Philosophy in mid-20th-century Oxford was dominated by analysis of the meaning of words. Impressed with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, Oxford philosophers had drawn a strict line around empirically verifiable propositions (‘there is a cat on the mat’) and regarded anything falling outside that area as failing to tell us about how the world is. Attempts to discuss the nature of goodness, say, or beauty, or the relationship between the two were strictly out of favour. Facts and values were thought to be worlds apart, with values a matter of free choice and only scientific or quasi-scientific facts being made true by the world. To say that stealing is bad, the Oxford philosopher
A J Ayer famously quipped, is to say nothing more meaningful than ‘boo for stealing’. Thought of in this way, philosophy has very little to say about why some actions are evil and others selfless, because there simply are no facts determining that these things are the case.
The four women at the centre of these two books – Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch – were unified in spurning this way of thinking, certain that it missed something deeply important. Partly this was because of their experience of living through the Second