Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman
Chatto and Windus, £25, 416 pages
This work is something remarkable; a book by two women philosophers on four women philosophers. The authors, Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, were discontented with their discipline and looking for a new direction; Providence delivered them a 2013 letter to The Guardian by Mary Midgley with the title The Golden Age of Female Philosophy, about the war and the way it removed male philosophers from the Oxford scene, with their logical positivism and their arid focus on language, and allowed women to flourish. The authors were captivated, still more when they found that Mary Midgley was living in a retirement home near them in Newcastle. They made friends. In their conversations, Metaphysical Animals came about. It is a tale of philosophy expressed in the story of four friends: Mary Midgley herself, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth Anscombe.
It was plainly rewarding for the two authors to have such a source as Midgley; lively, intelligent, with a formidable memory: “sunk in her armchair, she spoke of the authors of the books on her shelves as if they had just left the room, passing us papers, notes and clippings from little heaps that covered sills, surfaces and carpets in her tiny living room”. And it must have been a joy for Midgley in her last years (she died in 2018, aged 99) to find two receptive women who were interested in what she had to say, and saw the significance of it.
And something interesting did happen during the war in philosophy when big beasts such as Freddie Ayer and GE Moore (who would confound anyone talking about Ethics by saying “What on Earth do you mean by that?”) disappeared to join the war effort, and the field was left to women with a more human focus. Seen through their eyes, “our familiar world is transformed into a rich tapestry of interlocking patterns, studded with cultural objects of metaphysical power, teeming with plant, animal and human life. And we, the human individuals whose lives help to create and sustain those objects, are seen afresh as the kind of animals whose essence it is to question, create and love. We are metaphysical animals.”
It is perhaps a little unfair to put the matter purely in terms of sex; the logical positivist side included Susan Stebbing, and the biggest beast of all in philosophy of the period was Wittgenstein, who transformed the way we think about language, and of whom Anscombe was a disciple. But the focus on four interesting women is a very good way to approach biography through philosophy, and philosophy through biography.
Of the four, the most famous was Murdoch – as a novelist rather than as a philosopher – and the most distinguished as a philosopher was Anscombe, who became a Catholic at school. That means that the book takes on board that crucial philosophical questions include matters such as God and the soul. The other three were agnostics or doubtful; Anscombe was utterly committed to the faith. She, perhaps the last of the great philosophers, was both a woman and a Catholic. Indeed the book begins with Anscombe’s most famous public stand, her opposition in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to the university’s decision in 1956 to award an honorary degree to President Truman, the man who authorised the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In this book, the authors note the way Anscombe defied expectations about her sex by being unselfconsciously true to herself. She had a beautiful voice and a lovely face, but she dressed in shapeless clothes, smoked and had unkempt hair. Famously she got into trouble for wearing trousers; the only time she worried about it was when a lady fellow worshipper at St Aloysius complained about her indecent dress – fortunately the priest she consulted wasn’t bothered. And she dealt with the issue that obsesses modern women, the work-life balance, by just getting on with things.
The authors note with amusement that she wrote about the question of the soul while her baby, Barbara, was crawling and teething; and she was happy to leave her children with her husband, Peter Geach in Cambridge, while she did philosophy in Oxford (Murdoch sometimes put the children on a train at Cambridge, to be collected by Anscombe at Oxford). She described their marriage as telegamy, marriage at a distance, which didn’t preclude seven children.
We find out here about her relationship with Murdoch; it seems that there was, at one point, physical attraction as well as friendship between them, and we don’t know if it found expression; certainly it disturbed Anscombe. She had a philosophical influence on Foot; it was she who introduced her to Aquinas, and this led Foot crucially to take up virtue ethics.
Anscombe was most famously the disciple of Wittgenstein, but also his friend; at the end of his life, she brought a priest to his bedside but he was by then unconscious. She edited and translated his final papers in the form they are now studied. It remains a crucial work, testimony to a remarkable friendship.
Metaphysical Animals is terrific; women philosophers on women philosophers. And both Aristotle and Aquinas would have approved of the title.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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