The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

  • By Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb
  • Oxford University Press
  • 360 pp.

A fascinating account of four impressive female philosophers.

The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

World War II was about to begin when Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch entered Oxford, which had only begun accepting women in 1920. (Cambridge did not follow suit until 1948.) The philosophy faculties were still dominated by men, but because men were being called to the front, more women were welcomed into the university, and tutors were able to give their female students ample attention.

Although all about the same age, the four classmates were very different from one another. Three of them entered the highly competitive and academically demanding Somerville College. (At Oxford, a “college” is one of the semi-autonomous institutions that make up the university.) They all studied literae humaniores, or “Greats,” a course of study that focused on classical languages, literatures, and history, and ancient and modern philosophy. Although the Oxford philosophy establishment had broken with Aristotle and Plato to advance the notion of an arid, value-free universe, all four women returned to the classics as a basis for discussions of goodness and virtue.  

Anscombe, the most combative of the group, was from an educated, progressive Irish family. To the chagrin of her parents, she converted to Catholicism while in secondary school. In 1937, she entered Saint Hugh’s College and was received into the Catholic Church. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who became the greatest influence in her academic life; she is best known for her translations and interpretations of his work.  

Foot entered Somerville College in 1939. The granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland, she was from a staunchly traditional family with no expectation that she would pursue a profession. A sickly child, she was taught by poorly prepared private tutors. She once claimed that, in her milieu, “women didn’t go to school. They just had a succession of governesses, who didn’t know anything.” She rebelled against her upbringing by taking the entrance exams for Somerville, where her tutor, Donald MacKinnon, awakened her interest in philosophy.

The granddaughter of a judge and daughter of a curate, Midgley entered Somerville in 1937. She did not immediately pursue a career in philosophy but joined the civil service in 1942, returning to Oxford in 1947 for graduate studies. When her husband was offered a teaching position at Newcastle University, the couple moved north, and Midgley devoted herself to raising their three sons. Later, she accepted a position at Newcastle, where, unlike at Oxford, instructors were free to cultivate interdisciplinarity. Long fascinated by animal behavior, Midgley began to read in the area of ethology, which greatly influenced her development as a philosopher.

Murdoch was born in Dublin but brought up in London, where she was educated in progressive schools. She entered Somerville in 1938 and studied philosophy with MacKinnon. After leaving Oxford, she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Brussels, Innsbruck, and Graz. While in Europe, she became acquainted with the work of Sartre, Weil, and other European intellectuals.  

The men who dominated the field of philosophy at Oxford saw ethics as an interplay of subjective stances or propositions to be tested by provable facts. Alfred Jules Ayer, for example, argued that unless a statement was empirically verifiable, it was meaningless. Thus, “Values are human projections onto a purposeless or ‘value-free’ reality.” Ayer, explains author Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb, “rendered suspect all premodern moral philosophy, which did not sunder fact and value.”

For Richard Mervyn Hare, “There are no ethical facts…There are just people living out different sets of ethical commitments.” Relying largely on linguistic analysis, Hare argued that rather than words like “good” and “bad,” one must concentrate on “ought” — that is, what one ought to do in a particular situation. “Hare retained the picture of a value-free universe,” explains Lipscomb, for one’s notion of an appropriate course of action always depends on a subjective evaluation. Since, in Hare’s view, our prescriptions for behavior cannot be judged against factual criteria, “there are no right or wrong answers in ethics, only consistent or inconsistent ones.”

For the women, these teachings were untenable. For Anscombe, a devout Catholic, moral action had to be grounded in God; “service to God and service to the truth” were a single pursuit. She was a disciple of Wittgenstein, who believed that the structure of language imposes limits of meaning, which, consequently, imposes limits on philosophy. Thus, “any simple set of rules [like Ayer’s] purporting to lay out the necessary conditions for language to have meaning is just wrong.”

For Anscombe, the closed nature of the prevailing moral relativism did not allow Oxford philosophers to see the limits of their system, but, she argued, in the face of Nazism — and abortion and contraception — it was clear that evil did, in fact, exist, and the moral philosopher had to take a stand. When, in 1956, Oxford decided to confer an honorary degree on Harry S. Truman, Anscombe opposed the nomination at the assembly that approved such degrees on the grounds that the atom bomb had killed civilians. Tipped off that “the women were up to something,” university authorities organized a crowd to attend the meeting and vote against her position.

Foot also objected to Hare’s linguistic analysis, arguing that although terms such as “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong” are evaluative, these concepts must necessarily be tethered to considerations of what, in general, “makes human lives go well or badly” — the foundation on which Aristotle and Aquinas built their systems.

Midgley’s work in ethology provided her with a biological framework for considering human nature and motivation. For her, we humans are inseparable from the animal world but possess both instinct and reason, which has allowed us to develop a moral sense: “Our capacity to be destroyed by conflict — identical with our capacity to creatively resolve it — it what makes us moral beings.” Lipscomb explains that, to Midgley, reason was a means of “organizing oneself.” Her ethics constitute a system of “self-integration, of thinking how to do justice to our whole lives” — a concept in close alignment with Aristotelian thought.  

Although Murdoch is best known as a novelist and never thought of herself as one of the Oxford circle, she taught philosophy at Saint Anne’s College from 1948 to 1963. She saw the prevailing philosophical position at Oxford as destructive because it “did not help people think about their most urgent questions, such as what to do with their lives.”

In Austria, Murdoch had seen people on the verge of starvation, people whose lives had been destroyed by violence. For her, the notion of a value-free universe was morally invalid. Grounding her arguments in Aristotle and Plato, she considered questions of human goodness and the need to overcome the “fat relentless ego.”

For all four women, the fundamental question was how to live an ethical life. Their repudiation of the moral subjectivity propagated by their predecessors constituted a revolution in thinking at Oxford and in the world of philosophy. Although Lipscomb’s study at times seems disorganized, the story is fascinating. The Women Are Up to Something is certainly well worth reading.  

Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her novels include the international bestseller Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Ávila, and I Am Venus, which explores the identity of the model for Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Her new biofictional novel Miss del Río, based on the life of Mexican film star Dolores del Río, will be later this year by Graydon House/HarperCollins. Her collection of stories, Far from My Mother’s Home (Spanish edition: Lejos de la casa de mi madre), focuses on the immigrant experience. Collateral Damagepublished last March by the University of Virginia Press, is an edited collection of women’s war writing, and Imagining Iraq contains short stories told from the perspective of the mother of a veteran.

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