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‘Metaphysical Animals’ and ‘The Women Are Up to Something’: A Philosophy of Their Own

From the Wall Street Journal

Photo by Liv Cashman / Unsplash

TDE Note: I'm not sure I've ever seen philosophical biographies get as much attention as these two works are getting. I'm not sure what to make of it, but I'm glad to see the Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe getting her due.

Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb’s “The Women Are Up to Something” takes its title from an event that rattled Oxford University in 1956. When the university announced its plan to award an honorary degree to Harry S. Truman, the analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, whose work included ethics, initiated a protest. Addressing the mostly male dons who had assembled en masse to vote down the women who were reported to be “up to something,” Anscombe did not dispute that Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had “pretty certainly saved a huge number of lives” and shortened the war. But, she argued calmly, in his decision to “kill the innocent as a means to an end,” he had “a couple of massacres” to his name and, because of that, did not deserve an award. She pointed out that not being honored shouldn’t be confused with being punished.

In one of those quirky publishing concurrences that happen most frequently with multi-year projects like biographies, Anscombe, along with three other brilliant women who also came to Oxford as undergraduates in 1937-38 and made their mark on moral philosophy—Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot—are the subject of two admiring group biographies: Mr. Lipscomb’s book and “Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life,” by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman.

All four women were “Armistice babies” who grew up between the two world wars. Three of them—Anscombe, Murdoch and Midgley—were raised in intellectual households on the outskirts of London. The fourth, Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet), came from a tony social milieu in North Yorkshire where young women were expected to ride to hounds rather than study Aristotle. Her mother, the daughter of Grover Cleveland, had been born in the White House.

When the young women arrived at Oxford, strict quotas were still in place to ensure that the male-to-female undergraduate ratio would not dip below 4-to-1. But the upheavals of the war had at least one unexpectedly positive effect on their education: After their male classmates went off to fight, the women no longer had to compete for professorial attention. As Midgley commented toward the end of her long life, “In normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard.”

Both of these books chronicle the women’s overlapping friendships, the evolution of their thinking, and the significant contributions they made to philosophy—a field dominated by men even to this day. In the wake of World War II, which raised pressing questions about human nature, they pushed back against the dominant view among philosophers of the time that there are no objective moral truths and that values like good, bad, right and wrong are essentially subjective projections or “the upshot of one’s particular upbringing.”

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal