The four women who awakened philosophy

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The Women Are Up To Something. By Benjamin Lipscomb. Oxford University Press; 326 pages; $27.95 and £20

“TTHIS IS IT she was never a woman who could philosophize as she can.” So said Philippa Foot about her friend, Elizabeth Anscombe, in a recommendation to the head of a college in Oxford in 1957. Letters of reference can add to the truth. If Anscombe had a precursor, would anyone know? Before the 20th century, it was almost impossible for a woman with philosophical talent to gain recognition, unless she was a royal or at least a duchess. How that situation began to change, at least in Britain, is part of the story told in this fine biographical group of four women, who became friends in Oxford during the second word war

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His two other subjects are Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley, who, like Anscombe, were well-educated, middle-class girls. As Benjamin Lipscomb, an American philosopher, explains, Foot was very posher. Her grandfather, Grover Cleveland, was president of America twice. Her earlier education was led by nuns and consisted mostly of riding and parties.

Murdoch (pictured), the most famous of the quartet, is best known for his novels. But she was also a philosopher at Oxford for 15 years, having decided to become one after hearing a lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre. Anscombe was the most unusual. Monocled, cigar-smoking and famous for taking off her trousers when a restaurant told her women couldn’t wear them, she was mistaken for a cleaner when she got to Cambridge’s philosophy chair once by her friend, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Much of Midgley’s philosophical work was not written for academics. Her first book appeared when she was almost 60 and was followed by 15 more, many aimed at what she saw as oversimplifications by biologists, psychologists and other scientists. She had a spat with Richard Dawkins about whether it’s helpful to call genes “selfish”. Midgley put her career on hold for more than a decade to care for three children. Anscombe, a devout Catholic, pitched seven without batting; the secret was to understand that “there is no difference in dirt”.

What was important to the four women was ethics. They were dissatisfied with the state of moral philosophy, especially as practiced at Oxford. Both were too dry, because he focused on the language of morality rather than on ethical questions, and mostly wrong, because he didn’t even get the linguistic questions right. A leg raised the idea that descriptive and evaluative language could be sharply separated: calling an act “rude”, for example, both describes and condemns it. Contrary to the orthodoxy of the time, she therefore maintained that there was no control between facts and values.

Anscombe argued as it was in a seminal paper published in 1958: Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill and others came in for a trumpet. Moral philosophers, she said, needed to rethink many of their beliefs about human nature and psychology. Two years earlier, she had made world headlines by opposing the awarding of an Oxford degree to Harry Truman. In her eyes, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made it a mass murder. The same colleges were told to vote Anscombe, because “the ladies are up to something”.

The four women in Mr. Lipscomb’s vivid story did little more than philosophize about morality (and, in Anscombe’s case, much more). They campaigned to improve the world, according to the light. Anscombe was arrested twice at abortion clinics; Murdoch was denied an American visa because of her past membership in the Communist Party. Foot was dedicated to the anti-poverty charity, Oxfam; Midgley was active in the animal welfare, environmental and disarmament movements.

Maybe it was the war that made them. Midgley believed that she had found her voice as a philosopher only because there were so few people in Oxford when she was studying there. They were mostly gone, fighting. The only time when the majority of Oxford philosophy students were women was when this quarter were undergraduates.

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