The women who brought philosophy into everyday life

by Dr Clare MacCumhaill and Dr Rachael Wiseman

14 May 2019

This blog post is part of our Summer Showcase series, celebrating our free festival of ideas for curious minds.

Philosophy sometimes seems to be utterly separate from everyday concerns. Is time real? Why is there something rather than nothing? Do we have free will? These questions can seem to have little connection to the sorts of big issues we face today, from global warming to Brexit or the effects of social media. But our research focuses on four philosophers who thought that philosophy was a central activity in human life – as central as cooking, playing games and raising children. The task of philosophy, they thought, was to look closely and carefully at human life and to think about what was important or trivial, serious or silly. Like cooking and child-rearing and game-playing, philosophy is both an activity found in every human life and something that will take many different forms, depending on the historical, social and cultural background of the questions we ask.

The Quartet

The idea that philosophy is something we need to get through the difficulties that life throws at us is powerful. Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch came to this realisation together, in the period following the Second World War. At that time British philosophy had a reputation for being obscure, technical, and unrealistic. It was concerned with minute investigations into the meaning of words, and the dominant view in ethics was a position called Emotivism. According to Emotivism, it is impossible to say anything meaningful about ethics, or the good life, or about how human society ought to be arranged. All talk of good and bad, right and wrong, is really nothing more than an expression of emotion, so no genuine moral disagreement or discussion is possible.

'Dog of Happiness’ postcard from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives, sent from Murdoch to Philippa Foot c. 1949

These four women, ‘The Quartet’, began their philosophical studies at Oxford University in 1938 and would have been on track to learn this kind of philosophy. However, before they could do so, the war intervened: male dons and undergraduates were conscripted to the war effort and the women were left with the campus to themselves. The only men remaining were conscientious objectors, the elderly or ill, and refugee scholars fleeing the chaos in mainland Europe. In this context the women turned their attention away from ‘competing at winning arguments’ and toward ‘understanding this deeply puzzling world’. They wanted a philosophy that would enable them to say to the Nazis, ‘But we were right, and you were wrong’, and they knew that the dominant moral philosophy would not allow this.

“I thought, ‘Morality just cannot be subjective in the way that different attitudes, like some aesthetic ones, or likes and dislikes, are subjective. The separation of descriptions from attitudes, or facts from values, that characterised the current moral philosophy had to be bad philosophy.”

Philippa Foot FBA, Conversations on Ethics

They began by thinking about what human animals need for their lives to go well. By comparing humans to other living things – plants and animals – they were able to draw limits on what a human could intelligibly want and on what a good human life could look like. By examining human practices like promising and ordering, playing games and making art, they described the sort of character traits that a person would need if she was to live well with others. They looked at the sort of unity that a good human life would have and tried to show exactly what was disordered or irrational about choosing things that are wicked or harmful.

Philosophy by Postcard

The research we’re doing has many strands. One major part is to recover the philosophical picture that the women articulated and to situate that picture in the context of their lives and friendships. We’re also using this case study to examine the barriers women face in philosophy – both now and in the past. We think that the disconnect between ordinary life and philosophical theory that is part of the Western philosophical tradition could contribute to women’s alienation from philosophy. We are interested in what happens when philosophy reconnects with the everyday and gets its material from the issues and concerns that ordinary people find important or serious in their lives.

'Iris Murdoch' by Trina Hobson, commissioned as part of the #philosophybypostcard project

The #philosophybypostcard project stems from this interest. We have teamed up with An Post (the Irish Postal Service) and other partners to celebrate the life and philosophy of Iris Murdoch. We are asking the public to send us postcards to philosophers, asking questions or sharing problems that matter to them. 100 philosophers from around the globe will answer 100 of the postcards we receive. We want to show that philosophy is and can be part of the everyday and take a snapshot of the questions and concerns that people would like philosophers to address. We think that the rich framework the Quartet developed in order to address the pressing problems facing their generation – Nazism, Communism and nuclear weapons – could be used to address today’s issues.

Dr Clare Mac Cumhaill is assistant professor in the department of philosophy at Durham University. She received a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for her project ‘Mapping the Quartet: The Living Legacy of a Female Philosophical School’. Dr Rachael Wiseman is lecturer in philosophy at the University of Liverpool. Together, they received a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant for their project In Parenthesis.

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