Philosophical Women: the Pathbreakers

Clockwise from top left: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe

Philosophical Women: the Pathbreakers

The Women are Up to Something is a book title lifted from a remark made by a male philosopher who anticipated trouble from one of the women philosophers at Oxford.  The occasion at which the trouble was feared was Oxford University’s conferring of an honorary degree on then U.S. President Harry S. Truman.  

What’s told in this recent book by Benjamin Lipscomb is the story of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch, four women who had a pioneering impact on the English-speaking philosophical world.  Never mind what was troubling Elizabeth Anscombe about Truman, the honoree at Oxford that year.  To my ears, the book’s title applies more widely to an intellectual universe that was — by definition, by all the habits of speech, by all the instruments that measured social reality — masculine.  Thought was masculine.  Feeling was feminine.  That was the world in which Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch came to womanhood.

What the philosophical members of the intellectual universe thought about was a world composed of value-neutral, insentient particles — called by  Lipscomb little billiard balls in empty space — and how such a world should be received and negotiated by men.

Little girls got to play with dolls wearing pink dresses; little boys played rough sports.  And when the little boys grew up, they got to play with microscopic billiard balls.  And the little girls, once fully grown, married them.

I remember watching a British film — sorry, forget its title — at the movies with a collegial friend who was English.  It included a scene with a British professor giving a tutorial to a young woman student.  Finding her essay deficient, he was dressing her down in the most long-drawn-out, eloquently withering terms.

“He’s saying,” I commented to my English philosopher friend as we left the movie theater, “that she cannot possibly be considered too insignificant!’”  I meant, there is no last step down, no basement floor, under her insignificance.  It’s bottomless.

“No,” my English philosopher friend smilingly demurred.  “He’s just upholding standards.”

There is an intellectual drama being reported in The Women are Up to Something.  When the scene opens, a school of philosophy called logical positivism, based in Vienna, has just made its way over to English universities via the best-selling book, published in 1936, Language, Truth and Logic, by philosopher A. J. Ayer.  Members of “the Vienna Circle” held that what we say is meaningful if and only if we confine our speaking selves to descriptions of fact as perceived by the five senses and assertions validly derived from their premises — thus, true if and only if their premises are true.

If the Vienna Circle’s constraints held, then the reflection we do, shared and private, about moral, aesthetic, erotic, psychological, or social life — all the stuff that goes into life’s big adventures — would have to be dismissed as nonsensical.  It was a very odd moment in philosophy.  Serious people, who were trying to avoid nonsense, had infinitely widened the terrain inhabited by “nonsense.”

The Second World War supervened, breaking suddenly into this intellectual world of rigorously inhibited speech.  The young men, who were to be taught logical positivism or anything else at Oxford, Cambridge, and the other British universities, were instead conscripted and sent off to fight that war.  Oxford, the university so far dominant in this drama, was left with the option of either closing down or expanding its female quota.  In consequence, the four brilliant women would find they had the place pretty much to themselves.

When the war ended, film footage from the newly liberated death camps began to be shown in the London cinemas.  Philippa Foot “went to the cinema and took in the piles of bodies, the remains charred in ovens or tangled in electrified wire, the emaciated survivors … the adolescents flinching instinctively as anyone approached.”  When she next met her mentor, Donald MacKinnon, they sat in silence for a long time.  Finally, she said, “Nothing is ever going to be the same again.”  MacKinnon agreed,  echoing her words.

When the war ended, Iris Murdoch was working for UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in Austria.  For the first time, she was seeing lives “irrevocably broken … .  Nothing nothing nothing ahead for these people.”

Elizabeth Anscombe, the most strong-willed and philosophically confident of the four, had early defied her parents by converting to Catholicism and would soon devote her gifts to the task of translating Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  In that work, no boundaries are set to what is meaningful.

As for Mary Midgley, in March of 1938 she happened to be staying with a Jewish family, the Jerusalems, in Vienna.  So she was just in time to witness what happened in the Nazi takeover of that capital and her family became instrumental in rescuing the Jerusalems along with other refugees.  It would not be hard for her to see that a philosophical account of the real world could not be adequate if it were confined to value-neutral propositions.

What these women were able to take in was that, for us human beings, 

the facts of life have motivating value.

There are fine distinctions — moral, aesthetic, social, and spiritual — to be delineated, characters to be limned, dilemmas to be decoded, and they aren’t fictional.

The philosophers, the lovers of wisdom, can get in there and dig around too.  They might even figure out if the women are up to something.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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