupe.” (SRR 47–48)
This comment, going blatantly astray from philosophical argumentation, ushers in a pivotal moment for laying bare the defects of Sartre’s thoughts. The problem with Sartre, revealed here, is first of all the effacement of the concrete individual human characters despite the central position of the individual subject in Sartre’s thought. Sartre pictures the individual subject as a free, isolated, and self-chosen consciousness. Yet, as a Cartesian solipsist, Sartre exhibits “a lack of any lively sense of the mystery and contingent variousness of individuals.” (21) Even the individuality of Nausea’s only hero is presented with such a crude simplicity that the reader can say little more than that Roquentin is an “excessively transparent consciousness.” (48) This fictional characterization fails to move the reader.
Things get worse when Sartre deals with human subjects other than the self, and Murdoch criticizes his solipsism most vehemently on his perception of the other (person). Sartrean existentialism slanders, even demonizes, the existence of the other. Another person is seen as an alien being, whose freedom contradicts one’s own, and whose unassimilable Medusa gaze threatens to turn one’s “pour-soi” into an “en-soi.” Hence the failure of sympathy, and the impossibility of human companionship. The existentialist self “has a dream of human companionship, but never the experience. He touches others at the fingertips. The best he can attain to is an intuition of paradise.” (SRR 63) Nausea indeed exudes throughout a sense of defiant triumph of a lonesome hero, similar to that of Lucifer’s in Paradise Lost. In the fictional world of Nausea, the simple virtue of human interaction becomes a state of inauthenticity, and human companionship a trap of bad faith. As a result, whomever Roquentin, the existentialist hero, sets his eyes upon, “the tragic and magnetic unattainability of the loved other is not presented; and neither is the terribly concrete presence of the hated other shown to us with the force which one might have expected from the author of L’Être et le Néant.” (87)
On a broader and more encompassing scale, solipsism in Sartre’s philosophy also manifests itself in the denouncement of the world of “things” and the objective reality. According to Murdoch’s interpretation, Roquentin as the mouthpiece/archetype of Sartre’s existentialist hero is a Platonist who has, however, lost the Platonic faith of the transcendental truth. He longs for the stable and solid necessity of the eternal realm of “being”, and his sense of nausea comes from the naked confrontation with the world of “existence”, along with its chaotic contingency and its sticky substances. The everyday human world, with its rich and messy human life, is perceived as a place of degeneration as opposed to the orderly, authentic state of being that Roquentin aspires to. This explains why, in a famous scene in Nausea, in his final revelation, Roquentin is struck by extreme disgust when he observes the shapeless bulging root of a chestnut tree in a park. It is exactly here, that Murdoch gives her fundamental contention against Sartre’s philosophy in the form of a question: why would Sartre find the contingent everyday world with its “swooning abundance” nauseating, rather than glorious?
We can grasp Murdoch’s challenge to Sartre, and the relation of their respective stances, like this: Murdoch’s emphasis on the concrete world of the everyday can be seen as a way to push Sartre’s proposition “existence precedes essence” to further stages: not only must one face the accidental, always-in-flux, world of existence head-on, admitting that it is the human situation one was thrown into, but one also has to admit that from this situation one cannot flee. Such is the beginning and the end, and there is no final leaping off it outside of the self-indulgent fantasies of one’s consciousness. There is even one further stage: not only should one admit and accept this human situation, but one should also respect and welcome it. This further stage makes an ethical appeal, that one must endeavor to adopt a “just and loving gaze” (as opposed to Medusa’s fatal gaze) to recognize this chaotic accidental world and each of the beings (especially human beings) in it, with their particularities and ungraspable alterity.
With such a stance, we could also say that Murdoch in fact reverses Sartre’s philosophical proposition. Not that she reverses the order of “existence precedes essence”, of course, but in the following sense: for Sartre, the other (people), as well as the surrounding social conventions, are deemed as constant threats of alienation to the noble and lonely self. “To have ‘gone away’, literally or spiritually, from the rest of humanity may be at least a step away from bad faith, towards sincerity.” (SRR 44) However for Murdoch, the alienation of humanity implies nothing but the isolation of the human subject whose “fat, relentless ego” feeds on solipsism. To return to the “authentic” world (i.e. the world of the substantial and the real in here), the subject must struggle to overcome his self-indulgent fantasies and break free from “the grasping tentacle of the ego”, so as to move to the actual outside world that is filled with otherness.（MGM 268）Here we also get the chance for a first glimpse of what freedom means in Murdoch (which will become more important on her second layer critique). Freedom does not mean the willfulness of the self that could think and do whatever it wants, but that one could be aware of the appeal of an other-centered concept of “the real”, and under the guide of which one constantly improves one’s moral imagination of exterior reality and of the other. Note that, “fantasy” and “imagination” form an important conceptual dichotomy in Murdoch. The former is a bad use of the latter, leading to solipsism. Whereas the latter is a practice in the moral state; it is the effort to understand the other in a way that approaches ever closer to the truth (but never quite arriving).
For Murdoch, not only is Sartre’s artistic failure in the novel the most telling symptom of his solipsist philosophy, but it is also in the field of the novel, rather than in that of philosophy or in play-writing (such a genre highlights the dramatic moments of action and choice, which befits Sartre’s philosophy), that could have provided the brightest hope for him to rectify his solipsism — had he not hurriedly “said his final farewell to the messy accidental world of the novel, so full of encounters and moral conflicts and love.” (SRR 21) In the introduction Murdoch writes “I cannot help wishing that Sartre had devoted all that tremendous time-consuming energy to the writing of a 4000-page novel about everybody and everything.” (23) And in the last part of the book, after defining Sartrean existentialism as the paragon of the public spirit in the post-war era, Murdoch ends her maiden work with the following remark:
“[Sartre’s] inability to write a great novel is a tragic symptom of a situation which afflicts us all. We know that the real lesson to be taught is that the human person is precious and unique; but we seem unable to set it forth except in terms of ideology and abstraction.” (SRR 148)
To attempt to write a good novel, then, would be a meaningful practice. Not only for the literary value it provides, but also in that it is the moral imperative for the current period. But what kind of novel is regarded as “great” here? Nothing fancy in the criteria. The great novel simply looks like a proper novel. It contains lively events and nuanced descriptions of mental activities, abounds with vivid depictions of background details, and it deals with the unpredictability and chaos of human life with patience. Most importantly, a great novel brings about touching characters; its characterization is of a manner that the complexity and mystery of various human beings could reveal themselves freely, without too much undue interference from one single domineering consciousness. As is revealed in Murdoch’s diagnoses of Sartre’s fictional writing, “if we are to be either touched or terrified [by the fictional character], there must be that concrete realisation of what George Eliot called ‘an equivalent centre of self from which the shadows fall with a difference’” (SRR 88), the great novel Murdoch has in mind is closest to the 19th Century realist novel. It is, thus, no surprise that Murdoch’s second book, published only a year after her treatise on Sartre, is a novel that pays tribute to literary realism.
It makes a lot of sense to see Under the Net (1954) as Murdoch’s attempt to “novelize” Sartre’s Nausea. The novel harks back to Nausea frequently, especially in plot and in the image of its protagonist. The main hero, Jake, resembles Roquentin greatly in the beginning. He too is a typical “existentialist youth” that lives a rootless intellectual’s life, neurotic, cynical, detached from the warmth of close interpersonal connections. Yet, as Jake wanders through London and Paris, his frustrations in the encounters with the important others in his life — close friends, women whom he loves and who love him — shatter his inner state of contempt and superiority. The interactions with those important others, along with the conflicts, misunderstandings, the pain of loss and regret during the process, eventually transform Jake through the revelations of the other’s existence, and of the mental violence Jake had committed in perceiving others as he wished, rather than as how they are truly like. Such revelations could be as shocking as the experience of religious miracles: the static image writhes to come alive; blood oozing out from the marble statue (alluding to Sartre’s petrifying gaze onto another subject). One of the most agonizing revelations takes place when Jake loses the woman he’s been in love with for years, with a belated realization that he had been distorting her character and feelings to his own favor all of that time. Murdoch here gives one of her earliest eloquent statements on love, a concept that is to become very important in her later moral reflections; and this is also the crucial moment of Jake’s transformation:
“I had no longer any picture of Anna. She faded like a sorcerer’s apparition; and yet somehow her presence remained to me, more substantial than ever before. It seemed as if, for the first time, Anna really existed now as a separate being and not as a part of myself. To experience this was extremely painful. Yet as I tried to keep my eyes fixed upon where she was I felt towards her a sense of initiative which was perhaps after all one of the guises of love. Anna was something which had to be learned afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.” (UN 268)
As we can taste directly from the above passage, the vicissitudes of tone and literary style in Under the Net are also telling, above and beyond the change of the protagonist’s personality. The novel starts with a cool tone and style resembling that of Nausea, yet by the end it already exhibits the features of what Gogol called “laughter through tears.” Laughter in the sense of Zadie Smith’s comments on Jane Austen, namely that nothing is more hilarious in the British comic realism than someone who thinks he is always perfectly right; tears from the painful experience that others are not just an idea within oneself. Other people exist, out there, as separate and substantial beings of whom one can never gain perfect knowledge, even those one loves the most. Eventually, whilst Nausea remains a metaphysical novel, Under the Net turns out to be a mixture of Bildungsroman and picaresque novel that falls firmly into the category of British realist fiction, despite its heavy philosophical debates and traces of influence from the sometimes overly-stylized 20th Century European literature.
Murdoch expresses her opinions on post-war literature more straightforwardly in one of her most famous articles, “Against Dryness”. In this article she criticizes a major type of literature that appears since the 20th Century, which she calls the “crystalline” type. It includes the European “metaphysical novel” represented by Nausea and L’Invitée (by Beauvoir), surrealist literature, experimental novels that are obsessed with exploring fancy new ideas, and the dainty modernist poetry of Pound, Hulme and Eliot etc. This type of literature is “a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing ‘characters’ in the 19th Century sense.” (EM 291) To counter such a popular literary trend, Murdoch highlights the virtue of the 19th Century realist novels, which do not bother so much about the “human condition” as an abstract topic for intellectual debates, but instead are concerned with “real various individuals struggling in society.” (ibid.) On another occasion Murdoch calls for the return of the “realist eloquence” mentioned by Henry James, and beseeches that art should continue to reflect the complexity, openness and incompleteness of reality.
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The criticism of the “crystalline” literature, however, constitutes only half of the article’s review of 20th Century Western literature. Our picture is far from complete if we neglect the other half of Murdoch’s literary reflections, especially with regards to the topic that is most pertinent to our present essay: her confrontation with Wittgenstein.
The other type of literature Murdoch criticizes in her article is the “journalistic” type. In contrast to the dainty “crystalline” work, the journalistic one is “a large shapeless quasi-documentary object, the degenerate descendant of the 19th Century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts.” (EM 291) Now that Murdoch has identified the philosophical counterpart of the crystalline literature to be the Continental (existentialist) philosophical tradition that is adroit at constructing abstract theoretical systems, she also discovers the philosophical source for the journalistic literature, namely the Anglo-Saxon empirical/analytical philosophical tradition. Most notably, it lies in the school of 20th Century analytical language philosophy, represented by figures such as Russell, G. E. Moore, Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin. Those philosophers usually adopt a scientific/positivist views towards the analysis of linguistic phenomena, and believe that both abstract philosophical questions and moral problems in the wider society could be answered (or dissolved) through careful analysis of people’s linguistic practices. Among this group of philosophers Murdoch specifically highlights Wittgenstein and his (later) philosophy of ordinary language. Before we proceed to explore Murdoch’s opinions of the 20th Century literature on the basis of its moral impacts, it is necessary to halt here for a while and turn to clarify the parts of Wittgenstein’s thought that interest Murdoch, and Murdoch’s response to him.
Born on the European continent, Wittgenstein nonetheless becomes a crucial figure for the 20th Century Anglophone analytical language philosophy during its development from logical positivism to the focus on ordinary language. The early Wittgenstein agrees with Russell’s logical positivism on the nature of language, and believes that the everyday use of language is often logically misleading. The task of the philosopher is therefore to meticulously excavate the clear logical structure behind our problematic everyday language, and to preserve the “ideal language” with sound logic to cure the illness of our everyday language use.
However, the later Wittgenstein to a large degree subverts his early perceptions of language, and argues that no unified, metaphysical logical structure could be found in human language. Rather, human language is a vast corpus that consists of all sorts of practical human activities (i.e. various “language-games” each with their distinctive rules). Therefore, the later Wittgenstein believes that one should no longer attempt to create any theoretical system in the hope of solving, once and for all, the problems in language and in philosophy, for the chaotic phenomena in language and puzzling philosophical problems (problems in moral philosophy included) are only produced artificially, when the “theorists” start to study language in abstraction, when language does not really do anything at all (“philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” — Philosophical Investigations 23e). By contrast, the correct way to solve (more precisely, to dissolve) philosophical problems and to cure the so-called “illness” of language is to always return to the concrete cases of language practices, “to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (ibid. 53e) To quote a famous figure of speech from Wittgenstein: we must bring language back to the rough ground to see how it works, rather than to keep it spinning in mid‐air or sliding across the ice (“ice” here refers to the “crystalline purity” of logic and theories) (ibid. 51e).
It is the later Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy, with its anti-theory (some even claim “anti-philosophy”) attitude, that interests Murdoch. And she positions Wittgenstein’s thought not only as a major influence for contemporary British moral behaviourism, but also at the core of the British empiricist tradition (irregardless of the soundness of these traditions). The reason for Murdoch’s partiality is not hard to fathom: there is a completely different mode of thinking in the Wittgensteinian philosophy, that counters both the solipsism of existentialist philosophy and Continental philosophy’s general inclination to construct abstract theoretical systems.
To explicate further Murdoch’s preference for Wittgenstein over Sartre we could make the following two points. Firstly, Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy emphasizes the externality and commonality of language. The use of human language, and this language itself, is conceived of as “shared behaviours” among people in the same language community. Such is the “realistic spirit” (borrowing the title of Cora Diamond’s book on Wittgenstein) that acknowledges the outside reality with candor and humility, thus it could be seen as a promising counter-spirit against Sartre’s Cartesian solipsism. Wittgenstein himself denies outright the possibility of the existence of the Cartesian “private language”, which is in stark contrast with Sartre’s position on language. For Sartre, Murdoch points out, language is first of all the utterance produced by the self-enclosed consciousness, then it serves as a (usually failing) medium to link one’s inner thoughts with outside “things”, hence the strict separation of language and the world, and that of the self and the outside. (SRR 79) Secondly, ordinary language philosophy demands that we should bring our thinking back to the rich and various everyday human life, and emphasizes that we should focus our attention on the concrete cases of language practices (also to the cases of moral practices and many other human activities). It echoes what Murdoch promotes repeatedly as the “nostalgia to the particular.”(EM 43) In a way Wittgenstein’s anti-theory (/anti-philosophy) inclinations also endorse Murdoch’s ever firmer determination during her intellectual career to put literature above philosophy regarding their value and moral significance for the human life.
With all her admiration for Wittgenstein, Murdoch is more positive in her comments — and towards the Anglophone empiricist tradition generally as expressed in both philosophical and artistic fields. Yet, through the criticism of this “journalistic” literature, which conforms to many of the Wittgensteinian-empiricist principles (such as observing concrete cases and focusing on particular details with great patience), Murdoch still unleashes her dissatisfaction with this school of thought. For her, the empiricist-analytical linguistic moral philosophy is too obsessed with the shared habits of behaviour and public social conventions, to the degree that it too loses the genuine singularity and idiosyncrasy of the individual, despite its emphasis on particularity as opposed to abstraction. In this sense, the “journalistic” literature falls prey to similar problems as existentialist art, in that they both fear the chaos and contingency shown in the individual (EM 273).
Moreover, the linguistic moral philosophers (Wittgenstein included) share the emphasis on the outward actions with the existentialists, and ignore the individual’s inner moral life (Wittgenstein simply gives a cursory acknowledgment to the sphere of inner life and then leaves it with the statement that we could explain nothing about it), resulting in the same state of moral “dryness” as in Sartre’s thought. Lastly, whereas the emerging view of language on the European continent at the time, adopted by Sartre as well as schools from surrealism to (post-)structuralism, tends to regard language as a complete separation from the world (hence the disillusionment with language’s traditional referential function), the Anglophone ordinary language philosophy, on the other hand, completely eradicates the division of language and the world (i.e. language just is activities in the world). The consequence is that there is no room left for what Murdoch tries very hard to pursue: the concept and sphere of “transcendental truth”, which could have served as a better ultimate moral guide beyond the totalitarian human will or flimsy social conventions.
Hence, Murdoch gradually comes to the conclusion that neither of the two post-war philosophical-aesthetic-language schools (with Sartre and Wittgenstein as their representatives) is sufficient enough to provide a good moral foundation for the current Western world. They go respectively to two extremes, yet often betray the same problem: that they leave us “far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality.” (EM 287) In another important article, Murdoch provides a comparison of the two approaches to humanity in linguistic empiricism and (Sartrean) existentialism, by means of the depiction of two human characters. They are called the “Ordinary Language Man” and the “Totalitarian Man” respectively:
“One might say that whereas Ordinary Language Man represents the surrender to convention, The Totalitarian Man of Sartre represents the surrender to neurosis: convention and neurosis, the two enemies of understanding, one might say the enemies of love; and how difficult it is in the modern world to escape from one without invoking the help of the other. Sartre’s man is like a neurotic who seeks to cure himself by unfolding a myth about himself. Ordinary Language Man is at least surrounded by something not of his own creation, viz. ordinary language. But Totalitarian Man is entirely alone.
In the world inhabited by the Totalitarian Man there are other people, but they are not real contingent separate people. They appear as organized menacing extensions of the consciousness of the subject. … Ordinary Language Man is too abstract, too conventional: he incarnates the commonest and vaguest network of conventional moral thoughts; and Totalitarian Man is too neurotic: he is simply the centre of an extreme decision, man stripped and made anonymous by extremity.” (EM 268–69)
Consequentially, the problem of post-war Western literature in general, to conclude Murdoch’s review of this topic, is that it misses the chance to envision an appropriate image of the human personality in the literary work, in between the above two options. “We are offered things or facts, what we have lost is persons.” (EM 278) Yet Murdoch does not stop at bitter critique. Since the very early stage of her intellectual trajectory, she has attempted to reach a better imagining of the human personality through a critical selection and revision of the two modern branches of the Western philosophy. More often than not, it is in her novel writing, rather than in her philosophical works, that her experimental thinking is presented with greater vividness and richness. Now, it is time for us to return again to Under the Net, for the book is as much a novel (in genre and style) as a work of philosophical experiment (in content), as much about Sartre as it is about Wittgenstein. (The title itself gives away a strong allusion to Wittgenstein, who famously insists that one should be daring enough to crawl under the net of theory and logical structure, so as to observe what is really going on.) We shall now proceed to explore how Murdoch lets the Totalitarian Man and the Ordinary Language Man interact through dialogue, what kind of interactions and mutual influences could take place between these two men, and what new insights we could draw from such a confrontation.
It all begins with the novel’s characterization. If the first protagonist, Jake, is a typical Sartrean Totalitarian Man, then the second protagonist of the book, Hugo, is undoubtedly a typical Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Man. Murdoch not only designs for Hugo a life trajectory similar to that of Wittgenstein’s, but also confers on him a temperament that could personify the ordinary language philosophy. Hugo is gentle, honest and modest. He seems to think and talk slowly, but very profoundly when he does, with an ability to rephrase what Jake has said (either too cursory or too obscure) “in some completely simple and concrete way, which sometimes illuminated it enormously.” (UN 60) Jake and Hugo are best friends and close intellectual companions, and, according to Jake (the narrator), their acquaintance is the central theme of Under the Net. Jake is drawn to Hugo by his down-to-earth, anti-theorizing habit of thinking. Hugo never thinks along the lines of any general theory or ready-at-hand system whatsoever, therefore in his eyes “each thing is astonishing, delightful, complicated, and mysterious.” (66) In comparison to Hugo, Jake realizes for the first time the potential defect of the way he sees things:
“But it was as if [Hugo’s] very mode of being revealed to me how hopelessly my own vision of the world was blurred by generality. I felt like a man who, having vaguely thought that flowers are all much the same, goes for a walk with a botanist. Only this simile doesn’t fit Hugo either, for a botanist not only notices details but classifies. Hugo only noticed details. He never classified. It was as if his vision were sharpened to the point where even classification was impossible, for each thing was seen as absolutely unique. I had the feeling that I was meeting for the first time an almost completely truthful man.” (68)
The drastic difference between Jake and Hugo in their modes of thinking makes them fascinated with each other, but it also causes immense difficulty for their mutual understanding. One of the most severe misunderstandings between the two friends has to do with their views on language. Jake’s existentialist language view is embedded in the assumption that language and the world are completely separate, whereas Hugo’s ordinary language view is that language is completely about living in the world (as has been touched upon above), and herein lies the reason why Jake would come to distort Hugo’s arguments about language completely. The ideas that Jake thinks he has stolen from Hugo and put into his book, The Silencer, does not contain any of Hugo’s real opinions at all.
The misunderstanding is triggered by Hugo’s explanation of his Wittgensteinian view on people’s inner feelings. As the two friends discuss Proust’s writing, Hugo insists that “there’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,” (66) because when the feeling — apprehension, for example — takes place inside a person, the only thing he could say according rigorously to the facts might just be about his quickened heartbeats. “But if one said one was apprehensive, this could only be to try to make an impression — it would be for effect, it would be a lie” (ibid.). Jake is quite shocked by Hugo’s statements, he repeatedly interrogates Hugo, if he really believes that there is no way to express one’s inner feelings (and thoughts, Jack adds), truthfully? Is verbal communication between people always false then? Suppose one tries hard to be accurate? After receiving Hugo’s negative answers each time, Jake draws a natural conclusion: “In that case one oughtn’t to talk.” (67) Now that Hugo also says “actions don’t lie” (68), Jake then very comfortably comes to the notion of abandoning language. He puts it in his The Silencer: “Actions don’t lie, words always do.” “Truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence.” “It is in silence that the human spirit touches the divine.” (92)
Had Jake for one moment been able to leave the comfort zone of his conceptual premises and enter the scope of Hugo’s view, he would see that language and action could essentially be the same thing. He then would never come to these crude dichotomies of language/action, truth/falsehood. Nor would he impose the conclusion of “rejecting language — embracing action” onto Hugo. Murdoch here mocks Jake’s existentialist language-life attitude with not only the stupid misunderstanding Jake has made, but also more profoundly, with the thinking process such attitude leads to, in contrast to the Wittgensteinian one right beside it. Jake’s harsh, arbitrary judgment on language that is manifested in his The Silencer is exactly the “crystalline” type of work. The logic is as such: since language cannot truthfully convey what the subject thinks and feels within him, then the subject, for the sake of protecting the authenticity of his consciousness, better speak as little as possible. Eventually such a view on language boils down to Sartre’s Cartesian solipsism. Language is first and foremost regarded as a means of inner meditation for the isolated subject; once uttered out, it is inevitably faced with the risk of degenerating into the idle talk of “das Man” (to borrow Heidegger’s terms). Consequentially the authentic inner state of the self would be contaminated by outside prejudices, which leads to the “bad faith” of the subject. It is also worth noting here, that such a solipsist language view seems to be shared by a wide range of existentialist philosophers. Heidegger, too, highlights the purity of language use, and it is no wonder that his favorable form of verbal art is poetry. When Heidegger proposes that man dwells poetically in language, he seems to view language as more of a channel for giving monologues toward Being than as the medium to communicate with other human beings.
One the other side of the picture, Hugo’s Wittgensteinian attitude toward language clearly bears resemblance to that of the “journalistic” work. He records, ponders on, and interrogates every single thing and idea meticulously, with fantastic patience. For every opinion Jake expresses, Hugo would confirm over and over again to make it precise. He is no silencer. So when Hugo says that language will produce lies when it starts to describe inner feelings, what he adopts is in fact Wittgenstein’s critique of the notions of “private language” and “inner life”. The reason in here is that the various human feelings, emotions, and consciousness should not be seen as some cryptic experience inside the individual’s spiritual life at the outset (then the individual seeks to express them with the correct words). Those terms are just like other terms in human language: they are public behaviours conducted under publicly accepted rules. Were this not the case people would never escape the labyrinth of abstract philosophical reasoning.
This is not to imply that Wittgenstein denies the human mind’s inner activities, but that the language of feelings should not be seen as some set of decontextualized tags to be stuck to some non-verbal actions: they (the language and the action) are from the beginning to the end in one. When a person cries out that he is in pain, he is in pain. The verbal signs he gives out have the same efficacy as other “natural” actions such as moaning or shaking. Those in the same language community, upon receiving such verbal signals, would know what they should do is to step up and offer help (rather than standing by and meditating whether that person is telling the truth or not — that would be another language-game under another rule). But what lies beyond the scope of the common life, i.e. the goings-on inside an individual’s mental mechanism, are beyond the limits of language and any future language philosophy; they could only be seen as mysterious processes and be left in silence. Hence Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. (Tractatus 3) That is also why Hugo himself sometimes seems to endorse Jake’s rejection of language — but he actually never does.
But what about Murdoch’s criticism of Wittgenstein here, and of the journalistic literature? It is indeed more difficult to see clearly Murdoch’s criticism of them in comparison to her strong negative opinions on Sartre and the crystalline literature. The affection Murdoch shows in her characterization of Hugo, and her undisguised admiration of Wittgenstein, both reveal that she accepts Wittgenstein’s position to a very large degree. However, Murdoch in Under the Net still mobilizes Jake all the time to counterbalance Hugo’s stance, indicating that she is still somehow not satisfied with him.
I would venture to say that what Murdoch feels with Wittgenstein (and with British empiricism generally) is mostly a sense of regret. A “regret” is not a “mistake”, it does not stimulate fierce attacks, yet it could also be as fatal (if not more so). A mistake, however severe, always stands a chance for correction, yet regret is often caused by lack. One has to leave for somewhere else to find the missing thing. What ordinary language philosophy lacks is exactly the thing that could be found in Jake; it is what makes him feel shocked and unacceptable when he hears that human language/understanding has to halt before people’s inner life. It might be wiser to accept the conclusion with a down-to-earth empirical posture, that our language and our thinking can only remain in silence when we come to the realm that’s beyond their limits, and not suffer for it. But this would mean the denial of the fact that there is always the impulse of imagination in the human being. This is exactly why the Ordinary Language Man also misses the real picture of the human character. Murdoch says, “To be a human being is to know more than one can prove, to conceive of a reality which goes beyond the facts in the familiar and natural way.” (EM 199) Where the empirical thinking cannot reach the fact, there the wings of imagination could bring us closer to the height of the real. For Murdoch, it means we should not comfortably join the ordinary language philosophers in their calmness to be satisfied with the notion that truth and falsehood are only consensuses of a language community. We should aspire to something higher than that. We should keep our faith in the transcendental truth, and transcendental goodness.
Murdoch eventually chooses Jake to be the first protagonist in Under the Net even though she is less fond of him, which implies that she nonetheless thinks highly of the impulse for transcendental truth-seeking in Jake. Hugo and Jake form a pair of prototypical characters that appear repeatedly in Murdoch’s novels, namely “the saint” and “the artist”. In Under the Net Murdoch makes it explicit that, although the saint (Hugo) might be wiser and come closer to perfection, it is the artist (Jake) whose state of being is more commendable. Because only the artist can fully experience the force of Eros (in the Platonic sense), he longs to ascend to the realm of the beautiful and the good — a realm of otherness that is exterior to both one’s self and the shared human society. He keeps longing for beings that are irrevocably separate from him (Jake feels a sense of initiative towards Anna, he thinks that is a guise of love). The saint however, is far too sober and self-sufficient.
Near the end of the novel, Hugo gives a piece of advice to Jake: “Some situations can’t be unraveled… they just have to be dropped. The trouble with you, Jake, is that you want to understand everything sympathetically. It can’t be done. One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.” (272) These words require the reader to digest critically. It is true that one could only blunder on to reach truth (or more like fact, in Hugo’s context), yet Jake’s impulse to “understand everything sympathetically” should not be denounced, even if it will only end in heroic defeats. In the novel, Hugo eventually suffers the same fate as Jake. He too is helplessly drawn into the chaos of love, he too has experienced the pain of longing for someone other than himself, of trying to approach the loved one’s mysterious transcendence that results in failure. This might be the most tender and most solemn of punishments that Murdoch could ever arrange for her character — the punishment from Eros.
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The theme of love/Eros in Murdoch’s thoughts is a crucial one that deserves another full essay to unravel. Discussing it in depth will lead to Murdoch’s deeper critique of the foundations of Western moral views: the Liberal tradition, the meta-ethical stance of humanism. For the present essay, though, we have already seen the major “enemies of love” Murdoch points out in her confrontation of Sartre and Wittgenstein: the neurotic existentialist hero and the conventional ordinary language man. Both personalities fail to picture moral life properly, but they indicate a new possibility for moral improvement by way of a selective combination of these two — which leads Murdoch to define herself as a “Wittgensteinian Neo-Platonist” later on.
Dostoevsky says, in The Brothers Karamazov (through the confession of the youngest brother), that it is much easier to love people abstractly, as ideas. Yet when people present themselves all too concretely, with their solid corporeality, their peculiarity, their idiosyncratic way of thinking and doing things in one’s everyday life, love becomes immensely more difficult. Such symptoms of solipsism and fear of peculiarity are still very common in our contemporary world. And that is why it is still pertinent to take heed of what Murdoch said today, more than half a century later.
Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics (EM). Ed. Peter Conradi. New York and London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997.
— . Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (MGM). London and New York: Penguin, 1993.
— . Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (SRR). London: Vintage, 1999.
— . Under the Net (UN). London: Vintage, 2002.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe etc. Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009.
— . Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.