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Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Elizabeth Anscombe are now recognized as among the most important philosophers of the last century. But their philosophical lives began as undergraduates in an Oxford disrupted by World War II. They met first over ration-book lunches in Somerville, one of Oxford’s four colleges for women. Mary Scrutton (later Midgley) was tall and gangly. She was more interested in newts and animal life than in trying to appear dainty, which was just as well when “digging for victory” on a windy Headington Hill. Iris Murdoch was a dashing Irish-born communist — exuberant and vivacious. If Something Was Happening, Iris was sure to be there, notebook in hand. Philippa Bosanquet (later Foot), pathologically discreet and ferociously bright, had rebelled against her mother’s best-laid plans to have her well-married. Esther Bosanquet (a daughter of President Grover Cleveland) despaired as her elder daughter set herself on getting An Education: “Don’t worry dear, she doesn’t look clever,” one of Esther’s friends consoled. Elizabeth Anscombe was a brilliant Catholic convert, inclined to wear trousers and already notorious for self-publishing a pamphlet claiming to give the Catholic view on “The Justice of the Present War.” (She and her co-author were forced to withdraw it on the orders of the bishop of Birmingham.) The four women shared books when paper shortages made copies scarce. While sirens wailed, they sat through lectures delivered by unconscripted women, conscientious objectors, old men, and the refugee scholars who had fled Nazi anti-Semitic legislation for the pavements of Oxford.
Hardly anyone in philosophy seemed to be aware that these women had worked and written and philosophized together. Why?
In the five decades that followed, these four friends would produce some of the best-known works of contemporary philosophy, especially in the field of ethics. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” and Foot’s “Moral Beliefs” and “Moral Arguments” are the foundational texts of contemporary virtue ethics. Anscombe’s Intention has been described as the most important work in the philosophy of action since Aristotle. Foot’s Natural Goodness is a modern classic. Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good introduced the notions of “moral psychology” and “moral vision” into the philosophical lexicon, and her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is beginning to gain the scholarly attention it deserves — for some, it is a masterpiece. Mary Midgley might be claimed to be the founding mother of contemporary animal ethics. Her Beast and Man is the first work in philosophical ethology, and remains a touchstone for today’s ecofeminists.
Until recently, however, no one had remarked that these four women were contemporaries, let alone friends. No one had noticed the significance of what Mary Midgley had insisted in her memoir The Owl of Minerva: that she and her university friends received the attention that their talents deserved only because of the war. There were, she said, fewer men around to shout them down. And no one had seriously thought to read these women’s work together, nor to read closely the work of those who taught them while they were not scanning the skies or digging potatoes. As it turns out, what historians of philosophy had failed to spot was a pattern of thinking that animates the philosophy of all four women. Might these four friends constitute an all-female philosophical school?
All four certainly share a vision of what philosophy is for. Philosophy is necessary when (as Anscombe puts it) we are “in the dark about the character of our concepts.” Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot both compare philosophy to plumbing. “If you have trouble with your pipes you call in a plumber, if you have trouble with your concepts you call in a philosopher,” explained Foot. Iris Murdoch writes of the “darkness of practical reason” and of the mystery each of us is unto one another, of the pull of fantasy and the difficulty of real attention. Where analytic philosophers typically insist on extreme abstract clarity and precision — on arguments that can be formalized into a tidy set of premises and an unambiguous conclusion — these women take as their starting point darkness, confusion, and disorientation. They recognize that even the most rigorous and careful statements may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied. Any neat formulation is bound to leave something out. In different ways, they all argue that metaphors and analogies are indispensable to philosophical thinking and that philosophers must rely on others to catch hold of what they say.
It is no accident that they met as undergraduates during World War II and developed their philosophy in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Oxford philosophy in the postwar period owed its character to the new analytic and logical methods that had embedded themselves in Oxford and Cambridge in the interwar period, popularized in A.J. Ayer’s 1936 manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer proposed that everyday language could be formalized and clarified with the new logical symbolism developed by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. Once formalized, observational judgments could be tested, one by one, by appeal to sensory experience. Any proposition that did not yield to this analysis and method of testing failed to express a thought, Ayer claimed. For example, “There are mountains on the far side of the moon” is, in principle, verifiable. We know what it would take for the statement to be true — we would need to travel to the far side of the moon and observe mountains of some estimable height there. But there is no procedure we could use, no observations we could make, to prove or disprove metaphysicians’ claims about the nature of a transcendent reality, God, Truth, or Beauty. Ethical discourse also failed Ayer’s test — after all, there is no quality that we could observe to determine the truth or falsity of “stealing is bad.” So, such discourse was classified as merely expressive — a moral argument came down to the exchange of shouts of “Boo!” and “Hooray!”
In Ayer’s vision, the ancient conception of philosophy as the painstaking and lifelong task of contemplating our purpose and place in the world, and of seeking to live in accord with those discoveries, was replaced by a modern technique. The philosopher’s task was to regiment statements into a symbolic language, the constituents of which corresponded to possible experiences, before handing them over to scientists to be tested by observation. With this method in hand, a whole generation of young philosophers was excited to discover that they could brush aside any hesitating talk of the metaphysical by roundly and loudly declaring, “I don’t understand.” “What comes next?,” a friend asked Ayer soon after the publication of Language, Truth and Logic. “There’s no next,” replied Ayer. “Philosophy has come to an end. Finished.”
Ayer was wrong about that, but his book had a profound impact. Much of the philosophy produced in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s remained shaped by his vision of the task of philosophy as linguistic clarification and the exposing of nonsense. J.L. Austin, an Oxford professor a few years younger than Ayer, had been in the intelligence services during the war and was newly attuned to the code-breaking possibilities that analysis of linguistic data afforded. He continued Ayer’s mission to eradicate nonsense in his famous “Saturday morning” gatherings. These took place in the men’s colleges, and all Oxford’s young philosophers were invited — except the women. In Austin’s hands, the weaponized “I don’t understand” took on a new form. For him, the “ordinary man” in the street was the arbiter of sense, and the measure by which complex metaphysical concepts like Truth and Reality could be briskly dispatched. Richard Hare, who attended the Saturday-morning classes, took moral philosophy further along the path that began from Ayer’s basic picture of a world stripped of value. In his hands “Hooray!” and “Boo!” became the more sophisticated “Do it!” and “Don’t.”
[We were] doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint “NO!” No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and — after a bit more preparation — also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.
The metaphysics that followed over the coming decades is copious and profound. The women saw that the problem with the philosophy that dominated that postwar setting wasn’t restricted to moral philosophy as such. The speechlessness of the moral philosophers in the face of the Holocaust was rather a symptom of a deeper malaise. Lying behind the “Boo!” “Hooray!” ethics was a picture of human individuals as “efficient calculating machines,” concerned only with the manipulation of symbols and the recording of experiential data. This framing alienated a person not just from her own animal nature, but also from her history, her culture, her practical rationality, and the friends, lovers, and children that made up her life.
By stamping out nonsense, the men had shut philosophers out from the very area in which they should work: the dark. For the four women, human life is a mix of instinct and culture. We are constantly running up against the limits of our own perspective and the puzzles that life throws up. It is in our nature, as “metaphysical animals,” to ask questions that go beyond the limits of what we experience here and now, and to create pictures, images, and stories that shape our ways of going on. There is a form of the question “Why?,” the friends insisted, that comes naturally to children and that we, as adults, must continue to use. Why should I share my pencils? Why are the lives of animals important? Why do people lie? This “Why?” cannot be met by the sorts of explanation that belong to science. Instead, the question invites us to turn our attention to what is mysterious and paradoxical in this deeply puzzling, teeming world.
That shift, Midgley later reflected, changed the climate in the classroom.
The trouble is not, of course, men as such — men have done good enough philosophy in the past — what is wrong is a particular style of philosophizing that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments ... By contrast, in those wartime classes — which were small — men (conscientious objectors etc.) were present as well as women but they weren’t keen on arguing. It is clear that we all were more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.
And it was not just the climate that changed: The content of their philosophical education changed too. With the younger analytic philosophers away, the older metaphysicians were asked to return to the lecterns to cover the teaching. They spoke once again of transcendence, wisdom, and truth. Refugee academics, fleeing Nazi persecution in Austria and Germany, stepped in to take classes. Speaking in a language that was not their own, they shared scholarship and learning of a kind Oxford had not seen before. Philosophers and classicists including Raymond Klibansky, Ernst and Heinz Cassirer, Richard Walzer, and Lotte Labowsky all appeared on the lecture lists. And moral philosophy’s ancient problems about the relationships between duty and goodness and between happiness and virtue took on concrete form in the minds of the conscientious objectors who had refused conscription.
All four women were taught by Donald MacKinnon, a pacifist and Scottish Episcopalian. A young man of towering physique, MacKinnon attracted animal epithets: bear-headed, lion-pawed, owl-eyed. He spoke with a Scottish growl. Working with him was “a remarkable stroke of luck,” said Midgley. “He created me,” Foot later said of MacKinnon. For Murdoch he was “a jewel.” MacKinnon was a few years younger than A.J. Ayer, and he, perhaps more than anyone else in Oxford at that time, saw the significance and potency of Ayer’s attempt to kill off metaphysics. “The elimination of metaphysics is before all else an assault on man in the interests of a method,” he wrote. “It prepares man for his ‘subordination’ to the process of empirical science.”
It was during those early conversations that Foot first realized the importance of virtue, Anscombe developed her interest in human life and action, Murdoch became concerned with mystery and vision, and Midgley first began to ask deeply unfashionable questions about the animality of human life.
One aspect of that subordination, as MacKinnon saw it, was the loss of that distinctive sense of the question “Why?” that characterizes the curiosity of the philosopher. Aristotle’s rational animal employs many forms of explanation and inquiry to make sense of its world — the question “Why?” might ask for an explanation in terms of efficient causation, but it might also ask for an account of a larger pattern of human activity, or to appeal to a telos (purpose) or fit. In contrast, the logical positivist’s assimilation of human reason to the activities of calculation and symbolic manipulation cut rationality loose from comprehension. If the “stuff of the physical world” is merely the data of sensory experience, the request for explanation — Why? — would be limited to a prediction based on past observations, and the human capacity for reason would be understood solely in terms of a capacity for “the elaboration of technical devices whereby the order of our sensations may be predicted and controlled.”
Humans are metaphysical animals, MacKinnon told his tutees. We are not “efficient calculating machines” but living creatures whose characteristic form of life shapes what we need to live well. As well as food and shelter, we need society and love. But we are limited in what we can know and understand. The “Why?” that is the mark of the metaphysical animal emerges of necessity in this context, the context of human life in which we are confronted with a reality that defies our capacity to understand it. The snowdrop hangs its head. Why? So asked a 6-year-old Iris Murdoch in 1925. “Why indeed!” she reflected as an adult. “A thought-provoking question, a good introduction to a world which is full of mysteries.”
We are lucky enough to have in Oxford, in the women’s colleges, a number of able and distinguished philosophers; and most of them spend quite a lot of the time attacking the views of their male colleagues. They all, when I am the target, accuse me of paying too much attention to general principles and too little to the peculiarity of individual cases — which require to be savoured with a feminine intuition before a right moral judgment can be passed upon them.
Despite the sense that something was going on in the women’s colleges, the quartet did not gain a reputation as a school. When we discovered their story, in 2015, hardly anyone in philosophy seemed to be aware that these women had known one another, let alone that they had worked and written and philosophized together. Why?
Philosophical schools are usually named by their opponents. When a set of voices is recognized as posing a challenge to an orthodoxy, or seen as articulating an alternative that can no longer be ignored, they are grouped, named, and challenged. But when the voices are “over in the women’s colleges,” their proclaimed status as “able and distinguished philosophers” can be quite easily undercut by characterizing their interventions as mere appeals to “feminine intuition.” Philippa, Elizabeth, Iris, and Mary did each manage to “get through” — as Mary would later put it — in a system both actively and unconsciously inhospitable to women. But what did not “get through” was the story of their friendship, of four brilliant women working together to figure out how philosophy might go on. It was during those early conversations that Foot first realized the importance of virtue, Anscombe developed her interest in human life and action, Murdoch became concerned with mystery and vision, and Midgley first began to ask deeply unfashionable questions about the animality of human life. Without the other three, each would have become a different kind of thinker.
It is only recently that philosophy has been ready to take seriously the possibility that this quartet might be worthy of naming as a school. There are at least two reasons to encourage this. First, philosophy and philosophers find many ways to dismiss, denigrate, ignore, and misattribute the work of women thinkers. Susan Stebbing, the brilliant logician who founded the journal Analysis, was a household name before her death, in 1943, but she was written out of the discipline’s canon almost immediately. There is safety and weight in numbers. Second, when read together, the work of these four brilliant individuals — each with her own philosophical temperament and style — interlocks to form a picture of our world, and our place in it, that is much deeper, more intellectually robust, and more metaphysically sophisticated than that of their male peers. Murdoch’s writings on love and attention, Foot’s on virtue and reason, Anscombe’s on action, and Midgley’s on human nature come together to describe a metaphysical animal, an animal whose life is shaped by love, parenting, plants, perfection, poetry, instinct, and promising. These women’s work and lives remind us where philosophy begins: with puzzlement, wonder, and the courage to ask “Why?”