by Ana Barandalla
We have completed the Wartime Quartet Reading Group in London, where it has run alongside the Friday Lectures at the Royal Institute of Philosophy from October 2018 to March 2019. I’m not sure what my expectations were at the outset, but whatever they were, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable and didactic experience, and as we finished, I was left with a sense that something good had been accomplished. It was back in the summer of 2018 that Clare proposed that I, together with Hannah Altorf, facilitate the Group, and I jumped at the chance. Hannah and I had never met before, and when we did it very soon became clear that we saw eye to eye on what we wanted the Group to do, and on how to lead it. We wanted it to be a home for genuinely collective thinking and discussion. Everyone who cared to join us – be it established faculty, undergrads, or members of the public – would feel comfortable, and everyone’s voices would be heard the same. This would not be a competitive arena, but a hub for thinking together, for learning from, and with, each other.
Just a week before the first session was due, news came of Mary Midgley’s death. She was the last surviving member of the Quarter. Having spent much of the previous weeks reading her work, talking to others about her brilliance, and chuckling – so much chuckling – at her wit and indomitable irreverence, this felt like a blow. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Clare and Rachael, for whom, over the years, Mary had become friend, mentor, collaborator, and all around guiding light. And endless supplier of biscuits.
And then the Group started, with Oxford and Durham also running parallel Groups. That first meeting was a bit fumbly, as these things often are, with everyone, strangers to each other, trying to figure out how to best fit, and Hannah and I how best to shape the assembly. But on the second meeting we had a firmer grasp of what we were doing, and remarkably a palpable sense of togetherness was already being forged. Throughout the run of the sessions, people came and went, and everyone left a valuable mark. But a core group stayed, sometimes joined too by friends from the Oxford and the Durham Groups. It was wonderful. Everyone brought their different approaches to, and interests in, the texts. But we somehow always came together. We could speak to each other, and understand each other, and we wanted to hear each other. Many days we had to close still brimming with ideas, with questions. And one’s heart was buoyant with that unique energy produced by collective collegial intellectual hard work and a good dose of good humour. The ethos that Hannah and I had envisaged had indeed come to pass and we hadn’t even had to try that hard. It just emerged that way.
Looking back it seems that the Group was blessed from every which way. We had the precious individuals who formed the Group, who would come into that grand hall at 14 Gordon Square, relieve themselves of the heavy London winter attire, sit down, notes and iPads out, and start thinking whilst creating the homely atmosphere just mentioned. James Garvey, at RIP, granted us everything we asked for, plus quite a few good suggestions to boot. Dan Pollendine, from Dr Williams’s Library, was the best host imaginable, seeing to our every comfort as if that were the most natural thing in the world. The group served as a reminder that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful can be found in academic philosophy, and of what a privilege it is to be part of this project.
And then there were the philosophical works. The question animating the Reading Group was whether these women’s work might be thought of as constituting a philosophical school. But there was so much more to tickle our attention. For Midgley, Anscombe, Murdoch, and Foot did good philosophy, really good. Incisive, relevant beyond their immediate subject of concern, and imaginative. So there was the delicious conceptual and logical exercise of simply working out what a specific idea is: what is its internal structure, what it is trying to show, and why. There was the extension of that logical exercise to broader historical dimensions: how their ideas relate to those prevalent at the time. And, perhaps more privately for some of us, there was the exhilarating realisation of the various current debates to which some of their ideas can fruitfully be brought to bear.
The question of whether the Quartet’s joint corpus counts as a school needs to take the Quartet’s join corpus into account, whilst the Reading Group covered but a tiny number of pieces. However, on the basis of that small selection some convergences – some divergences too – were quite salient. Mostly they pertained to ethics. Here I sketch a handful.
All authors contest the view, current at the time, that value statements cannot be derived from fact statements. As that view had it, value statements are, ultimately, expressions of individuals’ own sentiments. Since sentiments are highly varied and variable, any connection between them and facts is contingent, hence, not subject to rules of deduction.
Foot used the concept of ‘rude’ to challenge that position. She argued that, if you know that rudeness means the causing of offence by indicating lack of respect, and you understand the statement ‘X has caused offence by indicating lack of respect’, then you can draw from that statement the further statement ‘X is rude’ (MA 102). Foot takes the first statement to be factual, and the second evaluative, so on her view, value statements can be derived from factual ones.
It strikes me that one way to read Anscombe is as siding with the forebear of the view that statements of value cannot be derived from statements of fact: Hume’s dictum that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. He was right, Anscombe can be taken to say, but this is because this ‘ought’, having had the context within which it makes sense removed, now contains ‘no intelligible thought’, and so it cannot be derived from anything’ (MMP 32). However, we can derive statements of value (which would imply an ‘ought’, albeit one deposed of the connotations in Hume’s ‘ought’, i.e. legalistic requirements and bindings (MMP 29-30)), from factual statements, because at least some of those values are facts: they consist of the conjunction of ‘brute facts’, i.e. facts describable in terms different from the value in question, and specific contexts where those brute facts obtain (BF).
Murdoch and Midgley seem more concerned with the epistemological aspect of the fact/value distinction, specifically, with the question of whether our epistemic connection with the world can be value-less. Murdoch maintains that, as we go along, engaging epistemically with the world, we form conceptions of the world – ‘visions’ – imbued with value (SoG 37). And that rather than our choosing where to apply moral concepts on ‘neutral areas’ (value neutral, that is), moral concepts ‘themselves determine a vision of the world’ (V&C 54).
Midgley too tells us that we organise what we learn into dramas, that is, stories modulated by cadences of value: ‘Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organise themselves into some sort of story’ (EaR 4).
Opposition to the fact/value distinction (whether as a conceptual distinction, a metaphysical, or an epistemological one) is typically geared towards establishing a solid foundation for morality. Indeed, Foot recalls that, hot on the heels of the world coming to know about the Nazi atrocities, she wanted to show that we could tell the Nazi, ‘but you were wrong, and we were right’, backed by the full force of truth conditions, and not it being a matter of personal taste (GG 34). But it is interesting to note how each of our writers proceed in relation to that end.
Anscombe, having decried the, as we might now say, ‘fake’ normativity which moral philosophers standardly attached to value concepts, uses the notion of ‘Aristotelian necessity’ to account for what normative force value statements and concepts can have. That notion denotes a necessity ‘without which good cannot be or come to be’ (P 15). So, if you seek the good, and you realise that X is necessary to obtain the good, there is a force of necessity for you to do X. Crucially, the good that supplies that necessity is the common good, not one’s own good (P 19). This is something that Anscombe simply asserts, and does not argue for, thus skirting the question on which all moral theories trip. Perhaps she thinks that no argument is needed because the necessity of acting well ‘is not capable of demonstration except as a general holding’ (P 20). That is to say, the necessity of acting well is not something that can be established through argument, but it’s nevertheless something that is universally recognised. (This would underwhelm most ethicists, though, so I’m not sure it’s charitable to propose it as a reason why Anscombe does not deem it necessary to argue for that crucial step into morality.)
Foot and Midgley, on their part, seek to connect morality, which for our purposes we might see in Anscombe’s terms as pertaining to the common good, to the individual’s good. Midgley presents a constitutive relation between those types of good. She says: We are subject to the claims of a myriad of different and competing sensitivities and affections. Our capacity to reflect on these competing claims brings us suffering, as we experience ourselves being pulled apart. We crave for unity amongst our sensitivities and affections, a unity to be established by keeping each of those sensitivities and affections in their place, where ‘their place’ is relative to how central they are for us. The sensitivities that call for moral actions are amongst the most central for us. So they are to be privileged if we are to attain the unity, or ‘integration’, we yearn for (M&B ch. 12). In other words, acting morally is part and parcel of achieving integration – the individual’s ultimate good.
Foot, writing much later, explores the connection between human goodness, virtue, and happiness. She concludes that a type of deep happiness – that is, a state of mind not ‘in principle detachable from a person’s resource of experience and belief’ (NG 86), nor ‘detachable from beliefs about special objects’ (NG 86) – is conceptually inseparable from virtue and from someone’s good (NG 95). Foot acknowledges that the sense in which this happiness might be said to be deep needs further study and elucidation. But one cannot help but wonder whether Foot’s notion of deep happiness might not find a home in something like Midgley’s notion of integrity.
Murdoch, on her part, seems more sceptical than her friends about the possibility of human nature grounding morality. Not because of theoretical difficulties in establishing that connection, but because she takes seriously Christianity’s and Freud’s appraisal of us as ‘largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly strong selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend’ (SoG 99), that being seen ‘as almost insuperable and certainly a universal condition’ (SoG 50-1). On the face of it, this seems quite a departure from Anscombe’s observation of the ‘universal holding’ of the recognition of the necessity of acting well, i.e. acting for the common good. However, Murdoch and Anscombe are of one mind on the view that moral philosophy at the time was ill equipped to tackle its task, and that much of what was needed was a philosophy of psychology (SoG 46; MMP 38).
Murdoch also takes what is, at least prima facie, a drastically different approach to what moral practice would entail. She tells us that acting morally consists in conducting our epistemic and practical engagements with the world in pursuit of the Real and of the Good. And to do that we must ‘cease to be’ (SoG 59), we must resist ‘the assertion of self’ (SoG 59). We need to ‘silence and expel the self’ (SoG 64), to suppress the self (SoG 66).
A call for such an obliteration of the self seems to point to quite a different direction from the unification of the self endorsed by Midgley and maybe by Foot (subject to the further elucidation of the notion of deep happiness mentioned above).
We also find less than full consensus between Midgley and Anscombe on the source of morality and of normativity more generally. Midgley follows Bishop Butler on the view that the faculty that calls for, and institutes, integration is conscience, and seconds his well-known edict that ‘Man is thus by his very nature a law unto himself’ (M&B 258). But Anscombe dismisses Butler’s appeal to conscience, and pronounces the idea of legislating for oneself ‘absurd’ (MMP 27).
Murdoch and Foot, too, strike a discordant note on the scope of morality. Whilst Murdoch holds that the moral life ‘is something that goes on continually’ (SoG 37), Foot would be happy to see the back of the term ‘moral’ altogether (NG 79), for she argues that morality is no distinct province of the normative realm – its claim to supremacy and to a special subject of concern (the will) not being supported by logic, nor by actual practice (ch. 5). However, the importance of the divergence between Foot and Murdoch on the scope of morality might perhaps be more profitably seen in light of their agreement on the rejection of rigid divisions in the normative realm.
But there are more connections too. We find echoes of Murdoch’s conditions for morally correct epistemic activity in Midgley’s appraisal of the various myths we live by. For Murdoch, the morally correct way of conducting our epistemic engagement with the world is one that involves looking at the world with attention, that is, with ‘compassion or love’, ‘in a light of justice and mercy’ (SoG 66). This contrasts with pursuing ‘aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams’ (SoG 59). The moral quality of our conceptions of the world – of our ‘visions’ – depends on how we look (SoG 39).
Midgley’s notion of myths can be seen as the social equivalent of Murdoch’s ‘visions’. That is, as conceptions of the world shared and maintained by societies at large. If Midgley’s analysis of the concept of ‘beastliness’, and of myths of evolution, are anything to go by, we learn that these shared conceptions of the world are just as prone to ‘self-aggrandising fantasy as individuals’ ones, as those particular examples display a glaring absence of loving, merciful attention to their subjects – respectively non-human animals, and disadvantaged humans (B&M; EaR).
So these are some of the things we’ve learned. There is very much more to say, of course, these just being a handful of observations, and somewhat tentative at that. No doubt further nuances will emerge with a more sustained and expansive approach, and these might dramatically alter the shape of the map I’ve here began to sketch. I hope that that work will keep us going for some time yet.
I want to end by simply thanking everyone who’s been involved in one way or another in creating and running the Wartime Quartet Reading Group.
ABBREVIATIONS AND REFERENCES
SoG: Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1970.
GG: ‘The Grammar of Goodness: An Interview with Philippa Foot’, The Harvard Review of Philosophy, XI 2003, http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/hrp/issues/2003/Foot.pdf
MA: Philippa Foot, ‘Moral Arguments’, in Virtues and Vices, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1978, abridged version reprinted in Mary Warnock, Women Philosophers, The Everyman Library, 1996.
P: Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘On Promising and its Justice, and Whether it Need be Respected in Foro Interno’, in Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, 1st edn edition, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 1981.
EaR: Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion, Routledge, 1985.
BM: Mary Midgley, Beast and Man, Routledge, 2002, ch. 12 reprinted abridged in Mary Warnock, Women Philosophers, The Everyman Library, 1996.
NG: Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, Oxford University Press, 2001.
CB: Mary Midgley, ‘The Concept of Beastliness’, Philosophy 48 (184):111-135 (1973).
BF: Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘On Brute Facts’, in Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, 1st edition (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 1981).
MMP: Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, in Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, 1st edition (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 1981).
V&C: Iris Murdoch, ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. vol. 30 (1956): 32–58.