Year 2022: 30 Books

Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill & Rachael Wiseman

By Rebecca Morgan Frank, Jennie Hann, and Heather Scott Partington

Note: In the collaborative spirit of this jointly-authored volume and the four philosophers it follows, three NBCC board members worked together to write this appreciation.

“We were bored of listening to men talk about books by men about men. And we wanted to philosophize together, as friends. We were looking for a story that could help us . . . do philosophy in a more creative, engaged, and open way.” Thus begins Metaphysical Animals (Doubleday), Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s riveting, co-authored group biography, an account of “the unfolding, interweaving lives of four startlingly brilliant women” whose collective efforts brought “philosophy back to life.”

Philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch (the last better known today for her work as a novelist) met while studying at Oxford at the outset of WWII. They formed a genius cluster akin to the Transcendentalists, and like their forebears they came together at a unique historical moment, entering the university just as their male counterparts departed for the front lines. Over teatime conversations in dining halls and late-night debates in shared lodgings, this extraordinary group of friends reacted to the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima—“acts of depravity and disorder that those who lived before them would hardly have thought possible”—by posing questions that effectively rescued metaphysics, a vital strand of inquiry into the meaning of human life, from the brink of obsolescence.

The received narrative of philosophical thought in England during this period celebrates the rise of so-called logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers. Thinkers like J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, and R.M. Hare rejected what they saw as the unanswerable questions of metaphysics (What is freedom? What is goodness?) in favor of empirical, scientific methods that in some ways reduced the human mind to a calculating machine. By contrast, the four protagonists of Metaphysical Animals emphasized that we are, first and foremost, living beings whose sensory perceptions inform our ability to make ethical choices. For them, reason and logic were not constants; nor, in their disrupted world, were ideas of right and wrong. In this vein, the book culminates in Anscombe’s stand, in 1956, against Oxford’s decision to award an honorary degree to former U.S. president Harry S. Truman on the grounds that his sanction of the use of the atomic bomb amounted to mass murder.

In that instance, Anscombe was overruled by her male colleagues, but the legacy of what Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman contend was analytic philosophy’s first all-female school endures. The story of these four women, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman write, reminds us that “we are metaphysical animals,” creatures who “make and share pictures, stories, theories, words, signs, and artworks that help us to navigate our lives together.” Such creations, like this remarkable book, “show us what is and was the case, and at the same time suggest new ways of going on.” As the authors recommend in their preface, “If you can, you should read it with friends.”

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