By Cora MacGregor
Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2022
The Women Are Up To Something:
How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics
Benjamin Lipscomb, Oxford University Press, 2021
‘Monotheism’, says Elizabeth Finch. ‘Monomania. Monogamy. Monotony. Nothing good begins this way.’ Multiplicity is the virtue that the eponymous thinker and teacher of Julian Barnes’ latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, champions. We must resist the simple and the reductive, the easy pictures and narratives that impose limits on our thinking. We must embrace heterogeneity and hybridity — and in doing so accept what may be incomplete and unknowable.
These precepts resonate with the philosophies espoused by the subjects of Benjamin Lipscomb’s book, The Women Are Up to Something. This recent work of group biography traces the lives and ideas of four philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgely, and Iris Murdoch. Collectively, these women do not compose a comprehensive school of thought. The link between them is primarily a personal one: they maintained admittedly volatile) friendships throughout their lives, having met while studying for undergraduate degrees at Oxford during the Second World War.
Nonetheless, Lipscomb contends that their respective contributions to ethics transformed this field of philosophical inquiry, displacing subjectivist accounts of morality inherited from the British empiricist tradition and forcibly entrenched in the thought of analytic philosophers of the early- and mid-20th century. All four resisted and challenged the fact-value distinction, which maintains that ethical statements are not meaningful because they cannot be understood or justified empirically. Lipscomb argues that ‘revolutionary’ is, in a technical sense, the correct term to describe their impact, if we abide by Thomas Kuhn’s definition of revolution as a paradigm shift. Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley identified the ways in which philosophical thought and progress were impeded by a particular epistemological mode or image of the world and its structures. Building on each other’s work, they proposed alternative models, which aspired towards the articulation of moral realism and ethical objectivity.
Interestingly, although Lipscomb might at times be criticised for implicitly subscribing to Foot’s own intellectual hierarchy of herself and her associates (whereby first Anscombe, then herself, then Murdoch, and finally Midgley were ranked according to philosophical acumen), he praises the latter two in particular for their shrewdness in identifying the flaws inherent to the paradigms of hegemonic philosophical perspectives. Murdoch and Midgley were undeniably less traditional in their approaches: they conformed less to the orthodox image of an Oxford philosopher. (Indeed, both departed from the Oxford scene relatively early in their careers.) Yet the integrative, interdisciplinary dimension of their work provided them with the liberty and scope to explore a bigger picture and thus to notice the weaknesses of more limited models.
This capacity for holistic thinking is, Midgley once claimed, a peculiarly female trait: she argued that while male minds are better suited to specialisation, the female thinker is adept at drawing together and connecting disparate elements from a range of subjects. Midgley was, as Lipscomb acknowledges, the only one of the group to engage with sexism as a political issue. Her views would likely provoke controversy today, given her insistence upon the essential differentiation of the genders. It is difficult to ignore the pervasive feminist dimension of Lipscomb’s book: philosophy was a man’s world and the radical nature of Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley’s interventions derived not just from their ideological provocations but from their gender.
There is, of course, a difficulty in attempting to address such a topic without giving it undue salience (Foot and Murdoch, in particular, were perplexed by efforts to turn them into feminist icons), and, indeed, Lipscomb could be criticised for participating in the somewhat voyeuristic obsession with Murdoch’s sex-life that characterises most popular accounts of her biography. One might wonder whether this level of attention would be paid to the romantic and erotic escapades of a male equivalent. But then, one might equally question how easy it would be to dismiss this aspect of Murdoch’s life. Lipscomb’s project concerns itself with the intersection of life and thought, an interest he shared with Midgley, who once wrote an unaired script for the BBC on how the shape of one’s household is reflected in the form of one’s ideas. In the case of Murdoch, it may well be true that an understanding of her polyamory and proclivity for deeply passionate affairs is propitious to, if not requisite for, interpreting her philosophical call for an egoless love.
The most significant contribution Lipscomb makes to feminist perspectives on the history of philosophy is his discussion of how the Second World War worked in these women’s favour. Taking his cue from Midgley’s observation that the effect of this timing had to do with ‘sheer loudness of voice’ — the fact that women could suddenly be heard in the absence of masculine clamour — Lipscomb poignantly draws out the ways in which circumstance proved fortuitous and liberating.
Barnes’ novel circumnavigates the gender of its female protagonist with a similar lightness of touch. Elizabeth Finch’s wry response to being asked if she was a feminist is: ‘Naturally — I’m a woman.’ Her diaries include some astute observations regarding the injustices faced by unmarried, childless women. Moreover, the novel’s narrator, Neil, expresses an interest in the nature of male-female relationships — of the intellectual, as well as the romantic, variety.
But it is not just because Elizabeth Finch has at its heart a female philosopher whose views are roughly congruent with those of Lipscomb’s subjects that Barnes’ novel is germane to this discussion. Both works also have a deeper investment in questions pertaining to friendship and discipleship, lived philosophy and philosophical lives, the epistemology and ethics of alterity, and the dangers of reductive thinking. In terms of genre, they have more in common than might be expected: the narrator of Elizabeth Finch, Neil, is speculatively planning a memoir of Elizabeth, his long-term mentor and former teacher, whose papers he has inherited. This prospective biography never really takes form, appearing in the novel only as fragmentary miscellanea: remembered anecdotes; rumours and daydreams; enigmatic excerpts from Elizabeth’s notebooks. What Neil does produce, in the novel’s second part, is a biographical sketch of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome and Elizabeth’s philosophical hero. Yet even this academic account of a historical figure dissolves into a heterogenous series of portraits derived from competing sources, including Elizabeth’s own, arguably idealised, vision of him. Time does not solidify the individual, it opens them up to fictionalisation.
The ethics of story-making — of constructing neat formulations of narrative and character around the mystery of the individual, their life, and their thought — is one of the novel’s abiding preoccupations. Elizabeth Finch, at least as she is known to Neil and presented to us as readers, is an ascetic, a woman whose world is rigorously controlled and meticulously ordered: the form of her life reflects her rigorous stoical principles. Neil characterises this particular trait as ‘grown-upness’ — the ability to conduct oneself in a manner informed by thought and philosophy, rather than emotional impulse. However, this purported maturity makes Elizabeth reticent, even emotionally distant, in her personal relationships. Her life of the mind is, perhaps, a withdrawal from real life. Of course, Elizabeth’s reserve is characterisation in itself, but this paucity of personal detail might reflect a reluctance on the part of Neil, even of Barnes, to transform her into the protagonist of a novel. Neil occasionally indulges in flights of fancy where Elizabeth’s romantic background story is concerned, but there is always a sense that this is, at best, a juvenile pursuit and, at worst, an intrusive act of betrayal: Elizabeth’s legacy ought to be her philosophy, not her flirtations. Conversely, Lipscomb’s subjects are depicted in whirlwind portraits of emotional effusiveness, bohemian squalor, and general eccentricity. The book is scattered with delightful anecdotes. On one occasion, Foot sardonically suggests that it would take less time for Murdoch to list the men who hadn’t proposed to her. On another, Anscombe strips off her trousers in a Boston restaurant when informed that they were in violation of the dress code.
These illustrative vignettes are not always flattering. Lipscomb appears to have resisted the impulse to romanticise the lives of four of his own philosophical heroes, although, he has suggested, this was not always easy. Lipscomb has discussed how, as a staunch admirer of these women’s work, he initially struggled to accept their more disagreeable personal attributes: Murdoch’s emotional callousness; Anscombe’s social ineptness; Foot’s intellectual snobbery; Midgley’s occasionally myopic criticism of others’ work. This ultimately pointed him, however, towards a new understanding of biography’s ethical potential. Writing and reading biographies obliges you to seek out and engage with bigger pictures, to accept and appreciate the nuance of individuals who are otherwise treated as metonymy for their ideas and vice versa. Lipscomb suggests that in an increasingly polemicised world this pursuit might enable the promotion of liberal values such as tolerance and egalitarianism.
Undoubtedly, there are some strong objections that can be levelled against this claim. The very nature of biography seems to necessitate the singling out of individuals, who are deemed especially deserving of scholarly research and public attention. Far from promoting an agenda of equality, then, it instead replicates a hierarchical system of ‘worthiness’. However, Lipscomb’s proposition is an interesting one, not least because of its resemblance to the philosophy of one of his own biographical subjects: Iris Murdoch. At the heart of Murdoch’s moral philosophy is a quasi-Levinasian ethics of alterity, structured around the concept of love, which for her consists in a respect for otherness. ‘Reality’ also is conceived of as the recognition of the opacity of the other, the acceptance of our incomplete knowledge. Rather than producing a consolatory picture or false unity, we must concede our perceptual limitations, while still aspiring towards an ultimately unattainable vision of the Good. Murdoch extends these principles of interpersonal engagement to the relationship between author and character — a contention which has significant implications for Lipscomb and Barnes’ interrogations of biographical and novelistic subjects and objects.
In the course of his research, Neil also learns things he would rather ignore about the teacher he idolises, but he displays less professionalism than Lipscomb in his reluctance to topple Elizabeth Finch from her pedestal. Instead of accepting that she ‘invented’ a Jewish identity in order to put one of his fellow students in his place during a debate over history, he quickly comes up with an alternative that allows him to preserve the image of Elizabeth as perfectly truthful: no doubt it is her brother who is lying about his family’s heritage out of a sense of shame. By the novel’s end, we have been inexorably led to the conclusion that Neil is, in fact, a poor reader of people. Not only has he naively venerated his pedagogical idol: he has three failed marriages to his name and, it is revealed, many years ago failed to recognise that he himself was the cause of his classmate Linda’s ‘heart trouble’. However, Barnes’ narrator does have one quality that recommends him as biographer: he is, after the affectionate moniker of his daughter, the ‘King of Unfinished Projects’. Neil recalls that Elizabeth once cautioned him against novels that reduce characters to a mere three adjectives; there is certainly no risk that Neil himself will produce such a facile summary. Elizabeth, like Julian the Apostate, remains enigmatic and elusive, a shadowy form composed of ambiguities and contradictions.
The narratives Lipscomb offers similarly remind us how important the co-existence of alternative intellectual perspectives and epistemological models is for philosophical advancement. The book contains innumerable cautionary tales about the dangers of intellectual (and romantic) infatuation — discipleship taken to the extreme. Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley all appear to have learnt the same lessons regarding idolisation as Lipscomb felt he underwent during the process of writing about them. We must remember what might be called fixation or obsession is one of the dangerous monisms condemned by Elizabeth in her classes: monomania. As in Barnes’ novel, there is a degree of slippage between our perspective on the interpersonal and the impersonal whole.
‘What came of it all?’ Lipscomb asks at the start of his final chapter. It is a difficult question to answer. Even if Lipscomb’s claims about the transformative effects of these four women’s ideas on 20th-century British philosophy are convincing, his decision to produce a work of popular biography rather than an academic study of influence and impact is not necessarily warranted. What is the import of these ideas beyond their immediate field? And do they have an enduring legacy beyond the decade in which they lived and worked?
Similar questions might be asked of Barnes’ project. Random House describes the novel as ‘a loving tribute to philosophy’ and ‘a balm for our times’. It is allegedly ‘more than a novel’, not merely to be justified on grounds of popular entertainment or aesthetic valence. But, like the women of Lipscomb’s book, Elizabeth Finch is an old-fashioned sort of heroine, the product of a bygone era — as her classroom manner, her insistence upon epistolary correspondence, and even her dress sense all indicate. Julian the Apostate certainly doesn’t seem like a suitably modern alternative, and even Neil (who, at any rate, would scarcely qualify as a philosophical role model) is grey-haired at the time of the story’s telling. Even if such characters could body forth a much-needed philosophy for the present day, the novel doesn’t really develop a comprehensive account of their views — certainly, it isn’t vocal enough on these matters to be regarded as promoting a particular ideological perspective.
Perhaps it is precisely in this regard that Barnes’ work speaks volumes. It is not about finding one lens through which to make sense of things, whether the object of interpretation is the whole world or a single individual. Instead, this novel evinces the virtues of incomplete knowledge — of multifarious forms and unusual syntheses. We need only consider Barnes’ own authorial approach to see how this message is spelt out in the work’s very form. Certainly, generic experimentation is not new territory for him. Elizabeth Finch is reminiscent of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which also plays with a double subject and narrative: the novelistic and the historical-biographical. But this is perhaps the first time that Barnes’ formal hybridity has consciously been informed by an abiding ethical principle.
Both works entail a celebration of pluralism. They remind us of the value of listening to others, of entertaining and attending to a heteroglossia of ideas, attitudes, and opinions. There is a degree of idealistic thinking underpinning each work, and we might be inclined to doubt the efficacy of their respective ethical missions: the dust jackets of both books make grandiose radical claims about their capacity to change the way we think. Yet there is undoubtedly something attractive about the ideas espoused by these philosophers, fictional and historical. The Women Are Up To Something and Elizabeth Finch both stand out as timely reminders of how to see nuance in a polarised world.
CORA MacGREGOR reads for a DPhil in English at Oriel College. Her favourite novel is Ulysses; maybe one day she'll read it.
Art by Izzy Fergusson