The American scholar: morality, meaning and nonsense

Billy Wilson (Flickr/billy_wilson)

Metaphysical animals: how four women brought philosophy back to life by Claire Mac
Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman; Doubleday, 416 pages, $32.50

In metaphysical animals, philosophers Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman offer a captivating collective biography of four university friends who became formidable figures of twentieth-century moral thought: Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley (née Scrutton), Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet) . The book follows their friendships, formed in Oxford in the late 1930s, as well as their winding paths beyond the academy. The result is an illuminating portrait of philosophy in which irritable bowel syndrome, diapers, and love triangles—not to mention social media, academic institutions, and geopolitical developments—are no mere trifles.

Anscombe, Midgley, Murdoch and Foot are the kind of historical figures that, if they didn’t exist, writers would want to invent. Midgley was nearly six feet tall and had a fondness for pants (a no-no in dress at the time) as well as a fear of having to choose between marriage and a career (she got both, but not a career in university philosophy). Anscombe worried her parents by abandoning Anglicanism for Catholicism, and she demonstrated a self-determination that won her the admiration of some of her teachers and the opprobrium of others who did not know what to think of a audacious young woman following her intellectual bliss. Murdoch, born in Ireland and from a middle-class background, a mixture of ‘corn hair’ and confidence, joined the Communist Party and turned on her classmates as often as she refused their marriage proposals (six in one term). And then there was Foot, the most born of the quartet, the granddaughter of US President Grover Cleveland, whose privilege was seen in her elegant dress but also in her chronic worry of being “demented”, having grown up like the child of disinterested parents, feeling loved only by his nanny.

As young women they arrived in the gay male world of Oxford where female students were seen as attractive distractions from the works of the mind. Here, AJ (“Freddie”) Ayer, JL Austin and Isaiah Berlin, in their twenties, gathered their “little all-male band” – a group they called “the Brothers” – to debate phenomenalism, theories of knowledge and inductive logic. From these discussions came Ayer’s philosophical blockbuster, Language, truth and logic (1936). Combining the ideas of the Vienna Circle and British empiricism, his “Criteria of Verification” sought to model philosophy on science and rid it of idealism and realism. For Ayer, the job of philosophy was not to check statements for their moral or metaphysical ideas, but rather to ensure that they could be verified analytically or empirically. If they weren’t verifiable, they were “nonsense”. He was so pleased with his accomplishment that he insisted to a friend that with his treatise, “philosophy has come to an end. Done.” Oxford professors thought Ayer’s bombshell was pure genius. Oxford ladies thought it was, as Midgley put it, “pure weedkiller.”

The Second World War occupies an important place in metaphysical animals, providing the historical context for understanding how this quartet came to receive their philosophical training. Before coming to Oxford, Midgley went to Austria to learn German but had to return to England in 1938 after her Jewish host was arrested by the Nazis and expelled from the country. She and the others studied at Oxford at a time when many undergraduates had been drafted into fighting. So did many of their tutors, thus opening up opportunities for newly arrived Central European philosophical émigrés, who exposed students to their cosmopolitanism, as well as the type of continental moral philosophy, classicism, psychology of gestalt and medieval philosophy that the Oxford brand of logical positivism was working to die out.

The war also helped set the intellectual agendas of the quartet, igniting in its members a desire to reorient the priorities of modern philosophy. Studying philosophy in an age of air raids and rationing quickly led to the realization that to dismiss as “absurdity” the lived experiences of flesh-and-blood human beings in a throbbing world of horror and confusion was in itself a nonsense. Restricting philosophy to logic in a universe convulsed with suffering, dislocation and destruction threatened to render it irrelevant to the larger world outside the University cloister of Oxford, thus depriving that larger world of any true insight that philosophy could offer.

As metaphysical animals follows the life paths and intellectual projects of his subjects beyond Oxford, it is sometimes difficult to discern what unites them beyond their intimate friendships, Murdoch’s romantic attachments to one or the other friend, shared lovers, and the dedications and endorsements of their books to and for each other. Anscombe and Foot went on to impressive careers at the academy as moral philosophers. Although Midgley enjoyed teaching at the university, she established herself as a public intellectual and wrote for lay audiences on issues ranging from psychology, human nature and technology to animal rights and the ‘ethics. And Murdoch, arguably the most famous of the bunch, has made a name for herself as a novelist, dealing with themes of tortured love, entangled sexual relationships, interpersonal obsession and human freedom.

Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman maintain that their common project is to bring philosophy”[b]Returning to the context of the messy, everyday reality of human life lived with others. Although they could have explained better how this concern animated the philosophies of their fearless quartet, they do a great job of showing how Anscombe, Midgley, Murdoch and Foot personified the truism that philosophy is the raw material of life. And this is not nonsense.

Permission required for reprint, reproduction or other uses.

Comments are closed.