Metaphysical Animals

Metaphysical Animals coverMetaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Doubleday (May 10, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $21.99

Metaphysical Animals is a joint biography of four women who studied and taught philosophy at Oxford. The authors investigate the lives of Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch.

The book examines the lives of the women as undergraduates at Oxford in the days before World War II. This was a time when women were rather grudgingly accepted as students there. The authors then describe their time at Oxford during the war when there were very few men present. Later in the war they had to leave Oxford as women were conscripted to perform civilian tasks in order to assist with the war effort. All four of them returned to Oxford after the war, taking on various teaching roles.

The narrative is bookended with a prologue and epilogue that center on Oxford’s desire to give Harry Truman an honorary degree and Elizabeth Anscombe’s efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to block that honor on account of Truman’s responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The obsession of the authors with this incident is rather puzzling as it has little to do with the material in the rest of the book. Nonetheless, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman cover a lot of territory in the decades that this book covers.

Given that we are talking about Oxford, there is a lot of attention paid to the classics, and these women studied with professors whose works I read as an undergraduate at Pitzer College. I knew Gilbert Murray and his treatment of Greek Tragedy and E. R. Dodds who wrote the assigned text The Greeks and Their Gods. (Dodds, I did not know, was interested in the paranormal and a member of the Society for Psychical Research.) They also studied with Gilbert Ryle, with whose work I became acquainted in a philosophy class.

One philosopher who gets a lot of attention in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although he taught at Cambridge, he was in London during the war and Elizabeth met with him regularly. After the war she continued to study with him. In fact, she translated his final work from the German after his death and took his former Chair at Cambridge University.

The final quarter of the book is less biography than an exercise in “doing philosophy.” I took two philosophy classes during my first two years at Pitzer where we did philosophy. That was a long time ago and engaging in this kind of mental gymnastics is a different way of thinking. I admit to having had trouble absorbing this material.

Oddly, I did not see evidence of the claim in the subtitle that these women “brought philosophy back to life.” It is only in the book’s Afterward that the authors clearly detail the significant accomplishments that the group left behind. I would like to have seen those accomplishments more clearly described in the body of the book.

However, those interested in the academic history of mid-twentieth century Britain and those who love the process of philosophy will find Metaphysical Animals worthwhile reading.

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