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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / history

The Women Are Up to Something

Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb

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To purchase The Women Are Up to Something

Title: The Women Are Up to Something
Author: Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 286 pages
Availability: The Women Are Up to Something - US
The Women Are Up to Something - UK
The Women Are Up to Something - Canada
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating figures; fine intellectual(+) history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 6/11/2021 .
London Rev. of Books . 10/2/2022 Thomas Nagel
New Statesman . 2/3/2022 Tom Whyman
The NY Rev. of Books . 3/2022 Cathy Mason
Prospect . 12/2021 Peter Salmon
The Telegraph . 15/11/2021 Jane O'Grady
TLS . 11/2/2022 Kate Manne
Wall St. Journal . 10/6/2022 Heller McAlpin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) fine group biography (.....) The four women in Mr Lipscomb's lively tale did not only philosophise about morals (and, in Anscombe's case, much besides). They campaigned to improve the world, according to their lights." - The Economist

  • "His book covers a longer time span, and goes more deeply into the philosophical controversies in which the four were engaged, particularly the transformation in moral philosophy that began with a revolt against analytic orthodoxy in the late 1950s and changed the field completely over the next twenty years. He has produced a superior work of personal and intellectual history, sensitive and finely written." - Thomas Nagel, London Review of Books

  • "Lipscomb’s book is a history, recounting the story of how the four established this new tradition of virtue ethics, even if they didn’t all agree with it, and even if they didn’t all realise what they had achieved at the time." - Tom Whyman, New Statesman

  • "(A) fascinating exploration of their life and thought. They each tackled moral philosophy in ways as distinct as their backgrounds and beliefs. (...) Lipscomb paints a vivid portrait not only of them as people, but also a moment in British philosophy too often told through the male line. (...) Lipscomb’s book succeeds wonderfully in presenting a particular era in philosophy, and the huge influence of, in particular, Anscombe and Foot in the field of ethics. One area not explored much is that of sex and gender." - Peter Salmon, Prospect

  • "Lipscomb’s exposition of these theories is unsystematic, tending to dart backwards and forwards in time, rather than tracing their development; but it is acute. He skilfully conveys how scientistic philosophers plunged ethics into the subjectivity and delusoriness they sought to avoid, and how four female philosophers helped steer it towards a more human, socially objective realism." - Jane O'Grady, The Telegraph

  • "(A) book that insists that four women with differing views and approaches (...) were all on the right side of philosophical history, and that they collectively transformed the subject by arguing for the objectivity of ethics, has its work cut out for it. (...) Lipscomb’s valiant attempts to explain his subjects’ views suffer, at times, from anachronisms (.....) What Lipscomb’s book does well is to paint a vivid and touching picture of the friendships between these four women, as they evolved through their lives." - Kate Manne, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb's The Women Are Up to Something focuses on a quartet of Oxford-educated philosophers -- Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch -- and looks, in particular, at their work in the field of ethics, turning away from A.J.Ayers' emotivism, a view of ethical discourse -- that it is literally meaningless --, and relating ethics more closely to real-world experience.
       As Lipscomb notes, all four were: "daughters of the Armistice" -- three of them born within six months of each other in 1919, the fourth just a year later:

They were at the leading edge of the psot-Great War baby boom, as the war's survivors were demobilized, returned home, and started families.
       Despite different backgrounds, this certainly influenced them -- as then did, much more profoundly and immediately, learning of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in their death camps when these were liberated at the end of the Second World War; as Lipscomb writes of Foot: "Nothing in the moral philosophy of her time was adequate to what she'd just seen".
       All four also came to and studied at an Oxford increasingly depleted of men as the Second World War progressed -- an opportunity both for female voices to be more readily heard, as well generally getting more (academic and other) attention in the absence of the male students who usually dominated the university. As Lipscomb writes of, for example, Mary Midgley:
She concluded later that she had found her voice as a philosopher only because there were so few men at Oxford at the moment she began to study philosophy. She suspected that the same was true of her friends Foot and Murdoch.
       (Anscombe, probably the most brilliant of the bunch, seems likely to have found her path regardless -- and her entire career was, of course, marked by her devotion Wittgenstein (which extended to her being: "buried next to Wittgenstein, as she had requested").)
       The Women Are Up to Something is fascinating alone for this glimpse into this particular period in academia and beyond -- with Lipscomb then also noting the shift back to a male-dominated culture after the war -- and it serves as a good reminder of how important opportunity is, and how often it is denied.
       The four women and their lives (and thought) also make for a good and important story, with Anscombe and Murdoch, in particular, quite the characters. The Women Are Up to Something does have something of a four-part -- rather than truly collective -- biography to it, as the women's paths did go off in very different directions, with even their most important philosophical work coming at different points in their lives:
     Consider: by 1960, Anscombe had not only said her piece about Oxford moral philosophy but had also published both of her monographs. Foot had established herself as Hare's preeminent critic, and Murdoch was already turning away from philosophy and toward fiction; but the first of Midgley's 16 books was 18 years away. It is easy, then, to miss the generational tie between Midgley and her friends.
       Oxford -- and the shift in (moral) philosophy there -- is the (turning) point that unites them in this work, and while they maintained friendships -- in some cases very close ones, at least for a time, and otherwise with ups and downs -- over the years, they certainly did go very separate ways. Lipscomb juggles the four lives and their courses quite well, pointing out the connections in a way that maintains some sense of a bigger, more unified picture. Sensibly, however, especially in the later chapters, he keeps the focus on one of the women at a time -- and it certainly helps that they led such fascinating lives, from the always determined and quite militantly devout Anscombe, focused on what mattered and admirably able to ignore what didn't (like the mess that naturally came about in a household with seven children) to late-bloomer -- at least in the final, professional instance -- Midgley. The most familiar figure is, of course, Murdoch, and because of that Lipscomb isn't quite as expansive about her, but he still keeps her an integral part of the story, and his focus on her philosophical interests -- and her later feelings of inadequacy about her own philosophical writing -- is, after all, often overlooked in the general focus on Murdoch-as-novelist.
       The women's mentors and the relevant philosophical schools and disputes of the times are also quite well presented. About the philosophical issues in general Lipscomb offers a solid overview, and is particularly good on tracing, at least in outline, the shifts over time -- the schools of thought, at Oxford and elsewhere, including their perceived stature and crowding-out of other paths, for example, and some of the reactions thereto. He does not go into great detail even about some of the women's notable and relevant work -- Foot's (in)famous 'trolley problem', for example -- but does discuss quite a bit in good detail.
       In many ways, The Women Are Up to Something is at its most interesting in its discussion of the attendant circumstances, beginning with Oxford having so many fewer male students during the Second World War, but also everything from the women's often demanding family and personal lives (though Anscombe, for one, seems to have handily -- if with a very free hand -- juggled her large household), to the often limited career opportunities, rather than the philosophy itself. Lipscomb seems a bit overwhelmed at trying to get a handle on especially Iris Murdoch's intimate involvement with so many close to her but he gamely gives it a go; there's probably more to be said about relationships, both between the women and also beyond, but he gives a decent sense of various goings-on and some of their consequences, such as in his description of Foot's friendship with Anscombe in the late 1950s.
       The work in ethics by these four philosophers (and some of their mentors) does not make up one neat block, but the various pieces are presented well enough and make for an interesting contrast to the very impersonal Oxford school. The title is taken from part of the reaction to Anscombe's protest against the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Harry Truman, a nice example of much that Lipscomb manages to convey in this volume, from Anscombe being misidentified (as 'Gladys') by United Press and with headline writers in the US seemingly: "most interested in the fact that she was a woman" -- but also Anscombe proving herself: "the worst imaginable political organizer". Nevertheless, the Oxford administration went to pains to make sure enough people came to the assembly which approved such degrees:
"The women are up to something," some were told. "We have to go and vote them down."
       If something of an in-between work, neither quite collective biography nor entirely philosophical history, there's enough of both to make The Women Are Up to Something worthwhile. Both the circumstances -- especially the wartime-Oxford the women attended -- and the fascinating characters make for a great story, and the philosophical angles that touch on so much of this are also of considerable interest.
       The Women Are Up to Something is certainly a good read, and a fine work of intellectual history (and a bit more) that will surely leave many readers wanting to know even more about the women, their work, and 1940s Oxford. (Among much else: obviously, there is a need for a full biography of Anscombe -- what a woman !)

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 December 2021

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The Women Are Up to Something: Reviews: Elizabeth Anscombe: Philippa Foot: Mary Midgley: Iris Murdoch: Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb: Books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb teaches at Houghton College.

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© 2021-2023 the complete review

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