Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill
and Rachael Wiseman

When Elizabeth Anscombe gave her first lecture at the University of Oxford in 1948, on Protagoras’ doctrine of belief, the authorities worried that female students might be corrupted. Not by the thrust of her talk, but by her trousers. The clerk of schools wrote to her, insisting that she come to the university in a skirt.

Every week he lay in wait, refusing to let her enter if she was improperly attired. Eventually a compromise was reached: they gave her a changing room containing a skirt (and a decanter of sherry as a bribe) and said she could arrive in trousers provided she appeared before students in the skirt. Anscombe agreed — and then wore both.

This invigorating book charts the struggle of female philosophers in the 1930s and 1940s to be taken seriously at a time when their male equivalents — and lots of women too — thought lady dons both ridiculous and humiliating for colleges. The authors track the careers of four individual thinkers who held posts at Somerville College, Oxford, and sought to find “a fruitful line in moral philosophy”.

The Somerville Quartet

They were a varied bunch.

Iris Murdoch, Dublin-born, later a famous novelist, won a scholarship to Badminton School (where she wept so copiously that a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Iris was formed), and another to Oxford, where she joined political campaigns and wrote a prizewinning essay on “If I were foreign secretary”.

Mary Midgley, physically awkward and fond of newts, grew up in a Middlesex rectory with copies of The New Statesman in the library, but spent time in Vienna, where she watched the Nazis invade in 1938.

Philippa Bosanquet, granddaughter of the US president Grover Cleveland, was brought up in a 16-bedroom Yorkshire mansion and rode to hounds with the Zetland Hunt. Schooled by governesses, she never learned Greek, which made her feel inadequate among her peers, but shone at philosophy, politics and economics.

Anscombe, the rogue trouser-wearer, was taught Greek from childhood by her mother.

Iris Murdoch won a scholarship to Badminton School, where she wept so copiously that a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Iris was formed.

When the Somerville quartet were students of 19 or 20, tumultuous events were unfolding — not just in Europe on the brink of war, but in the study of philosophy. AJ Ayer, with his “nine-shilling bombshell” Language, Truth and Logic, was revolutionizing the study of metaphysics.

He argued that, because any talk of “God” or “the Absolute”, of right and wrong, justice and virtue, couldn’t be verified by observation, it was meaningless. Moral judgments, he claimed, were of no more consequence than shouting “hooray!” or “boo!” — and therefore philosophy, as practiced by Plato, Aristotle and their heirs, was at an end.

How Iris, Elizabeth, Mary and Philippa (one thinks of them, impertinently, on first-name terms) joined forces to confront this dismaying reductionism through the war years and beyond is told with terrific fluency and humor.

Moral judgments, Ayer claimed, were of no more consequence than shouting “hooray!” or “boo!” — and therefore philosophy, as practiced by Plato, Aristotle and their heirs, was at an end.

When faced with some exegetical cruxes, readers may curse their lack of a politics A-level, but the main threads emerge clearly. The authors don’t try to present their heroines as proxy males; on the contrary they emphasize their femininity. Much is made of their clothes, shoes, eating habits (sardines and cake feature heavily), home furnishings, friendships, amours (Iris seems to change lovers as often as her underwear), Sapphic pashes and competitive triumphs. Sometimes they seem like raffish forerunners of the Four Marys in the Bunty comic. Quite a contrast from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who appears in these pages as an overbearing, foot-stamping, poker-wielding, alpha-male bully.

Reading the ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s studies of the animal kingdom set Midgley thinking about the distinction between animals and humans; she saw it was possible to regard humans as animals who possess a natural instinct for thinking beyond normal human experience — hence the book’s title.

Metaphysical Animals starts and ends with the moment in 1956 when Anscombe rocked a gathering of Oxford dons, assembled to award an honorary degree to Harry Truman, by denouncing him as a mass murderer for ordering the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It prompted a defensive transatlantic reply from the president. This fascinating work of historico-logico-feminism shows what led to that moment: how women fought their way on to the world stage of philosophy and turned its spotlight away from an analytical desert on to what was really important — moral clarity, wisdom and truth.

John Walsh is a former literary editor of The Sunday Times and editor of The Independent Magazine