The fall and rise of philosophy

IN the middle of the 20th century philosophy was on its knees. A group of intellectuals in Vienna – known as the Vienna Circle – led by Moritz Schlick and brought to the UK by the brash young philosopher A J Ayer – declared war, not on a field of philosophy but philosophy itself.

A J Ayer

At a public meeting on philosophy in Oxford Ayer stood up and declared: “You are all facing an early extinction. The armies of Cambridge and Vienna are already upon to you.” For some this was as shocking as when Nietzsche declared ‘God id dead’ in Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The Vienna Circle was trying to make sense of the world after the devastation wreaked by the First World War. They thought that empiricism could rescue representative government and humanism. And in the process, by declaring that if a proposition could not be verified by empirical observation then it was nonsense, they dismissed metaphysics. In response to anything even vaguely metaphysical a logical positivist – as they called themselves – would respond: “What on earth do you mean by that?” More of a battle cry than a question. But it wasn’t just metaphysics that was facing extinction. Ayer wrote: “What possible observation could verify ‘one ought to help one’s neighbour?'” And if it could not be observed, then it could not be verified and, finally, was therefore nonsense. All moral philosophy was entirely subjective and could not be objectively verified – so dump it.

However, there were four great female philosophers who were having none of this. They made the bold counter claim that humans were metaphysical animals. And it is these four remarkable thinkers – Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot – that are at the centre of a book called Metaphysical Animals – How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman. Their plan was a bold one because it not only rejected the brutalism of logical positivism but also attempted to close the is/ought divide identified by David Hume, who argued that an ‘ought’ statement cannot be directly derived from an ‘is’ statement. The quartet united against the Vienna Circle and Ayer to declare a joint ‘NO’.

Foot, for example, rejected Ayers subjectivism. The authors write: “She wanted to be able to say to the Nazis ‘but we are right and you are wrong’. She wanted the idea of an objective moral reality against which action could be judged wrong or bad and not just inconsistent or irrational as some philosophers claimed in a partial response to the Vienna Circle.

Philippa Foot

In particular, she was concerned about the philosophy of Richard Hare, who was a PoW under the Japanese, and basically accepted Ayer’s position but argued that it needed morally firmer ground to account for the suffering imposed by the Japanese army on prisoners. He found it, or thought he had, by claiming that all a morality needed to be was consistent and rational. For our quartet that wasn’t enough because there was no way to distinguish between the consistency and rationality of Hare and that of the Nazis or Japanese army.

According to Cumhaill and Wiseman each of the four women ‘found different ways to balance our animality with the fact that we are language-using, question-asking, picture-making creatures’. And they continue: “As metaphysical animals, our invention, symbols and artworks change our Umwelt (self-centred world) and, to some degree, our very nature.” Foot – who invented the famous trolley problem thought experiment, which asks if you would be prepared to sacrifice one person to save several – is today considered to be one of the most significant analytic moral philosophers of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Anscombe helped revive Aristotelian virtue ethics, along with Foot.

Elizabeth Anscombe

Virtue ethics essentially declares that a virtuous act is one that a virtuous person would typically do and, to avoid circularity, in order to achieve a state of eudemonia – or flourishing.

Iris Murdoch, as well as being one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, also wrote 26 novels. In one of her most important philosophical books – Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals – she attempts to find a morality that does not depend on the ‘literal truth’ of religion and to defend morality against technology, science and, of course, logical positivism.

Iris Murdoch

Apropos of the latter, in her book she acknowledges David Hume’s contention that ‘moral value cannot be derived from fact’ but contends that a strict separation of fact and value, as attempted by the logical positivists, ignores the point that a survey of facts will ‘involve moral discrimination’ and moral evaluation is often influenced by facts.

Mary Midgley spent a lot of her time fighting, unsuccessfully, the closure of university philosophy departments under the Conservatives led by one Margaret Thatcher. She did this because she believed that philosophy was not a luxury. Cumhaill and Wiseman write that for Midgley philosophy is ‘something we humans need in order for our lives to go well’.

Mary Midgley

And she argued ferociously against the belief that we can ‘entrust our future to technology and artificial intelligence’.

In What is Philosophy For? she wrote: “What actually happens to us will surely still be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.

“And, if this is right, I suspect that…philosophical reasoning – will now become rather important.” Amen to that, but the question remains – has it become important? Probably not.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting
    Philosophy is important. To some. I would argue that it is important to me and to more people than overtly say it is. In the Freedom Artist by Ben Okri we experience a world in which philosophy (he might call it “magic”) has been banned and the authorities seek to destroy it, however, it bubbles beneath the surface in people’s thoughts and in the outward expression of a few.

    Liked by 1 person

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