Philosophy's First Girls' Club

Boys’ clubs have a bad name nowadays. Through most of history, all-male societies have been a moving force in the world, but today they are roundly condemned as discriminatory and elitist. We might reconsider this view if we think back on some illustrious boys’ clubs. What conservative would not jump at the chance to raise a glass with Edmund Burke and Adam Smith at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London? Who would not be thrilled to drop into the “Eagle and Child” for breakfast with the Inklings? When luminous minds meet, exciting things can happen.

Intellectual girls’ clubs are more of a rarity. Nevertheless, they can exist, as Benjamin Lipscomb shows in his new book, The Women Are Up To Something. It is the story of a brilliant group of female friends: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Midgley. These women originally met as undergraduates at Oxford in the 1930s. The friendships they forged would transform their lives, and 20th-century philosophy.

This lively and readable book combines biography with a strong dose of intellectual history. It can be enjoyed on both levels. Lipscomb captures an important moment in the history of philosophy, showing how his four subjects (especially Foot and Anscombe) became intimately involved in twentieth-century debates over foundational questions in meta-ethics. Their contributions were critical, especially in the world of philosophy, but as Lipscomb explains, the philosophical debates of this period made an impact far beyond the Academy. They laid the groundwork for After Virtue, and the revitalization of ethical naturalism more broadly.

The Women Are Up To Something is not only a book about philosophy, however. It is also about friendship. Lipscomb opens a window onto a remarkable group of companions whose story prompts deeper reflection on the potentialities of clubs, but also of women. People fascinated by the Bloomsbury Set, the Inklings, the Algonquin Roundtable, or Stratford-on-Odeon, will want to add this book to their collection. So will intellectually-inclined women, who will readily identify with the challenges these women faced in establishing themselves as scholars, writers, and morally serious human beings.

Defending Right and Wrong

Oxford in the mid-twentieth century was a haven for analytic philosophy. Analytic thinkers are known for their obsession with logic and language, and for prioritizing conceptual clarity. Inspired by Newtonian physics, analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayer, R.M. Hare, and J.L. Austin philosophy to be clear, grounded, and totally free of the quasi-religious reverence that they saw in Continental thinkers. They were impatient with the vagaries of Hegelian and Aristotelian thought, preferring a metaphysically minimalist philosophy free of “Prime Movers” and “world spirits.”

After World War II, academic philosophers became obsessed with meta-ethics, the branch of philosophy that explores the foundations of morality. Scholars found themselves debating some fundamental questions. What makes things right or wrong? Can there still be right and wrong, in a world without Heaven, Hell, God, Satan, the catechism, or sanctifying grace? After witnessing the horrors of Nazi death camps, and a war that claimed roughly 80 million lives, the world at large was strongly inclined to believe in good and evil. This was a problem for analytic thinkers like Ayer and Hare, who were committed to interpreting ethical claims as expressions of the speaker’s own convictions and wishes. A statement like murder is wrong could be translated as “boo for murder!” or it might express the speaker’s general wish that people around the world would stop murdering each other. It must not express an objective fact about the world at large. If moral facts can exist, they obviously require explanation, and that might open a door to incomprehensible, transcendent entities (world spirits, Platonic forms, God). To men like Ayer and Hare, that eventuality was to be avoided at all costs.

Anscombe disagreed. As a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, she was herself trained in analytic philosophy. But she was also a committed Catholic, and quite firmly convinced that murder was wrong. Anscombe’s genius disrupted the Oxford conversation, and she exerted a powerful influence over her friends. Foot started her scholarly career as a relatively unremarkable Kant scholar, but over time, her conversations with Anscombe transformed her thinking and laid the foundation for her own signature contributions.

Anscombe did the demolition work; her friends did more of the rebuilding. Anscombe leveled devastating critiques against the meta-ethical theories of her day, using the trademark analytic tools of language and logic. She argued that it made no sense for atheists to build ethical theories around “laws” or “principles.” Where would these come from, without an authoritative moral lawgiver? If philosophy begins with a rejection of a thick metaphysics (such as we find in natural law), the best available option for ethicists may be a return to ethical naturalism. If we join Aristotle in affirming the normativity of nature, we will at least have the option of judging the goodness or badness of things relative to their particular nature or function. A good apple tree is one that spreads apple-laden branches wide. That is what apple trees are supposed to do. A virtuous human being develops his innate capacity to reason and love.

Did superlative talents and historically unprecedented opportunities help these women to live happy, thriving lives? It’s genuinely difficult to say.

Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy made waves within the Academy, and still regularly appears in textbooks and anthologies today. She, however, showed minimal interest in rebuilding the sub-discipline she had leveled. Declaring that academic philosophers were simply unprepared to do moral philosophy, she moved on to other subjects, writing on intention and on the work of Wittgenstein. Taking her cue from Anscombe, Foot picked up the ethical torch and carried it further, delving more deeply into the nature of virtue and vice. The project may have seemed more pressing to her, as someone who did not worship Anscombe’s Christian God. Over the years, Foot and Anscombe remained both colleagues and friends over the years, and that friendship was beneficial to both women. Anscombe had the brilliance and obstinacy to run into prevailing headwinds, but Foot had the tact and personal skills to prevent Anscombe’s work from being shunted completely to the side. They buoyed each other up, philosophically and personally. Without that relationship, the groundwork might never have been laid for Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on virtue, or for any of the moral philosophy that followed thereafter.

Through novels and other more popular works, Murdoch and Midgley brought similar insights into other conversations, outside the scholarly philosophical world. Murdoch’s novels explored similar topics imaginatively, while Midgley explored the secrets of the animal kingdom, considering what implications they might have for the ethical naturalism Anscombe gestured towards in her work. Taken together, these women certainly had a deep impact on the moral conversations we are having today. Midgley’s final work, What Is Philosophy for? was published in 2018.

For the non-specialist, these debates can seem obscure and irrelevant. Lipscomb makes them interesting, by connecting the arguments to the people who produced them, while helping readers to understand what was at stake. As a graduate student I read most of the relevant texts, but I was quite moved by many of the personal details that I learned from this book. It is impressive how Lipscomb manages to infuse epic significance into these debates without depicting Hare, Ayer, or Austin as monsters. They too were human beings, trying to understand the world around them. Even where they were wrong, Lipscomb depicts them as being usefully wrong, providing the foil that helped his subjects move closer to the truth.

The Girls’ Club

Women’s colleges were still a novelty at Oxford in the 1930s, when Anscombe, Murdoch, Midgley, and Foot first matriculated. Female students were very much a minority, and they were warned from the start that their entire sex was “on probation” within the university community. Cambridge would not admit female students at all until the late 1940s. These girls were the lucky ones, and they knew it. They had opportunities that were entirely closed to their grandmothers, and open only to a very few young women in their own time.

Given that setting, it would be easy to present this story as a stereotypical tale about the breaking of glass ceilings. Clearly, all four women were eminently worthy of inclusion in a serious intellectual community. All benefitted significantly from that experience. Human lives are complicated, though. Did superlative talents and historically unprecedented opportunities help these women to live happy, thriving lives? It’s genuinely difficult to say, and Lipscomb, to his credit, does not reach for easy answers. Readers who open this book with an established view on the proper social role of women will likely find evidence to support that pre-existing view.

All four of these women married. Anscombe and Midgley raised ten children between them. All four women published significant works, and in many ways could stand as sterling examples of high achievers who “had it all.” Foot and Murdoch both had serious marital challenges, however, and neither had children. Midgley’s domestic life seems to have been harmonious, and she successfully raised three sons. She achieved this, however, by “leaning out” for a lengthy period, largely losing touch with the world of academic philosophy. Anscombe and her husband, Peter Geach, raised seven children, while establishing themselves as the most famous philosophical couple of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Anscombe was positively legendary for her eccentricity, her abrasiveness, and her penchant for alienating colleagues and even old friends. Visitors were frequently shocked by the state of her household, and by the sight of her children wandering the neighborhood with minimal supervision.

Unlike some literary or intellectual clubs, this group never enjoyed a lengthy period in which they could all come together on a regular basis. They knew one another as students, and there was a period of about a year in the late 1940s when they lived in the same neighborhood and gathered on a regular basis for invigorating discussions. The ties endured throughout their lives, and we see this in the book, as paths cross and re-cross at critical moments. After 1948 though, they never again came together in cozy, regular meetings such as (say) the Inklings habitually enjoyed. Women often find it quite difficult to spend their evenings in pubs, and they are rarely free to take leisurely walking tours with their literary friends. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald saw it as right and fitting for writers to gather on weeknights, for heady conversation but also to drink and brawl. That would have been quite imprudent for Anscombe, given how frequently she was pregnant.

Despite all of this, it is interesting to note that none of these women devoted significant personal energy to the subject of feminism, or the project of promoting women. They defy easy classification here. Anscombe famously railed against artificial contraceptives, while Midgley wrote essays on fundamental differences in the perspectives of men and women. But they never showed interest in anti-feminist movements either, though these were gaining traction in the later twentieth century. Murdoch’s chaotic love life seemed typical of a post-sexual-revolution Bohemian. Anscombe wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars; when asked for the secret to her remarkable combination of career and family, she credited her embrace of the principle that “dirt doesn’t matter.” Looking back from our present vantage point, we may still find ourselves scratching our heads. What were these women up to? How did they understand the trajectory of their lives?

The complexity of their story is satisfying, and oddly comforting to a writer like me, who works from home while my five young sons shoot nerf darts over my head. Not every woman is drawn to the intellectual life, but some of us are. Women in this mold encounter some obstacles that are fairly unique to us, and it can be both helpful and uplifting to read the stories of worthy women who have traveled a similar road. When we do encounter challenges, it can be helpful to reflect that these are not always a consequence of personal mistakes or mismanagement. They aren’t necessarily the consequence of social injustice, either. Sometimes life is just hard.

It’s easier when we have help from our friends. Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley enjoyed that advantage, and the world was better off for it. What would it take to establish more girls’ clubs? We can start by reading this book.