Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman looks at Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot, women who studied philosophy at Oxford in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
In the late 1930s, British philosophy, at least at Oxford, was dominated by AJ Ayer, whose groundbreaking book Language, Truth and Logic was published in 1936. Ayer was the chief promoter of logical positivism, a school of thought that aimed to clean up philosophy by ruling out large areas of the field as unverifiable and therefore not fit for logical discussion.
In a sense, it sought to rid philosophy of metaphysics, those abstract questions of being and knowing that students have traditionally liked to explore late at night after one too many stimulants. It also rendered much of moral philosophy as little more than an expression of emotional preferences.
Anscombe, Murdoch, Midgley and Foot were not fans of logical positivism dogmatism or conclusions. Fortunately for them, if not for the world, the second world war intervened in their studies, removing Ayer and his acolytes from Oxford, and bringing a large influx of European émigré philosophers.
Suddenly metaphysics was back in fashion, or at least no longer frowned upon. The four women all committed to establishing themselves as philosophers, and sought to refute Ayer and his ilk.
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Logical Positivism held two key beliefs: (1) absolute confidence in empirical experience as the only source of knowledge; and (2) logical analysis performed with the help of symbolic logic is the single method for solving philosophical problems. This group of philosophers attempted to exclude metaphysics from philosophical investigation in favor of strict logical and mathematical analysis. They also stripped ethics of aspects considered important from the earliest time: conscience, intuition, emotion, etc. The result was a materialist and empirical skepticism about all truth claims. Some Logical Positivists were atheists, though this represents an opinion which cannot be proved by even the strictest logic. Others regarded the existence of God as impossible to verify and would be considered agnostics.
Logical Positivists were skeptical about truth claims that were mathematically reducible, yet optimistic about the potential of science to better the human race and life on earth. These shared a commitment to Unified Science, that is, the construction of a system in which every legitimate statement is logically reduced to a direct experience. The Vienna Circle’s Manifesto stated that “The endeavor is to link and harmonize the achievements of individual investigators in their various fields of science.”