Oxford Quartet: The Women Who Took On the Philosophical Establishment

As this origin story suggests, the heart of this book resides in the friendship among the four women and the ways they supported and influenced one another. Anscombe, the most brilliant and gifted philosopher of the group, was a protégée and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein. She translated and (with Rush Rhees) edited his posthumously published “Philosophical Investigations” and was notable for, as Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman put it, being “able to sustain her philosophical independence and her sanity while so many others who found themselves drawn into Wittgenstein’s orbit did not.” Married to a conscientious objector who had difficulty finding remunerative work after the war, Anscombe was so poor that Wittgenstein paid for her stay in a maternity hospital after the birth of her second child and insisted on furnishing her spartan lodgings, announcing, “You are a writer, you have to have a wastepaper basket.” many people did find Anscombe rude, especially the university authorities who objected to her delivering lectures in trousers instead of the required skirts. In the late ’40s, she and the “tall, tailored, poised” Foot could often be found in the senior common room at Oxford’s Somerville College, where all four friends first met, wrangling with Wittgenstein’s ideas.

Foot, who would become Murdoch’s “lifelong best friend,” endured a loveless upper-class childhood in a milieu where one of the worst things a woman could do was appear intelligent. Rebelling, she turned up at Somerville and despite having, by her own admission, “no education,” she managed to acquire enough command of Latin, Greek, mathematics, political history and other subjects to graduate with a first-class degree. She would go on to become a professor of philosophy at UCLA and is considered one of the inventors of the “trolley problem,” a thought experiment that poses the question of whether it is ethical to deliberately sacrifice one person’s life to prevent the accidental deaths of five others.

During the time when they were both employed in the war effort, Foot and Murdoch shared a peculiar but beloved attic flat near Whitehall. It had no running water in the kitchen, and became even less comfortable when each woman took up with one of the other ‘s ex-lovers, a situation, the authors note, providing Murdoch with “the archetype of a tangled erotic muddle for her novels her.” Murdoch, the charismatic artist in the group, was a professed Communist who liked to hit up London’s bohemian dives in search of “Ultimate Human Beings” and collected marriage proposals the way little boys collect baseball cards. She had bad luck with the ones she accepted, however. One fiancé left her for a woman who was less “formidable,” and another suffered a fatal heart attack soon after they agreed 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 peculiar flat, the common room where Anscombe and Foot debated, the tea-stained cover of a pamphlet Anscombe co-wrote at the beginning of the war, personal letters illustrated with hand-drawn cartoons — provide a charming sense of intimacy and the texture of everyday midcentury British life, its teacups and cats and ration coupons. What’s less persuasive is the book’s overall thesis that the four friends somehow redirected the course of British philosophy or even that they shared a distinct cause or approach. This never comes into focus. Anscombe, for example, was a committed Catholic who opposed both birth control and abortion. Foot was an atheist who told Anscombe that she saw no good reason to believe otherwise. Murdoch was drawn to existentialism and published the first English-language book on Sartre. Midgley became increasingly interested in the similarities between human beings and animals. Many of the ideas touched on — Anscombe’s in particular — are too challenging to summarize in a book with so many other balls in the air. The four unconventional friends are delightful enough company that their story doesn’t require the “How X changed the world” overlay often used to pump up the import of popular nonfiction. To impose that 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.