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The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Classics) Paperback – 18 May 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (18 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415253993
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415253994
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 0.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 147,823 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'One of the very few modern books of philosophy which people outside academic philosophy find really useful.' - Mary Midgely

' ... Murdoch's attack is the fruit of a thorough professional involvement with the school of thought to which she is opposed.' - Anthony Quinton, Sunday Telegraph

'All three essays which make up this book, The Idea of Perfection, On `God' and `Good', and The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts, are superb.' - The Guardian

From the Back Cover

'Iris never minded being unfashionable. That is what makes The Sovereignty of Good so good - what makes it, still, one of the very few modern books of philosophy which people outside academic philosophy find really helpful.' - Mary Midgley

Iris Murdoch once observed: 'philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious'. What was obvious to Murdoch, and to all those who read her work, is that Good transcends everything - even God. Throughout her distinguished and prolific writing career, she explored questions of good and bad, myth and morality. The framework for Murdoch's questions - and her own conclusions - can be found in The Sovereignty of Good. The Boston Review hailed these essays as 'her most influential pieces of philosophy'.

Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). Irish-born British novelist and philosopher. Recipient of numerous awards and accolades, honours included the Booker McConnell Prize and the Whitbread prize.

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Bde Wall on 3 Mar. 2010
Format: Paperback
This book contains three essays, between 20-50 pages long each. All three largely cover the same ground, defending the notion of an absolute, universal, though not fully defineable presence - 'Good'. Murdoch's book is a defence of the idea that good exists as a necessary form of guidance for us in the world. She follows Plato and G.E Moore's realism with regards the notion of goodness, confronting challenges from Kant to Satre, from utilitarianism to behaviourism. No matter its indefineability, 'Good' is nevertheless a central form by which we orientate ourselves in the world, just as 'love' is. She opposes the idea of goodness as relative or self-created.

Murdoch explains "when plato wants to explain good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look to the sun itself." (p90)

Good, like love, comes in many forms. these terms communicate a wide range of things, and perhaps, as Murdoch claims, they remain most pure when they are indefineable (for then they are not reduced, pigeon holed, argued over etc).

'Goodness' often communicates to us through art. Think of art that has really spoken to you, it always communicates an openess, an honesty that speaks about a condition of existence e.g. some aspect of our humanity is touched on. Self indulgent art doesn't open itself to us in the same way.

Perhaps the image that this text most imprinted upon my mind is "I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps to some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Maquis de la Mer on 5 Feb. 2005
Format: Paperback
I am a biased reviewer for several reasons: I actually love to read philosophy texts, and I rather enjoy the elegance of Murdoch's philosophy in particular. Because, I feel, of Murdoch's consciously holistic approach to the understanding of philosophy itself.
You must read her novels to understand the 'bones' of this book (as well as 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morality'), as 'Sovereignty' provides the 'meat' of their insights.
Murdoch pursues, more or less, most interestingly the question(s): do we need a notion of divinity in order to know/be morally Good? What is Good after all? Without God, are we not moral creatures? Afterall, is not the notion of Good ultimately just another word for God in the end? How does such a notion relate to the 'real' world? Et cetera.
The full fascinating meditation on the subject is wittily, clearly and inexhaustably penned in the 'Sovereignty of Good'. Pursue it yourself, but don't forget the novels. They were her playground in which she played out what she meant to think; or thought to mean.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Algypop on 12 Feb. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Provisional, as I have not concluded reading this book. Courageously iconoclastic and individual as she was throughout her life she challenged her mentor in this book Wittgenstein "sitting sphynx like in Cambridge" during his lifetime, and develops her own very idiosyncratic moral theory. There is much interesting emphasis on derivative values. This was a brave book to write during a period when to challenge Wittgenstein and the whole linguistic philosophy movement was heresy (I was a student then, and it was impossible for an undergraduate to diverge from orthodox views - to do so invited ordeal by tutorial inquisition and ritual humiliation.) Fortunately for philosophy things have changed. As developed her Platonic belief in the real existence of abstract goodness may seem hard to accept (it's certainly "queer") - but there are no good really convincing meta-ethical theories in town anyway - so one may as well read the words of an inspiring mind and author if interested in these topics. Iris is out of fashion as a philosopher - but her day will return.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 9 reviews
71 of 73 people found the following review helpful
The return of Platonic realism 7 Mar. 2005
By Kevin Davis - Published on
Format: Paperback
It might seem odd that the other review of this book ('Lucid and brilliant') describes her moral philosophy as "a kind of Anglican conservatism" since Dame Iris was an atheist. However, I have to agree that she could largely stand in the tradition of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), the great Anglican theologian and philosopher, who largely represents what might be considered traditional English or Anglican moral ethics. The similarities are due to the fact that Murdoch, while an atheist, was not a materialist by any means. She was a Platonist -- in about as pure a sense as you can imagine -- and Platonism was/is highly influential in Anglican (not to mention, Roman Catholic) thought. While she does tweak Plato a bit, her moral realism is amazingly congruent with that of Plato. For instance, she speaks much of the Good as that which we must direct our attention and even love towards. Naturally, she attacks the dominant moral theories of the modern era -- deontological/Kantian and utilitatarian ethics -- in much the same way that G.E.M. Anscombe did in her essay, "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958), which revived virtue ethics. If you enjoy Miss Anscombe or other similar, pro-metaphysical moral philosophers of the 20th century (such as Simone Weil or Alasdair MacIntyre), then you will surely enjoy this book.

In 1992, Iris Murdoch (who mostly wrote novels) expanded her ideas on ethics in her book, 'Metaphysics As a Guide to Morals.' This is a much larger work and would greatly benefit from reading The Sovereignty of Good first. All of her essential moral concepts are found in The Sovereignty of Good, in a clear and succinct manner. However, her views, like all philosophies, are not without criticisms. The best collection of critical (both positive and negative) essays on her work is 'Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness,' which was born out of a conference on Iris Murdoch held at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1994. It includes essays by some of today's leading moral philosophers and theologians, including Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Hauerwas, and William Schweiker. For a full treatment of Iris Murdoch's moral philosophy, see Maria Antonaccio's 'Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch.' Both of these books are excellent and essential for anyone doing an academic study of Dame Iris.
48 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Do not buy this edition. Buy the collection "Existentialists and Mystics" instead. 18 May 2012
By Hypatian - Published on
Format: Paperback
While the essays in "The Sovereignty of Good" are definitely worth reading, I wish I would not have bought them in this edition. Routledge is asking $15 for this book. I have found numerous typographical errors, which is inexcusable given that the book has been reprinted many times since 2001. Additionally, it contains no new notes or introductions. It is merely a reprinting of 1970 version of the text. Finally, the physical book just feels a bit cheap. Really, for the price and from this publisher, I expected more.

I recently discovered that for just a few dollars more, I could have bought "Existentialists and Mystics"(Penguin, 2001). It contains the text of "The Sovereignty of the Good" along with nearly two dozen additional essays by Murdoch. The editors have also included explanatory notes which will be helpful for readers who have limited knowledge of mid-twentieth century philosophy. For instance, when Murdoch discusses McTaggart and Hampshire in "The Idea of Perfection", she does not offer full citations for the essays and books she references (at least such citations are not included in the Routledge reprinting). The editors of "Existentialists and Mystics" include the citations and offer brief notes about books and authors. Simple? Yes, but also time-saving. (Who wants to do a Google search in the middle of reading a good argument?)

Anyway, I will be buying "Existentialists and Mystics" in short order. I'll use the Routledge either as my mark-up or lend-out copy of the text. But I recommend you save yourself the trouble and buy the right book the first time.
46 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Lucid and brilliant 17 Aug. 2000
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Murdoch's clarity and keenness as a thinker are everywhere evident in the three essays that comprise this short book. It is at once a kind of paean to common sense and an intricate philosophical working-through of fundamental human dillemmas.
In the subject of moral philosophy, Murdoch clearly comes down on the side of what many might feel to be a kind of Anglican conservatism, though a careful reading will, I think, reveal the deep sense of connectedness and love which inform her thinking. In particular, the book offers a fertile critique of central concepts in existential thought, and of the moral relativism which postmodern philosophy can sometimes engender.
Readers of her novels in particular will appreciate this glimpse of Murdoch's philosophical thought, and will notice how it informs her craft as an artist.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Difficult but Worthwhile 29 July 2010
By James Henderson - Published on
Format: Paperback
The nature of goodness is an issue today in the writings of Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignty of Good includes three essays by her. In reading her essay, "The Sovereignty of Good over other concepts", I found her returning to the allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the Sun that I first read in Plato. Murdoch claims that "'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is." (p 91) For Murdoch this is a claim that Art is the way that humans can reach this unity in that,
"The mind which has ascended to the vision of the Good can subsequently see concepts through which it has ascended (art, work, nature, people, ideas, institutions, situations, etc.) in their true nature and in their proper relationships to each other." (p 92)
The discussion of the good by Iris Murdoch reconsiders this and other themes found in Marcus Aurelius and Plato. It is a difficult but worthwhile read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Mystical Wellspring of Iris Murdoch's Novels, Presented as Philosophy 16 Aug. 2014
By Aniko Carmean - Published on
Format: Paperback
In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch suggests that "God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention." This beautifully complex definition is intentionally devoid of commas, thus preventing any inference of a ranked list of qualities. Murdoch's definition captures the truth that any spiritual experience of the transcendent is beyond reason, categorization, or logical systems. God, which is for Murdoch an indefinable Platonic form of Good, is sensed by our "highest nature" (our morality), and not our intellect. Following Plato, Murdoch uses Beauty as an entry point into the examination of Good. Natural beauty and pure expressions of art draw our attention so completely away from considerations of self that the observer becomes selfless. Humility, which is both rare and unfashionable, is the highest human mode of selfless attention. The humble man, true scholar, and great artist share an ability to "unself." By directing their attention to a specific object, they see reality untainted by the psyche's protective mechanisms. Murdoch is quick to point out that "unselfing" doesn't necessarily equate to the person acting and deciding in ways that lead towards Good. The scholar may be a brilliant ass, and the artist a self-centered bore. Of the three who share in the gift of "unselfing," the humble man has the best chance of becoming Good. Thus viewed, morality doesn't reduce to either a series of value words or the nihilism of Kantian angst. Morality in Murdoch's argument is active and real. Not only is morality the proper focus of philosophy, but philosophers could learn from the "humble peasant." Murdoch argues that philosophy should encapsulate and transmit a theory of Good, and the academic means to attain morality. However, she warns that philosophy alone cannot fully transmit a functional guide for how to become Good. Hereby Murdoch makes a wonderful boast, and rattles the golden cages of Science and Logic. She says, "art then… is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen." Art, and especially literature, are "Goodness by proxy" and thereby able to instruct and guide the unruly ego. Great art sneaks past the psyche and into the soul, illuminating it with the light of reality as surely as the men in Plato's cave allegory saw the sun. Metaphor and story are spiritual tools. That Murdoch believed and lived by this view of story is evident in her vast oeuvre of fiction. She weaves entrancing morality tales that teach readers who are humble enough to pay attention. If you are a fan of Iris Murdoch's fiction and would like to peer into the mystical wellspring from which they come, read the Sovereignty of Good.
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