In the late Nineties I was an undergraduate studying philosophy, one of the only women majors in a department filled with young men eager to prove themselves to the professors, the vast majority of whom were also men. In a seminar on self-consciousness, we were assigned an impenetrable essay, which our professor had described as first-rate. Titled “The First Person,” its author was G. E. M. Anscombe.
I recognized the name from the cover of my worn-out copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which Anscombe translated, and I vaguely remembered passing references to her in the final chapters of Ray Monk’s magisterial biography of Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, which I had read obsessively, unduly enthralled as I was with its account of a solitary and tortured philosophical genius. But apart from her connection to Wittgenstein, I knew nothing about Elizabeth Anscombe, the woman or the philosopher. I did not know that she, like me, was a teenage convert to the Catholic faith, or that she, like me, was thoroughly steeped in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Had I known these things about her, perhaps I would have spent more time trying to understand her claim that “I” is not a referring term, since the only possible referent would be a ghostly Cartesian ego. But the argument of her essay was dense and difficult, and I was too insecure to admit that I understood neither it nor the significance of its conclusion.
A few years later I became a young Ph.D. student in a philosophy department where Anscombe was a towering and legendary figure. Our professors painted a picture of a woman who defied gender expectations at every turn: she was a conservative Catholic mother of seven who argued that contraception is evil but who refused to take her husband’s name, keep house or mind the children; a chain-smoking “dragon lady” who was sometimes confused for either a man or a vagrant; and a formidable intellect whose work in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, language, history and ethics simply had to be reckoned with.
It was also in graduate school that I encountered the work of the moral philosopher Philippa Foot. While Foot’s work was considered essential reading, she was not treated with the same reverence as Anscombe, to whom she was obviously indebted. Iris Murdoch was not taught in any of my classes, nor was it ever suggested that I engage with her work in moral psychology and virtue, despite my own work on the same topics; as a result, I knew almost nothing about her work. I cannot remember even a passing reference to Mary Midgley, whose name I wouldn’t have recognized.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t come away from my graduate study thinking that Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch and Midgley formed a “school” or “movement” of philosophy, that they were vanguards in some identifiable intellectual revolution, that they ought to be recognized as a quartet. Two recent books—Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics (Oxford University Press) and Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life (Penguin)—both written by philosophers and published within months of one another, aim to rectify my youthful misperception. Each book argues, in different ways, that these four women were not only close friends who influenced one another’s philosophical development in important respects, but whose work is best understood as part of a larger intellectual project held in common between them.
According to Lipscomb, these four philosophers, who gathered at Oxford as the Second World War raged on around them, formed a “school” of thought around the shared conviction that “there are moral truths, grounded in the distinctive nature of our species”—that is, “facts about what human beings need if they are going to thrive.” In doing so, they aimed to upend the fact/value distinction that dominated among the most prominent Oxford philosophers at the time. Lipscomb goes so far as to suggest that the quartet brought about an “imaginative leap outside what their contemporaries and predecessors thought” in moral philosophy. Most importantly for Lipscomb, they did it together, as friends.
Lipscomb names the false picture the quartet helped liberate us from “the Dawkins sublime.” According to it, the world is just so much matter in motion—it is “cold and empty and pointless” because there is no internal principle of movement or rest that explains what anything is or does; rather, everything is moved by external, lawlike forces. Lipscomb’s female heroines saw that the distinction between fact and value, or description and evaluation, is not as tidy as philosophers had assumed. Often using examples from everyday life, they showed that the world is shot through with value and purpose.
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman take a different tack in their account of what unites the members of the quartet. In Metaphysical Animals, they argue that the unity comes not from what these women accepted and proposed but what they rejected and fought against—namely, a conception of analytic philosophy according to which questions not amenable to scientific investigation were nothing more than linguistic confusions or literal nonsense. These women, according to Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman, had a taste for mystery and metaphysics and a disdain for vulgar empiricism. They each took seriously the central conceits of the more traditional philosophia perennis that had fallen out of favor at Oxford before their arrival: that man is a spiritual creature, oriented to ends outside of himself; that philosophy is a struggle to contemplate the fundamental structure of reality and to make its different parts fit into a coherent, unified whole; that human nature, God, truth, beauty and goodness are not mere figments of our historical imagination but are legitimate concepts worthy of our sustained philosophical attention.
Although these two books emphasize different (though not incompatible) aspects of the quartet’s philosophical contributions, they share a common narrative frame. On both accounts, each member of the quartet was able to reach her full potential as a philosopher because the Big Men on Campus—A. J. Ayer, J. L. Austin, Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, Richard Hare and others—were away fighting the war. Their absence was critical, these books argue, because these men, who dominated the intellectual scene at Oxford, were hell-bent on destroying traditional philosophical reflection into metaphysics and morals. For instance, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman conjecture:
Had it not been for the interruption of the war, Mary, Iris, Elizabeth and Philippa may well have joined the men in the effort to usher in the brave new world of a philosophy divested of poetry, mystery, spirit, and metaphysics. Or, more likely, they would have finished their degrees and left philosophy behind them, convinced, as so many young women still are, that the subject was not for them.
Lipscomb agrees, noting that what was so unusual about Oxford during the quartet’s undergraduate days was that it was depleted of male students, which meant that the teachers could devote their full attention to the young women who remained behind. The gist of this narrative is that the women were insecure about their place in philosophy, making the men’s absence critical for their intellectual flourishing.
This narrative frame comes from Mary Midgley herself, who, in 2013, wrote a letter to the Guardian arguing that she and her friends were able to thrive as philosophers because “there were fewer men about then.” The men, she complained, were merely clever and intent on winning arguments; they would “quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them, until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about.” The women, by contrast, were “more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.” In short, the women were cooperative and serious rather than combative and clever, and this enabled them to “think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising” the men were doing. This narrative is further developed in Midgley’s memoir, The Owl of Minerva, which both books reference extensively.
While this account fits with Midgley’s idea that women are bound by their sex to do philosophy differently (and perhaps better) than men, and surely reflects her own experience of Oxford, it strikes me as out of joint with what we know about the personalities of some of her friends. The insistence of all three authors on shoehorning these women’s stories into an all-too-familiar pop-feminist narrative distorts the unique nature of the bonds these women forged together. It also insinuates, insultingly, that they needed to be treated with kid gloves in order to mature intellectually. I find it difficult to believe that Anscombe needed to be sheltered from the clever men of Oxford in order to cultivate her legendary philosophical habits, or that Murdoch would have lacked the boldness to hold her own in a room full of men who plainly lacked the imaginative vision she herself possessed.
Midgley’s narrative is an especially bad fit for Anscombe, who was not only the most intellectually gifted of the quartet, but also the most assured in her self-conception as a philosopher—a pursuit that occupied her attention in a near-totalizing fashion well before she went up to Oxford. According to Lipscomb, she was only twelve when she began to spend her leisure time puzzling over fundamental questions of causality and free will, working her way through arguments and problems that would eventually lead her to want to leave the nominal Anglicanism of her household and embrace the socially unacceptable faith of the Roman Church. Raised by her mother to be classically educated and well versed in Greek and Latin, she had spent her teenage years grilling the men in her life over fundamental questions and remaining resolutely unimpressed with their replies. In secondary school she distinguished herself as an excellent debater, annoying her father and brothers to no end. And despite threats of being cut off from financial support from her father for converting, as soon as she arrived at Oxford she began a formal study of Aquinas under the supervision of Dominican friars, in order to make preparations for her formal reception into the Catholic faith. Even as a young woman with no claim to power, Anscombe’s dogged commitment to the truth as she understood it was clearly the driving force of her life.
Moreover, as the books both acknowledge, Anscombe was just as much an intellectual friend to men as to women. She had been at Oxford less than a year when she met and fell in love with the philosopher (and fellow convert) Peter Geach. Although they delayed marriage until her graduation, she studied philosophy with her fiancé for most of her undergraduate years, reading Frege, Wittgenstein and Aquinas with him. Beginning in 1944, Anscombe developed a close friendship with Wittgenstein, whom she looked upon with “besotted reverence,” and under whose tutelage she underwent a radical revision of her own thought. Anscombe worked very closely with Wittgenstein until his death in 1951, at which point she had been appointed his literary executor. There is no one with whom she worked more closely during her period of formal study. Wittgenstein supported Anscombe beyond the intellectual life: he paid for her hospital stay during the birth of her second child, advocated to get her more funding at Cambridge to try to lift her out of poverty and even helped her work through some of her personal struggles with Murdoch. All of this complicates, at the very least, the suggestion that Anscombe needed to be shielded from men in order to develop as a philosopher in her own right. How Midgley formed this perception is anyone’s guess, but it may easily have been a projection of her own insecurities onto her friend.
But what about Lipscomb’s other claim, that what the women were up to at Oxford during the 1940s and 1950s was a joint philosophical project of rejecting the most basic assumptions of the moral anti-realists who had come to power at Oxford, and of putting in its place an account of moral truth grounded in classical accounts of human nature? This grossly oversimplifies and distorts the philosophical differences between these women. For example, Murdoch plainly rejects an Aristotelian teleological metaphysics of nature. She is clear that we must simply accept the utter lack of a given finality or purpose in human life, and that our concept of the good has nothing to do with natural ends or purposes. In her famous essay, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good,’” she argues that “‘All is vanity’ is the beginning and the end of ethics. The only genuine way to be good is to be good ‘for nothing’ in the midst of a scene where every ‘natural’ thing, including one’s own mind, is subject to chance, that is, to necessity.” Virtue is good in itself, according to Murdoch, not because it allows its bearers to attain the good characteristic of our species, but because it has no other work to do in our lives—it is simply good, without qualification.
We can press the point further. For Murdoch, the essential task of the moral philosopher is to come up with language that transcends the necessary limits of natural, human psychology altogether. Murdoch reaches for a metaphysical realism about the good as transcendent ideal, but without appeal to metaphysical form. She equates this posture to a kind of mysticism: a “non-dogmatic essentially unformulated faith in the reality of the Good” as the “transcendent magnetic centre” of our reflection on the moral life. For Murdoch, the moral life is about coming to have a proper vision of reality; we do this by paying patient, just and loving attention to the goodness outside of the self and being obedient to what we see. Virtue is not about the fulfillment of our nature but about stepping outside the self-consoling fantasies concocted by the needy and rapacious self in order to make contact with a reality that transcends it. This is a process of unselfing that is never finished but which must be continually undertaken if virtue is to take root in us.
Murdoch’s contemplative, mystical Platonism is miles away from Foot’s neo-Aristotelian account of specifically human goodness and virtue as necessary for human flourishing. Foot argues that there is no sense to be made of claims to unqualified goodness, because “good” has no sense independent of some noun it modifies. We can speak of good knives, good lawyers or good human beings, but we cannot simply speak of the good—a property whose definition remains the same throughout varying contexts, like “yellow” or “straight.” In her later philosophy, Foot argues that a robust account of human nature, spelled out in terms of facts about our species, is the proper ground of ethical reflection on what constitutes human flourishing as the ultimate goal of practical reasoning.
The truth is that Foot and Murdoch are different in both substance and style, and thus I also reject Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman’s claim that what unites the members of the quartet is their embrace of mystery, metaphysics and the search for transcendence in their philosophical writing. I do not find a whiff of the mystical, the mysterious or even the transcendent in Foot. Foot’s moral philosophy is eminently practical, grounded in careful analysis of how we use language in everyday life. The virtues, for Foot, are what enable us to get on in life without getting in the way of our own chances of success. When she reflects on deeply religious people who were willing to be killed rather than violate their own conscience, Foot simply declares that happiness is not possible for people in such unfortunate circumstances. Foot is consumed by questions like whether you can kill one to save five by redirecting an out-of-control trolley car, what the difference is between killing or letting die, or how morality resembles etiquette. She didn’t seem to have a religious bone in her body. Anscombe once asked Foot (in a letter) why she was an atheist. Foot said in reply that she hadn’t thought about it much, but when she did, she just didn’t see any reasons not to be.
As for their respective commitments to moral truth, things are once again far more complicated than Lipscomb makes them out to be. Anscombe, like Aristotle and Aquinas, is interested in the concept of practical truth, the sort of truth that is attained through the exercise of virtue. This truth does not consist in the apprehension of facts or having correct judgments or assertions about the way things are, but in acting and living well. In her most influential essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Anscombe does not counsel her reader to construct a theory of moral truth grounded in human nature; on the contrary, she asks that we “banish ethics totally from our minds” until we have the proper “philosophy of psychology” that could possibly legitimate such an enterprise.
Foot, by contrast, was deeply invested in the questions at the heart of traditional moral theory and, in her later writing, is manifestly on the hunt for a notion of moral truth grounded in human nature. Midgley was as well, but unlike Foot, she drew heavily on insights from anthropology and the study of animal behavior in her account of human nature. Foot couldn’t understand Midgley’s interest in this material, which she found sub-philosophical and immaterial to ethics. Indeed, it is difficult not to walk away from Lipscomb’s book in particular thinking that Midgley was clearly the odd woman out among this circle of friends, both professionally in terms of her stature and personally in terms of how she thought philosophical reflection into morals might take shape. Her outsider status makes it all the more ironic that her narrative has become the dominant frame through which both books tell the story of these women’s lives.
I do not think we can find a philosophical project—positive or negative—that these four women held in common, and we should resist the temptation to look for one as the ground of their unity as a quartet of philosophers who are worthy of our attention. While we can see how they influenced one another’s thoughts in a variety of ways, there was no program or even style of philosophy that they all shared or worked to advance together. Rather, if anything binds these women together into a meaningful unity, it is the intellectual friendship between them. And that love shared between them deserves to be an object of our attention, because it is the sort of love that isn’t often recognized as the ground of strong bonds of affection between women.
Our culture tends to hold up models of female friendship as consisting in shared love of ephemera: shopping trips, brunches or fabulous nights on the town, during which women talk about fashion, bodies, boyfriends, design, sex, gossip, pop culture and their worldly ambitions. We rarely catch a glimpse of women who are drawn to one another by way of a shared concern to get beyond appearances. But the basis of the bond between Foot, Midgley, Murdoch and Anscombe, the thing that drew them together into long conversations over many years—by post, in pubs, in libraries, cloistered lawns, parlors, common rooms and crowded teahouses—was their desire to pursue a deeper understanding of themselves and the world. For these women, philosophy was not merely a job or a discipline of study, but a form of life they shared together—it was the common good around which their friendship revolved, which they each participated in and benefited from, and which brought each of them equal parts suffering and pain, joy and deep satisfaction.
It is really the enduring and deep friendship between Anscombe and Foot that is the most compelling aspect of these books. As fellows of Somerville College, Foot and Anscombe spent countless hours over two decades in the Senior Common Room together, deep in philosophical conversation. If anyone had dropped into the room for coffee during their routine afternoon philosophical sessions, they would have found “Elizabeth deep in Philippa’s head; Philippa brave and resistant but animated and having fun.” Recalling their afternoons spent in philosophical disputation, Philippa once wrote that “every week I was defeated and I thought of myself like a character in a child’s comic where a steamroller has gone over them and you’re just a silhouette on the ground—but you’re there in the next episode.”
What is so startling and attractive about the love between Anscombe and Foot is that in spite of all their differences—of temperament, religion, class background, appearance, domestic circumstances and even politics and morals—they were able to draw close together based on their mutual desire to see their way through the philosophical problems that had gripped their imaginations and to make progress in their own search for a philosophical account of human experience. At the root of their affection lay a common goal—a search for insight and answers to the questions that were troubling them, a struggle they undertook together over the course of their lives in a spirit of cooperation and mutual aid. They did not always agree, but their respect for one another’s minds anchored their friendship.
As an undergraduate, I didn’t have any idea that such philosophical friendship among women was possible. My intellectual companions were men, both living and dead, and my social world was divided between the male space of philosophy and the female space of other pursuits—music, literature, politics and work. The biographies of great philosophers I had read were portraits of great men who were afforded long periods of solitude, and this became my model of how philosophy ought to be pursued: alone, in solitary struggle with one’s own mind. Such lives were made possible by women who were not an essential part of the account because they merely provided the necessary domestic labor: they were mothers, wives and housekeepers. But the women that are the subjects of these books were not creatures of solitude. As women, they were afforded less opportunity to enjoy solitude as a privilege; they would have to prove themselves in a way that the men did not; and they would need to rely upon one another and help one another attain success in what was clearly a man’s world in Oxford. Although sexism forced them into women’s colleges together, in that context they were able to forge serious intellectual friendships that played a critical role in their philosophical development.
These four women did not bring philosophy back to life from the death grip of logical positivism, nor did they bring about a philosophical revolution in ethics. We do not need to make these grandiose claims in order to justify paying attention to their lives. We need only notice that we are still held captive by a picture of philosophy as a competitive endeavor, where great minds do battle with one another in order to attain intellectual dominance. That we still tend to fetishize the solitary genius who struggles to figure out the truth largely on his own, like Descartes in front of the fire, or Wittgenstein in his cabin. What is so powerful to me about the story of these four women is the fact that they model a different way of doing philosophy. On this model, philosophy is not a battle at all, but something that is cooperative and dialogical—pursued and enjoyed together. If these four women were up to something, if there was a way of doing philosophy that they all shared for a time, it is that they were doing it together—seriously, systematically, deeply and generously—as friends.
Art credit: Maurice Denis. The Ladder in the Foliage (1892). Collection of the Musée Départemental Maurice Denis “The Priory.”