Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Mary Midgley met and became friends at Oxford University during WWII. During their studies they met at lunch, in the common room, and at each other’s lodgings to discuss philosophy. Afternoons were given over to talking about anger or rudeness or Plato’s Forms. Anscombe shared Wittgenstein’s notebooks with her friends long before they were published and Murdoch is among those thanked in her 1953 translation of Philosophical Investigations. Foot helped to secure Anscombe her first academic post. Murdoch was Midgley’s bridesmaid, and Foot’s housemate and lover. Murdoch lent Anscombe her apartment. Foot’s 1978 Virtues and Vices is dedicated to Iris Murdoch; Murdoch’s 1992 Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is for Elizabeth Anscombe. Murdoch wrote the blurb for Midgley’s Beast and Man, and Midgley the foreword for Murdoch’s Sovereignty of the Good. In the years immediately following the war they met regularly at Philippa Foot’s house in north Oxford to set out a detailed and comprehensive philosophical response to the dominant conception of human nature, perception, action and ethics in Modern Western philosophy. Though previously unrecognised as such, they are a unique case of an all-female philosophical school.
The four began their studies in 1938, just before the outbreak of WWII. When war was declared, many of the University dons and male students were enlisted in war work, mostly in the intelligence services. A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle were among them. In 1941 the age of conscription for men was lowered to nineteen and undergraduate numbers sharply declined; male students were forced to enlist after only one or two years study, postponing completion of their degree until after the war. The ethicist, R. M. Hare, for example, also born in 1919, suspended his studies after his second year, only returning to take up the remainder of his degree in 1945, following three-years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
As a result of the war these women enjoyed a university environment that was, for the first time, predominantly female. To put this in context: women were only permitted to take degrees from Oxford in 1920, a change that was fiercely resisted by the male undergraduate population. The necessity of male chaperones at all social occasions was ended only in 1925. Midgley recalls being told by the Dean on arrival to remember that ‘the women are still on probation in this university’ (OM, 86-7) and relates the excitement around Somerville college when it was decided that men could be invited to take tea at women’s colleges on Sunday as well as Saturday.
Golden Age of Female Philosophy?
Did the fact that so many men were absent from the University contribute to the way in which this remarkable group of women flourished? In a 2013 letter to the Guardian, “The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy”, Mary Midgley responded to Jo Wolff’s question ‘How can we end the male domination of philosophy?’
As a survivor from the wartime group, I can only say: sorry, but the reason [why this was the golden age of female philosophy] was indeed that there were fewer men about. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past – what is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments…By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc.) were present as well as women but they weren’t keen on arguing.
It is clear that we all were more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.
“The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy” is a rare case of women flourishing and achieving collective prominence in the discipline, at a standard that rivalled their male counterparts. Through a detailed historical study of this period, with particular focus on the life and work of Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillipa Foot, In Parenthesis describes the particular conditions under which this happened. As well as illuminating some of the more well-documented barriers to inclusion, there is scope to discover unknown factors and ultimately new strategies for gender activism within philosophy. By examining a brief window, albeit in parenthesis, where the social and intellectual landscape of academic philosophy was altered as a result of the disruptions of the second World War, the current project promises to reflect on the questions facing contemporary women philosophers and the more general question of ‘women in philosophy’, as it is known.
In Parenthesis has been recovering the facts about these wartime intellectual conditions. We’ve been carrying out archival work in Oxford and London and we’ve been meeting Mary Midgley for regular cups of tea and philosophical chat. We’ve visited Mary Warnock too. You can read about this in our library pages.
We are excited to have acquired the Midgley Archive for Durham Special Collections – find out details by following the link on the homepage.
Our undergraduate women have run a women’s-only reading group. Details and help setting up your own are on the ‘Curated resources’ page.
We’re now working on sketching out an integrated philosophy of perception, action and ethics, drawn from the pages of these women’s work. More on which coming soon …