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The Women Who Broke the Oxford Glass Ceiling

Boo to the Boo-Hurrahs: how four Oxford women transformed philosophy



Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley took on the male consensus—and revolutionised modern ethics

By Peter Salmon


The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionised Ethics by Benjamin JB Lipscomb In April 1945, a newsreel film entitled German Atrocities appeared in British cinemas. Having been spared graphic images during most of the war, this was, for most British civilians, their first encounter with the horrors of the concentration camps. After watching footage of emaciated bodies and piled-up corpses, the 24-year-old Philippa Foot told her mentor, the philosopher Donald MacKinnon: “Nothing is ever going to be the same again.” These were acts, Foot felt, that were undeniably evil, and if philosophy was unable to identify them as such, then there was a major problem with philosophy.

And there was indeed a problem. The moral philosophy taught at Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s pictured the world as value free. According to the influential AJ Ayer, all ethical statements, since they can never be empirically tested, are meaningless.

Foot had studied at Oxford with three other remarkable women: Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Midgley, each of whom was to devote themselves to arguing with the Oxford tradition, be it through novels, academic papers, books or radio broadcasts. Benjamin Lipscomb’s new group biography, The Women Are Up to Something, is a fascinating exploration of their life and thought. They each tackled moral philosophy in ways as distinct as their backgrounds and beliefs. Bringing together Murdoch, “a bohemian novelist and spiritual seeker,” Anscombe, “a zealous Catholic convert and mother of seven,” Foot, “an atheistic daughter of privilege,” and Midgley, “a stay-at-home mother who finally wrote the first of her 16 books in her 50s” (59 to be precise), Lipscomb paints a vivid portrait not only of them as people, but also a moment in British philosophy too often told through the male line. While never a “school” as such—though all went to Somerville College, Oxford—the four would interact in various ways for over 50 years, engaging in debates in person, through correspondence, or via some of the most important essays on ethics of the 20th century. They also occasionally swapped lovers, developed crushes on each other and, possibly, attempted seduction. (In fairness, all such occasions tended to involve Murdoch.) Lipscomb delights in bringing the women’s personal stories to life. For Anscombe (at one point “tracksuited and smoking a cigar”), the orthodoxies of motherhood were of little interest—legend has it that she would place a label on her children that read “If found wandering, please return to 27 St John Street”—while her domestic philosophy, as she told the Manchester Guardian in 1959, was that “dirt doesn’t matter.”

What did matter was philosophy. For Anscombe that invariably meant Wittgenstein, whose greatest translator she remains. Initially her relationship, by her own admission, was “besotted reverence,” where “almost anything Wittgenstein said sounded important and true to me.” Later she pushed back against the Austrian thinker, describing his views on religion as “sheer poison.” Still, it was by her own request that her grave now sits next to his in the Ascension Parish in Cambridge.

Foot was the granddaughter of US president Grover Cleveland, the child of an aristocratic upbringing that she could never shake off. She was aware of the subtleties of the class system in ways that dismayed her: “If you are called ‘Lady Mary’ you had to be terribly grand, much grander than being called ‘Lady Murray.’ It’s the kind of thing I knew. I hated it.” Midgley, meanwhile, was the daughter of a priest, and brought up in the faith that she later lost, referring to Christianity as an engine she couldn’t start. In philosophical terms, Murdoch was the outlier who often bemoaned her inferiority to Foot and Anscombe in particular, envying the latter’s “ruthless authenticity.” For Anscombe, dirt didn’t matter and what didn’t matter one could ignore. For a great novelist like Murdoch, everything had to matter, the great mess of humanity most of all. Postcard from Iris Murdoch to Philippa Foot c. 1959/1960 from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives. Copyright Kingston University The four profited from the opening of Oxbridge to female students during the war. Winning a place was a torturous process in the late 1930s: Oxford’s entry rules expressly stipulated a ratio of four men to each woman, meaning only 250 places were available. Applicants were also required to have two or three languages, including Latin and Greek, subjects often unavailable to girls. “In normal times,” noted Midgley, “a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard.”

But these were not normal times. From 1939 to 1942, the war meant the student body was predominantly female. The effect, notes Midgley, was not only to “make it a great deal easier for women to be heard in discussion,” but also—and this is understood with greater clarity now—for a diminution of “the amount of work that one thinks is needed to make one’s opinion worth hearing.” It allowed space for the women to tackle the philosophy dominating Oxford at the time. This philosophy flowed from Ayer’s 1936 work Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer had argued that only statements that could be verified were meaningful. Ethical statements have no objective truth, and are thus simply subjective. This can lead to what has been termed the “Boo-Hurrah” theory of ethics, known more technically as emotivism. According to this view, my ethical positions are nothing to do with any objective criteria; rather they are expressions of my own emotional attitude, merely my “tastes.” Ultimately, if I say something is “good” or “right” morally, it is because I like it, and if something is “wrong” or “evil” it is because I don’t.

“If philosophy was unable to identify evil, then there was a major problem with philosophy”

To call the death camps evil is, therefore, merely to express an opinion. However cogently I present a moral argument against mass killing, I am only saying “boo” in another way. For Lipscomb, this is the endpoint of a particular strand of thinking in which “purpose, value, love and meaning… are not primary qualities. They are unreal.”

The idea that “value” did not reside in the world became Oxford orthodoxy. And although thinkers such as RG Hare, JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle set out a version of this philosophy that was subtly different, it shared a worldview that Murdoch captured in her later criticism of Ryle. His world is one, she wrote, in which “people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood or go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers, or join the Communist party.”

Oxford philosophy of this type led to the endless parsing of language satirised by Beyond the Fringe: “Are you in fact using ‘yes’ in its affirmative sense?” Or, as Anscombe once complained of Austin: “That man would find a difference between ‘enough’ and ‘sufficient.’” It might make for a clever discussion, but it stands mute in the face of the Holocaust.

But, as Murdoch later argued, even Ayer’s position was tacitly prescriptive—as Lipscomb puts it, his subjective system of ethics tends to call for a sort of “self-congratulatory toughness in facing the world.” Some of Midgley’s later battles with Richard Dawkins would be on this terrain. For Dawkins, the ascription of values to a godless and heartless world is a sort of idiocy, or at least a foolish sentimentality, in the face of which one should exhibit a heroic—even “manly”—stoicism.

Anscombe’s critique of Oxford philosophy was perhaps the most powerful. In her 1958 paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” she identified the contrasts between contemporary ethics and those of Aristotle. Where utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) and deontology (the idea of moral duty) are an ethics of doing, for Aristotle ethics are a matter of being. A virtue, argues Aristotle, is something that makes a person good, and a good person is someone who lives virtuously. We gain and increase these virtues by practising them. By living out our lives in honest, brave or just ways, our character becomes honourable and moral. By honing noble habits, we make the right choices when set ethical questions and challenges. This system of “virtue ethics” would become hugely influential—the four women all adopted some version of it. Thus for Foot virtues and vices (the title of a 1978 collection of her essays), rather than rights and duties, are the central concepts in moral philosophy. In her case, the emphasis was on practical ethics—she worked tirelessly for charities such as Oxfam, while writing extensively on euthanasia and abortion. Her support of the right to abortion almost ended her friendship with the Catholic Anscombe, who was arrested several times protesting outside abortion clinics.

For Midgley, the breakthrough came with her encounters with ethology—the study of animals, which sheds light on human behaviour. This would lead to that long-postponed first book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978). She cheerfully brushed aside the question of why it took her so long (“I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then”) but was thereafter prolific, especially as a populariser of ethics on the BBC. While her work differs from that of Foot and Anscombe, she too, in Lipscomb’s arresting turn of phrase, felt it “better to be damned with Aristotle than saved with Austin.” Murdoch was more mercurial. For a time, she was called on to explain French existentialism to the British public, either in her novels or books of “popular” philosophy. The politically engaged works of Sartre and de Beauvoir were thrilling for a woman who had once written that “my religion, if I have one, at the moment is a passionate belief in the beautiful, and a faith in the ultimate triumph of the people, the workers of the world.” (Her politics evolved over time: she ended up supporting her fellow Somerville College student, Margaret Thatcher.) But eventually she found in existentialism similar faults to those identified in Oxford philosophy—the same glamorous toughness. Lipscomb’s book succeeds wonderfully in presenting a particular era in philosophy, and the huge influence of, in particular, Anscombe and Foot in the field of ethics. One area not explored much is that of sex and gender. In a way, this mirrors the women’s writing. Lipscomb notes that only Midgley wrote anything about the (philosophical) question of “women,” and then mostly in the context of being allowed to think and to work.

This blindness to feminist ethics is revealing. In part it is a function of the era in which they worked, but not completely; they all lived through various waves of feminism. And yet the ethical battles they were involved in—even when about abortion—were, it seems, purely intellectual ones. One can imagine contemporary feminists seeing some maddening abstraction in their work, as they themselves did in the Oxford ethicists. Questions about female embodiment and intersectionality, so crucial to current feminist thinking, are absent from their “gender-neutral” work—and from this book.

In fact, Lipscomb does not mention feminism at all until the penultimate chapter; and, despite the title, there is no attempt to situate these philosophers’ ethical positions as women in a wider context. Given they were chosen for a group biography as women, this does seem odd. One cannot necessarily expect 21st-century thinking about identity to be explored by 20th-century philosophers of any stripe, but one might hope their biographers would try—particularly as “virtue ethics” has entered feminist discourse. After all, many of the “virtues” espoused throughout history have contributed to the subjugation of women. But perhaps the feminism here is in the telling. Lipscomb is not only a powerful advocate for these thinkers, but he also tells their story with a combination of thoroughness and humour. His evocation of their cultural milieu, and the way each of them grappled with their ideas as well as with their world, is both adept and entertaining. Their friendships were marked by ferocious fallings-out, but as Murdoch wrote in her journal: “I reflected, talking with Mary, Pip & Elizabeth, how much I loved them.” It is a statement one would be unlikely to find in the private journals of the thinkers they opposed.

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