Few people read books about philosophy nowadays, if they ever did, but there is a larger audience for books about philosophers. One of the more successful examples in this flourishing genre was David Edmonds’s and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker, published in 2001, which examined a brief and tense meeting between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper that took place in Cambridge in 1946.
Metaphysical Animals bears some resemblance to that book insofar as it has two authors – the philosophers Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman – and concerns roughly the same period. It even features an influential walk-on part for Wittgenstein.
The big difference is that it looks at four philosophers, all of whom are women, and it is spread out over a number of years. By focusing on a disputed encounter of just a few minutes, Edmonds and Eidinow gave themselves a tight structure that offered a tidy means of exploring deeper questions of philosophy.
The trick in this kind of work is to be able to move from scene-setting to difficult intellectual questions without losing the reader. Metaphysical Animals lacks the narrative discipline of Wittgenstein’s Poker, and as a result is a baggier and less clearly defined book.
It’s really tied together by its subtitle: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. The quartet in question are Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot, all of whom studied philosophy at Oxford in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
In the late 1930s, British philosophy, at least at Oxford, was dominated by AJ Ayer, whose groundbreaking book Language, Truth and Logic was published in 1936. Ayer was the chief promoter of logical positivism, a school of thought that aimed to clean up philosophy by ruling out large areas of the field as unverifiable and therefore not fit for logical discussion.
In a sense, it sought to rid philosophy of metaphysics, those abstract questions of being and knowing that students have traditionally liked to explore late at night after one too many stimulants. It also rendered much of moral philosophy as little more than an expression of emotional preferences.
Anscombe, Murdoch, Midgley and Foot were not fans of logical positivism dogmatism or conclusions. Fortunately for them, if not for the world, the second world war intervened in their studies, removing Ayer and his acolytes from Oxford, and bringing a large influx of European émigré philosophers.
Suddenly metaphysics was back in fashion, or at least no longer frowned upon. The four women all committed to establishing themselves as philosophers, and sought to refute Ayer and his ilk. Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman do attempt to explain how they did this, but too often the arguments are lost under a welter of descriptions of daily life in Oxford, with all its strange academic rituals, arcane language and general sense of inwardness, as well a great deal of incidental detail.
If you want to know what colour of silk cushions and bedspread Foot had in her rooms near Somerville College, then this is the book to read. Similarly, if your thing is the extended social connections of the Oxford intelligentsia, it’s a handy resource. But the general reader interested in the subject may wish that it devoted the same care to dealing with philosophical definitions, or where Wittgenstein stood in relation to the debates around logical positivism, as it does in bringing to life the rarefied milieu of Boars Hill.
The problem, of course, with philosophy is: where do you start and where do you end? It’s an overarching discipline in which people write whole books on strictly limited concepts. What level of knowledge should be assumed of the reader?
Even within its own defined terms, Metaphysical Animals isn’t entirely convincing in making its case. It’s hard to get an objective sense of where these four women stood in terms of influence in the greater scheme of philosophy, either as individuals or as a group. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear whether they ever amounted to a group beyond being friends.
That they played an active part in challenging the rigid materialism of prewar British philosophy is beyond doubt. But as the authors note, it was the war itself, and the many atrocities it engendered, that gave urgent impetus to a new moral philosophy.
Anscombe, for example, wanted to establish an ethical basis on which it could be established that the Nazis were objectively wrong. She is said to have coined the term “consequentialism” – the notion that it is the consequences rather than the intentions by which your conduct should be judged. She was arguably the most eminent of the four in terms of philosophy, though of course Murdoch made a larger impact as a novelist.
Late in her life I interviewed Midgley, who still spoke in dismissive terms of Ayer, though she claimed he had renounced his views (which was not entirely true). She spoke of a “life force” and was scathing about what she called the “scientism” of her new bete noire, Richard Dawkins.
She was enormously engaging, but lurking around the edges of her thought was something mystical and celebratory that left her excluded from mainstream philosophy. A similar tone sometimes informs the pages of this book.
It would be wrong to call it religious, though Anscombe, a practising Catholic, speaks seriously about the “divine”. Perhaps it’s nothing more, nor less, than the profound excitement experienced by four young women shaking off the suffocating orthodoxies of male domination.