Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life

London: Chatto and Windus, 2022

Claire Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman

I bought this as soon as I saw it, after having read a review of it in the LRB - it follows the lives and careers of Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley from their schooldays up until the mid 50s. As I've said, I'm a bit obsessed with this period in English philosophy, and it's very interesting to see it from the point of view of four female scholars, in an Oxford which had been stripped of its mostly male undergraduates and younger staff and hosting evacuees from London and refugees from Europe. It's made me want to revisit Iris Murdoch's fiction, which I tried reading when I was an undergraduate and didn't really understand, and read the works of the other three women: Anscombe is probably most well-known as the translator of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and Midgley as one of the philosophical pioneers of animal and environmental ethics.

The book's central argument isn't laboured too much, and doesn't really need to be: philosophy had taken a very strange turn at mid-century. Part of this being, in one way, a recognition, by philosophers, of what a strange activity philosophy itself is.

I guess one of the reasons I like this period is from being a fan of Beyond The Fringe. It's hard to imagine such a good satire of contemporary intellectual life—it gets better the more you know about the topic—being made now: of course, Miller and Bennett were part of the same boy's-club culture, which is why they can make such affectionate fun of it, and why the right kind of audience can be allowed to feel that they, too, are in on the joke.

Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch were both regulars on BBC Radio, and one of the key moments in Metaphysical Animals is when the former writes a script making the point that the history of Western philosophy had more or less been written by unmarried men. The program was rejected by her editor for its unseemly intrusion of domestic arragements into philosophical realms. I found myself wondering how many of these broadcasts were preserved, they'd be worth listening to.