Sunday, March 05, 2023

Metaphysical Animals

 I've been listening to audiobooks in various circumstances (commute to campus, office hours when I don't have any students in, walks), and one I recently finished and liked a lot is Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Subtitled How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, it depicts the interwoven early careers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch. It has a particular story that it wants to present -- that the four women were at the very least central figures in breaking the anti-metaphysical spell of early analytic philosophy, which they were able to do in part because of talent and in part because of timing, as they began to come to prominence right as World War II pulled away many British men and created a space for different approaches that could be explored by women and refugee academics. Like any such story, it fits some evidence better than others, but it's vigorously and interestingly told, and backed extensively by contemporary writings; it is also fundamentally a framework that, while the authors develop it extensively, comes from elsewhere -- namely, Mary Midgley herself, who, as the last of the four friends and colleagues to die (in 2018), was a living connection to the period and who had more briefly argued herself for such a story in some of her works. (Midgley is also a significant influence on another, similar work, Benjamin Lipscomb's The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics.) The book does a very good job of capturing the different personalities of the four -- quiet Mary slowly feeling her way to self-confidence, borderline-wild and highly creative Iris, socially polished  but intellectually maverick Philippa, highly talented and indomitable Elizabeth. It also does a good job of showing how they both mutually supported and often seriously challenged each other.