Twenty years ago, Wendell Berry, whose sizeable body of work has influenced me beyond measure, published Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. The title comes from King Lear, in which Edgar, having prevented his blinded and betrayed father, the Earl of Gloucester, from committing suicide, calls Gloucester back to his senses by saying, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” Berry notes that Edgar, who has been feigning madness to escape his own pursuers, pulls his father “out of the hubris, and the despair and damage that invariably follow—into the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible.”
The modern superstition in Berry’s subtitle is reductive scientism, the nearly unshakeable faith that, by understanding things and processes as the interaction of their basic components, scientists can describe, explain, and potentially control all that we as humans experience, including consciousness and death. This, Berry notes, is an imperialistic claim—namely that Science (with a capital “S”) is a uniquely omnicompetent discipline that will eventually account for everything worth knowing. A saying usually ascribed to the early twentieth-century nuclear physicist, Ernest Rutherford, goes something like, “All science is physics. Everything else is stamp collecting.” In challenging this dogmatic claim, Berry takes as his foil E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Berry has some initial reservations for singling out Wilson, a biologist and conservationist who on occasion admits he might be wrong, but Berry’s not willing to let Wilson’s belief in the empirical explainability of everything go unchallenged.
I’ll leave it to you to read Berry’s critique, but Wilson’s creed has roots in the seventeenth century when Sir Francis Bacon asserted that knowledge gained through “tormenting by art”—that is, the application of scientific reason and observation—“nature’s secrets,” would confer the necessary power to relieve the human condition. Elsewhere, Bacon wrote, ipsa scientia potestas est, “knowledge itself is power.” This so-called “Baconian project,” an ongoing effort to at least account for if not entirely control all observable phenomena has taken various forms and spurred many sub-projects over the last four centuries.
One school of philosophy, namely logical positivism (sometimes called logical empiricism), which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, argued that only statements verifiable by scientific observation or logical proof conveyed meaning. Any sentence not ultimate traceable to observation or logic was at best metaphorical and at worst, utter nonsense. An uncrossable divide separated fact from value. Ethical statements such as “torturing children is wrong,” for example, may be wise policy, but the sentence itself is purely “emotive,” an expression of the speaker’s feelings. Even in its heyday, logical positivism struck many as arid, overly abstract, and dismally mechanistic. It was eventually abandoned as unworkable after World War II, due in part to critiques by philosophers of science such as W.V.O. Quine, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn, but some of its early and most effective opponents were four women studying classics and philosophy at Oxford University during the war while their male contemporaries were away, serving in the military.
At the time, the chief advocate for logical positivism at Oxford was the formidable A.J. Ayer, who taught his students to shout “Nonsense!” or “What does that even mean?” when a speaker asserted anything outside the realm of empirical evidence or logical proof. The women thought otherwise and weren’t afraid to say so. More than anything, they wanted to return philosophy’s focus to basic questions of everyday life: Who are we? How should we act? What makes for a good life?
Two books published in 2022, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, and The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin Lipscomb, finally give these brilliant minds their due by chronicling their friendships, conversations, disagreements, achievements, and personal affairs. While the quartet shared many basic philosophical convictions, they began as unlikely friends, coming from very different backgrounds, and—save for their shared love of learning—each displaying peculiar habits and affections.
Metaphysical Animals (perhaps the more accessible of the books) begins by introducing an already established Elizabeth Anscombe, who in 1956 was an Oxford research fellow notorious on campus for her “unseemly” habit of wearing trousers under her academic gown, converting to Catholicism as an adult, keeping her last name upon marrying, and addressing university convocations in English rather than Latin, despite her flawless command of the latter. What “the women,” and particularly Anscombe, were “up to” in this opening episode was protesting the overwhelmingly male faculty’s choice to award former U.S. President Harry Truman an honorary degree. Truman, Anscombe argued, was unfit for such an honor because he had given final approval for the use of atomic weapons on Japanese civilians, making him a mass murderer. While her objections were summarily ignored—Truman got his degree—Anscombe, like her women colleagues, proved dauntless in the face of opposition and dismissal.
The three other women featured in these collective biographies display similar courage in what was very much a man’s world, each in their own idiom. Phillippa Foot, ready to escape the stifling effects of her aristocratic upbringing—she was the granddaughter of a U.S. president—argued, contra the logical positivists, that there was an objective standard of goodness available to reason if not subject to scientific proof. Irish-born Iris Murdoch had strong communist sympathies, a long line of aspiring and actual lovers, and a talent for exploring complex philosophical concepts in exquisitely written novels. Mary Midgley, the daughter of an Anglican curate, had an abiding affection for non-human animals and a fierce antipathy against reductionism and scientism. Like Foot, she argued that moral judgements are not only rational but necessary, even though they resist experimental verification.
It helps to know some philosophy—from Plato to Wittgenstein—to understand what all the fuss over language and ethical reasoning is about, but readers need not have a degree in classics or philosophy to follow these narratives. Both books are written for a general, educated public and focus on the four women’s personal trials as much as their intellectual battles, showing how and why they redirected their colleagues and students back to enduring questions. The quartet grows from a friendly group of talented young learners to wise elders, forever burdened with all too human flaws that, in fact, strengthen their collective work, rooting it in quotidian and practical concerns rather than arid generalizations and the arcana of symbolic logic. Not that their work isn’t challenging at times—Anscombe’s and Foot’s writing may prove rough sledding for some—but these collective biographies resist quoting at length, offering the gist and context of arguments rather than dwelling on details.
When Benjamin Lipscomb first mentioned his interest in writing what became The Women Are Up to Something to Alan Jacobs, Jacobs said, “It’s about time someone wrote that book.” Indeed, it and Metaphysical Animals remind anyone interested in the history of ideas how four women changed a male-dominated discipline forever and, I believe, for the better.
Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer living in Baltimore. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His website is Brianvolck.com