Metaphysical Animals review – four women who changed their philosophy | philosophy books

MEtaphysical animals is both history and argument. The story is beautiful. Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley were students at Oxford during World War II. They found a world in which many men were absent. Those who remained were either too old or too motivated to fight. It was a world, as Midgley later said, 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 intelligent young men. The first of these was AJ Ayer, whose book Language, Truth and Logic bore the mark of its author – fast, sharp, always in a hurry – and set the tone for the new philosophy. Ayer argued that philosophy needed a boundary to keep it from wandering into nonsense. What could be said clearly and verifiably made sense; what couldn’t was absurd. Tons of philosophy, theology and metaphysics came out of it. What was left 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 at this consensus. For Foot, it was the images of the concentration camps that forced a questioning. Ayer’s world picture held that moral condemnation was merely an expression of disapproval without foundation in the world of fact. But, insisted Foot, don’t we mean that we are to the right and they are wrong? These four philosophers wanted a new image, one in which evil and cruelty are as much a part of the world as rivers and rock formations.

The story is about four brilliant women finding their voice, challenging received wisdom and developing an alternative image of human beings and their place in the world. They studied among refugee scholars who taught Greek and Latin in small flats and filled the streets of northern Oxford with Eastern European sounds. And they shared their ideas – in cafes, on sofas, in common rooms. It’s a tale that deserves attention, not only in this book but also in Benjamin Lipscomb’s excellent The Women Are Up to Something, published by Oxford University Press late last year.

There are complications along the way. Murdoch, in particular, is used to both falling in love and being in love. She almost irrevocably damages his friendship with Foot by causing and then breaking a complicated love quadrangle. His admiration for Anscombe turns to eroticism. But, in and out of each other’s orbit, they begin to find other ways of thinking about human beings, drawing inspiration from the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Anscombe and Foot are developing a formidable reputation in academic philosophy. Murdoch’s beautiful and thought-provoking philosophical writing gave way to a career as an acclaimed novelist and woman of letters. Midgley is the most grounded of the quartet, bringing philosophy into dialogue with zoology and ethology and publishing the first of her 18 books at the age of 59.

So much for the story. What about the controversy? Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman interpret these women as asserting that we are indeed metaphysical animals: creatures that use language, ask questions, and create images that seek out the mysterious and the transcendent. Those of us versed in the kind of analytic philosophy that descends from Ayer will probably want more clarification and support. But such a request could miss the other part of the book’s argument: that this idea was only available to the quartet because they lived lives filled with lovers, dependents, politics and war. . For Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman, the philosophical ideas of Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot and Midgley are not independent of the types of life they led.

The authors are friends as well as philosophers, and the book is both the product and the expression of that friendship. His story underlies his argument: that philosophical insight is not conveyed primarily by words on a page but through a life well lived. Readers will have to tolerate some reconstruction and the use of “maybe” to mark transitions from one fact to another. (“Dripping on the lawn returning for a boiled egg, [Midgley] perhaps spotted…”) But to read this story is to remember the institutional barriers that prevent women from studying philosophy, the courage and determination of those who resolve to do it anyway, and the way in which the life of the spirit can be as intense and eventful as friendship itself.

Anil Gomes is comrade and tutor in philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford. metaphysical animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman is published by Chatto & Windus (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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