What Counts as a Philosophical Life?

'Metaphysical Animals', a new book about Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch, has a moving answer to this question

Tom Whyman

In the early 1950s, the philosopher Mary Midgley, later known as one of the foundational figures in animal and environmental ethics, wrote a script for BBC Radio called “Rings and Books” in which she argues that the problem with the philosophical canon is that hardly any of the great philosophers were married with children.

On the first page of Midgley’s script, she has drawn up a table, on which Plato, Plotinus, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley (although Midgley was wrong about this one), Hume, and Kant all sit under the “Unmarried” column (she might also have added Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein). In the “Married” column, adjacent, there appear only three names: Socrates, Aristotle, and Hegel (though she might have added Marx). Midgley isn’t surprised that so many of the great philosophers have been childless bachelors: children are noisy and demanding, and if you’re grappling with tough metaphysical questions, you need the time and the quiet to concentrate (I know, I have a toddler and a four month-old myself). Parents just don’t have much flexibility built into their schedule.

But while refraining from family life might have allowed bachelor philosophers to make great headway with certain problems, it has also worked to trap them in what Midgley calls a “philosophic adolescence”: withdrawn, like moody teenagers hiding in their bedrooms, from the real stuff of life. This has inclined them to ask questions of the form: “how can I be sure the external world exists? How can I be sure other people exist?” As Midgley points out — drawing on her own experiences at the time, having recently had her first son — this is not remotely a question that would have gained much currency if philosophy had historically been primarily practiced by breastfeeding mothers. If you are also, in your everyday life, asking questions of the form, “what have I been eating to make my baby ill?”, you are unlikely to be much moved by the possibility that your baby might not “really” be a part of the world outside you.

There’s a problem, though, with these sort of sweeping materialist critiques of the philosophical tradition: they have a tendency to fall victim to the forces they are trying to explain. Midgley’s script for “Rings and Books” failed to impress her producer at the BBC’s Third Programme, Anna Kallin, for whom it represented little more than “the trivial, irrelevant intrusion of domestic matters into intellectual life.” It was never broadcast.

That Midgley’s script has now been digitized and made freely available online is thanks to the efforts of the “In Parenthesis” project. Led by two philosophy lecturers, Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, “In Parenthesis” works to preserve the legacy of Midgley’s thought, along with that of her contemporaries Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch: all four studied and then worked at Oxford in the 1940s, and developed as philosophers together. Recently, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman published a book, Metaphysical Animals, which tells the story of their subjects’ friendship — as they were drawn together, in their ultimately quite distinct ways, to challenge the shallow, empty, nihilistic picture of thought and human nature which lurked behind the Oxford analytic philosophy of their day.

It’s a compelling story, about four brilliant thinkers — one which not only challenges the canonical, male-dominated history of 20th century Anglophone philosophy, but also the perception of the history as being of thinkers who were, to put it bluntly, infinitely duller than their European others.

This is a world that is — that most criminally unphilosophical of all things perhaps — cozy.

But interestingly, a similar criticism to Kallin’s — that their work represents little more than the trivial intrusion of the domestic into intellectual life — has been levelled at Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman’s book as well. Writing in the London Review of Books, Thomas Nagel (he of ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat?’ fame), while acknowledging the merits of the story the book tells (and offering his own insights into some of its personalities), complains that it is too full of “biographical detail and information about secondary characters” to constitute a truly laudable work of intellectual history. Meanwhile, in The Guardian, Andrew Anthony has complained that this philosophy book barely has any philosophy in it at all.

“If you want to know what colour of silk cushions and bedspread Foot had in her rooms near Somerville College, then this is the book to read. Similarly, if your thing is the extended social connections of the Oxford intelligentsia, it’s a handy resource. But the general reader interested in the subject may wish that it devoted the same care to dealing with philosophical definitions, or where Wittgenstein stood in relation to the debates around logical positivism, as it does in bringing to life the rarefied milieu of Boars Hill.”

This, as far as I can tell, is the thought: this book purports to be a biography of some philosophers. But how can these be philosophical lives? A proper “philosophical life” must mean something like the career of Socrates, which ended with his being put to death by the Athenian state. Or the way Nietzsche lived: brilliant youth (fully tenured professor at 24!), chronic illness, itinerant lifestyle redefining European thought… then bam! Total breakdown, catatonic, taken care of by your Nazi sister. Or the life of Wittgenstein — who has a walk-on part in Metaphysical Animals — that sort of obvious brilliance, that sort of tortured genius, the constant attempts to quit philosophy and become a schoolteacher, or an architect. Or Walter Benjamin and his flight from the Nazis, committing suicide on the Spanish border.

The story this book tells is not of lives like these. It is a world of, well, silk cushions — of flirtations with pious older academics, of getting into trouble with the college authorities for wearing trousers to lecture instead of a skirt. This is a world, in short, of Ladies’ Things. This is a world where people gossip. This is a world that is — that most criminally unphilosophical of all things perhaps — cozy.

And in a way, you know: fair enough. Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch were all remarkable thinkers. But their actual lives were still, as most lives are, defined more by ordinariness than its opposite. All but Foot were the product of private girl’s schools, and the London suburbs; Foot herself was from an aristocratic background (her mother, in fact, was the daughter of Grover Cleveland). They lived through World War II, but were in a way greatly favored to have done so: as Midgley noted over half a century later, with almost all the men away, they were the first — perhaps the only — generation of female thinkers lucky enough to grow in their own light (their thinking was also defined by the moral call to arms represented by the Holocaust). After Oxford, they all went on to experience a great deal of temporal happiness and success: they worked as philosophy lecturers (Murdoch quit, but to become a novelist); they did important work. They all, in various ways, redefined their fields. Foot invented the “trolley problem” (and did a lot of other, better work critiquing then-dominant subjectivist approaches to ethics as well); Midgley’s work is, as noted aboe, foundational for animal and environmental ethics; Murdoch wrote one of the 20th century’s true philosophical classics, The Sovereignty of Good. Anscombe, meanwhile, was the sort of singularly perplexing genius about whom entire careers can be spent arguing — quite the equal of her mentor Wittgenstein (whose later corpus, incidentally, she was largely responsible for compiling).

Oxford colleges; cafes; dinner parties; a tumbledown house on St John Street; the flats of lovers or of friends. Cozy or otherwise, this is the milieu from which this particular school of thought sprang: these were the places in which it took place. It might not always be recognizably “philosophical” — but this is the point of the book. Significantly, Metaphysical Animals does not present its subjects as they were when they were “great”: it presents them as they were growing up, still in the process of finding their feet. And so we see Midgley gawky and awkward; Foot desperately insecure; Anscombe the classic a-bit-too-keen undergraduate, genuinely tortured by the problems on her course. Everyone falls in love with Iris Murdoch.

As the book opens, there really is very little philosophy, and what we do get seems either undergraduate-confused or else abstract and dead, filtered down to us from the curriculum on offer at Oxford at the time. There are long lists of names, people the Quartet knew — empty without all the proper context, like one is reading an Icelandic saga. One wonders why one ought to care, like one is listening to a story about, well, someone else’s friendship group. But then something beautiful happens: as the four live their lives, though still uncertain of the future, they begin to develop their philosophical ideas together. The philosophy comes into focus more — until finally at the end it has blossomed, and the fruit of each woman’s mature thinking becomes clear. Light has dawned gradually over the whole.

This is a masterful argument, made not only by the book’s content, but by its form. Philosophy and life are united, the book seems to be saying: not only by default, but as upbringing; as education. A philosophical life is a life lived with others — however cozy those relationships might be.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.