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A Golden Manifesto

Mary Midgley remembers a golden age of female philosophy, and argues that it holds lessons for today.

Was there ever – or could there ever be – such a thing as ‘The Golden Age of Female Philosophy’? Although newspaper headlines aren’t a matter of cosmic importance, this title rather surprised me when it appeared in 2013 over my response to a comment piece in The Guardian, which discussed my writings and those of the three philosophers who had been my close friends at wartime Oxford – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

My first thought was that a golden age would need more than four components. But it turns out that, today, what we four people wrote strikes philosophers increasingly as important. So, as I’m now the sole survivor, and as I still think it was indeed important, I have to rouse up my computer and make some attempt to explain it all, even though this brief summary may seem rather like an ox boiled down in a tea-cup to make Bovril.

I should start, I think, by quoting from the slight explanation of the whole thing that I offered to questioners in The Guardian. Why, they asked, had these distinctive views of ours attracted so much notice? I replied that –

“as a survivor from the wartime group, I can only say, sorry, but the reason was indeed that there were fewer men about then. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past. What is wrong is a particular style of philosophizing that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete on winning arguments… By contrast, in those wartime classes, which were small… men (conscientious objectors, invalids etc) were present as well as women, but they weren’t so keen on winning arguments.”

So we didn’t actually then see any of the kind of fireworks which Colin McGinn describes as exploding at Oxford when he worked for the BPhil there in 1972 – a time, as he explains, when Oxford had “a large and vibrant faculty… it attracted some of the brightest students from around the world, including America and Australia.” There, as he tells us –

“I got a first taste of the cut and thrust of philosophical debate. Evans was a fierce debater, impatient and uncompromising; as I remarked, he skewered fools gladly (perhaps too gladly). The atmosphere in his class was intimidating and thrilling at the same time. As I was to learn later, this is fairly characteristic of philosophical debate. Philosophy and ego are never very far apart. Philosophical discussion can be… a clashing of analytically honed intellects, with pulsing egos attached to them… a kind of intellectual blood-sport, in which egos get bruised and buckled, even impaled.”
(Colin McGinn The Making of a Philosopher, Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Well, yes, so it can, but does it always have to? We can see that at wartime Oxford things turned out rather differently, because even bloodier tournaments and competitions elsewhere had made the normal attention to these games impossible. So, by some kind of chance, life had made a temporary break in the constant obsession with picking small faults in other people’s arguments – the continuing neglect of what were meant to be central issues – that had become habitual with the local philosophers. It had interrupted those distracting feuds which were then reigning, as in any competitive atmosphere feuds always do reign, preventing serious attempts at discussion, unless somebody deliberately controls them. The source of this trouble is not that all students are competition-mad. It is that those afflicted with that madness are naturally the noisiest and the likeliest to prevail, as time goes on, in the building of academic careers.

Oxford skyline
Oxford skyline

If this situation seems to demand an alarmingly drastic change from current methods, it should also be said, on the positive side, that, in any case, co-operative rather than competitive thinking always needs to be widely taught. Feuds need to be put in the background, because all students equally have to learn a way of working that will be helpful to everybody rather than just promoting their own glory. Without this, they can’t really do effective philosophy at all.

It is interesting to see how much of existing philosophical advice – in particular how much of Plato’s early dialogues – has been devoted to explaining exactly why this warlike approach can’t work. Serious discussion (as Plato and others explain) should never be, and indeed in principle can’t be, conducted in this sort of way. As they have pointed out, effective thinking needs to be carried out as a co-operative enterprise, a joint effort which involves all those present. Any sort of two-person tournament merely distracts attention from this enterprise (which is already hard enough) and leads the proceedings in a quite different direction.

Such habits, while they prevail, simply stop people doing any real philosophy. Then they need somehow to learn to concentrate on grasping unfamiliar points of view, on understanding what other people are actually saying – indeed, on realising the extraordinary otherness of other people in the first place. That admirable concern called Philosophy For Children often manages to get this lesson across to very young learners before they are out of primary school. But without that help, or a similar message delivered by other adults, most of us tend to grow up resistant to much of the thinking that is going on around us. And most of us therefore can’t readily learn the kind of philosophizing that can ever cure it.

You will have seen by now that I am suggesting, if not actually implying, that things have gone badly wrong, that the kind of philosophy – especially the kind of moral philosophy – which reigned at Oxford before and after the War, and still reigns at many other universities, lacked this background and was therefore (in our view) not likely to be of much use. In short, it was too unrealistic to be applied to real life.

This rather widespread accusation has many aspects and I should perhaps start from what may seem comparatively trivial sides of it, mere faults of presentation, and move in gradually to the more central issues. Thus, for a start, Elizabeth Anscombe in her article ‘Does Oxford Philosophy Corrupt Youth?’ (The Listener, Feb.14, 1957) answered that charge of corruption briskly by saying that current philosophy could not corrupt anything because it was itself too conventional, too inert to affect anybody’s life at all. However (she said), if any aspiring corrupters wanted to use it to further their corruptive enterprise by strengthening this inertia, this non-effect on further thinking, there were two ways in which they could do so. The first was carefully to avoid all Facts “other than ones which it is standard practice to mention,” in accord with the doctrine of the ‘irrelevance of facts to values’, which was central to the moral philosophy of the time. (We will come back to those Facts later).

The second concerned the choice of imagery. In moral philosophy (she wrote) this aspiring corrupter should –

“concentrate on examples which are either banal – (‘you have promised to return a book, but you find you can’t’… and so on… ), or they are fantastic; ‘what ought you to do if you had to move forwards, and stepping with your right foot would mean killing twenty-five fine young men while stepping with your left foot would mean killing fifty?”

This last example was, of course, a variant on what has since become known as a ‘trolley problem’, one where you are supposed to have control of a tram or trolley-car which might move in either of two directions, both of them disastrous. Both these styles of example were then prevalent in ethics, and the latter one, the ‘trolley problem’, has since spread quite widely through the social sciences. It can be harmless enough if it is used simply as a psychological device for discovering facts about how people react to such choices. But, although it actually originated from an essay of Philippa Foot’s, it has since been reproduced in an almost ritual style in various articles till it has become a cliche – a gadget which writers can use instead of giving fresh examples to illuminate their own particular questions. It is often used in moral philosophy to justify particular suggestions about what actually ought, or ought not, to be done next. And this is highly confusing, because it involves responding to a moral conflict by reducing it to abstraction – by trying to find a single final answer to the question “what ought we to do now?’’ instead of standing back and looking at the situation as a whole.

This search for a single answer is, of course, understandable, since something does indeed ‘have to be done now’ in such moments of moral choice. But philosophical business involves something much wider than this. It calls on us to try to understand how we have got into this dilemma in the first place, how we can best get out of it now, and how our society as a whole should try to organise these things better for the future. In fact, we need to use our imaginations on a serious scale on this matter, to learn to see things differently and to think about the whole situation differently, so as to be prepared to contemplate a real change.

This suggestion, however, crashes up against a central axiom of the ethical orthodoxy of the time, namely, that our moral business is never concerned with understanding or with any other internal way of thinking. It deals only with outside actions. By these highly behaviouristic principles (which Iris Murdoch explains in her 1970 book The Sovereignty of Good, as they had been carefully set out by Stuart Hampshire), goodness is not an object of insight or knowledge; it is simply a function of the will. What we think does not matter; it is inevitably dependent on the outer world; it has ‘a parasitic and shadowy nature’. By these rules – whose brisk and practical flavour naturally recommends them to many readers – human duties can only involve moving particular objects about in the physical world. They can never call on us to work on our own minds – to look at objects afresh or to think of them differently.

What, however, are we then to say about cases like the one on which Iris Murdoch suggests that we should try out these principles – cases concerned entirely with how somebody ought to think? Here is the puzzle (p.17): “A mother, whom I shall call M, feels hostility to her daughter-in-law… D. M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but… unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement… M feels that her son has married beneath him.”

This is her immediate impression. According to current ethics, these feelings of M’s have no meaning unless they lead to particular real acts affecting D. Without that, they are merely ‘shadowy’ hypothetical predictors of what such behaving might eventually have been like. Time, however, goes on and as circumstances change the question of future actions no longer arises, perhaps because D is dead, or because she has moved elsewhere. Life, however, goes on and M does still sometimes have real occasion to think about D. It would be perfectly possible for her to ‘settle down with a hardened sense of grievance and a fixed picture of D… my poor son has married a silly, vulgar girl’ etc. But, instead of that, M wants to attack the matter head-on. She is –

“…an intelligent and well-intentioned person, capable of self-criticism. She tells herself, ‘I am old-fashioned and conventional… I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let me look again’… [She does look, and after a time…] gradually her vision of D. alters… D is discovered to be not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous… not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful, and so on.”

So was this a real change? Did M really decide something? Hampshire tells us that she cannot have done. This was all empty dreaming: “Thought cannot be thought as opposed to day-dreaming or musing, unless it is directed towards a conclusion, whether in action or judgment. The idea of thought as an interior monologue… will become altogether empty if the thought does not even purport to be directed towards its issue in the external world.” (p.19)

But in truth most of our thinking is not strictly engineered in this way to resolve particular binary problems about our future action. Most of it roams freely over the world that we see around us, making all kinds of unexpected suggestions and landing us in places that we did not plan to visit at all. In particular, the background of choice – which arguers about free-will usually show as a simple binary issue between black and white – often involves a far-spreading range of possibilities, sometimes calling on us for many repeat visits to the past, such as this one – “Let me look again… Was she actually as bad as I thought?”

This sort of reflection is a regular part of our moral lives, much more familiar and often more effective than the dramatic decisions that settle the plots of plays. We need to attend to all this fertile variety more, not less. Only gradually, by working our way through a number of such suggestions, can we get into a position to make the final decision which may indeed, in the end, be needed.

All this becomes still clearer if we look at another issue – the problem which goes under the name of Relativism, about how we should understand the difference between moral standards in different societies.

I considered this problem long ago in an essay called ‘On Trying Out One’s New Sword’ (Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience, 1981, Harvester Press, p.69), using an example that had been brought to me by a pupil who had just come back from Japan. The problem was that of a Samurai warrior who needs to be sure that he can bisect his enemy neatly with a single downward slash on one shoulder, rather than striking crookedly in a way that might produce a mess. As my helpful pupil explained, for a time Samurai etiquette required that warriors should practise the experimental approach, and it prescribed that the test subject could be any chance wayfarer, always provided, of course, that he was not another Samurai. The test itself even had a name of its own, being called tsuji-giri or ‘the cross-roads cut’, which shows how thoroughly it became accepted. Can we find any way of relating this custom to our own standards?

The cut and thrust of philosophical debate? A Samurai warrior

At first, this story looks like the standard frustrating kind of example where nothing emerges because the people involved simply don’t understand each other at all. If such examples were widespread, our culture would exist in a state of moral isolation, where its people could neither understand outsiders nor be understood by them.

Can this be right? Well, no; we can see that that is not the way life works. And if we look around at a historical perspective, things fall into a more usable dimension. It turns out that, over time, Japanese etiquette gradually changed, so that eventually Samurai were only called on to perform their experiment on condemned criminals. Since this shows us a change very like the one that has occurred about capital punishment in our own culture, we may well find it convincing. And if we then look round at other societies and their histories, we shall surely find a wide range of parallels and near-parallels, giving us a framework within which Moral Judgment can in fact operate quite intelligibly. It is all a matter of context. And in that article I developed this point by plunging into so wide a spectrum of different contexts that spectators might well have become bewildered.

But what all this shows is the wrongness and mistakenness of the one-sided approach that I mentioned, the hunt for a single final and infallible answer to moral questions. What we can hope to do is to get nearer to right answers, to get further from some demonstrably wrong ones and to get a better grasp of the kind of wrongness that is causing most trouble here.

[Part Two of this article will be published in Issue 117.]

© Dr Mary Midgley 2016

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate, Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.

• Clare MacCumhaill, Rachael Wiseman and Luna Dolezal, from Durham University, and Liza Thompson of Bloomsbury Publishing, are working with Mary Midgley to recover the ‘Golden Age of female philosophy’. They will be publishing a series of companions to these women’s work, starting in 2017 with Human Nature. Find out more at womeninparenthesis.wordpress.com or @parenthesis_in.

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