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Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Published April 7th 2003 by Vintage (first published 1992)

(This review appears in other locations besides this blog.) This book is hands down the second most important work in metaphysics in the last 200 years. The 1st most important work is Whitehead’s “Process and Reality;” taken together, the “200” year frame is quite possibly overly conservative.

Murdoch does not present us with a metaphysical “theory.” Rather, she presents a comprehensive argument about the nature and purpose of metaphysical *inquiry*. It is impossible to overstate the significance of such a shift in emphasis.

Murdoch carefully leads the reader through a study of metaphor, because the deepest metaphysical truths are the sorts of things that cannot be directly articulated. Whitehead is also clear on this point, a fact that many of his interpreters cheerfully disregard. But Murdoch goes well beyond Whitehead’s brief defense of speculative philosophy, and argues for the necessity of “spiraling in” (my phrase) to ideas that are real asymptotically, but only ever ideal within the finite limits of human cognition. Hence the need for metaphor to approach that which always hovers just over the horizon of what human thought and speech can formulate. Each successive phase of metaphorical expression takes another step in closing in upon a never achieved, “infinitely receding,” center of an idea that we feel and sense, but can never quite say. (Plato’s “Symposium” exemplifies this procession of metaphors, by the bye, as the series of speakers presents a different, yet refined, metaphor about love.)

But what makes Murdoch’s work so especially important is that she does not merely argue for this point, she *exemplifies* it in her successive development of metaphors, stories, and analyses. She does not simply tell us that this is how metaphysical inquiry is done, she *SHOWS* us in the very doing of that inquiry. Having mentioned Whitehead already, the example that comes to mind is of mathematicians who present us with the completed results of their inquiry (and Whitehead was, of course, a mathematician as well as a brilliant philosopher) in the form of theorems and proofs, but do not exhibit the full process *OF* that inquiry to we sad fools trying to follow their line of argument. Murdoch — and to my knowledge, *ONLY* Murdoch — explicitly peels back the curtain on that process of inquiry.

Anyone with even a casual interest in philosophy needs to read this book, in order to understand how to do philosophy well.