Quartet+ Biographies

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Dorothy Emmet

(By Lawrence Blum, April 2024)

Dorothy Emmet was an important moral, social, and political philosopher, and metaphysician, whose career spanned and incorporated many currents in 20th century British philosophy. Her father was a vicar of W. Hendred and became a fellow of University College Oxford, moving the family to Oxford. Emmet attended the University, at Lady Margaret Hall, in 1923, where she read “mods and greats”. She attended lectures by H. Joachim, H.A. Prichard, W.D. Ross, and R.G. Collingwood. Her tutor was A.D. Lindsay, then Master of Balliol, a Christian liberal socialist moral and political philosopher. Unusual for Oxford students, especially women, in the 1926 General Strike (supporting mineworkers in Wales and England), Emmet refused to be a strikebreaker and journeyed to a Welsh mining area where she taught political philosophy (especially Plato) in an education program for miners. She continued to teach in a Workers Educational Association program at Balliol College for a number of years.

Having studied in the U.S. with the British metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead in the late 20’s, Emmet wrote the first book on Whitehead (Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism ) upon her return. Her next work was The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking in 1945 (written while night fire-watching during the war), pushing back against the harsh critique of metaphysics in the ascending logical positivist movement. She took a post at the University of Manchester in 1938, becoming Head of Department and the second woman to become Professor of Philosophy in the UK, in 1946, substantially building the Philosophy Department there until her retirement in 1966.

In the ‘50’s Emmet joined an anthropology (but also somewhat interdisciplinary) seminar at the University, under the leadership of Max Gluckman, a South African-born founder of the Manchester School of anthropology, and a critic of British colonialism. In 1958, Emmet published Function, Purpose, and Powers, a philosophical critique of functionalism in anthropology. As Victor Turner, a prominent British anthropologist and member (as a student) of the seminar, wrote in the Preface to a 1972 reissue of that book, Emmet always sought to retain the presence of individual persons, not only social structures, in her approach to anthropology. (“Dorothy Emmet always felt that anthropology was not the study just of social institutions but of institutional man.” p. viii.)

By the ‘50’s Emmet had achieved some stature in British philosophy, giving the annual philosophical lecture to the British Academy (in 1949), the Stanton lectures in Cambridge in 1950-53, and was president of the Aristotelian Society in ’53-’54. In 1960 Emmet visited Columbia University in the US, studying sociology with Robert Merton, the premier American sociologist of that period. Out of that experience, and also building on her engagement with anthropology, she wrote Rules, Roles, and Relations (1966), on the relation between sociology and ethics. Drawing on Merton’s pioneering work on “roles,” Emmet developed a deeply socially-informed approach to ethics, with role as a morally-structured social position in society carrying distinctive responsibilities and obligations. But she was also influenced by Sartre’s critique of roles (sharing Murdoch and Warnock’s interest in Sartre), and emphasized the individual style that can be given by particular occupants of roles.

Emmet collaborated with Alasdair MacIntyre, a former student, on a 1970 co-edited volume, Sociological Theory and Philosophical Analysis, with writings by philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists on theoretical issues in the social sciences.

Her 1979 Moral Prism took up the question of whether there is a domain of human life “beyond good and evil,” or to which moral considerations do not apply. She examines, politics, science, art, and religion as possible domains. She ends up with the view that morality is inescapable in all these, and other, domains. Morality has “the last word.” But her conception of morality is quite complex, rejecting the view that any available moral theory—deontology, utilitarianism—or single principle of any kind could generate the correct action to perform in every situation. The “prism” metaphor is to say that particular theories or approaches shine a light on an aspect of the moral life, but all are necessary to see the full picture.

Emmet imbibed some of the close argument style of “analytic philosophy,” but retained a much broader philosophic outlook for her entire career. She wrote ten books altogether, four in metaphysics, six in moral, social, political philosophy, and religion. She had a lifelong interest in religion and in the mid-‘60’s retired from Manchester and moved to Cambridge to become part of an intellectual/religious community, the Epiphany Philosophers (EPs). She shared a house—the center of the EP community—with a couple, Margaret Masterman, a philosopher and linguist (and founder of the Cambridge Language Research Unit), and Richard Braithwaite, a philosopher of science and religion. Emmet became the main editor of the EP’s journal Theoria to Theory: An International Journal of Philosophy, Science, and Contemplative Religion, from 1966 until 1981. The EP community, which also held religious retreats, included philosophers, scientists and religious figures, some of whom who went on to illustrious careers, such as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012, and the prominent Ghanaian-American philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, who worked closely with Emmet on the journal.

Emmet recognized a kinship with Murdoch regarding her interest in religion and refusal to draw a sharp boundary—seen by mainstream philosophy in this period as almost part of the definition of “philosophy”—and also appreciated Murdoch’s fiction as a source of moral wisdom. The two had a “philosophical friendship,” in Emmet’s words. Her Role of the Unrealisable (1994) was dedicated to Murdoch (and secondarily to Lindsay). It dealt with ideals that could not be fully realized in practice but, Emmet argued, could productively direct thinking and action in moral, political, religious, and epistemic domains. It is a cross-disciplinary work not easily locatable in standard philosophical subdisciplinary categories. Murdoch admired this work, praising it lavishly in a letter to Emmet.

In the early ‘70’s Emmet was asked to consult on the establishing of a Philosophy Department in the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. She had become interested in Africa in part through her contact with Gluckman and Turner, both of whose anthropological work concerned Africa, and to whom she dedicated her last work, the 1998 Outward Forms, Inner Springs.

Emmet wrote a fascinating memoir, Philosophers and Friends: Reminiscences of Seventy Years in Philosophy (1996), of notable persons mostly in philosophy but also social scientists and religious figures (such as the German-American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr), whom she encountered in her long career. The work provides an unusual take on 20th century British philosophy, spanning many different currents and not privileging the analytic or linguistic ones. It provides an important resource for thinking about the Quartet and how to rethink the various strands of 20th century British philosophy.

Emmet wrote two works in metaphysics in her last decades—The Effectiveness of Causes (1986), The Passage of Nature (1992)—building on her work on Whitehead in the ‘30’s. Her final collection, Outward Forms, Inner Springs: A Study in Social and Religious Philosophy (1998), captures her unusual bringing together of moral and social philosophy, religion and social science, that characterized her career.

Emmet became a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College (Cambridge) in 1966, was elected an honorary fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and received honorary degrees from the University of Glasgow (1974), University of Leicester (1976), and the Open University (1997).

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Mary Warnock

(coming soon by Ana Barandalla)

Suggested Readings

Warnock, Mary (2000) A Memoir: People and Places, Duckworth.

Warnock, Mary ed. (1996) Women Philosophers, Everyman.

Warnock, Mary (second edition 1966) Ethics Since 1900, Oxford University Press

Wilson, D.  (2023, April 13). Warnock , (Helen) Mary, Baroness Warnock (1924–2019), philosopher, headmistress, and public servant. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 20 Apr. 2024, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-90000380946.

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