Murdoch and Derrida: Holding Hands Under the Table

Tony Milligan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals Iris Murdoch criticizes ‘a sort of plausible amoralistic determinism’ that she associates with Derrida. But a good deal of what she has to say is of a problematic nature. It is problematic because it directs our attention away from the possibility of using Derrida to win new insights about her novels and problematic because of the ambiguity of her targeting. Murdoch’s reading of Derrida is at times so loose that it is no longer clear that he is the main object of her criticism. Lurking in the background, and sometimes in the foreground too, are Saussure, a once fashionable postmodernism, and above all Heidegger. For Murdoch, Derrida is both an exemplar of a broader current and a contemporary way of approaching Heidegger. And this makes her critique, for all its problems, something that we must come to terms with if we are to engage fully with her Heidegger manuscript and understand the context within which she placed the Heideggerian position.

Here, I will argue that insofar as Murdoch’s critique does take Derrida as its target, the critique is based upon a misunderstanding. So, for example, she misses the ethical turn in Derrida that was already well under way at the time when she wrote the Metaphysics. And while it is tempting to say that her real target was the earlier and amoral Derrida of the Grammatology, this will also not do. Murdoch misses a feature of the Derridean approach to language that was build in from the very start, a feature that parallels the later Wittgenstein’s rehabilitation of moral discourse. Once we have dispensed with the idea of a pristine and pure descriptive language, we no longer have any reason to treat value-language as semantically second-rate. There is nothing better, purer, more original or truthful.

Overall, Murdoch’s view of Derrida’s Grammatology involves a plausible assessment of the centrality of the concept of archi-écriture coupled with a flawed understanding of the concept. For Murdoch, it functions as a Heideggerian language that speaks man. For Derrida, it functions as a way to recognize that ambiguity is built into every text but the ambiguity is bounded and restricted. Discourse is not placed in an abyss where all readings are equally defensible.

However, Murdoch’s critique is itself sufficiently indeterminate and ambiguous in its targeting to count as in certain respects and up to a point, not an attack upon Derrida but a critique of an ephemeral postmodern current of thought that has now thankfully had its day. Once we separate off Derrida from this legitimate target we will be better placed not just to generate Derridean insights about Murdoch’s novels, and better placed to understanding Murdoch’s Heidegger manuscript. We will also be in a better position to recognize that Derrida provides a way of legitimating a disturbing feature of Murdoch’s philosophical texts, i.e. their treatment of a bounded indeterminacy as a requirement for insightful moral discourse
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIris Murdoch
Subtitle of host publicationTexts and Contexts
EditorsAnne Rowe, Avril Horner
Place of PublicationLondon and New York
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Pages77 - 90
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9780230348288, 9781137271365
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Iris Murdoch
  • Derrida
  • Deconstruction
  • Ambiguity


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