Audio recording , Photo, Guidance Questions (t.b.w)



Analytic philosophy is associated with a line of founding fathers. Also prominent in its history are the philosophical schools and movements that grew up around its dominant male figures.

What is absent from that history is the collective story of four women—Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. They became friends as undergraduates at Oxford University during WWII, when the men who dominated the classrooms and the SCR were away from campus, and they remained life-long philosophical companions.

This talk and essay outlines their shared philosophical agenda, method and stance, collaboratively developed in Philippa Foot’s living room between 1946 and 1948. We argue that this shared programme ought to constitute them as a distinct philosophical school within the history of analytic philosophy.

In addition to presenting these women’s philosophical programme, this talk provides an opportunity to reflect on the methods and practices of analytic philosophy itself and to enquire into the dynamics which may contribute to the label of ‘school’ or ‘movement’ being withheld from groups of women.


Read the essay below or click on the link above to listen….


Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch: A Philosophical School?

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman


[1] Thanks to Jennifer Saul and Eric Olson for inviting us.

It’s a pleasure to be here. This is such a wonderful lecture series and it’s a real honour to contribute to the task of recovering women’s voices in the history of philosophy.

This talk is going to be a bit different because we’re looking at what happens when women have the opportunity to do philosophy together, just because there are enough of them and – by historical accident – there were fewer men around. It’s also a bit unusual because you are getting two speakers instead of one. We’d like to think that this will make the talk twice as good as you’re used to, but there’s also a methodological reason for this. We’re interested in thinking about – and modelling – the kinds of philosophical practices that emerged among the group of women we’re going to tell you about in this talk.


[2] For the last year we’ve been looking at this group of women – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. We’ll begin by giving you a bit of historical and philosophical background.

In the middle part of the talk we’re going to tell you a bit about the philosophy of this group, and make a case for thinking that there is enough in common in their philosophical approach and their metaphysics to see their philosophy as integrated, as part of a single, multi-dimensional, philosophical project.

We’ll end with the question of whether they constitute a philosophical school. Someone said recently, and aptly in relation to these students of Wittgenstein, that ‘philosophical school’ is a family resemblance concept and these women are perhaps a family resemblance school. This is right. But we think that there is something important at stake in the question ‘Are they a philosophical school?’ which connects to the normative, and not just descriptive dimension of that question. Why does it matter if individual philosophers are seen as a collective? What is of value in identifying analytic philosophy’s first all-women philosophical school? This question connects back to the talk’s context which we’ll turn to now.


[3] In Parenthesis is a BA-funded project, involving myself, Clare MacCumhaill and Luna Dolezal. We’re working with Liza Thompson, the philosophy commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. The work involves our UG and PG students and many other academics.

The work takes off from a piece by Jo Wolff in the Guardian in 2011. Jo Wolff asked ‘Why are there so few women in philosophy?’ – a question we’d been asking too.

Wolff says that he’d been reading Mary Warnock’s memoir and had been struck by her discussion of her time at Oxford and of the extraordinary group of women who had graduated a few years ahead of her: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. Extraordinary because it is rare enough to find one top-ranking woman philosopher, so to find four in the same cohort is astonishing.

Mary Warnock went up to Oxford just after WWII, and so Wolff speculated that perhaps it was the fact that her predecessors had begun their studies during the war that was significant in their going on to greatness.

[4] When war was declared, many of the male University dons were enlisted in war work, mostly in the intelligence services, and so left Oxford. A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle were among them.

Initially, undergraduates were not affected, but in 1941 the age of conscription for men was lowered to nineteen. Student numbers sharply declined as male undergraduates were forced to enlist after only one year’s study, postponing completion of their degree until after the war.

As a result of conscription these women enjoyed a university environment that was, for the first time, predominantly female and absent of the male dons whose strong personalities and ability to attract young male acolytes are now part of analytic philosophy’s folk history.

To put this 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. Mary Midgley recalls being told by the Dean on arrival at Oxford to remember that ‘the women are still on probation in this university’ (OM, 86-7).

A year later, the women were off probation and in the majority.

Wolff’s question was: does the absence of men explain why Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch were all able to become such brilliant philosophers?

Mary Midgley wrote to the Guardian in reply to Wolff’s question: ‘Yes’ she said, ‘the reason was that there were fewer men around’.


[5] Well, we thought this was so fascinating. And we were astonished that we hadn’t heard anyone talking about this group before.

The fact that we hadn’t was partly a matter of our ignorance. Midgley had made the point she summarised in her letter to Wolff in 2005 in her memoir. The absence of men, she says ‘made it a great deal easier for a woman to be heard’.

We also found that Justin Broackes in his wonderful introduction to Iris Murdoch the Philosopher discusses the group, and Martin Midgley, Mary’s son, does so too in the introduction to the Midgley Reader. After we began we found out the Benjamin Lipscomb in US is working on a group biography.

However, the ignorance wasn’t entirely our fault. Although there are references to the four of them here and there, there is no tradition of treating them as a philosophical school or reading their work collectively. Indeed, the way that these women appear in undergraduate curricula and on maps of 20th century philosophy rather discourages their being read together.

  • Anscombe’s is known for her more-or-less impenetrable book Intention, her attack on consequentialism and denotology in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ and her association with Wittgenstein. Her moral philosophy is thought to be fatally Catholic.
  • Murdoch is associated with literary prose, mysticism and Platonism. Her moral philosophy is highly opposed to behaviourism, and dwells instead on themes from Simone Weil: attention, love, reflection. She is interested in reasoning toward ‘just vision’ rather than toward ‘just action’. Anscombe’s interest in overt physical action contrasts with Murdoch’s interest activity of the inner life.
  • Midgley is a philosopher of science, and her work is concerned with the ethologic study of the human animal. Her lifelong battle is with the reductive scientism of Richard Dawkins and others like him. Her applied ethics tackles feminism and the treatment of animals.
  • Finally, Foot is associated with the development and defence of a secular version of ‘virtue ethics’. And so-called ‘trolley problems’!

We also hadn’t seen anyone making use of this group, and this astonishing accident of their education, to press questions about women in philosophy. So that was our plan.

Our initial research was largely guided by our contemporary concern with how women—especially women students—get heard, of fail to get heard, in philosophy and with the practical problem of stopping so many promising women undergraduates and graduates leaving the profession. So we were keen to use this unique moment in the history of our discipline as a case-study to uncover practices and norms that might deter, undermine or impede women’s philosophical development. In particular, we wanted to explore this intriguing suggestion that fewer men around created a learning environment that allowed this group of undergraduates to develop in ways that set them up as philosophers for life – even after the men came back.

But as we went through the archives, and had numerous conversations with Mary Midgley, things began to emerge about both the philosophical practices of this group, and the metaphysical world-view they were offering in their philosophy, that brought new depth to the project.


[6] Clip of Midgley


[7] Before we make any general points let us give you some particular examples of the sort of philosophical conversations we found in the archives.

On the right is a letter from Anscombe to Foot, from the Foot archive at Somerville. Anscombe tells Foot she is enclosing an article she has written and goes on to explain that she’s struggled to locate a passage in Aquinas they’d been discussing. She tells Foot: ‘It is evident that “material object” means what we thought.’ The archives are full of this sort of material: evidence of an ongoing philosophical conversation.

The Murdoch archive contains hundreds of letters from Murdoch to Foot – some illustrated [Dog of Happiness!] On the left are extracts from letters written in 1947-8. This is the year that Murdoch was away from Oxford, so away from Foot and the others. Again, these extracts are typical

In the first Murdoch writes:

I enclose some stuff, very bad and wild, which was the “historical introduction” to something I wrote last term. I hope it won’t make you as sick as it made Wisdom. Please tell me if you see anything positively wrong with it. (You probably will.) I apologise for this stuff – but you did ask, and maybe I’ll learn something from you, if you’ve the time. (A child at Newnham, knowing I was a Somervillian, said: “I suppose you learnt your philosophy from Miss Foot” How right she was!)

There was something so familiar to us in that need for a friend to check that what one was saying wasn’t completely wrong.

In the second, Murdoch reflects on her isolation.

“I just don’t see how any intellectual institution could ever dream of employing me. Not having anyone to talk to about the stuff, or indeed about anything else that matters, is sometimes sheer agony. I lose all sense of my reality as a thinker. Some days I just can’t image what I’m about, or what I am at all”

We were struck by that phrase: ‘I lose all sense of my reality as a thinker’. Following a visit to Oxford later that year, Murdoch notes in her journal ‘Back from Oxford. A world of women. I reflected, talking with Mary, Pip and Elizabeth, how much I love them. (Murdoch’s journal: 12 June 1948)


[8] The idea that a sense of ‘reality as a thinker’ might require one not to be isolated is taken up by Midgley in a wonderful essay she wrote in 1957, called ‘Rings and Books’. You can read the script on our website. It was written for broadcast on BBC radio but the editor rejected it on the grounds that it was a “trivial, irrelevant intrusion of domestic matters into intellectual life.” It was the only time Midgely ever had a script rejected.

In her memoir Midgley explains how she came to write it:

“I wrote it because I had suddenly been struck by the fact that nearly all the famous philosophers whose lives we know about were lifelong bachelors. Aristotle and Mill are exceptions and there are a few others, but among these exceptions three – Berkeley, Hegel and G.E. Moore – married late, after they had finished their serious philosophical work. None of these philosophers, therefore, had any experience of living with women or children, which is, after all, quite an important aspect of human life. I wrote [this] article drawing attention to this statistic and asking whether it might not account for a certain … remoteness from life, in the European philosophical tradition…”

‘Rings and Books’ focusses on bachelorhood and the concept of adolescence, but her real concern is with the kind of isolation from close community with others that has been a feature of many philosophers’ lives. Such isolation, she suggests, generates philosophy which is egoistic, fantastic and solipsistic – ‘flight from the world’ is typical of adolescence but usually people are forced to, or choose to, return to the world through the close relationships, friendships and community they form with others. In such a context, she suggests, the unreality of adolescent thought might give way to a more practical, imaginative and realistic way of thinking.


Part II: The Philosophy


[9] We’re now going to say something about the philosophy that emerges when these women’s work is read as a corpus.

Many of you will be very familiar with the work of at least one of these women but, as we said earlier, the map of 20th century philosophy rather discourages their being read together.

However, when one reads their work collectively, and in the context of archival material which allows the partial reconstruction of their philosophical conversations together, it is impossible not to be struck by the sense that here is a group of philosophers pursuing a single, multi-faceted programme.


[10] Midgley describes that programme as emanating from a joint ‘NO!’, collectively felt when the men, young and old, returned to Oxford in the mid-1940s and began their work where they had left off. In particular, they returned to take up the task framed by A. J. Ayer in his astonishing book, Language, Truth and Logic. Warnock describes the publication of that book, just before the war, as like a bomb going off; many Oxford philosophers, especially Oxford Moral philosophers, were keen maximally to exploit its destructive force.

Here’s Midgley, writing earlier this year:

[W]hat, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint ‘NO!’. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.

It was one of these sessions, at 25 Park Town, Foot’s house, that Murdoch was recalling when she talked of a ‘world of women’ and her love for her three friends.


[11] Mary Midgley writes:

So; what is Park Town?

Well – quite properly for a home of philosophers – it is neither a town nor a park. It is just a little piece of Victorian town-planning in North Oxford, a pair of neat crescents facing each other across a garden, with a larger and rather less posh crescent at the end’ and a few separate houses (including no.38) dotted about for perspective. In 1945 this kind of thing had not yet grown  fashionable, so the rooms were quite cheap, which suited impoverished graduate students like ourselves


[12] Foot describes the imperative behind this ‘No’ as generated by ‘news of the concentration camps’. Stevenson, Ayer and Hare—whose approach to ethics by linguistic analysis led them to non-cognitivist positions—gave no resources for dealing with these events. Murdoch later described their philosophy as ‘pre-Hitlerian’ ethics.


We conjecture that what put these women in a position to articulate this emphatic ‘No’ to ‘the bizarre irrationalist climate that had been encouraged by logical positivism’ was their education during the war. With the young men away, Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch received an education that was, so to speak, out of date. They read G. E. Moore rather than A. J. Ayer and learnt the art of philosophical argument from Donald MacKinnon rather than Gilbert Ryle.


[13] Midgley said that from this joint ‘NO!’  ‘a lot of metaphysics would follow’ and a lot of metaphysics does follow, of course. We are just beginning to map some of that metaphysics.

In the hands of these women, the ‘NO!’ to the Fact / Value distinction and to the Mind / Matter distinction comes from a place of ‘resisting unreality’. This concern for realism—in the sense of resisting fantasy and flight—shapes they way in which they set about undermining those distinctions. They do so by turning again and again to the human scene, to the human animal, to human society, to the way we live with each other, to what we, human animals, are and need.

In an unpublished paper, Anscombe lists ‘Twenty Opinions Common Among Anglo-American Philosophers’ that she thinks ought to be rejected. Among them are the following six:

  1. We aren’t mere members of a biological species but selves. The nature of the self is an important philosophical topic
  2. There is no such thing as a natural kind with an essence which is human nature.
  3. Ethics is formally independent of facts of human life, for example, human physiology.
  4. Ethics is ‘autonomous’ and is to be derived, if from anything, from rationality. Ethical considerations will be the same for any rational being
  5. Imaginary cases, which are not physical possibilities for human beings, are of value in considering ethics
  6. The study of virtues and vices is not part of ethics

The antitheses to these six theses constitute the core of a shared metaphysics and ethics.


[14] As we saw, the conversations in which this joint ‘NO!’ was articulated built on friendships formed as undergraduates, and took place largely between 1945-50. If you look at the publications of these women in the 1950s – 60s together you can see them as working through and out of those early conversations.

One of the things we’re doing is putting together a series of four thematic readers, which bring this group’s published and unpublished work together, along with archival material, to display some of these connections.


[15] We are beginning to name what they are doing – and we’re going to say something about the importance of naming in a minute. This is something we’re just working on now, so we’ll only be able to give you a very rough picture.

‘Uncommon sense realism’

We are calling the attitude that led to their rejection of the ‘unreality’ of Stevenson, Ayer and Hare’s philosophy ‘Uncommon sense realism’, where ‘realism’ means realistic rather than realist. The ethics of Stevenson, Ayer and Hare is ‘unreal’ in ways that connect to the six theses we just saw. It is formally independent of the facts of human life, for example human physiology. It is autonomous and derived only from rationality. It holds on to the ‘pre-Hitler’ assumption that on whole rational agents will act in ways that are not monstrous or systematically harmful to others. It deflects attention away from careful consideration of real human situations through the use of examples which are either trivial or fantastical (not possibilities for actual human beings).

In contrast, the stance of these women is realistic: ethics is formally dependent on facts of human life, facts that can be excavated through careful study of the human animal; ethics is not an autonomous sphere but is connected to human nature, and in particular to what humans need to flourish; the reality of human evil is recognised, but also the possibilities for moral work; it depicts real or imagined cases of the human moral predicament, often in domestic and everyday situations.

The realistic spirit described involves a strong commitment to ‘common sense’, but not in the manner of linguistic philosophers like Hare and ‘ordinary language’ philosophers like Austin. Austin’s philosophy can be said to be ‘common sense’ insofar as it takes ‘what we say’ as a datum, along with our intuitions about what it would and would not make sense to say in certain situations (PI). It stems from a deep suspicion of metaphysics—its genesis is a rejection of Bradley’s idealism.

In contrast, the commitment to ‘common sense’ that is contained in the attitude of uncommon sense realism begins from the difficulty of taking a realistic attitude in philosophy—it is in this sense that common sense is an uncommon achievement. ‘What we say’ and what strikes us as intuitive are not constraints of philosophy but datum for the philosopher (PI). This uncommon attitude is not anti-metaphysical because it requires a substantive account of human nature and action and of human capacities, including perception, imagination and self-knowledge.


Depictive Metaphysics

We are using this label both for the method and for the metaphysics that emerges out of it.

The depictivist method in philosophy recognizes and foregrounds the centrality of picture, anecdote and myth in structuring our thought about the world. It recognizes that these pictures, insofar as they constrain our possibilities for perception, action and imagination, as well as our self-conception, are not ethically neutral. For example, in picturing man in opposition to beast, we constrain possibilities for theorizing and acting.

From this insight comes a conception of the role of the philosopher and metaphysician. Her role is articulate the myths that dominate our thinking, perceiving and acting—in the philosophical, cultural and political sphere—a task that gets its importance when those myths become harmful. Murdoch says: we are creature that make pictures of ourselves and then come to resemble those pictures. So, depictivist approach recognises that the act of description, the choices we make about what to picture and how, is not ethically neutral.

The method’s use of picture presupposes a communicative, cooperative dialectic context; its success requires that an interlocutor take up the picture and consider whether it is apt, and be open to seeing things differently. These presuppositions have implications for the underlying metaphysics and ontology of mind and language. For example, the method requires a conception of mental activity, including perception, as agential. It also implies a theory of concepts as capacities that can be taught, learnt and exercised in acts of thought and perception, and can be altered and refined though imagination and dialogue. It also embodies a view about language which rejects the idea that there are descriptive uses of language that are evaluatively neutral.



[17] There’s obviously an awful lot of work needed to articulate clearly both the method and the metaphysics, and also to show that these labels aptly apply to these four women. Some aspects of the description fit one more than another. For example, if I describe depictive metaphysics in terms of imagination and vision it will call to mind Murdoch; the use of picture and examples and the emphasis on the human scene recalls Anscombe; the concept of ‘myth’ is Midgley’s; Philippa Foot is masterful at sketching scenes that show us moral facts. These are the sorts of nuances we need to explore.

To give you a bit more of an idea, we’ve chosen four examples from the group’s work that illustrate Depictivism at work. As you’ll see, the role of picturing and imagining in argument is not to pump intuitions but to change our ways of seeing, and to expand the sorts of connections and differences that are philosophically available to us. This sort of philosophical activity expands the tools available to philosophers – and the conception of what counts as philosophical argument.


[18] Potatoes – Anscombe

This is an extract from ‘Brute Facts’. Here, Anscombe describes a case of everyday human interaction: a grocer sells me potatoes. She then imagines how a Humean might respond to the grocer’s request for payment:

“Truth consists in agreement either to relations of ideas, as 20 shillings make a pound, or to matters or fact as that you have delivered me a quarter of potatoes; from this you can see that the term does not apply to such a proposition as that I owe you such-and-such for the potatoes. You really must not jump from an is … to an ‘owes’’

The effect of this story is to transform latent nonsense into patent nonsense.


[19] Plants – Foot

Foot remarked: if you want to think about ethics, you should begin by thinking about plants. This startling suggestion makes available to ethics an entirely new set of comparisons, conceptual tools and explanatory patterns.


[20] M+D – Murdoch

The example of M+D from ‘Idea of Perfection’ is extremely well known. Murdoch explicitly introduces this domestic example in contrast to the ‘picture of man’ she finds in Hampshire’s moral philosophy and as the ‘hero of the modern novel’. That picture, of man as independent, free, rational, is one that she says she ‘does not recognise’; she has ethical objections to it because it is connected to a view of moral activity in which only to overt physical actions belong to this category. The domestic example of M and D provide a realistic object of reflection that prevents the existentialist fantasy of the ‘Free Individual’ and reveals kinds of moral activity that that fantasy obscures.


[21] Plumbing – Midgley

The notion of a myth—and of the potential for myths to damage and enrich our moral thinking—is central to Midgley’s thought. She conceives of the philosopher as myth-maker and myth-buster, but once again this takes a domestic form. Philosophy gets its importance from the way it can bring clarity to our thinking, but the philosopher is pictured not as a sage or king but as a plumber.


III. A Philosophical School

[22] Now to the question of whether we should think of these women as a philosophical school. As we said at the start, we want to answer this question partly by reflecting on what’s at stake in our doing so or refusing to do so.

As we just indicted, the names we’ve coined – uncommon sense realism and depictive metaphysics – are currently placeholders for a set of overlapping methods that characterise these women’s thought, but the fit is by no means perfect. Significant differences cannot be denied, and from those conversations in Philippa’s front room in the late 1940s, their interests diverged along very different paths. Furthermore, the names could be aptly applied to a number of other philosophers who preceded or followed them: Wittgenstein, Williams, McDowell, Michael Thompson might all lay claim them.

So, why press the question?


[23] Analytical philosophy, as is often noted, is characterised by ‘styles of argument and investigation rather than doctrinal content’. This makes it a broad and inclusive church, but also encourages philosophers to have a self-image that is individualistic and guarded. The absence of any doctrine, and the lionising of clarity and argument might be connected to the ‘unreality’ of which these women complain. One must simply follow the argument where it leads. Without a sense of a shared programme—to defend the Catholic faith; to oppose Fascism; to confront a tyrannical King; to make sense of our shared life—one way of emphasising membership of this community is through a performance of that style of argument.

Another facet of the drive for clarity is a newly weaponised ‘I don’t understand’. Mary Warnock, who arrived at Oxford after the war recollects:

‘A whole generation of UG was excited to find that all they needed to do to refute some inconvenient doctrine was to say firmly and loudly “I don’t understand that”’ (Warnock)

Midgley reflects on these dynamics—and the absence of them—in this passage from her memoir.

What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games of simply opposition and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about…. It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down. That was how [we] all came to think out alternatives to the brash, unreal style of philosophising that was current at the time.

In the absence of a connection to reality philosophy degenerates into clever people competing at winning arguments. A complete liberalism about what can be said, argued for, investigated may lead not to inclusive philosophy but to ever tighter circles of argument.

One broad reason for recognising this group as a philosophical school is that they show how the style of investigation and argument can be turned toward the world rather than toward each other. They are logicians, metaphysicians, arguers. But their philosophical practice – or at least their practice at a certain crucial point in their lives – was collaborative, practical, born out of a sense of ‘what was real’ and a pressing need to work together to challenge a damaging orthodoxy.


[24] The more specific reason, though, relates to the issues discussed at the start, when we gave the context of In Parenthesis.

Philosophical schools require recognition for their reality. The methods and doctrines that characterise many philosophical movements or schools are named not by their disciples but by their detractors, who in naming them acknowledge the threat that these challengers pose. To be defined as a philosophical school is to be recognised by one’s community as serious interlocutors.

This is a reminder for historians of philosophy: if a set of voices are deemed by their peers irrelevant, uninteresting, unworthy, they may not be recognised as distinctive school, and it may be a job for us to recover them. If disciplinary norms are such as to exclude women as serious conversationalists, then we would expect to find what we do find: our schools on the whole have the same structure. A charismatic male genius at the start from whom the school gets its name, and a long line of male disciples working through the research project he created before, at some point, one capable of ‘killing their father’ appears and begins his own line.

[25] But there are serious benefits—in terms of how one’s work is viewed, the influence it can have, it’s longevity, and its status within philosophy’s ongoing discourse with itself—to being recognised as a school with shared methods and shared plans.

We started by talking about the wider aims of our work on this project. Beyond the scholarly research into the work of these philosophers, our project is concerned with today’s women philosophers and the question from which we began: How can we end the male domination in philosophy?

Through this project we have been giving our women students—and actually ourselves—a model of philosophical practice that they can recognise and emulate. If you’d like to hear more about that we’d be very happy to talk to it in the discussion period.