The Rebirth of Metaphysics and Morality: Anscombe, Murdoch, Foot
When World War II drew away Britain’s male philosophers, the universities of England became, to paraphrase Mary Midgely, “places where the voices of women could finally be heard.” What they said and wrote would amount to nothing less than a revolution in analytic philosophy. Midgely, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch, all students at Oxford, shared in common a dislike of the anti-metaphysical orientation then prevailing in British philosophy, taking aim in particular at A.J. Ayer’s logical positivism and the associated “non-cognitivism” of figures like C.L. Stevenson, which reduced moral judgments about right and wrong to mere grunts that expressed non-rational approval or disapproval. While their exact views differered—Anscombe and Foot drew substantially on Aristotle, while Murdoch engaged deeply with “continental” philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre—all three insisted on the need to revive metaphysics, and in particular to return the domain of moral thought to its rightful place within rational discourse. Their investigations brought them into contact with some of the weightiest and most intractable questions in Western philosophy: What is the basis of morality? What makes moral judgments true? How can we understand human well-being? Is there a human nature? What is the nature of freedom?
In this class we’ll explore the philosophical views of Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch and the enormous impact they had on later analytic philosophy. We’ll look at Anscombe’s pioneering work in normative ethics, as well as her work on the philosophy of action, causality and the first person. We’ll discuss Foot’s now famous “Trolley Problem”, which challenges the distinction between actively causing harm and simply letting it happen. And we’ll explore Murdoch’s moral and metaphysical views and ask about their connection to her early engagement with continental philosophy and existentialism. The readings will be drawn from Anscombe’s Intention, Foot’s Virtues and Vices, and Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, among others.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 19 — November 09, 2023