Lead book review

The women who challenged a stale, male philosophy

Kathleen Stock describes how four women undergraduates in 1940s Oxford challenged an arid, modish philosophy

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life Clare Mac Cumhaill & Rachel Wiseman

Chatto & Windus, pp.416, 25

Metaphysical Animals tells of the friendship of four stellar figures in 20th-century philosophy — Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot — who attempted to bring British philosophy ‘back to life’. Fuelled by burning curiosity — not to mention chain-smoking, tea, wine, terrible cooking and many love affairs (sometimes with each other) — they tackled an ancient philosophical question: are humans a kind of animal or not? Dazzled as we are these days by technological possibility, their question only gains in urgency. This splendidly entertaining book, fizzing with character and incident, constitutes an extended joyful reply in the affirmative.

Others would disagree. Humans are rational and animals aren’t, so humans can’t be animals — or so the old story goes. Aspects of life that humans don’t rationally choose for themselves, including instincts, feelings and bodily processes, are dismissed as vestiges of animal ancestry, now thankfully transcended. But this leaves an awful lot out. In their mature philosophical work Midgley, Murdoch, Anscombe and Foot each push back against this picture, finding it artificially shaped by the ‘neurotic priorities of solitary male thinkers’. Between them, they will emphasise the role of instinct and feeling, the importance of love, and the connections between human needs and ‘shoulds’. We are indeed animals, they conclude, but of a special kind: metaphysical animals, for whom the meaning of existence is a pressing question.

These four are enlivening companions for the reader even before they meet at Oxford. There’s Mary, the scruffy daughter of a curate and the subject of a ‘tidying up’ campaign by peers at her progressive school; the Catholic convert Elizabeth, fluent in Greek and obsessed with the question: ‘Why, if something happened, would you be sure it had a cause?’; the bohemian Iris, initially a miserable scholarship girl, but who soon gains confidence and begins to write ‘colourful, imaginative and brilliant essays’; and Philippa, the shy and elegant granddaughter of a US president, whose childhood is blighted by tuberculosis but mitigated by horse-riding in all weathers. Philosophy students may know how eminent Midgley, Anscombe and Foot later became; nearly everyone will know of Murdoch’s career as novelist. Here we find them at the beginning, possessed of fierce intellect, drawn to each other as kindred spirits, and taking on the wartime world of Oxford at full tilt.

They arrive at a fascinating point in philosophical history (also noticed by Benjamin Lipscomb, who published his account The Women Are Up to Something in November). Pre-war British philosophy was entranced by logical positivism. This insisted on confining meaning to what could be verified through observation. Ethics in its entirety was dismissed as meaningless, akin to cheering wordlessly for a football team or booing its rival. Devotees of the arch-positivist Freddie Ayer would face down ethical talk with ‘aggressive incomprehension’, insistently asking ‘But what does it mean?’ in a way discouraging of answers. But the war sent Ayer and acolytes off to fight, along with most of their students. Space was cleared for our four protagonists to explore a different approach, enriched by the women scholars who remained in post and the European intellectuals now drifting in as refugees.

The book paints a vivid picture of academic life in wartime. Wordless anxiety hangs over arguments about Truth and Being in smoke-filled rooms. ‘Mock Blitz’ exercises occur in Cambridge, with sacks of straw labelled ‘CORPSE’. Once-sepulchral buildings resonate with sounds of the wounded and evacuated. But there’s new freedom here too. Deep questions puzzled over by the ancients are once again permitted, and the possibility of meaningful ethical language is taken seriously — not least to describe the emerging horror of the Holocaust. Slowly, our four thinkers start to reconnect values to facts, and humans to the natural world around them. After the war, towering intellectual figures such as Wittgenstein, Sartre, Ryle and Austen loom large, but our four remain undaunted. Against the monomaniacal obsessions of colleagues, they continue to insist that the subject of philosophy includes rich and complex patterns of life, not just isolated bits of it.

Metaphysical Animals makes impressively light-footed work of bringing philosophy in. The reader feels as if in the midst of a lively discussion over crumpets at a Lyons tearoom. At one point, the book’s authors deftly explain Wittgenstein’s infamously tricky rule-following argument, asking: ‘How do we learn to catch on to the rhythm and patterns of the complex human practices… that go to make up our forms of life?’ The answer comes back, as if accompanied by a pounding of the table: ‘We just do. We bloody do go on!’

There are hilarious pictures of university life, presented with a gentle comic sensibility worthy of Barbara Pym. Donald MacKinnon, an influence on all four women, sometimes lies on the floor during tutorials. J.L. Austen runs a regular discussion class entitled ‘Things’. Earnest Elizabeth provides some of the best moments, once borrowing Iris’s flat to cook herring soup, then failing to clear up, so that Iris is evicted on her return. Elizabeth’s first lectures at Oxford ‘would later become legendary for the beauty of her voice, the foulness of her language and the depth of her thought’. That beautiful voice was not always used, however: at one point, a nervous student sweats with embarrassment during a tutorial on Wittgenstein during which Elizabeth, as tutor, says nothing at all. Elizabeth later reports that they were both ‘too overwhelmed by the beauty of the philosophical investigations to speak’.

Like their heroines, Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, themselves academic philosophers, stand against the fashions of their age. The absence of any rote mention of ‘whiteness’ or ‘privilege’ comes as relief. They also avoid modern glosses about misogyny — as Wittgenstein might put it, they prefer to show rather than say. There’s no particular effort to make characters relatable, which makes them the more so. The payoff is four glorious heroines, confident and curious, focused on the world and not themselves. Reading this book was like a miraculous holiday from modern life.

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