A CENTENARY CELEBRATION: ANSCOMBE, FOOT, MIDGLEY, AND MURDOCH

We are very sad to learn that Mary Midgley has died.  However, we look forward to studying and discussing her philosophy as part of this series.

Mary Midgley obituary by Jane Heal, The Guardian, 12 October.

2019 marks the centenary of the birth of three highly distinguished and individual philosophers, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley, all of whom were together in Oxford in the 1940s. Their equally distinguished colleague Philippa Foot was born in 1920. Accordingly, to mark this multiple centenary, the 2018-9 London lecture series of the Royal Institute of Philosophy will be devoted to celebrating and discussing the work of these four remarkable and influential thinkers.

Please note: a reading group will meet on Thursday nights to consider essays alongside this series. It starts on 18 October, from 6 – 7 pm, at 14 Gordon Square. You can find details here.

Time and place:  The lectures happen on most Fridays during term.  They start at 5.45 and last an hour, followed by a break and then half an hour or so for questions. The series is held in the main lecture hall, 14 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0AR. Due to fire regulations, our landlord insists that once all the chairs are taken, no one else can be admitted, so please arrive early to be sure of a seat — the hall regularly fills up and we sometimes have to turn people away. If you can’t get in, don’t worry. We video most lectures and put them on our YouTube page within a week or so.

*2018*

October

19th – BENJAMIN LIPSCOMB: “The Women are Up to Something: Murdoch, Anscombe, Foot and Midgley and their place in twentieth-century ethics”

Anyone attending these lectures knows or will quickly learn that Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch were born within 18 months of one another, all went up to Oxford just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and formed an overlapping set of friendships that lasted for decades. There would be justification for this lecture series simply in these convergences: the convergences (especially the centenary) providing an apt occasion to celebrate four women who did unprecedented things. But there is a better justification. Despite their wide-ranging and divergent interests, these four each contributed to an implicit project in moral philosophy, a project that remains relevant. In this lecture, I narrate the emergence of this project from the earliest stages of their careers, arguing for one way of seeing what Murdoch, Anscombe, Foot, and Midgley were up to.

26th – ANTHONY O’HEAR: “Evolution as a Religion: Mary Midgley’s Hopes and Fears”

Mary Midgley has long taken an interest in the way the theory of evolution has been used and abused in public discourse. Focusing on her 1985 book ‘Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears’, this lecture will outline Midgley’s criticisms of others and evaluate her own stance on Darwin and his theory.

November

2nd – HANNAH MARIJE ALTORF: “Iris Murdoch and the Virtuous Peasant: What is it like to be a Woman in Philosophy”

In interviews Iris Murdoch was occasionally asked what is was like to be a woman in philosophy. She was reluctant to answer the question and one time claimed that “these distinctions are not made at Oxford”. She would probably agree with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous saying that the subject is irritating, especially to women. There is, however, ample evidence that Murdoch was aware of gender distinctions. This lecture will present some of the evidence and consider to what extent it allowed her to create her fiercely original philosophical work.

9th – IAN GROUND, ANA BARANDALLA AND ANTHONY O’HEAR

At this meeting, we’ll show a video of Mary Midgley reading from her work and follow this with a panel discussion of her philosophical views and a question and answer session.  Many thanks to In Parenthesis for providing the video.

16th – NAKUL KRISHNA: “Philippa Foot and the Amoralist”

One of the oldest anxieties in the history of moral philosophy is that ‘morality’ is another name for being a mug. Why care about other people and their interests when they get in the way of one’s own? Philippa Foot, and others of her intellectual generation, were among the philosophers who took up the gauntlet. They had come of age during the second World War and for them, the question was not purely theoretical. It really mattered to them whether or not the claims of morality could be established in a dialectical confrontation with its challengers. In this lecture, I shall be discussing the formulation of the problem in Foot’s writings from the 1950 and 60s and her attempts to address it alongside those of her contemporaries, Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams.

23rd – JOHN HACKER-WRIGHT: “Virtues as Perfections of Human Powers: On the Metaphysics of Goodness in Aristotelian Naturalism”

In Natural Goodness, Philippa Foot argues that moral judgments are judgments of natural goodness and defect, of the same kind as judgments that attribute natural goodness and defect to plants and animals. In placing moral judgments into the category judgments of natural goodness and defect in other living things, Foot is not proposing to resolve moral questions scientifically. Rather, Foot emphatically denies that the goodness of the human will is a matter of biology and asserts that the human good is sui generis. If we cannot appeal to nature as biology reveals it to determine what counts as a virtue, then in what sense is it a naturalistic view? In this paper, I argue that answering this question convincingly requires going beyond Foot’s grammatical method, derived from Wittgenstein, or the Fregean Aristotelianism of Michael Thompson, and instead adopting a full-blooded Aristotelian metaphysics on which we are, as tradition has it, essentially rational animals. The revival of Aristotelian metaphysics in recent philosophy, defending powers, essentialism, and finality, yields resources to make good on this answer. The virtues, on such a view, are natural qualities that perfect our human powers.

30th – DAVID E. COOPER: “‘Removing the Barriers’: Mary Midgley on Concern for Animals”

This lecture focuses on Mary Midgley’s influential discussions, over more than thirty years, of the relationship between human beings and animals, in particular on her concern to ‘remove the barriers’ that stand in the way of proper understanding and treatment of animals. These barriers, she demonstrates, have been erected by animal science, epistemology and mainstream moral philosophy alike. In each case, it is argued, our attitudes to animals are warped by approaches that are at once excessively abstract, over-theoretical and guilty of a collective hubris on the part of humankind. To remove these barriers, the lecture concludes, what is required is not another theory of how and why animals matter, but attention to actual engagements with animals and to the moral failings or vices that distort people’s relations with them.

December

7th – CANDACE VOGLER: “Anscombe on Aristotelian Necessity”

14th – GREGORY MCELWAIN: “The Unified Self: Relationality and Wholeness in the Thought of Mary Midgley”

For over 40 years, Mary Midgley has been celebrated for the sensibility with which she approaches some of the most challenging and pressing issues in philosophy. Her extensive corpus addresses such diverse topics as human nature, morality, science, animals and the environment, religion, and sex and gender. Underlying this plurality is the theme of unity or wholeness, which reflects Midgley’s conception of the self as a unified whole. This arises out of her enduring resistance to positions that fragment and reduce human nature, separating and isolating us from ourselves and the myriad relations and interdependencies that are central to our lives. This lecture explores Midgley’s pursuit of a unified and coherent notion of the self in relation to others and the world around us.

*2019*

January

18th – JUSTIN BROACKES: “Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil”

25th – RACHAEL WISEMAN: “Anscombe on Brute Facts and Human Affairs”

I will present and defends Anscombe’s answer to the question: How do you get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’? My aim is to show how conceiving of the subject-matter of philosophy of psychology as the study of forms of thought and not thoughts (mind not minds, as Frege put it) enables us to bridge the is/ought gap in ethics. The talk will illuminate the connection between Anscombe’s enquiry in Intention and her controversial thesis (in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’) that the concept of moral obligation ought to be jettisoned.

February

1st – JENNIFER FREY: “Elizabeth Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ Revisited”

Abstract: In her justly famous paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Elizabeth Anscombe argues that we should move away from concepts of moral obligation, duty, right, wrong, and ought, because outside the divine law conception of ethics that originally gave them their proper senses, they are only harmful to practical thought.  In this paper, I will revisit Anscombe’s arguments in order to show that her critique leaves open the possibility of recovering a philosophically respectable sense of moral one finds in Aquinas, according to which every properly human action is moral action. I will contrast Aquinas’s notion of moral with the specifically modern sense, highlight what I take to be its obvious advantages, and close with some considerations about the prospects of its recovery for contemporary theory.

8th – SABINA LOVIBOND: “The Elusiveness of the Ethical: From Murdoch to Diamond”

Cora Diamond is a powerful witness to the originality of Iris Murdoch’s writings on ethics, showing how Murdoch is at variance with contemporary orthodoxy not just in respect of particular doctrines (no ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, etc.), but in her questioning of mainstream assumptions as to what constitutes the subject-matter of moral philosophy.  Diamond celebrates Murdoch as an ally in her campaign against the ‘departmental’ conception of morality – the idea that moral thought is just one branch of thought among others – and highlights Murdoch’s enduring belief in the ‘ubiquity of the moral quality inherent in consciousness’.  In keeping with this belief, both philosophers affirm the value of general humanistic reflection on experience, an enterprise in which traditions of imaginative literature as well as of self-conscious theory can invite us to participate.  While welcoming this vindication of the claims of ordinary (existentially embedded) moral intelligence, I will explore some difficulties flowing from the associated idea that ‘morality’ (in the guise of value-saturated human consciousness) is all-pervasive, and from the ‘perpetually-moralist’ account of our incentive to engage with fictional worlds.

15th – JOHN HALDANE: “Anscombe on Mind and World”

March

1st – ELIZABETH MCKINNELL: “Philosophical plumbing for the 21st Century”

Mary Midgley famously compares philosophy to plumbing. In both cases we are dealing with complex systems that underlie the everyday life of a community, and in both cases we often fail to notice their existence until things start to smell a bit fishy. Philosophy, like plumbing, is performed by particular people at particular times, and it is liable to be done in a way that suits the needs of those people and those whom they serve.

In this lecture, I employ Mary Midgley’s philosophy and biography to explore the importance of a diversity of voices for academic philosophy, and for society as a whole. My focus is on women in philosophy. I consider two questions: what conditions are required for women to participate equally with men in philosophy, and why does it matter?

The requirement for equal participation is both an epistemic requirement and a requirement of justice. However, for diversity to serve these requirements, and not to collapse into cacophony, we need a robust public sphere that enables us to consider the views of others in terms of whole people, and the worldviews and traditions from which they emerge.

The conditions for this to be done cannot be achieved without practical changes to working and living conditions both in academia and beyond.

8th – JULIA DRIVER: “Literature and Moral Sensibility in Iris Murdoch”

How do we develop as moral agents, capable of informed moral reflection on difficult

moral issues?  Iris Murdoch’s view on this issue put a focus on the role of deep and psychologically complex literature in the development of moral sensibility, and the discovery of moral truth.  At the time she was writing there was a controversy, one that is actually continuing in the philosophical literature today, on the role of thought experiments in philosophical methodology, particularly as they relate to the project of understanding the fundamentals of morality and becoming better thinkers about moral issues.  Elizabeth Anscombe believed that the use of thought experiments in moral philosophy was misleading, and even morally dangerous.  Thought experiments involve comparing and contrasting abstract vignettes as a means of testing one’s moral intuitions, but also as a means of developing one’s familiarity with moral situations one is unlikely to come across in real life.  If developing moral sensibility requires moral experience, then we need a means to acquire that experience that does not rely on grappling with difficult moral issues in our actual lives. Murdoch’s view was that as long as the “stories” were not too abstract — and literature avoids this flaw of the standard thought experiment — then we could learn from them and develop as moral agents.

15th – CLARE MAC CUMHAILL – “Depicting Human Form”

In this paper, I consider the relation between art and morality in Foot’s powerful Natural Goodness, highlighting three particular remarks that Foot makes in that work. She says that it is only insofar as ‘stills’ can be made from the moving picture of the evolution of the species that we can have a natural history of the life of a particular kind of thing. At the same time, she recognises a derivative form of goodness – secondarygoodness. Bird’s nests or beaver’s dams can be judged good or bad only in the context of the kinds of living things for whom their goodness or badness matters. Third, among the goods that ‘hang on human cooperation’, Foot lists art. Drawing these insights together, I show that in Natural Goodness we can find resources that chime with Murdoch’s well-known dictum ‘Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture’. I suggest that we can read this Murdochian claim in light of Foot’s account of natural goodness, and I explain in what ways how we depict human form matters.