Newsletter: July 2021
Welcome to the month of July! The first day of July is also Canada Day, marking the anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1867. Festivities this year are a bit muted on account of recent revelations about mass graves of indigenous children on the sites of former residential schools. The residential school system, which only fully ended in 1996, was an attempt at the forced assimilation of indigenous children to the dominant European-Canadian culture. Children were taken from their families, forbidden to speak their languages, and were frequently subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse. Canada and Canadians are slowly working to come to terms with the legacy of colonization and dispossession upon which our nation is based. There’s a long way to go yet.
On a more cheerful note, I’ve spent a good deal of the past month reading, thinking, and talking about love and friendship. Our course has explored these ideas in the contexts of ancient Greek, Chinese, and South Asian thought and this week we jumped forward to the modern world, starting with the existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. A highlight of the month was a visit by Mick Hunter, associate professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures and an expert on ancient Chinese thought. Mick helped us understand the Confucian ideal of xiao (孝), often translated as filial piety, as well as the challenge posed to the Confucians by the Mohist case for impartial care.
For a few days in late June, the Pacific Northwest was the hottest place on Earth, making international headlines. I managed to keep out of the sun for the most part but was also glad to be living near the water.
Next week our course on love and friendship turns to the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (1919–1999). Murdoch was one of a quartet of notable female philosophers to be educated in Oxford during the Second World War.
Oxford had been slow to admit women to its ranks (Oriel College began admitting women only in 1985). Women were permitted to attend lectures starting in 1879 but it was only in 1920 that women were permitted to take exams and be awarded degrees. When Murdoch arrived in 1938, she was one of a very small number of women in a very conservative institution.
The feeling of an old boys’ club shifted in 1939 with the start of the Second World War. Most of the undergraduate men, and many of the younger dons, were conscripted into war service. Oxford turned into a place for the old, the physically unfit, the conscientious objectors, and women. For the first time in Oxford’s history—and the last for another half-century—half the attendees at lectures were women. The absence of assertive young men also meant that, in discussion, these women had room to speak—and to be heard.
At Somerville College, Murdoch befriended Mary Midgley (née Scrutton; 1919–2018), and later became close to a younger undergraduate, Philippa Foot (née Bosanquet; 1920–2010). These three also crossed paths with a formidably intelligent undergraduate at St. Hugh’s College, Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001). All four women had distinguished careers, which began at the first occasion when women were given a real opportunity to flourish in British philosophy.
Murdoch struck a bohemian figure from her undergraduate days—“never beautiful, but always attractive,” as Midgley remembered her. She joined the communist party as an undergraduate, completed her studies with a first-class degree, and worked for the British treasury before joining the fledgling UN’s refugee agency. In 1948 she returned to Oxford, this time as a fellow in philosophy. She published the first book-length study in English of Jean-Paul Sartre but later cooled on him, developing an approach to moral philosophy that broke radically with both French existentialism and her Anglophone contemporaries. Drawing partly on Plato and Simone Weil, Murdoch envisioned moral development as a progressive “unselfing” in which we learn to see the world more truthfully, justly, and lovingly.
Murdoch also published over twenty novels, starting with Under the Net in 1954, and is one of the few figures (Sartre is another) to achieve high distinction both as a philosopher and as a literary artist. You can see her in conversation with the philosopher and broadcaster Bryan Magee on the relation between philosophy and literature in a 1977 interview here.
Midgley was perhaps the most idiosyncratic thinker of the four. She spent most of her career at the University of Newcastle, at a safe remove from Oxford and Cambridge, which left her free to explore ideas that fell far outside the mainstream in which her contemporaries swam. She took a strong interest in biology in addition to philosophy and vigorously opposed the reductionism in science and the scientism in broader society which, then as now, were dominant. She was unafraid to mix biology and ethics and her interest in animal ethics placed her decades ahead of her time.
Foot was an unlikely figure at Oxford. She came from a distinguished family—she was the granddaughter on her mother’s side of American president Grover Cleveland—where daughters were expected to go to finishing school rather than university. Her mother was devastated when Foot was admitted to Oxford, thinking it would damage her marriage prospects. Not to worry, a friend consoled the mother: “At least she doesn’t look clever.”
Appearances aside, Foot certainly was clever. She was instrumental in reviving Aristotelian virtue ethics and has the dubious distinction of having invented the notorious trolley problem, which, through no fault of Foot’s, has become a byword for abstractifying pedantry in moral philosophy. The thought experiment as Foot originally formulated it involves a runaway trolley that’s careening toward five unwitting bystanders down the tracks. You can pull a lever that will divert the trolley off this course—but into another unwitting bystander on the other track. So do you do nothing and allow five innocent people to die or take an active hand in bringing about the death of another? Variations on this problem have ramified beyond the point of absurdity but at least in its origins Foot deployed the thought experiment as part of a challenge to prevailing moral theories.
Anscombe took up a research fellowship at Cambridge after the war and her early career was marked by her close association with Ludwig Wittgenstein. When Wittgenstein died in 1951, she was appointed one of his literary executors, and she translated many of his works into English, including his masterpiece, the Philosophical Investigations. But Anscombe was no mere acolyte. Her essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” was a landmark in twentieth-century ethics and a slim volume, Intention, was credited by the philosopher Donald Davidson as “the most important treatment of action since Aristotle.”
Anscombe was a fearsome debater. She converted to Roman Catholicism as an undergraduate and her steadfast commitment to her faith led her to take a number of controversial positions, lobbying against Oxford’s bestowing an honorary degree on US president Harry Truman, who in her eyes was the worst of mass murderers for authorizing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and vigorously opposing contraception and abortion.
All four women made significant contributions to ethics at a time when ethics had been relegated to second-class status by university men who were more concerned with the abstractions of logic and language. When these men turned their attention to ethics, it rarely resembled the sort of thing that might actually teach one how to live. Anglophone philosophy in the last half-century has slowly pulled its head out of its own proverbial ass and it has done so in no small part thanks to the contribution of these four remarkable philosophers. One wonders how much richer philosophy would be if women’s voices had been heard throughout its history.