Oxford Quartet: Women Who Confronted the Philosophical Establishment

As this origin story suggests, the heart of this book lies in the friendship between the four women and how they supported and influenced...


As this origin story suggests, the heart of this book lies in the friendship between the four women and how they supported and influenced each other. Anscombe, the most brilliant and gifted philosopher of the group, was a protege and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein. She translated and (with Rush Rhees) edited his posthumously published “Philosophical Inquiries” and was notable, as Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman put it, for being “able to maintain her philosophical independence and sanity while so many others who found themselves drawn into Wittgenstein’s book the orbit did not.Married to a conscientious objector who struggled to find gainful employment after the war, Anscombe was so poor that Wittgenstein paid his stay in a maternity ward after the birth of her second child and insisted on furnishing her spartan accommodation by announcing: “You are a writer, you must have a wastebasket. Many people did finding Anscombe rude, especially university authorities who objected to her lecturing in trousers instead of the required skirts. In the late 1940s, she and the “tall, fit and poised” foot were often found in the seniors’ common room at Somerville College, Oxford, where the four friends first met, struggling with the ideas of Wittgenstein.

Foot, who would become Murdoch’s “best friend of a lifetime”, endured a loveless upper-class childhood in an environment where one of the worst things a woman could do was look smart. Rebelling, she showed up at Somerville and despite having, by her own admission, “no education”, managed to acquire a sufficient command of Latin, Greek, mathematics, political history and other subjects to earn a top-notch degree. She would go on to become a philosophy professor at UCLA and is considered one of the inventors of the “trolley problem”, a thought experiment that asks the question of whether it is ethical to deliberately sacrifice a person’s life. to prevent the accidental death of people. five others.

Back when they were both employed in the war effort, Foot and Murdoch shared a peculiar but beloved attic flat near Whitehall. There was no running water in the kitchen and became even less comfortable as each woman reconnected with one of the other’s ex-lovers, a situation, the authors note, providing Murdoch with “the archetype of a tangled erotic confusion for his novels. Murdoch, the band’s charismatic entertainer, was a communist by profession who loved to dive into London’s bohemian dives in search of the ‘ultimate human beings’ and collected marriage proposals like little boys collect baseball cards. However, she was unlucky with those she accepted. One fiancĂ© left her for a less “great” woman and another suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after agreeing to marry.

The biographical material in “Metaphysical Animals” is evocative and sparkling, sketching each woman’s character with a novelist’s mastery of detail. The photographs – Murdoch’s private apartment, the common room where Anscombe and Foot debated, the tea-stained cover of a pamphlet Anscombe co-wrote early in the war, personal letters illustrated with hand-drawn caricatures hand – provide a charming sense of intimacy. and the texture of everyday British mid-century life, its teacups, cats and ration coupons. What is less compelling is the general thesis of the book that the four friends somehow reoriented the course of British philosophy or even that they shared a distinct cause or approach. It’s never worked out. Anscombe, for example, was a committed Catholic who opposed both birth control and abortion. Foot was an atheist who told Anscombe she saw no good reason to believe otherwise. Murdoch was drawn to existentialism and published the first book in English on Sartre. Midgley became increasingly interested in the similarities between human beings and animals. Many of the ideas discussed – Anscombe’s in particular – are too difficult to summarize in a book with so many other balls hanging in the air. The four unconventional friends are likable enough that their story doesn’t require the “How X Changed the World” overlay often used to augment popular nonfiction import. To impose this theme on their story is to reduce it to one of those “simple oppositions” that Midgley herself complained about, a form that could never do justice to these four fascinating women.

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