The four women who upset philosophy

The women are up to something. By Benjamin Lipscomb. Oxford University Press; 326 pages; $ 27.95 and £ 20

“THERE HAS never been a woman who could do philosophy as she can. This is what Philippa Foot said of her friend, Elizabeth Anscombe, in a recommendation to the head of an Oxford college in 1957. Reference letters can be overstating. If Anscombe had a forerunner, would anyone have known? Prior to the 20th century, it was nearly impossible for a philosophically gifted woman to be recognized, unless she was a royal or at least a duchess. How this situation began to change, at least in Britain, is part of the story told in this beautiful group biography of four women, who became friends in Oxford during WWII.

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Her other two subjects are Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley, who, like Anscombe, had been well-educated middle-class girls. As Benjamin Lipscomb, an American philosopher explains, Foot was much more chic. His grandfather, Grover Cleveland, was twice President of the United States. His previous education was supervised by nannies and consisted mainly of horseback riding and parties.

Murdoch (photo), the most famous of the quartet, is best known for her novels. But she was also a professor of philosophy at Oxford for 15 years, having decided to become one after hearing Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture. Anscombe was the most eccentric. Monoclée, a cigar smoker and known to take off her pants when a restaurant informed her that women couldn’t wear them, she was mistaken for a cleaning lady when she arrived to occupy the Cambridge Chair of Philosophy once occupied by his friend Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Much of Midgley’s philosophical work was not written for academics. Her first book came out when she was almost 60 and was followed by 15 others, many targeting what she saw as oversimplifications on the part of biologists, psychologists and other scientists. She argued with Richard Dawkins about whether it was useful to call genes “selfish”. Midgley took a career break for more than a decade to care for three children. Anscombe, a fervent Catholic, brought up seven without batting an eyelid; the secret was to realize that “dirt doesn’t matter”.

What mattered to the four women was ethics. They were unhappy with the state of moral philosophy, particularly as it was practiced at Oxford. It was both too dry, because he focused on the language of morality rather than ethical dilemmas, and above all wrong, because he didn’t even answer linguistic questions. Foot shattered the idea that descriptive and evaluative language could be sharply separated: calling an action “gross,” for example, describing it and berating it at the same time. Against the orthodoxy of the time, she maintained that there was no yawning chasm between facts and values.

Anscombe argued along the same lines in a seminal paper published in 1958: Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill and others all came for a beating. Moral philosophers, she insisted, needed to rethink many of their beliefs about human nature and psychology. Two years earlier, she had hit the headlines around the world by opposing the awarding of an Oxford degree to Harry Truman. In his eyes, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made him a mass murderer. Quorum donations were told to go and vote against Anscombe, because “the women are up to something.”

The four women in Mr. Lipscomb’s animated tale don’t just philosophize about morality (and, in Anscombe’s case, well for that matter). They campaigned to make the world a better place, according to their lights. Anscombe has been arrested twice in abortion clinics; Murdoch was denied an American visa because of his past membership in the Communist Party. Foot was dedicated to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam; Midgley was active in the animal welfare, environmental and disarmament movements.

Perhaps it was the war that made them. Midgley felt that she had only found her voice as a philosopher because there were so few men in Oxford when she was studying there. They were mostly absent, fighting. The only time most of Oxford’s philosophy students have been women is when this quartet was an undergraduate student. â– 

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Morals of History”

About Leslie Schwartz

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