how four women formed a theory about human life during WWII

IN Metaphysical Animals Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman attempt something that has never been done before. They write a book on philosophy which is constructed as the story of four young women, teenagers when the Second World War broke out and thirty when the narrative arc is completed.

These women were Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot and they were studying philosophy at Oxford University. With the outbreak of war, many of their classmates left to fight, as did their teachers. The women who remained found that some constraints had been removed and they were able to think and speak more freely than before.

Clare and Rachel are another group of female philosophers, albeit the smallest type of group: a pair, centered in Newcastle where they both live. Here they met, in 2013, Mary Midgley, in her 90s but still convincing and still working in her nursing home. Mary spoke to young women about the chaos of war and how when individualism and agency are absent and replaced by restriction and uncertainty, philosophy is needed.

This book is subtitled How Four women brought philosophy back to life, and it tells how half-starved women, living through days of blackouts and air raid sirens, collaboratively formed a theory about human life. When men resume their roles as teachers or students, they know nothing of the work done in their absence and pick up where they left off, attempting to “kill philosophy” and rebrand the academic discipline as “logical.” positivism’.

Henceforth, they declared, “only questions which could be answered by empirical methods should be allowed”. Metaphysical questions would be out of the program. Nothing that could not be proven could be admitted on the board. Questions such as “what is truth” and “what is beauty” were dismissed, left to the poets to consider. Keats, of course, had already decided the answer to these questions: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

According to Clare and Rachael, these four women were trying to connect philosophical questions to the pressing and real issues that people face in their daily lives. They didn’t all find the same answers, but they remained friends and continued to talk, drawing strength from the interactions with each other. Rachael and Clare argue that rather than men like AJ Ayer, JL Austin, RM Hare with their initials and their science, the heroes of 20th century philosophy were people like Susan Stebbing, Dorothy Emmet, Mary Glover and Lotte Labowsky.

The ideas of these philosophers are described in Metaphysical Animals, as a “counter-narrative that links contemporary philosophy to the great speculative metaphysicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries”. As Rachael and Clare, following Mary’s example, suggest, the chaos of war and the horror of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki dominate any academic dispute.

Elizabeth fought for the awarding of an honorary degree to Harry S. Truman on the grounds that he was a “mass murderer and a merciless killer”. She was perplexed when her argument was silenced by her male colleagues celebrating Truman. Now Clare and Rachael, along with their predecessors, Mary, Elizabeth, Iris and Philippa, present the story of women and philosophy in the war and post-war years, a story set in the cloisters of Oxford but also extending into living quarters with strollers in the lobby.

Comments are closed.