The appearance within a few months of each other of two books about the same four women is a bit startling, but on reflection the topic is so natural and interesting that one might even wonder why it hasn’t been treated before. Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet), Mary Midgley (née Scrutton) and Iris Murdoch all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s. When most of the men went off to war, they found themselves, as women philosophy students, in a very unusual situation – not in the minority and on the periphery, but central and predominant. (The rule in normal times had been that no more than a fifth of the undergraduates at Oxford could be women.) Midgley later wrote that the enhanced attention and absence of the usual competitive male atmosphere made it possible for her to find her voice as a philosopher. Distinctive and talented though each of them was, it seems no accident that such a stellar group emerged from this atypical moment.
Both books explain how these women were formed, what they were like, their deep connections with one another, and the impact they had on the philosophy of their time. But they differ in scope and emphasis, so it is well worthwhile to read them both. Benjamin Lipscomb is American; Clare Mac Cumhaill is Irish and Rachael Wiseman is British. His book covers a longer time span, and goes more deeply into the philosophical controversies in which the four were engaged, particularly the transformation in moral philosophy that began with a revolt against analytic orthodoxy in the late 1950s and changed the field completely over the next twenty years. He has produced a superior work of personal and intellectual history, sensitive and finely written. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman offer more biographical detail and information about secondary characters, but their detailed narrative stops in 1956, before the upheaval that is Lipscomb’s focus. Co-directors of a project called Women in Parenthesis, which promotes the study of the four to demonstrate the importance of women in philosophy, they are broadly concerned with the way these women resisted the style and methods of the analytic mainstream:
For all four friends, what mattered most was to bring philosophy back to life. Back to the context of the messy, everyday reality of human life lived with others. Back to the deep connection that ancient philosophers saw between Human Life, Goodness and Form. Back to the fact that we are living creatures, animals, whose nature shapes our ways of going on.
Murdoch became world famous as a novelist, and is the subject of a fine biography by Peter Conradi, but the lives of the others are not so well known. Anscombe, Murdoch and Midgley all came from middle-class families in suburban London. Their abilities were evident early, and they were encouraged to go to university. Not so Foot. Philippa Bosanquet was born into a distinguished family, and was the granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of the American president Grover Cleveland. Her parents were married in Westminster Abbey and she grew up in Kirkleatham Old Hall near Middlesbrough, a house with sixteen bedrooms. In her social class, girls were simply not educated; Foot spent a lot of time riding, and was taught chiefly at home by governesses who, she said, ‘didn’t know anything’. But she determined to escape from this world, and learned of a woman in Oxford who coached for the university entrance exams. She got into Somerville, the brainiest women’s college, where Scrutton and Murdoch had started the year before.
Anscombe’s path was unusual in a different way. Her parents had little interest in religion, and were appalled when in adolescence she was drawn to Catholicism. After she was admitted to Oxford (she went to St Hugh’s), Elizabeth’s father told her that they would cut off her support if she joined the Church. But in the spring of her first year she did just that. They backed down, and Catholicism would be central to her thought and action until the end of her life.
The four finished their undergraduate degrees in the middle of the war, each getting a first: Foot in PPE and the other three in Greats, the classics degree that included philosophy and history. Foot, Midgley and Murdoch then joined the war effort by entering the civil service. Murdoch had become a communist at Oxford and was sure the civil service wouldn’t want her, not ‘with a record like mine’. But she was taken on at the Treasury, and duly copied documents which she hid in a tree in Kensington Gardens for transmission to the Soviets. She was also writing fiction and leading an adventurous personal life in the turbulent society of wartime London. Murdoch united incredible energy and productive discipline with emotional intensity. She fell in love as suddenly and violently as the characters in her novels, and sometimes found even ordinary relationships emotionally unmanageable: the wife of her Oxford philosophy tutor Donald MacKinnon made him stop seeing her; a crisis in her feelings for Anscombe caused her to destroy seven pages of her journals.
Foot and Murdoch shared a flat in London and became very close, but drama followed. Foot had been having an affair with the economist Thomas Balogh, who dropped her for Murdoch, who was involved with Michael Foot, an intelligence officer (the military historian M.R.D. Foot, not the politician). At Balogh’s insistence, Murdoch broke up with Michael, who found comfort with Philippa; they were married after the war, from which Michael barely escaped with his life. Philippa seems not to have been fazed by the swap, but Michael was bitter towards Murdoch, and she felt guilty and estranged from both of them for some time – she described her own behaviour as ‘nauseating’, though we don’t know exactly why.
Midgley didn’t stay in the civil service but worked as a teacher for most of the war. Anscombe never left the academy. After completing her degree she married Peter Geach, another Catholic convert, who was her philosophical equal. He was a conscientious objector and spent the war as a logger. They began immediately to have children (there would be seven in all). In 1942 Anscombe took up a research position at Cambridge, where she would encounter Wittgenstein – a turning point in her life. Over the next few years she went back and forth between Cambridge and Oxford; Geach stayed in Cambridge with the children, having found no steady employment after the war.
Anscombe had always been susceptible to classic problems of epistemology and metaphysics; she couldn’t stop thinking about them and had a sense of their intractability. This made her naturally receptive to Wittgenstein’s project of going behind the questions by which those problems were posed to reveal that they depended on misunderstandings of the way the relevant language works. And her uncompromising philosophical seriousness rivalled his. She taught herself German in order to read his current writings, and he selected her to translate his late work. She was a superb writer, and, as Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman say, ‘it is thanks to her translation that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is recognised as a literary, as well as a philosophical, masterpiece.’
All four women continued in philosophy as graduate students after the war. Midgley got a lectureship at Reading, but left to raise a family in Newcastle, where her husband, Geoffrey (also a philosopher), taught, and to work as a freelance writer and reviewer. It would be twenty years before she returned fully to the subject. Anscombe, Foot and Murdoch found positions at Oxford which eventually became secure, but everything changed for them with the return of the men. Again in a minority, they were now in the midst of the rise to dominance of a new philosophical movement that did not engage their sympathies. Their resistance to this movement is the main philosophical theme of both books.
The revolution had been launched before the war. A.J. Ayer, encouraged by his teacher Gilbert Ryle, had gone to Austria to learn about the ideas of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, scientists and logicians who were developing the position known as logical positivism. Ayer returned to England and in 1936 published Language, Truth and Logic, a vivid, popular and dogmatic statement of the theory. According to Ayer, only two kinds of statement are meaningful: (1) statements about the world that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by experience, and (2) analytic statements that are true simply in virtue of the logic of our language. This excludes all theological and metaphysical statements, and also, importantly, all moral judgments. The statement that stealing is wrong can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by experience, nor is it true by definition. It is neither true nor false, and can only be understood as an expression of emotion – in this case, antagonism to stealing. There is in consequence no such subject as ethics, if that means the search for true moral principles.
The book was a hit, providing a scalpel that could be easily wielded to cut out large chunks of discourse and label them nonsense. It also appealed to a sense that reality was the world of facts described by the natural sciences, and that there was no place for value in such a world. This left little for philosophy to do except clean up after itself. Many of its traditional questions and theories would have to be abandoned, and its positive role would be limited to conceptual and logical analysis of those uses of language that are not meaningless.
The Vienna Circle was especially interested in the logic of science and mathematics, but when its doctrines reached Oxford the result was a concentration on natural or ordinary language – Oxford philosophers were nearly all trained as classicists, and lacked the scientific background of the Viennese. They engaged in linguistic analysis both to uncover the confusions behind traditional philosophical problems and for its own interest. Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) was an early paradigm of the genre, and from his position after the war as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and editor of the leading journal Mind, he campaigned successfully to fill the academy with analytic philosophy and philosophers of this stripe. J.L. Austin became the dominant figure of the movement in Oxford, with a distinctive style involving minute attention to subtle distinctions in ordinary language. He conducted an informal discussion group on Saturday mornings to which the male teachers of philosophy at the university were invited, but no women.
All four women were resistant to this movement from the start, but only Anscombe, Foot and Murdoch, who were teaching at Oxford, pursued this resistance at the time in public controversy and writing. Anscombe’s hostility was virulent and personal. She loathed what seemed to her the clever superficiality and lack of seriousness about philosophical problems that typified ordinary language philosophers, in spite of the fact that they had taken from Wittgenstein, her idol, the idea that those problems could be dissolved by attention to language. But Wittgenstein’s style was very different: he always insisted on the depth and grip of the problems, and agonised about them. ‘To think that Wittgenstein fathered that bastard,’ she said to Mary Wilson, a younger colleague, after attending one of Austin’s classes. She tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade Wilson not to marry Geoffrey Warnock (‘that shit Warnock’), one of Austin’s followers – just as she had tried earlier (also without success) to dissuade her undergraduate friend Jean Coutts from marrying Austin himself.
The most important conflicts were about ethics. The analytic orthodoxy was that there was an unbridgeable logical gap between facts and values, that statements of value or morality were neither true nor false, merely expressing the subjective attitudes or feelings of the speaker, and that there was no place in philosophy for an attempt to answer moral questions. There was a place, however, for a more precise account of the expressive function of moral language, and this project was taken up and carried out with exceptional skill by Richard Hare, a contemporary of the four who had returned to Oxford after a horrible wartime experience as a prisoner of the Japanese. (I once heard him say about The Bridge on the River Kwai that while the film’s settings were disturbingly realistic, having been designed with the help of someone who had been a prisoner like himself, the plot was not: no British officer would have been so rational.)
Hare’s book The Language of Morals (1952) held that moral statements were a special type of imperative, addressed not to one individual but to everyone, oneself included. So ‘stealing is wrong’ means, roughly, ‘don’t anyone steal, including me.’ Hare called his theory of the logic of moral language ‘universal prescriptivism’. It conformed to the assumption that moral statements are neither true nor false, and had the consequence that there are no restrictions on the content of morality: as a matter of logic, a universal prescription or imperative could be issued for or against anything – putting on your left sock before your right, for example – and it would count as a moral judgment. Someone who didn’t care to issue universal imperatives would have no use for moral language. But if they did decide to use it, it was up to them which moral principles to endorse: each person formed their own moral commitments by choosing what universal prescriptions to make.
Murdoch had an unusual perspective on the proposal that we create morality by choosing. She was one of the first British philosophers to encounter French existentialism, having heard Sartre deliver a version of his manifesto ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’ in Brussels in 1945. Having consumed the novels and philosophical writings of Sartre, Beauvoir and others, she was one of very few people at that time who could bridge the cross-Channel intellectual divide. Before the appearance of Hare’s book, Murdoch noted the similarity between Sartre’s view of value and that of Ayer, Hare’s precursor: both held that values are human projections onto a value-free reality. They cannot be right or wrong. As Lipscomb puts it, ‘we are condemned to be free, forced to invent values in a world where none can be found. This sounds grim, but it is also an invitation to heroism … Making no excuses, but living authentically – in the root sense, as authors of ourselves – we acknowledge that we are whatever we summon the will to do.’ But Murdoch was scornful of this heroic self-image, writing that the gloom characteristic of existentialist writing ‘is superficial and conceals elation’. She had no use for voluntarism about value in either its French or British form: value requires us to turn our attention away from ourselves, towards others and towards whatever demands recognition as good in itself. (She set out this view more fully in The Sovereignty of Good, published in 1970.)
Later, in Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point (1981), Hare would conclude that universal prescriptivism had much more restrictive consequences for the content of morality than he had first thought – he decided that correctly interpreted, it entailed utilitarianism – but Murdoch was hostile to a content-neutral theory of morality from the start. Though she always professed insecurity about her philosophical abilities, she had strong intuitive insight, and wasn’t afraid to express it.
Foot, too, was unwilling to accept the elimination of truth from morality and its replacement by subjectivity. In 1945 she was shattered by seeing the newsreels of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, with piles of corpses and skeletal survivors; a conception of morality that limited the response to such horror to a personal reaction could not, she believed, be right. It took her some time to develop her philosophical response to Hare’s British existentialism. When it finally appeared, in two essays published in 1958, it was squarely in the framework of analytic philosophy of language, and challenged the boundary between facts and values that was central to the positivist position. As Lipscomb explains, she began modestly:
Foot asks, first, about the word ‘rude’. ‘Rude’, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, is plainly an evaluative word. Yet there are factual criteria governing its use. We do not have to – we do not get to – decide in anguished freedom what behaviours count as rude. Rather, to say that some behaviour is rude means that it offends by showing disrespect … If the factual criteria of rudeness are set aside, there is nothing left of the concept.
This blend of factual and evaluative meaning is characteristic of what are usually called ‘thick’ concepts. But it is not just an arbitrary conjunction of a description and an attitude: the factual criteria of rudeness explain why it is objectionable, and this is reflected in our language.
What about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as applied to human character and behaviour? Are these judgments, too, ‘logically vulnerable to facts’? Or could any use of these words – so long as it’s consistent – make sense? Consider, she asks: could we understand someone who says that someone is a good man ‘because he clasped and unclasped his hands’ or refuses to ‘run round trees left-handed, or look at hedgehogs in the light of the moon’? … Just try to talk about ethics while leaving behind considerations of what makes human lives go well or badly – the foundations on which Aristotle and Aquinas built their whole theories. It can’t be done.
The content-neutral analysis of moral language fails at the linguistic level, but that is because the disconnect between fact and value on which it is based is false, and our language recognises this. The names of the virtues and vices refer to qualities that contribute to a good or bad life, which is not a subjective matter, but a consequence of what humans need to live well – a consequence of human nature.
In my view, Foot’s conception of objective moral truth, unlike Murdoch’s, was limited by the Aristotelian assumption that it had to ground morality in the good of the moral agent. The doubt whether this could be done led her, later on, to a period of outright moral scepticism, expressed in ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ (1972). But her challenge to the establishment had a lasting impact.
At around the same time, Anscombe had her brief but historic encounter with Oxford moral philosophy. It was characteristically polemical and denunciatory, in keeping with her temperament, so unlike that of Foot or Murdoch. It began with her opposition, because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Oxford’s award of an honorary degree to Harry Truman in 1956. The Women Are up to Something: the title of Lipscomb’s book is taken from Mr Truman’s Degree, a pamphlet Anscombe published afterwards, in which she set out with great clarity and force the prohibition in just war theory against targeting non-combatants. Before the Oxford meeting, she writes, ‘a fine House was whipped up to vote for the honour. The dons at St John’s were simply told “the women are up to something in Convocation; we have to go and vote them down.”’ Lipscomb reports that she got only three votes besides her own, but the position of righteous defiance suited her. At the end of the pamphlet, she suggests not going to Encaenia, the ceremony at which Truman would receive his degree: ‘I, indeed, should fear to go, in case God’s patience suddenly ends.’
Much earlier, as an undergraduate, Anscombe, together with another student, had produced a pamphlet called The Justice of the Present War Examined: A Criticism Based on Traditional Catholic Principles and on Natural Reason. The first part, ‘The War and the Moral Law’, was written by Anscombe; she explains the prohibition against targeting civilians and predicts (this was in 1939) that it will not be respected. The Roman Catholic hierarchy forced Anscombe and her co-author, Norman Daniel, to withdraw the pamphlet shortly after publication, because they had used the word ‘Catholic’ without getting an imprimatur. But while Catholicism was always central to Anscombe’s moral outlook, the persuasiveness of her position did not depend on divine law, and it had a powerful influence on secular philosophical thinking about justice in war. More broadly, it clarified the nature of moral constraints on the means that may be used even in pursuit of good ends, and the difference in moral responsibility for harms we intend and harms that are side effects of our actions. Equally important in this area was Foot’s 1967 essay ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’, which introduced the famous Trolley Problem. These writings challenged the positivist outlook by showing what it was like to reason philosophically about substantive moral questions, and not just about the logic of moral language.
Anscombe’s attack on Truman’s degree led to a more general broadside against recent moral philosophy. At the end of her pamphlet, she had written that all the prevailing theories ‘contain a repudiation of the idea that any class of actions, such as murder, may be absolutely excluded’, and that this is entailed by the widely current view that moral principles merely express the attitudes of the speaker, freely adopted in a world without values. She suggested that this was not unrelated to the belief of nearly all of her Oxford colleagues ‘that a couple of massacres to a man’s credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour’.
Her comments caught the attention of someone at the BBC, and she was invited to give a talk on the Third Programme, which she entitled ‘Oxford Moral Philosophy: Does It “Corrupt the Youth”?’ Published in the Listener, it drew angry letters from Hare and others. She then pursued the subject in an article published in the journal Philosophy in 1958. As Lipscomb says, ‘that article, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, would become one of the most cited philosophical publications of the 20th century.’ Anscombe joins Foot in attacking the alleged gulf between facts and values, but also condemns the abandonment by modern philosophers of the absolute prohibition on certain actions that forms an essential part of the Hebrew-Christian ethic. Here is her most famous sentence: ‘If someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration – I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.’
She claims, erroneously in my view, that all modern talk about moral principles and what we morally ought and ought not to do makes no sense without belief in a divine lawgiver who enacts those requirements – ‘the situation’ is ‘the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one’. Anscombe thought secular philosophers should return to the tradition of Aristotle and the virtues. ‘It would be a great improvement if, instead of “morally wrong”, one always named a genus such as “untruthful”, “unchaste”, “unjust”. We should no longer ask whether doing something was “wrong”, passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust; and the answer would sometimes be clear at once.’ She and Foot were therefore responsible for the rise of what came to be called ‘virtue ethics,’ a significant part of moral philosophy ever since.
Midgley did not play a part in this revolt against the positivist consensus in the 1950s, because she had left philosophy, though she was an active and wide-ranging reviewer, essayist and broadcaster. She returned to it later through an interest in biology and animal ethology, and the application of insights from those sciences to the study of human nature. With Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978), she became a leading exponent of a biological approach to the understanding of ethics and rationality. This had affinities with the Aristotelian revival, but brought in empirical results from modern evolutionary biology. Lipscomb rates her contribution highly:
Midgley, writing from the margins of the discipline, was the first to present a positive proposal for the kind of moral philosophy recommended but never developed by Anscombe, Foot and Murdoch: a naturalistic moral philosophy, grounded in the character and needs of the human animal. Indeed, she was the only one who could, the only one who knew both enough biology and enough moral philosophy to relate the two fields.
The result was what Lipscomb calls ‘an ethics of self-integration, of thinking through how to do justice to our whole selves’. It begins from the instincts and motivational tendencies that are biologically given, goes on to an awareness of the inner conflicts they generate, and leads to the capacity to resolve them creatively. Midgley’s philosophical background ensured that her biologically informed understanding of humans did not fall into the reductionism typified by E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology. But, whatever its merits as imaginative extrapolation from empirical science, Midgley’s work seems less interesting philosophically than that of the other three. It does not grapple with the hardest conceptual problems about the content and structure of morality, and whether there is such a thing as moral truth. Her influence on academic philosophy has accordingly been less, though she had great success with a wider audience, and battled publicly with biologists like Richard Dawkins.
These books tell their stories in a way that does not require any knowledge of philosophy from the reader, and should interest many people outside the field. But for a philosopher they are irresistible. I found them highly evocative, since I knew two of the principals, Anscombe and Foot, extremely well (I met Murdoch only a few times, and didn’t know Midgley). I was present for some of the developments to which Lipscomb assigns the greatest importance. As an undergraduate at Cornell, I had been a student of Norman Malcolm – like Anscombe a student and close friend of Wittgenstein – and when I went to Oxford as a graduate student in 1958, it was with an introduction from him to Anscombe. I knew her as the translator of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, as the author of the pathbreaking monograph Intention, and as the unsuccessful opponent of Truman’s degree. I spent many hours discussing philosophy in her chaotic house in St John Street, full of children and smoke (at the time one could buy cigarettes in boxes of a hundred, and there was always such a box next to her). She had a beautiful, ethereal voice and a beautiful face with one lazy eye, and her body was hidden in shapeless steerage clothes.
Anscombe was intimidating not just because of her powerful intelligence, which was always at full throttle, but because of her strongly moralistic attitude to practically everything – a trait I associate with students of Wittgenstein. When this is part of the intellectual atmosphere, it generates useless anxiety, and I always suspected she disapproved of me, though she was very generous. My adviser was J.L. Austin, and I spent enough time with members of the male philosophical establishment to pick up on their distaste for Anscombe; she returned it in full, defiant in her lack of gentility.
Foot was completely different: slim, handsome, unobtrusively well turned out, refined in speech and manner, effortlessly self-possessed. I attended the classes in which she presented her objections to Hare, and was invited with other students for discussion at her home. Her teaching made a strong impression on me, but in 1959 her husband left her, ostensibly because she couldn’t have children, and she withdrew in misery from the public scene. She ended up teaching in the US, where I saw her often. She was witty. To an American friend who asked, ‘Philippa, how can one tell the difference between an upper-class and a lower-class British accent?’ she replied: ‘My dear, any accent is lower-class.’ And in a backhanded tribute to Hare’s intellectual agility, she said: ‘Of course he’s up the wrong tree, but it’s wonderful to watch him swinging from branch to branch.’
Both books show the central role of their protagonists in overthrowing a consensus that had stifled philosophical thought about ethics since the rise of logical positivism. But Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch were not alone in their resistance. There was also an American branch to the revival of substantive moral theory, partly influenced by Anscombe and Foot in particular, but in some ways different. The seminal figure here was John Rawls, a contemporary of theirs. His work culminated in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, but he had from the beginning of his career tried to develop ways of addressing real moral questions of right and wrong philosophically, in disregard of the meta-ethical arguments that this was impossible because there was no such thing as moral truth. His work encouraged the belief that convincing examples of substantive moral thought and moral argument could themselves show that there was a real subject here, even without a fully worked out theory of moral truth and moral language.
Rawls’s subject was the justice of political and social institutions, but others, including Judith Jarvis Thomson, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, Michael Walzer and T.M. Scanlon took up a range of topics, including the structure and content of individual rights, the problem of means and ends, and the moral content of law, as well as more specific issues like abortion and just war theory. Unlike Anscombe and Foot, these philosophers did not assume that a secular account of objective moral truth had to be grounded in the good of the moral agent, like Aristotle’s theory of the virtues. They were prepared to think about moral requirements, reasons and principles as if they could be true in their own right, and investigated directly by moral judgment and moral argument. This is a crucial difference: it means that the investigation of interpersonal moral values like justice and rights can be based directly on the intrinsic value of other people’s lives, and the reasons they provide. In a way this is closer to Murdoch’s outlook, but more systematic.
I have left out a great deal, especially about the deep personal relations among the four. Both books bring to life an important episode in intellectual history, and have made me again grateful that I was for a time a contemporary of these unforgettable women.
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