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Unthinkable: Lessons in logic from four celebrated women philosophers

Do you ever suppress your own thoughts? It is perhaps a natural coping mechanism to avoid dwelling on ideas that are too radical or uncomfortable to contemplate.

Next time it happens, though, ask yourself: What would Ludwig Wittgenstein do? Or, indeed, what would the four philosopher friends Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch do?

There has been a surge of interest in the so-called Oxford quartet in recent years, mainly thanks to the work of Dubliner Clare MacCumhaill and research collaborator Rachael Wiseman. Their Women in Parenthesis project has sought to chart the contribution of the four female philosophers who became friends at Oxford University during the second World War.

The newly published Metaphysical Animals is a culmination of MacCumhaill and Wiseman’s efforts. It is set to become a standard reference work on the quartet, while also helping us to rethink the canon of western philosophy from a gender perspective. More than that though, it is a very entertaining read that manages to turn dry, intellectual gymnastics into a high-stakes spectator sport.

Of the four, Midgley probably has the strongest presence in the book by virtue of the fact that the authors met her several times before she died in 2018 at the age of 99. Right to the end, she continued a tradition shared by the other members of the quartet – and by Wittgenstein too – which was to persevere with a difficult thought rather than “cover over the withdrawal of certainty with arguments and theories”.

According to Wiseman, for example, Midgley “thought that the climate emergency was bound up with a ‘conceptual emergency’ – we just don’t have the concepts we need to relate healthily to the natural world. This is why she thinks philosophers not only need skills of the lawyer, to root out confusion, but the imagination of the poet too.”

Midgley may not have censored herself but she was censored by others. The book includes the story of a radio script commissioned from her by the BBC but never broadcast as it dared to suggest the domestic lives of intellectuals had influenced their thinking. The spiked Rings and Books paper opened with the memorable line: “Practically all the great European philosophers have been bachelors.”

MacCumhaill and Wiseman give a further sense of both the character and the thinking of Midgley, Murdoch, Foot and Anscombe as this week’s Unthinkable guests.

In broad terms, what did the quartet agree on?

RW: "They all approached philosophy as something that is needed when – as Anscombe puts it – we are 'in the dark' about our concepts. Iris Murdoch said they were 'all trying to understand the reality that surrounds man, transcendent or whatever'. And Mary Midgley speaks of them turning their attention onto this 'deeply puzzling world'.

“Where analytic philosophers typically insist on extreme abstract clarity and precision, these women take as their starting point darkness and confusion, disorientation – and of course the fact that they developed their philosophy in the wake of the second World War is no accident. For them humans are animals; as animals we are a mix of instinct and culture and we are constantly running up against the limits of our own perspective and the puzzles that life among other animals throws up.

“This is where the title of our book comes from. As metaphysical animals, it is our nature to ask questions that go beyond the limits of what we experience here and now, and to create pictures, images and stories which shape our ways of going on.”

CMC: "In 1945, all four were struck by the inadequacy of the moral philosophy that was dominant before the war to the task of understanding the enormity and horror of what had happened. To this moral philosophy, Midgley says, all four women raised a 'joint No!'. But they recognised that the problem wasn't the moral philosophy as such, but the background picture of human nature that generated it.

“Ethics isn’t possible, Anscombe said, until we have an adequate philosophical psychology. And Murdoch wrote of the need for a metaphysics adequate to ethics. Our book is deeply informed by this insight.”

And what did they disagree on?

RW: "All sorts of details! But what interests us most in the book is not so much disagreement as the way in which they differ in their interests and instincts. Iris Murdoch says that philosophers should 'go where the honey is', and they each find honey in different places. Anscombe in Aristotle and Wittgenstein; Murdoch in Simone Weil and Plato; Midgley in the ethnologist Konrad Lorenz; and Foot – surprisingly for a 'card carrying atheist' – in Aquinas."

There are several moments of drama in the book, one of them Wittgenstein’s participation in a debate in Oxford in May 1947, which had a particular influence on Philippa Foot. Can you explain that turning point for her?

CMC: "Yes! The scene takes place at the student philosophy society. Anscombe, Foot and Midgley are all there. At the meeting, the undergraduate president, Oscar Wood, presents a paper on Descartes's cogito. Wittgenstein was meant to give a response, but the whole meeting descended into chaos because he couldn't bear the calm professional way in which Oscar Wood was discussing what was, for him, a question that elicited existential terror. 'Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on,' he demanded. Terrifying!

“Philippa Foot found herself in a moment of profound clarity. Later she would say ‘those five minutes, I am sure they have had more influence on my philosophy, therefore on my life, than anything else that anyone has ever said to me’. The lesson she stored away was this: when you find yourself saying ‘something absolutely crazy – the thing to do is not to try and drive the thought out but to stick with it, to give it its day, its week, its month, its year if needs be, in court’.”

RW: "There are two parts to that lesson which we take to be important. First, there's a connection between philosophy and that feeling of being quite suddenly disorientated, unmoored or out of step with everything you thought you knew. Foot said she felt philosophical problems in her body; her first clue that there was something fishy about an argument was a feeling of physical discomfort.

“Second, there’s the insistence that philosophy needs to happen very slowly. Foot realised that philosophy is about sticking with an uncomfortable feeling or a thought and not taking the easy route of dispatching it with a superficial but speedy argument.”

How much do you think gender played a role in the way the four women approached philosophy? In one sense, did it free them from the impulse to conform with a predominantly male, positivist groupthink?

RW: "The fact that these women were women had a material impact on their education. It was because they were women that they were permitted to finish their degrees while their male peers and many of the young dons were conscripted at the outbreak of the second World War. With so many men away, they were educated by conscientious objectors, women and refugee scholars – they only got that education because they were women, and as we see in the book, it came to infuse their philosophy with all sorts of ideas and approaches that were terribly unfashionable and certainly an anathema to the positivist worldview."

CMC: "And of course, ideas about what was possible or desirable for them were enormously gendered. Oxford University had only been granting degrees since 1921 and educated women were still expected to choose between marriage and a career – and only the very odd ones were expected to choose the latter. There were very few women from older generations that they could look to as models. We think that sort of feeling of being an imposter, of having fought for a place and a voice, comes across in the sort of fearless exuberance with which they do their philosophy."

There is a poignant aspect to the way in which the four women are getting fresh recognition now. Fame didn’t seem to be of great concern to any of them. What instead would they have wished for as their legacy?

RW: "We've done a lot of work over the last seven years to get the story of these women better known – through Women in Parenthesis and various other public philosophy projects. When we first sat down for tea and biscuits with Mary we plotted it with her: we need this story now, we all thought! We need it to encourage young women, and indeed anyone who can't see themselves 'fitting in' in an arid, competitive, bad-tempered discipline. And we need it because our concepts and thinking are going badly wrong right now – from the climate crisis, to politics, to social media and mental health."

CMC: "We don't know what they would have wanted for a legacy – the idea of any woman philosopher, let alone four of them having a legacy, is still something that feels pretty radical."

Metaphysical Animals: How Four Woman Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare MacCumhaill and Rachael Wiseman is published by Chatto & Windus (£25)