1. Introduction through key texts

Before we get stuck into the detail we’ve chosen what we think is a key reading from each of our four women to get us warmed up. The idea for the first meeting is to get some background on each of our women and start to talk about the connections between their thought — it’s with this in mind that we’ve chosen the following pieces.

  • Anscombe: ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33, No. 124 January 1958
  • Murdoch: Sovereignty of the Good, 1970
  • Foot: Natural Goodness, 2001
  • Midgley: The Myths We Live By, 2003


This is a lot to read — in the future we’ll only be setting a couple of chapters or articles for each meeting. You might want to share them out between your members, rather than all reading all. Or, here are suggestions for a more focussed selection:

  • Anscombe: ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’
    • Some helpful background here.
  • Murdoch: Sovereignty of the Good, 1970.
    • Focus on essay 1, ‘The Idea of Perfection’. The Routledge Great Minds edition (2014), includes this excellent foreword by Mary Midgley.
  • Foot: Natural Goodness, 2001
    • Focus on the Introduction and ch. 1 ‘A Fresh Start’. Also, here’s a two-page review by Mary Midgley
  • Midgley: The Myths We Live By, 2003.
    • Focus on chapters 1-3 and ch. 14, ‘Is reason sex-linked?’. Here’s a useful review by Jon Turney for the Guardian


And a few questions you might consider to get you started:

[A] Iris Murdoch describes the ‘hero of the contemporary novel’: ‘free, independent, lonely, rational, responsible, brave’. He is, she says, ‘the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational and yet increasingly aware of his own alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal’.



  1. What does she mean?
  2. Does this ‘hero’ appear as a target in the other women’s work?
  3. What are the other characteristics of this ‘hero’?
  4. How does he appear in philosophy, especially ethics and politics?
  5. Is the ‘hero’ necessarily male?

[B] Is there a positive account of

  1. human nature?
  2. action?
  3. imagination?
  4. science?

[C] In her memoir, Midgley tells an anecdote, which relates the story of a dinner party arranged for herself and Iris by their tutor, to celebrate their firsts:



“As a special treat she [invited] two highly distinguished contemporary sages — the historian A. L. Rowse and the Cambridge musicologist J. B. Trend. [T]hrough a long evening we listened attentively to their distinguished contemporary opinions.

Bright moonlight flooded down St Giles’s as the two of us eventually stumbled home to Somerville. ‘So finally,’ I asked, ‘what about it? Did we learn something new this evening?’ ‘Oh yes, I think so,’ declared Iris gazing up at the enormous moon. ‘I do think so … Trend is a good man and Rowse is a bad man.‘ At which exact, but grotesquely unfashionable, judgment we both fell about laughing.” (125-6)

  1. Can the terms ‘good man’ and ‘bad man’ be used to describe the ‘hero’?
  2. How does an account of human nature connect with the attribution of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’?
  3. What kind of ethical theory would use these descriptions?
  4. Why was this ‘grotesquely unfashionable’ in Oxford in the 1940s? Is it still so?


Our Durham-based reading group will be meeting to discuss them on 24th June 2016, so if you’re setting up your own satellite aim to meet around then to keep us all in pace. Look at our FAQ for more guidance on how to run your meetings.

But no need to wait until June to start the conversation. Join in by tweeting to @parenthesis_in using the hashtag #InParenthesisRG. Or by leaving a comment below.


2. G. E. M. Anscombe

This month we’re looking in more detail at Anscombe’s writings on moral philosophy, and in particular her critique of the ‘Oxford Moral Philosophy’ of the 1950s.

For background on the moral philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century, see Mary Warnock’s excellent Ethics Since 1900, London, New York, Oxford University Press 1960.

We’ll be meeting to discuss on 22nd July 2016.

Join in the conversation by tweeting to @parenthesis_in or by leaving a comment below.

3. Philippa Foot

This month we’ll look at Philippa Foot’s moral philosophy. We already know she’s a great letter-writer!

We’ve chosen three pieces from both ends of her philosophical career. The first two are from the 1950s. ‘When is a principle a moral principle?’ (recommended to us by Cora Diamond – see her comment below), and ‘Moral Arguments‘. These are attacks on the non-cognitivism of R. M. Hare – the same target we saw in Anscombe’s work of the same time. Note that the second paper was written the same year as Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ and four-years before Murdoch’s ‘The Idea of Perfection’.  You might also want to look at ‘Moral Beliefs’, a sister paper written by Foot in the same year. Don’t be fooled by the polite tone of these papers – this is a gloves-off attack on her colleagues’ work. Finally, are going to look again at Natural Goodness, this time, chs 1 and 2.

  • 1954. ‘When is a principle a moral principle?’. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes Vol. 28, Belief and Will, pp. 95-134
  • 1958 ‘Moral Arguments’. Mind, Vol. 67. Reprinted in her Virtues and Vices.
  • 2001. Natural Goodness, chs 1 and 2. Oxford University Press.

We’ll be meeting to discuss them on 30th September 2016 and will post live on twitter #InParenthesisRG. Join us!

Join in the conversation by tweeting to @parenthesis_in. Or by leaving a comment below.

4. Iris Murdoch

This month we’ll look at Iris Murdoch.

We’ll be reading

  • ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1959)

And also re-reading chapter 2 of The Sovereignty of Good: ‘On “God” and “Good”‘.

We’ll be meeting to discuss them on 27th October 2016.

Join in the conversation by tweeting to @parenthesis_in. Or by leaving a comment below.

5. Mary Midgley

In January we will be revisiting these texts with Liz McKinnell (Durham):

The texts we have selected are ‘Philosophical Plumbing’ (1992) and ‘Is Moral a Dirty Word?’ (1972)

We’ll be meeting to discuss them on 20th January, at 4pm.

Join in the conversation by tweeting to @parenthesis_in. Or by leaving a comment below.

6. Anscombe

Two more papers from 1958 — what a year! Anscombe’s ‘Pretending’ is one of a pair from a symposium — the  other is by J. L. Austin. It’s worth reading both together for a sense not only of the great distance between Anscombe and those practicing ‘ordinary language philosophy’, but also for a glimpse at a startling personality clash! ‘Brute Facts’ takes us back to MMP, and also Foot’s ‘When is a Principle a Moral Principle?’.


  • ‘Pretending’ Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 1958, 32:261-294.
  • ‘On Brute Facts’ Analysis 1958, 18 (3):69 – 72
7. Foot

Just one paper from Foot here — this one published in 1961. We’ll be reading it along with Murdoch’s ‘Vision and Choice’ , published 5 years previously.


  • ‘Goodness and Choice’. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 1961, 35:45 – 80.
  • Murdoch, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 1956, 30:14 – 58
8. Midgley

Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature is an incredible work, published in 1979. This 1973 paper is a great introduction.


  • ‘The Concept of Beastliness: Philosophy, Ethics and Animal Behaviour’. Philosophy 1973, 48 (184): 111-135
9. Murdoch

Two new readings here — ‘Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ and a short review article, ‘Mass, Might and Myth’. We’re also going to revisit ‘The Sublime and the Good’ from our previous Murdoch meeting.


  • ‘Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’. The Yale Review, 1959
  • ‘Mass, Might and Myth’, Spectator, 6th September 1962, 337-9.
  • ‘The Sublime and the Good’ (Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1959)