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10Feb

Metaphysical Animals review – four women who changed philosophy

How Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley arrived at a radically new philosophical approach

Metaphysical Animals is both story and argument. The story is a fine one. Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley were students at Oxford during the second world war. They found a world in which many of the men were absent. Those who remained were either too old or too principled to fight. It was a world, as Midgley later put it, where women’s voices could be heard.

Had the four arrived in Oxford before the war, they would have found a philosophical scene dominated by clever young men. Prime among them was AJ Ayer, whose book Language, Truth and Logic bore the mark of its author – quick, sharp, always in a hurry – and set the tone for the new philosophy. Ayer held that philosophy needed a boundary to stop it from straying into nonsense. That which could be said clearly and verifiably made sense; that which couldn’t was nonsense. Out went reams of philosophy, theology and metaphysics. What remained was the cold, hard world of science. Facts were one thing; values – our expressions of approval and disapproval – another.

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