Morals, Meaning, and Nonsense

Ethical inquiry requires lived experience, not just logical examination

Billy Wilson (Flickr/billy_wilson)
Billy Wilson (Flickr/billy_wilson)

Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman; Doubleday, 416 pp., $32.50

In Metaphysical Animals, philosophers Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman offer a captivating collective biography of four college friends who went on to become formidable figures in 20th-century moral thought: Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley (née Scrutton), Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet). The book follows their friendships, formed at Oxford in the late 1930s, as well as their crooked paths beyond the academy. The result is an illuminating portrait of philosophy in which irritable bowel syndrome, nappies, and love triangles—not to mention social networks, academic institutions, and geopolitical developments—are no mere trifles in its making.

Anscombe, Midgley, Murdoch, and Foot are the sort of historical figures who, if they didn’t exist, writers would want to invent. Midgley stood nearly six feet tall and had a penchant for slacks (a sartorial no-no at the time) as well as a fear that she would have to choose between marriage and a career (she got both, but not a career in academic philosophy). Anscombe worried her parents by abandoning Anglicanism for Catholicism, and she exhibited a self-determination that  won her the admiration of some of her instructors and the opprobrium of others who did not know what to make of an audacious young woman following her intellectual bliss. The Irish-born, middle-class Murdoch, a mix of “ ‘corn-hair’ and confidence,” joined the Communist Party and turned on her classmates as often as she turned down their marriage proposals (six in a single term). And then there was Foot, the highest-born of the quartet, the granddaughter of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, whose privilege could be seen in her elegant dress but also in her chronic worry of being “demented,” having grown up as the child of disinterested parents, feeling loved only by her nanny.

As young women, they arrived in Oxford’s homosocial male world where coeds were considered enticing distractions from the labors of the mind. Here, twentysomethings A. J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, J. L. Austin, and Isaiah Berlin convened their “small, all-male huddle”—a group they called “the Brethren”—to debate phenomenalism, theories of knowledge, and inductive logic. Out of these discussions came Ayer’s philosophical blockbuster, Language, Truth and Logic (1936). Melding insights from the Vienna Circle and British empiricism, his “Criterion of Verification” sought to model philosophy on the sciences and rid it of idealism and realism. For Ayer, the work of philosophy was not to vet statements for their moral or metaphysical insights, but rather to ensure that they could be analytically or empirically verified. If they were not verifiable, they were “nonsense.” He was so pleased with his accomplishment, he insisted to a friend that with his treatise, “philosophy has come to an end. Finished.” Oxford dons thought Ayer’s bombshell was pure genius. The Oxford dames thought it was, as Midgley put it, “pure weedkiller.”

The Second World War looms large in Metaphysical Animals, providing the historical context for understanding how this foursome came to receive its philosophical training. Prior to coming to Oxford, Midgley went to Austria to learn German but had to return to England in 1938 after her Jewish host was arrested by the Nazis and expelled from the country. She and the others studied at Oxford at a time when many male undergraduates had been conscripted to fight. So, too, had many of their tutors, thus opening opportunities for newly arrived Central European philosophical émigrés, who exposed students to their cosmopolitanism, as well as the sort of continental moral philosophy, classicism, gestalt psychology, and medieval philosophy that Oxford’s brand of logical positivism worked to extinguish.

The war likewise helped set the quartet’s intellectual agendas, enflaming in its members a desire to redirect modern philosophy’s priorities. Studying philosophy in a time of air raids and rationing quickly led to the realization that dismissing as “nonsense” the lived experiences of flesh-and-blood human beings in a world pulsating with horror and confusion was itself nonsense. To restrict philosophy to logic in a universe convulsed by suffering, dislocation, and destruction threatened to make it irrelevant to the larger world outside Oxford’s academic cloister, thereby depriving that larger world of any genuine insights that philosophy might offer.

As Metaphysical Animals tracks the life courses and intellectual projects of its subjects beyond Oxford, it is sometimes difficult to discern what holds them together beyond their intimate friendships, Murdoch’s romantic attachments to one or the other friend, shared lovers, and dedications and endorsements of their books to and for one another. Anscombe and Foot went on to have impressive careers in the academy as moral philosophers. Though Midgley enjoyed university teaching stints, she established herself as a public intellectual and wrote for lay audiences on issues ranging from psychology, human nature, and technology to animal rights and ethics. And Murdoch, no doubt the most famous of the group, made her name as a novelist, dealing with themes of tortured love, tangled sexual relationships, interpersonal obsession, and human freedom.

Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman maintain that their shared project is to bring philosophy “[b]ack to the context of the messy, everyday reality of human life lived with others.” Although they could have done a better job of explaining how this concern animated the philosophies of their fearless foursome, they succeed splendidly at showing how Anscombe, Midgley, Murdoch, and Foot personified the truism that philosophy is the primal stuff of life. And that’s no nonsense.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


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