Anil Gomes*1 “Metaphysical Animals review – four women who changed philosophy” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/feb/10/metaphysical-animals-review-four-women-who-changed-philosophy
Metaphysical Animals is both story and argument. The story is a fine one. Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley were students at Oxford during the second world war. They found a world in which many of the men were absent. Those who remained were either too old or too principled to fight. It was a world, as Midgley later put it, where women’s voices could be heard.
Had the four arrived in Oxford before the war, they would have found a philosophical scene dominated by clever young men. Prime among them was AJ Ayer, whose book Language, Truth and Logic bore the mark of its author – quick, sharp, always in a hurry – and set the tone for the new philosophy. Ayer held that philosophy needed a boundary to stop it from straying into nonsense. That which could be said clearly and verifiably made sense; that which couldn’t was nonsense. Out went reams of philosophy, theology and metaphysics. What remained was the cold, hard world of science. Facts were one thing; values – our expressions of approval and disapproval – another.
Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot and Midgley – in different ways, and at different times – chafed against this consensus. For Foot, it was the images of the concentration camps that forced a reassessment. Ayer’s picture of the world held that moral condemnation was merely an expression of disapproval with no grounding in the world of facts. But, Foot insisted, don’t we want to say that we are right and they are wrong? These four philosophers wanted a new picture, one in which evil and cruelty are just as much a part of the world as rivers and rock formations.
The narrative is of four brilliant women finding their voices, opposing received wisdom, and developing an alternative picture of human beings and their place in the world. They studied among refugee academics who taught Greek and Latin in small apartments and filled the streets of north Oxford with sounds of eastern Europe. And they shared their ideas – in cafes, on sofas, in common rooms. It is a tale that is rightly attracting attention, not just in this book but also in Benjamin Lipscomb’s*5 excellent The Women Are Up to Something, published by Oxford University Press at the end of last year*6.
So much for the story. What about the argument? Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman read these women as claiming that we are indeed metaphysical animals: language-using, question-asking, picture-making creatures who seek the mysterious and the transcendent. Those of us versed in the kind of analytic philosophy that descends from Ayer are likely to want more by way of clarification and support. But such a demand might miss the other part of the book’s argument: that this insight was available to the quartet only because they lived lives filled with lovers, dependents, politics and war. For Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman, the philosophical insights of Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot and Midgley are not independent of the kinds of lives that they led.
The authors are friends as well as philosophers and the book is both product and expression of that friendship. Its story underwrites its argument: that philosophical insight is not conveyed primarily by words on a page but through a life lived well. Readers will have to tolerate a certain amount of reconstruction, and the use of “perhaps” to mark transitions from one fact to another. (“Dripping across the lawn on her way back for a soft-boiled egg, [Midgley] may have spotted … ”) But to read this story is to be reminded of the institutional barriers preventing women from studying philosophy, the grit and determination of those who resolve to do it anyway, and the way that the life of the mind can be as intense and eventful as friendship itself.
*2:See eg. https://www.durham.ac.uk/staff/clare-maccumhaill/ https://philpeople.org/profiles/clare-mac-cumhaill-3 and Rachael Wiseman((See eg. https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/philosophy/staff/rachael-wiseman/
*3:See also Jonathan Wolff“How can we end the male domination of philosophy?” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/26/modern-philosophy-sexism-needs-more-women Mentioned in https://sumita-m.hatenadiary.com/entry/20131127/1385530975
*6:See eg. “The Women Are Up To Something: A New Book on the Somerville Quartet” https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/news/the-women-are-up-to-something-a-new-book-on-the-somerville-quartet/ Cheryl Misak “The Women Are Up to Something: a review” https://www.philosophersmag.com/essays/269-the-women-are-up-to-something-a-review