Annie with Rachael and Clare

Annie McCallian, our student research assistant, reflects on the Durham reading group

In November 2016, as part of the In Parenthesis project’s aim to uncover the intellectual conditions of the wartime group, several close friends and I endeavoured to establish a women and gender non-binary undergraduate reading group. We gathered together once a fortnight in a small Philosophy common room – united by ideas and cocoa – for discussions that explored selected abstracts from texts by the wartime group. This is our brief reflection.

Our very first session was spent getting to know one another and reflecting on our experiences as fellow undergraduates. The topics of discussion ranged from imposter syndrome, to – what Collin McGinn had called – the “cut and thrust of philosophical debate”. What emerged prominently during this session was a shared feeling of isolation and intimidation with regard to the academic discipline of philosophy. Unsurprisingly, it appeared to us that this “cut and thrust” signalled an occasion to be spoken over, shouted down and – in some way – had perhaps contributed to our shared desire to distance ourselves from the discipline. One pervasive way in which this desire had manifested itself was in a reluctance to converse in tutorials – for fear of saying something ‘stupid’. As such, our reading group was always conscientious to create an environment that would combat this fear.

As the winter term dragged on, we continued meeting regularly. For the duration of this term, we focused on the work of Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch. Midgley’s discussion of the “solitary self” and Murdoch’s depiction of the moral imaginary, brought to our attention a description of ethics that was applicable to and, reflective of, our communal lives. Much of the philosophy – most appallingly much of the moral philosophy – we had encountered prior to this was highly abstract in its approach and construction, failing to attend to our everyday social and moral experiences. This theme of the essentially communal nature of ethics continued as we moved towards and through the Easter term, focusing on the work of Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe. Our discussions ranged from Foot’s exploration of ethical approval and disapproval, to Anscombe’s account of the ‘self’ as a grammatical construct. It soon came to our attention that what we had admired so much in the work of Murdoch and Midgley also featured prominently in the work of Foot and Anscombe. The emphasis that these women placed on our communal lives represented to us a wholly different approach to reasoning about our actions with regard the lives of others.

It was in this sense that the work of these women represented to us a world-view that rebelled against the detached philosophy that we had become so accustomed to reading. We hypothesised that the style of philosophising these women had enjoyed during their Oxford education had in some sense contributed to their communal and relatable approach to philosophy. It was this collaborative and non-competitive approach that our reading group adopted whole-heartedly. Philosophically, this approach helped us to find our individual voices, introducing us to a way of doing philosophy that we were comfortable being ourselves in. In contrast to the usual pride-jousting matches which we had too often witnessed in our tutorials, this approach allowed for a space in which we could sincerely support and encourage one another. This, in turn, provided us all with the conditions under which we could dare to be authentic about our opinions and, original in our approaches. For those of us who were students of philosophy, this development reflected prominently in our work.
The compassionate and encouraging setting of our sessions had provoked in each of us a quiet confidence that was necessary for us to fulfil our philosophical potential. Throughout our discussions, it became clear that it was not simply the case that we did not understand the philosophy that was being taught to us, rather we simply disagreed with it. We each began, in our own ways, unapologetically employing our own unique styles in our essays. The irony in all of this is that not only did we witness our grades drastically improve, but our whole degree became less of a confusing haze. The original and insightful papers that our tutors had longed to read from us were – prior to the reading group – seldom produced, not because we lacked the ability, but because we had been implicitly taught to be scared of saying or writing something ‘stupid’. The extent to which we were rewarded for our papers – after attending the reading group – signalled to us that the environment philosophy was taught in had only stifled the very thing our philosophy tutors wanted to encourage in us most. Put simply, originality cannot flourish in an environment of fear and competition.

It is in this sense that the reading group that we had designed and benefitted from was not necessarily something that is only useful to philosophers. The environment of fear and competition – whilst being more pronounced in philosophy – in many ways simply comes with the territory of a university education. Thus, it is my intuition that students of all disciplines would benefit from the support and encouragement that we were able to provide for each other. By the end of our sessions, it was clear that what had emerged from the group was something beyond a group of ‘study-buddies’, but a series of what were fundamentally sincere friendships. My final year would not have been the same without these individuals, they were my friends, my confidants and my teachers. I am indebted to each of them for the wonderfully educational experience we were all lucky enough to share.