Boo to the Boo-Hurrahs: how four Oxford women transformed philosophy

9 November, 2021

In 1945, Philippa Foot, a young Oxford philosophy student, encountered for the first time a newsreel film featuring graphic footage of the emaciated bodies and piled up corpses of the Nazi concentration camps. Horrified by what she had seen, Foot believed these to be acts of pure, undeniable evil. However, the moral philosophy taught at Oxford at the time claimed that ethical statements are subjective rather than objective – in other words, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’, only feeling – a theory now better known as emotivism. Here, Prospect Magazine reviews Benjamin JB Lipscomb’s new group biography, ‘The Women Are Up To Something’ which explores the life and work of Phillipa Foot and her three Oxford peers, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch and their influence on modern moral philosophy. 

While never a “school” as such—though all went to Somerville College, Oxford—the four would interact in various ways for over 50 years, engaging in debates in person, through correspondence, or via some of the most important essays on ethics of the 20th century. They also occasionally swapped lovers, developed crushes on each other and, possibly, attempted seduction. 

The four profited from the opening of Oxbridge to female students during the war. Winning a place was a torturous process in the late 1930s: Oxford’s entry rules expressly stipulated a ratio of four men to each woman, meaning only 250 places were available. Applicants were also required to have two or three languages, including Latin and Greek, subjects often unavailable to girls. “In normal times,” noted Midgley, “a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard.”

But these were not normal times. From 1939 to 1942, the war meant the student body was predominantly female. The effect, notes Midgley, was not only to “make it a great deal easier for women to be heard in discussion,” but also—and this is understood with greater clarity now—for a diminution of “the amount of work that one thinks is needed to make one’s opinion worth hearing.” It allowed space for the women to tackle the philosophy dominating Oxford at the time.

This philosophy flowed from Ayer’s 1936 work Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer had argued that only statements that could be verified were meaningful. Ethical statements have no objective truth, and are thus simply subjective. This can lead to what has been termed the “Boo-Hurrah” theory of ethics, known more technically as emotivism. According to this view, my ethical positions are nothing to do with any objective criteria; rather they are expressions of my own emotional attitude, merely my “tastes.” Ultimately, if I say something is “good” or “right” morally, it is because I like it, and if something is “wrong” or “evil” it is because I don’t. 

The idea that “value” did not reside in the world became Oxford orthodoxy. And although thinkers such as RG Hare, JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle set out a version of this philosophy that was subtly different, it shared a worldview that Murdoch captured in her later criticism of Ryle. His world is one, she wrote, in which “people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood or go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers, or join the Communist party.”

Via Prospect, Peter Salmon, 2 November 2021. Read full article here.

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