Ideas to the four

The arid philosophy of the 1940s was doing little to account for the horrors of the time. It took four women at Oxford University to inject morality back into the discipline

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In October 1939, the streets of Oxford were unusually quiet. It was the start of term, when thousands of students would ordinarily have been crowding the teashops and bookshops and theatres and lecture halls of the city. But that September, nearly all Britain’s men between 18 and 41 had been conscripted into military services – joining the thousands who had registered that spring. The men were mostly gone.

But the women stayed. As the men’s colleges contracted, Oxford’s women’s societies remained full. And an unexpected outcome of those frightening years was a revolution in moral philosophy, led by a group of women who might not have followed this path if they had gone to university in “normal” times.

Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch were the first school of philosophy led by women, ever

Before the 1940s, only a few women in the English-speaking world had made careers in philosophy. In 1939, there was only one philosophy tutor at any of Oxford’s women’s colleges. But a new generation of women – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch – were revising together, seeing one another at philosophy talks, visiting one another in the evenings. They became lifelong friends and, in the decades to come, would challenge the dominant outlook of their male peers.

All born in 1919 or 1920, Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch belonged to the first generation of women to grow up under a presumption of legal equality with men. But people don’t open a door just because it’s unlocked. They have to picture themselves on the other side. And the established picture of a philosopher in the mind of a 1930s schoolgirl or don was male.

But then, for a few short years, a window opened. Suddenly, the only advanced philosophy students at the university were women. The energy and attention that Oxford’s philosophy tutors had long given to male students, they now gave to these women. There were no men talking over them. Years later, Midgley reminisced: “The effect was to make it a great deal easier for a woman to be heard in discussion than it is in normal times.”

Anscombe was the fiercely brilliant – sometimes simply fierce – daughter of two schoolteachers. She converted to Catholicism at 15, braving her family’s (and the surrounding culture’s) disapproval. Then as an undergraduate, she braved the disapproval of her archbishop, co-authoring a pamphlet against Britain’s conduct in the war. Her friends were in awe of her, even as students. If one of the four was bound to end up in philosophy, it was Anscombe.

Foot, the granddaughter of US president Grover Cleveland, grew up riding to hounds and meeting the great and the good at her family’s manor in North Yorkshire. But she was never at ease in her privilege, and when a governess suggested that she go to university, she knew this was what she wanted. “Never mind, dear,” someone said to her mother, consolingly. “She doesn’t look clever.” Foot arrived at Oxford in 1938 for a year of pre-entrance coaching, underprepared and self-conscious but determined to make good.

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Midgley’s parents were activist Anglicans and the people who frequented their table were political refugees and leaders of groups like Quaker Relief and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. These dinner conversations set Midgley on a path toward her later career as a public intellectual. She was always equally drawn to the non-human world though. She spent hours at the edge of the rectory pond, watching the frogs, seeing what they did.

And there was Murdoch, who would become a prolific novelist as well as a distinguished philosopher. But when she arrived at Somerville in 1938, Murdoch was simply the most flamboyant and magnetic person in Oxford: loudly Communist, object of infatuation to a half-dozen students and dons, involved in everything. Her life, she wrote to a friend, was a “hurricane of essays and proses and campaigns and committees and sherry parties and political and aesthetic arguments”.

It was an odd moment for anyone to turn toward philosophy. Not only was the world descending again into war, but English-speaking philosophers were in the grip of a dogma: the logical empiricism of Alfred Ayer. In his combative, improbable 1935 bestseller, Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer fenced off a terribly narrow domain for meaningful language. He argued that any language that isn’t science (observations, hypotheses) or logic (definitions, rules) is literal nonsense. It is meaningless. That includes any claims about good and bad, right and wrong. Ethics isn’t simply a matter of observations or definitions. So Ayer’s philosophy banished it.

For a generation trying to sort out the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism, the Holocaust, and the Bomb, logical empiricism was a dispiriting philosophy. Murdoch joked in a letter to Foot that she was reflecting about the meaning of her life, though she knew that such an idea was “strictly meaningless”. What should a young woman do with her life? It’s not a hypothesis or a rule of logic. So, according to Ayer, it’s nothing. Logical empiricism effectively split the world of facts from the world of values.

The men of this generation mostly accepted this split. Facts are facts. Everyone can agree on them and reason about them. Values? They’re mere preferences. There’s no reasoning about values. This was the view the women were up against, and determined to displace.

Anscombe had been contrarian from her schooldays. She cheerfully ignored intellectual fashions as she cheerfully ignored fashions in clothes. But philosophy was salvaged for the others by a legendarily eccentric tutor who chewed on razor blades and rolled up in his hearthrug – and also gave intense, invigorating, hours-long tutorials to Foot, Midgley and Murdoch. Donald MacKinnon rejected the strictures Ayer placed on philosophy and gave his students wider vistas. What he did most of all was reflect searchingly on the evils people commit and how to respond to them. “He created me,” Foot later remarked.

Over the next two decades, facing sometimes uncomprehending opposition from Ayer’s followers, Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch began taking apart the orthodoxy of their male peers and constructing an alternative.

Their alternative was to treat facts and values as not so separate. Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch connected scientific knowledge about the kinds of animals we are with knowledge about what we need to lead flourishing lives. They stressed the virtues that help us succeed in human activities like playing a game, managing employees, parenting children, developing a vaccine. Courage, generosity, self-control: these matter because without them, we can’t collaborate successfully. Is that a fact? Yes. Is it an evaluation? Yes.

Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch were the first school of philosophy led by women, ever. As they worked on their shared project, they carried a heavier burden than their male counterparts. They had to deal with disrespect. Anscombe made her contributions while also producing authoritative translations of Wittgenstein’s writings and raising seven children. She and Foot met almost every afternoon for hours of philosophical conversation, a mentorship that led Foot to her most important ideas. In 1959, a friend writing a newspaper feature on Anscombe asked how she managed it all. Anscombe replied: “You just have to realise that dirt doesn’t matter.”

Foot scarcely had time for her daily sessions with Anscombe, but they were too valuable to drop. Foot carried most of the philosophy instruction at Somerville, as Anscombe had fellowship support. And teaching was not the only extra obligation Foot assumed. She had no children of her own, to her sorrow. She poured herself into other people’s children instead. She joined Oxfam soon after its founding, first sorting clothes at a warehouse. She later became a trustee. And she became the true heir of her teacher MacKinnon, lavishly mentoring young women at Somerville. If they were grieving, or being harassed or trying to work out what to do after university, Foot was the one to whom they turned. She worked into the nights, sometimes falling asleep in her chair.

Anscombe was heroically energetic and stubborn, and Foot only a little less so. Murdoch and Midgley reached their limits more quickly. They grew weary especially of the narrow orthodoxies and sympathies of their contemporaries and stepped away from philosophy. Murdoch of course turned to her fiction.

But Midgley’s story is the most surprising. She left the academy for over a decade to raise her three sons. In the early 1960s, though, she began teaching again at Newcastle University. All along, though, as the boys grew, she was reading the work of the new ethologists, Lorenz and Tinbergen and Goodall, and piecing their work together with the work her friends were doing in Oxford. Midgley finally published the first of her 16 books at age 59, propelling herself into an astonishing third act. Into her nineties, she was lecturing in her wellingtons at the Hay Festival. Her last book appeared a month before her death at age 99.

The ideas that Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch attacked did not vanish. The notion of a sharp divide between facts and values persists. It’s the principle behind school exercises asking students to distinguish facts from opinions. Always, always, these exercises classify moral judgments as “opinions”, very different from “facts”. But we talk out of the other side of our mouths, too, like when we appeal to standards of justice and protest their violation. When we do this, we are appealing, however uncertainly, to something objective.

When we had almost forgotten how to do that, four women showed us the way – after they first saw a way for themselves.

Benjamin JB Lipscomb is professor of philosophy at Houghton College, New York, and the author of The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics (Oxford University Press, £20)

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