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Metaphysics and Morals

Thursday 9 June 2022, by siawi3


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


Metaphysics and Morals

How four women defended ethical thought from the legacy of positivism.

Alice Crary

Gender and Sexuality, Philosophy

June 8, 2022

The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics
Benjamin Lipscomb
Oxford University Press, $27.95 (cloth)

Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Doubleday, $32.50 (cloth)

By Michaelmas Term 1939, mere weeks after the United Kingdom had declared war on Nazi Germany, Oxford University had begun a change that would wholly transform it by the academic year’s end. Men ages twenty and twenty-one, save conscientious objectors and those deemed physically unfit, were being called up, and many others just a bit older volunteered to serve. Women had been able to matriculate and take degrees at the university since 1920, but members of the then all-male Congregation had voted to restrict the number of women to fewer than a quarter of the overall student population. Things changed rapidly after the onset of war. The proportion of women shot up, and, in many classes, there were newly as many women as men.

Among the women who experienced these novel conditions were several who did courses in philosophy and went on to strikingly successful intellectual careers. Elizabeth Anscombe, noted philosopher and Catholic moral thinker who would go on occupy the chair in philosophy that Ludwig Wittgenstein had held at Cambridge, started a course in Greats—roughly, classics and philosophy—in 1937, as did Jean Austin (neé Coutts), who would marry philosopher J. L. Austin and later have a long teaching career at Oxford. Iris Murdoch, admired and beloved philosopher and novelist, began to read Greats in 1938 at the same time as Mary Midgley (neé Scrutton), who became a prominent public philosopher and animal ethicist. A year later Philippa Foot (neé Bosanquet), distinguished moral philosopher, started to read the then relatively new course PPE—philosophy, politics and economics—and three years after that Mary Warnock (neé Wilson), subsequently a high-profile educator and public intellectual, went up to read Greats.

Several of these women would go on to make groundbreaking contributions to ethics. This constellation of circumstances is the subject of not one but two new books, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics and Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. Both interweave stories about the lives and relationships of, in particular, Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch with arguments about how these women’s ethical projects are heterodox and, in key respects, convergent. Both also offer engaging accounts of the lives and writings of women, who, while at best glancingly interested in feminist thought and politics, were decidedly feminist in their insistence on their own intellectual projects and life possibilities—and who, although influenced by and attached to many men, were united in their dedication to their friendships with and support of each other. These books tell stories that rival in passion and intrigue anything that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have to offer and contain much to interest specialists as well as general readers.

Oxford philosophy in the early to mid 1930s had been in upheaval. The strains of Hegel-inspired idealism that had remained influential in Britain through the first decade of the twentieth century had been definitively displaced, in the years before World War I, by realist doctrines which claimed that knowledge must be of what is independent of the knower, and which were elaborated within ethics into forms of intuitionism. By the ’30s, these schools of thought were themselves threatened by new waves of enthusiasm for the themes of logical positivism developed by a group of philosophers and scientists, led by Moritz Schlick, familiarly known as the Vienna Circle. Cambridge University’s Susan Stebbing, the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship in philosophy in the UK, had already interacted professionally with Schlick in England and had championed tenets of logical positivism in essays and public lectures when, in 1933, Oxford don Gilbert Ryle recommended that his promising tutee Freddie Ayer make a trip to Vienna. Ayer obliged, and upon his return he wrote a brief manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), in defense of some of the Vienna Circle’s views. The book became a sensation, attracting attention and debate far beyond the halls of academic philosophy. Its bombshell contention was that only two kinds statements are meaningful: those that are true solely in virtue of the meanings of their constituent terms (such as “all bachelors are unmarried”), and those that can be verified through physical observation. The gesture seemed to consign to nonsense, at one fell swoop, the statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics.

At one fell swoop, positivism seemed to consign the statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics to nonsense.

This turn to “verification” struck some as a fitting response to strains of European metaphysics that many people, rightly or wrongly, associated with fascist irrationalism and the gathering threat of war. But not everyone at Oxford was sympathetic. Although Ayer’s ideas weren’t universally admired, they were widely discussed, including by a group of philosophers led by Isaiah Berlin, who met regularly at All Souls College—among them, J. L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, Donald MacNabb, Anthony Woozley, and Ayer himself. Oxford philosophy’s encounter with logical positivism would have a lasting impact and would substantially set the terms for subsequent research in many areas of philosophy—including, it would turn out, ethics and political theory.

Though positivistic zeal was muted during the wartime years that took Ayer and some of the enthusiasts for his claims away from the university, it was part of the intellectual culture experienced by the women then doing joint courses in philosophy. Many of them were sent to tutorials with MacKinnon, a young philosopher and theologian whose asthma had kept him from military service. MacKinnon was skeptical about the merits of Ayer’s project, but he asked his tutees to come to grips with Language, Truth, and Logic themselves. MacKinnon’s own thinking was shaped by Kant and post-Kantian German Idealism, and it featured the unequivocally anti-positivist conviction that historical perspective is necessary for understanding the aspects of our lives of concern for ethics and social thought. He was remembered by students for his intensity, his inspired if eccentric teaching, and his dedication, and several of the women who worked with him credited him with launching them in philosophy. Midgley wrote that without MacKinnon she would very likely have left academic philosophy, and Foot, who regarded MacKinnon as holy and remained close to him until his death, once said simply: “he created me.” Murdoch’s esteem of him was so marked and earnest—and so erotically charged—that the married MacKinnon, who continued to support his former students in their pursuit of graduate fellowships and teaching positions, and who provided key support for Murdoch’s own graduate fellowship, eventually broke off contact with her.

These women’s early interactions were the starting points for some extraordinary, if at first blush unlikely, friendships. The acquaintance between outgoing, culturally enterprising, politically daring, communist, middle-class Murdoch and upper-class, upright, socially reserved (partly because deaf in one ear and unable to recognize faces well) Foot began in earnest in the summer of 1942, when the two were revising for their final exams, and Foot lay confined to bed. At MacKinnon’s urging, Murdoch began to visit her ailing peer. Later, after a conscription act applying to unmarried women led both to service positions in London, Foot moved into the charming but primitive flat Murdoch had found, and the two were roommates for over a year of blackout and air raids. Foot provided companionship and, in turn, benefited from Murdoch’s reading habits, which encompassed theology, psychology, French existentialism, and Anglophone philosophy. Foot also benefited from Murdoch’s colorful London social life, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Arthur Koestler.

Not that the friendship was without complications. It was characteristic of Murdoch to have overlapping romantic ties, and, in the winter of 1943–1944, Murdoch began to see Foot’s then boyfriend Tommy Balogh while also continuing a relationship with (future historian) Michael Foot. When Murdoch eventually dropped Michael, he found comfort with Philippa, and, after Michael was critically injured trying to escape from a prisoner of war camp and Philippa cared for him during his recovery, the two married. Although Murdoch regarded her own behavior in these circumstances as deeply reprehensible, and although Michael was bitter, Foot herself was graciously loyal, and the two women remained close. When, later, the Foots were back in Oxford, and Murdoch returned to do graduate work, she lived in their house for over a year. The friendship between Murdoch and Foot would later take other twists and turns, but it never ceased to be important to both. At the end of Murdoch’s life, after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was in decline, Foot remained dedicated, lunching with her every Friday.

Between 1945 and 1948, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch returned to Oxford to do graduate work in philosophy. Anscombe had been spared women’s conscription by her 1941 marriage to philosopher Peter Geach and, in 1942, pregnant with the first of her eventual seven children, won a Cambridge fellowship that allowed her to do the DPhil at Oxford. For several years, Anscombe commuted between the two universities, and during this period she met and became close to Wittgenstein, who would be one of her great philosophical influences and interlocutors and for whom she would serve as translator and literary executor. After being awarded a fellowship at Somerville College in 1946, Anscombe was more consistently in Oxford. Jean Austin, who had two small children by the early 1940s and who stayed home to care for them and run her household, didn’t teach philosophy until after her husband’s death in 1960. Warnock’s course in Greats had been interrupted by the war, and she returned in 1946 and finished her first degree in 1948, after which she completed the new two-year BPhil degree in one year and took up a position teaching philosophy at St. Hugh’s.

Oxford in the late 1940s was again a changed place. Just after the war, there were thousands more undergraduates at Oxford than before. Many were slightly older men who had returned to finish the courses they had postponed or interrupted, and some of the colleges went to great lengths to accommodate the influx. The intellectual atmosphere for those working in philosophy was also changed. Enthusiasm for logical positivism and related projects of conceptual analysis was the dominant mood, and these research programs were popular well beyond the university. Although logical positivism and its offshoots seemed to many to have made moral philosophy obsolete, there was in some quarters interest in recovering ethics as a serious endeavor.

Ayer had claimed that applications of moral terms don’t pick out worldly things and so should be regarded as merely emotive pseudo-concepts. When people differ about whether something is, say, morally bad or good, Ayer thought, they are not disagreeing about any fact but expressing opposed non-cognitive attitudes to that thing. This view is now commonly glossed, dismissively, by saying that people who have different moral judgments about some circumstance simply differ, at bottom, over whether to cry out “boo!” or “hurrah!” A general consensus emerged that such a boo-hurrah or emotivist theory of ethics was oversimplistic and distorting, and after the war many sought to explain how we can have rational ethical arguments. But many of the new projects preserved the emotivist contention that ethical terms aren’t tools for picking out features of the world and that identifying ethical values isn’t in any straightforward way a matter of discernment.

Arguably the most influential ethical endeavor in this mold was the work of a young thinker, Richard Hare, who started studying Greats at Oxford in 1937, broke off his studies to serve with the Royal Artillery, survived in extremely harsh conditions as a prisoner of war, and returned to the university with a new conviction in the importance of ethics as a practical guide. Hare’s signature contribution to ethics, worked out and refined in three books between the early 1950s and the early 1980s, is his doctrine of universal prescriptivism. His idea was that, in applying an ethical term (say, “good”) to something, we simultaneously express an attitude toward that thing and issue a prescription to act in accordance with the attitude. Our prescription has universal force, logically committing us to prescribe the same action in relation to every relevantly similar thing, and this makes room in ethics for reasoned debates about the consequences of universalizing given courses of action.

Hare’s project inspired critical as well as admiring interest. Detractors pointed out, among other things, that universal prescriptivism places no restrictions on what counts as a distinctly moral assessment (as opposed, say, to an aesthetic assessment or a mere expression of preference) and that an individual could responsibly claim to stand behind an even apparently cruel or violent assessment if she was fanatical enough to consistently embrace the universal prescription encoded in it. The goal of much subsequent work in Anglophone ethics became improving on Hare’s account of moral discourse, but these critical undertakings mostly left in place certain assumptions, as fundamental for Hare as for his emotivist forerunners: that ethical concepts don’t determine aspects of the world and that it is not by attending perceptually to how things are that we encounter ethical values. These assumptions are among the marks of what came to be known as the non-cognitivist tradition in ethics.

This was the intellectual climate in which Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch rubbed shoulders and bounced philosophical ideas off each other during the 1940s. Midgley was living in North Oxford very close to the Foots’ place, where Murdoch briefly resided, and Anscombe, who would sometimes join the other three at the Foots’, had with Philippa Foot begun the tradition, which the two would continue into the late 1960s, of regular afternoon philosophizing in the Somerville Senior Common Room. None of these thinkers had yet embarked on their publishing careers, but it was a period of great intellectual ferment in which they explored numerous partly overlapping philosophical themes, and this positioned three of them—Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch—to start, in the 1950s, producing substantial bodies of published work. Midgley would later discuss the importance of this period for her thinking, but she left Oxford in 1949, began a prolific career as a reviewer and broadcaster while raising children, and only truly began her publishing career in the mid-1970s. The early outputs of the other three were in many stylistic and thematic respects different. But they were alike in developing lines of thought threatening to fundamental presuppositions of the emerging family of ethical non-cognitivisms for which Hare was then the main spokesperson.

Anscombe was stunningly productive in the 1950s, translating thousands of pages of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass and bringing out his Philosophical Investigations (1953) and his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), in addition to publishing two major philosophical monographs, Intention (1957) and An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1959), as well as a string of significant articles on philosophy of action, philosophy of psychology, and ethics. A strand of Anscombe’s thought, running through these projects, opposes dominant non-cognitivist postures in ethics by bringing together themes from Aristotle’s ethics and Wittgenstein’s remarks on aspects of mind. She follows Aristotle in exploring an approach to ethics modeled on natural historical accounts of human life that tell us not, say, how many teeth human beings have on average but how many are normative for the species. The ethical analogue, which starts from an understanding of humans as more-than-biological beings with capacities for choice and thought, is an account of particular propensities of practical reason, or virtues, as normative for us.

Anscombe combines this Aristotelian orientation in ethics with Wittgenstein’s idea that, contrary to their received interpretation as “outer” manifestations of “inner” mental phenomena, our expressive behaviors are drenched with psychological meaning. Wittgenstein also holds that getting these behaviors perceptually in view presents special challenges. Anscombe’s suggestion is that it is only by drawing on our feel for what living and acting well is like—our feel, that is, for the kind of normative image of human practical endeavor that preoccupies Aristotle—that we can meet the challenges Wittgenstein flags and do justice to the psychological significance of particular expressive behaviors. She takes our ability to identify particular intentions, motives, and other mental features to presuppose an appreciation of a virtuous human life. The result is a powerful, explicitly anti-non-cognitivist case for regarding descriptions of actions as ethically saturated.

Like Anscombe, Murdoch was arrestingly prolific in the ’50s. Her publications included Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), the first English-language study of Sartre’s thought, four novels that would establish her as a leading literary figure—Under the Net (1954), The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), The Sandcastle (1957), and The Bell (1958)—and a series of important articles on ethics, political theory, and aesthetics. A recurring concern of these works, the literary as well as the philosophical, is evoking anti-non-cognitivist notions of things like freedom, moral difference, and moral argument—the cluster of aspects of practical endeavor that philosophers collect under the heading of “moral psychology.”

The heart of Murdoch’s moral psychology is the view that the world to which moral concepts are responsible is brought into focus by distinctively moral thought and activity, including probing forms of moral imagination. She invites us to see that freedom calls for disciplined work on the self rather than exertion normatively unconstrained by the world; that moral differences are not disagreements about which non-cognitive attitude to adopt toward some neutral region of fact but rather differences of understanding; and that, instead of being a merely intellectual exercise of reconciling conflicting non-cognitive attitudes, moral argument requires an openness to new insights gleaned from reshaping one’s sensibility. Together with her repudiation of ethical non-cognitivism, Murdoch provides an alternative map of the moral life.

At the core of Foot’s smaller yet undeniably impactful output during the same period are several tightly argued articles on ethics that, among other things, defend an idea resonant with these aspects of Anscombe’s and Murdoch’s thought. Foot argues that principles for acting are only recognizable as moral principles—in contrast to, for example, merely capricious practical maxims—if they are intelligible as actualizations of moral concepts such as goodness, duty, or virtue. Together with Anscombe and Murdoch, Foot departs from ethical non-cognitivism in representing the moral life as characterized by forms of regularity only available to an engaged eye.

Intersections among the wide-ranging and distinctive intellectual enterprises of these thinkers can be traced not only to their common influences but to their interactions with each other. Prompted by Anscombe, Murdoch and Midgley had started to read then-circulating copies of Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books in the 1940s. Murdoch later helped Anscombe with her translation of the Philosophical Investigations. And, in 1954, during one of years in which Foot and Anscombe were devoting afternoons to questions of philosophy in the Somerville SCR, Foot and Murdoch taught a class together at Keble College exploring the anti-non-cognitivist idea that the descriptive and evaluative components of the meanings of moral concepts cannot be disentangled.

The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals coincide in their chosen themes while diverging in scope and narrative strategy. Lipscomb discusses his four subjects’ entire lifetimes and addresses them largely in parallel. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman concentrate on the stretch of time from these women’s arrivals at Oxford in the late 1930s up to 1956, when three of them enter their initial periods of great productivity, telling their stories simultaneously. Many circumstances in both books will be familiar to those who have read Peter Conradi’s intensively researched biography of Murdoch as well as Midgley’s and Warnock’s successful memoirs. But The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals bring together better-known episodes with original archival work, and, although there are a fair number of mostly minor errors, the books also shed light on less-discussed incidents. While Murdoch’s and Foot’s wartime relationship has been well described elsewhere, the books recount the intensity of Anscombe’s and Murdoch’s relationship, which led to a crisis late in 1948—the culmination of months in which Murdoch increasingly came to regard Anscombe as an object of moral, intellectual, and erotic devotion, and Anscombe felt conscience-driven to combat her own partiality to her friend. The books also reveal the great steadiness of the lifelong friendship between atheist Foot and intensely religious Anscombe, recording Foot’s devastating journal entry just days after Anscombe’s death in 2001: “Everything is done for the first time in this different world without her.”

Both books also depend for much of their appeal on their cases for reassessing the importance of the four women’s ethical contributions, and on this point it is worth noting two of the more significant respects in which they need to be corrected.

First, it is a hazard of intellectual biography to conflate personal affinities with affinities of ideas, and at times these books veer toward such confusions. The recognition that there are philosophically significant points of contact among the ethical approaches of their chosen subjects leads these authors to some misleading accounts of philosophical agreement. Partly, this tendency is attributable to an excessive deference to Midgley, who outlived her three friends, and who, late in life, started suggesting that the local history of philosophy should be told to unite the four of them. Midgley was an important interlocutor for Lipscomb as well as for Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman, a circumstance that helps to explain the nearly simultaneous emergence of two books advancing versions of the same—by no means self-evident—thesis that Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch are rightly grouped together. In the year before her death, Midgley went yet further, arguing that in virtue of their convergence on heterodox ideas about ethics in the late 1940s, the four of them should be seen as forming a distinct philosophical “school.”

It is a hazard of intellectual biography to conflate personal affinities with affinities of ideas.

Lipscomb runs with Midgley’s school idea. He represents the four women as rejecting a mechanistic view of the world, the “billiard ball picture,” on which all relations among things are merely causal and on which there is accordingly nothing evaluative for our perceptual sensitivities to detect. Lipscomb’s main thesis is that his subjects counter this picture with commitments to “objective truths” in ethics. This description is unhelpful as it stands because moral philosophers speak of objectivity in ethics in numerous ways. In some cases they use this phrase to mean one or another version of the view that moral assessments are universally valid; in other cases they use it to mean one or another version of the view that ethical values are perceptually accessible. Lipscomb seems primarily interested in ethical objectivity in the latter sense, though he doesn’t distinguish among the various things that philosophers mean by perceptually picking out values.

Not that Lipscomb is wrong to suggest that we might give an account of the experiential availability of values broad enough to encompass beliefs that Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch defended in different places. But such an account would be poor pretext for talk of a school. It would be so thin that it would also apply to the work of any number of men who were at Cambridge and Oxford with these women, including not only some, like Wittgenstein, whom they generally admired and embraced as an influence, but also some, like J. L. Austin, whom they generally despised. Both books do note that Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch launched frontal attacks on Hare’s program in ethics in the 1950s—attacks without clear echoes in the work of any of the men around them—and that Hare complained about being specifically targeted by women philosophers. (Warnock, for her part, was also hard on Hare in a 1960 book, Ethics Since 1900, that is conspicuously absent from both books’ bibliographies.) But this doesn’t in any substantial way strengthen the case for a school.

Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman approach Midgley’s school idea somewhat more skeptically. They give it sympathetic play in their preface and in one further passage. But they don’t explicitly endorse it, and they interlace into their biographical narrative a more nuanced description of philosophical commonalities among their four subjects. Their titular phrase “metaphysical animals,” taken from a 1941 article of MacKinnon’s, is deliberately multivalent. Its implied affirmation of metaphysics connotes a departure from positivistic hostility to metaphysical statements. It also resonates with some of Murdoch’s articles in the 1950s, in which she declares her aim of combatting the elimination of metaphysics—understood as normatively rich reflection about what the world is like—from ethics and political theory. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman’s reference to “animals” in turn picks up partly on Anscombe’s Aristotle- and Wittgenstein-influenced explorations of distinctive demands of bringing human beings and also other life forms into view. The reference to animals is also a nod to Midgley’s calls for registering human animality and for acknowledging that non-human animals are morally important. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman thus give us an appropriately messy account of these philosophers’ concerns with distinct ethical projects, all the while making a suggestive case for thinking it can be philosophically productive to read their work together.

We can appreciate this case while finding it useful to explore disagreements that these books downplay or neglect. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman address Anscombe’s outspoken opposition, as a Catholic moralist, to contraception and abortion—a stance that, as Lipscomb also discusses, put her at odds with her friends, at one point threatening even her stable bond with Foot. And Lipscomb does at least mention Foot’s surprising intellectual journey, passed over by Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman, from her early opposition to ethical non-cognitivism to a period in which she felt obliged to accept some of its main tenets—and on to a final period in which she elaborated Anscombe’s distinctive and anti-non-cognitivist Aristotelian project in ethics. But neither set of authors mentions the intriguing fact that Foot took this Anscombian project to imply that our duties to non-human animals are no more than indirect reflections of our duties to cultivate our own virtuous characters, a position that is ripe for critical scrutiny and that placed Foot at odds with Midgley’s efforts to show animals matter in themselves.

Second, intellectual biographers are also at risk of conjuring intellectual differences among subjects who are personally hostile. The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals both betray tendencies in this direction as well, at times leading to serious misrepresentation. In one case—the treatment of the methods that came to be known as “ordinary language philosophy,” or OLP—the books work directly against their own aims, reinforcing trends that have interfered with the reception of the ethical thought of Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch.

OLP emerged in the 1940s at Cambridge, where it was associated with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, and it flourished at Oxford during the 1950s in the work of J. L. Austin, Ryle, and P. F. Strawson. A guiding theme of OLP was that to grapple meaningfully with philosophical perplexities we need to get a feel for some of the ordinary contexts in which we use the words we employ in giving voice to such perplexities. This emphasis on the sensibility at play in our modes of speech marks a sharp contrast with the strictly technical conceptual analysis urged by logical positivists. Indeed, the emerging body of work in OLP was radically hostile to positivism. Austin’s now-famous 1955 William James Lectures, “How to Do Things with Words,” arguably his crowning achievement, are framed as an attack on ethical emotivism.

Austin’s opening critical device is a distinction between statements that constate things about the world and those that do or perform things. After introducing this distinction and exploring it at length, he concludes that there is an aspect of doing in even the most constative operations of language and hence that his original distinction cannot be sustained. His lectures impress on us that linguistic understanding requires a feel for the things we can meaningfully do with words—for what he calls the “illocutionary forces” our words can have. By depicting such understanding as drawing on our appreciation of the lives we lead with language, he asks us to conceive it as engaged and perspectival. In his posthumously published work Sense and Sensibilia, Austin complements this view with an account of perceptual experience, at odds with positivistic views of it as a mode of merely causal, wholly unmediated mental contact with the world, on which it is likewise engaged and perspectival. The upshot is an image of thought about the world that makes room for the perceptual discernment of values—an outcome suggestive of notable and productive ties to aspects of the ethical outlooks that Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch were developing in the 1950s.

For Murdoch, metaphysical reflection is subversive precisely because it challenges the hegemonic creep of instrumental rationality.

Yet The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals give the impression of great distance between these women’s outlooks and the enterprise of OLP. The suggestions of a major intellectual divide are made in tandem with descriptions of personal animosities between the women and some of OLP’s main—male—figures. Both books do explain that Wittgenstein was a great mentor and supporter of Anscombe, though neither mentions well-known accounts of his dislike of women academics or the fact that he made an exception for Anscombe because he regarded her as “one of the boys.” At the same time, both books stress that Anscombe was openly contemptuous of Austin, who returned the sentiment. Anscombe attended some of Austin’s classes and expressed outrage at the idea of similarities between his view of the workings of language and Wittgenstein’s; Foot was also ill-disposed to Austin. He famously organized on an invitation-only basis a Saturday morning philosophy workshop; it began as an all-male group but eventually came to include a few women, and Foot later recalled these gatherings as one of the few circumstances in academic philosophy that made her feel being a woman placed her at a disadvantage. (Anscombe’s and Foot’s attitudes contrast sharply with that of Annette Baier, who was supervised for the BPhil by Austin in the 1950s and who, though she used her 1990 Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association to call out the harms of sexist bias in philosophy, made a point later to say that she exempted Austin from her criticism.) For her part, Murdoch on occasion expressed disdain for Ryle.

These portraits of personal antagonism are presented together, within The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals, with claims about how Austin, and other ordinary language philosophers such as Ryle, were fierce philosophical opponents of Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch. Lipscomb links the narrowing of philosophy at Oxford that all four women decried to the spirit of Austin’s thought, and Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman depict Austin as hostile to metaphysics in a manner that aligns him with Ayer’s positivist stance and places him in conflict with the four. Lipscomb’s passing remark that there are points of philosophical contact between Austin’s work and the oeuvres of his four subjects does little to disrupt the suggestion—made by Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman as well—of fundamental philosophical conflict between these women and some central thinkers linked to OLP.

Both books thus subtly reinforce an influential narrative that OLP is a banal, philosophically shallow, and politically conservative tradition whose final grave was dug in the 1970s. To be sure, despite repeated efforts over the last half century to bury it, OLP is still alive. Both Wittgenstein’s philosophy and that of Stanley Cavell, another central figure in the tradition, continue to attract interest internationally, and, after a hiatus of several decades, Austin’s writings are receiving new scholarly attention. Although OLP remains marginal in academic philosophy, it shows up in numerous areas, from philosophy of language, epistemology, and ethics to literary theory, philosophical theology, and debates about the authority of the interpretative methods of the social sciences. Indeed, it plays a conspicuous role in feminist theory, queer theory, and other critical theories dedicated to the kind of liberating thinking it has often wrongly been taken to stymie.

To indulge these two books’ strategy of treating OLP as an opponent is to miss an opportunity to generate new philosophical interest in the ethical work of Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch. Their intersecting ethical projects share with central contributions to OLP an openness to the experiential accessibility of values—an idea that places all of these thinkers squarely at odds with the zeitgeist and opens the door to the kind of normatively loaded reflection about the world that Murdoch calls “metaphysics.” Such reflection is subversive precisely because it is capable of uncovering values that challenge the pressure, characteristic of late capitalism, to treat all domains of our lives instrumentally.

Of course, Murdochian metaphysics is not the only mode of philosophical resistance to the hegemonic creep of instrumental rationality, not even if elaborated in a manner aligned with core ideals of Marxist social thought. There is a further challenge in the strains of liberal Kantianism that, starting with John Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice, are often credited with awakening Anglophone moral and political philosophy from their positivistic slumbers. But these latter strains are less groundbreaking than they may appear. By treating the divulging of non-instrumental values as a practical as opposed to theoretical achievement, they sustain the ban on metaphysical theorizing that is one of positivism’s most reactionary legacies. A call to lift this ban represents a far more serious threat to the moral and political status quo. That OLP is threatening in this way is part of what Stephen Mulhall had in mind when he quipped that, in the 1960s and 1970s, the need to reject or transcend OLP “far outweighed the capacity to provide good grounds for doing so.” Something similar can be said about certain aspects of the ethical thought of the women in these two books. One cannot easily dismiss OLP without also dismissing the interest of their far-reaching and politically fecund contributions to ethics.

In knitting together four women’s biographies and philosophical achievements, The Women Are Up to Something and Metaphysical Animals take seriously a remark Midgley made about how the relative absence of men from Oxford during the war was a condition of her and her friends’ finding their ways in philosophy. The task of determining whether, or to what extent, Midgley’s claim holds is rightly left for historians and social scientists. But it is possible to take a philosophical interest in the fact not merely that these women did find their ways in male-dominated, mid-twentieth-century Oxford philosophy, but that their distinct and still immensely pertinent ethical projects went fundamentally against the grain.

These projects contain overlapping accounts of how engaged and perspectival thinking can reveal aspects of the world that we otherwise miss. They reinforce the unsurprising idea that philosophical traditions can be enriched by the inclusion of a diverse range of voices, especially those that have long been left out. Recognizing as much sheds new light on the interest of the achievements of Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch—each of whom, in her distinct way, enacts a glorious version of the kind of intellectual innovation that greater inclusiveness promotes.

Author’s Note: My gratitude to Cora Diamond, Michael Kremer, Sabina Lovibond, and Mark Rowe for graciously generous and extremely knowledgeable correspondence as I was composing this article.
Alice Crary

Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Liberal Studies, and Gender & Sexuality Studies at the New School for Social Research. Her most recent book is Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought.